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18th Weekend After Pentecost (A/RCL) Oct. 7 & 8: "I'm Nobody, Who Are You?"

Eighteenth Weekend After Pentecost (A/RCL): “I’m Nobody, Who Are You?”

Matthew 21:33-46; Philippians 3:4b-14; Isaiah 5:1-7

October 7-8, 2017

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ

“I’m nobody!  Who are you?

Are you nobody, too?”

Quiz: who said it??  Emily Dickinson smiley.  The Belle of Amherst.  All of us have had days when we could have answered her, “Yeah, I’m nobody, too.”  Maybe even recently.  Who knows, you might feel that way today.

            What kind of things make us turn the corner from being a somebody to becoming a nobody?  Often losing something or someone does it – like “losing” a loved one through death or divorce.  We could tinker with the words of the song and say, “You’re somebody till nobody loves you.”  How about losing financial security, like failing at a business or going bankrupt?  You’re somebody one day, with cash and credit cards in your wallet, and nobody the next.  Some people are courageous enough to run for political office.  It’s just natural to feel like somebody when you’re the center of attention at a fundraising dinner.  It’s also natural to feel shrinky-dinked after being defeated at the ballot box.  Any one of those experiences could be devastating. So how would the world label someone who’d lost in love and business and politics?  “Loser”!  Abraham Lincoln was considered a loser by lots of folks because he’d lost so many contests in so many different arenas.  Was he a nobody?  Or was he mistaken for a nobody?

            What would make a teacher feel like a nobody?  Being denied tenure?  Being dismissed from the classroom?  What would make a pastor feel like a nobody?  Being barred from the pulpit? How about an author?  Not just a rejection slip in response to a submission, but being forbidden to write or publish?  All those things happened to Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his brief 38 years.  Because of his outspoken words against Hitler, this Lutheran pastor and academic was fired at the age of 30 from an assistant professorship at the University of Berlin.  At 34 he was forbidden to preach.  At 35 he was forbidden to publish.  At 36 he was removed from circulation entirely, by being imprisoned.  At 38 he swung from a noose, less than 2 weeks before the Allies liberated Flossenberg, the concentration camp where he was held.  In a way, his resume is impressive for its dead ends.  And yet he is remembered as one of the premier Christians, Lutheran theologians, and martyrs of the 20th century.  Was he a nobody?  Or was he mistaken by some for a nobody?

            Is a doctor nobody if her patient dies?  Is a lawyer nobody if he loses a case?  Is a breadwinner nobody if he or she becomes unemployed?  Is a family nobody if it becomes homeless?  Are married people nobodies if they divorce?  Is an athlete nobody if he or she doesn’t make the team or doesn’t make the goal or doesn’t make the jump shot or doesn’t make varsity or doesn’t make the sports section of the local paper?  How do we judge who’s nobody and who’s somebody?  How do I know if I am nobody or somebody?

            St. Paul never had any doubts he was a somebody.  In the letter to the Philippians he lays out all the bragging rights he ever had, including membership in the tribe of Benjamin, the hoity-toity aristocratic class, and being a Pharisee, representing the far-right wing of Judaism, a select few who moved heaven and earth to obey all 613 laws governing them; talk about feeling superior to just about everyone else in the world….  You can just see Paul puffed up like a blowfish, strutting his feathers like a peacock….  But he continues:

The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash – along with everything else I used to take credit for.  And why?  Because of Christ.  Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life.  Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant – dog dung.  [Wonderful word: skubala! Rubbish, garbage, excrement]  I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him…  I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ – God’s righteousness. (Philippians 3:7-9)

            Paul was a somebody by his own and by the world’s standards, somebody who willingly became a nobody – like Christ Jesus, his Master.  Jesus understands nobodies like us, because He was mistaken for one.  The religious leaders, represented by the tenants in today’s parable of the wicked laborers in the vineyard, didn’t recognize Jesus as Messiah and outright rejected His authority. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks the chief priests and elders,

“Have you never read in the Scriptures:

            ‘The stone that the builders rejected

                        has become the cornerstone…’?   (Matthew 21:42)

Jesus is the stone that was rejected.  Not just by anybody.  By the builders.  Not just by the farmers or bakers or foot soldiers, but by the “builders,” the religious experts, the ones who were supposed to recognize the Messiah when He finally arrived.Big time rejection.

But that’s okay.  Not for the builders, but for Jesus.  He knows who He is in the Father’s eyes.  His self-identity isn’t riding on their political endorsement or religious good housekeeping seal of approval.  His authority isn’t channeled through any earthly board of directors.  He is authority is from above.  He is secure in the Father’s love.

The stone that the builders rejected is referred to as a cornerstone.  We think of the inscribed block at the lower corner of a building stating when it was laid.  Keystone is a better translation.  The keystone of an arch made of separate blocks is the one at the top in the very center, upon which all the others lean, the single block that must be strong enough to bear the weight and ensure the stability of the whole.  Christ is the keystone of our community.  Christ is the keystone of our individual lives.

He’s the divine Somebody who became a Nobody on the cross and now is the Somebody who is our Savior.  In Colossians 1:17 Paul says:

He is before all things, and in him all things hold together [cohere].

I picture myself when I was a little kid, swinging a pail of water over my head in big circles, amazed that if I swung fast enough I wouldn’t lose a drop.  Christ is like the bucket that contains what would be the chaos of our lives flying all over the place.

            My big challenge every day is to recognize how much I need Him and how close He stands to me.  My Pastor’s Pen in the October Lamplighter is all about GRACE and the realization that I don’t have to strive endlessly, hopelessly, to be “good enough.”  I don’t have to save myself.  I have a Savior!  I don’t have to exhaust myself to become somebody in the world’s eyes, because I am already somebody in our Lord’s eyes.  I don’t have to despair that I’m just a nobody (for any of a thousand reasons….) because in the Father’s eyes, in Jesus’ eyes, I am somebody, not because of anything I have done but because of what Jesus has done. I and you are somebodies not because of who we are but because of Whose we are.

The religious leaders feared the fact Jesus was a Somebody with the people, so they unknowingly cooperated with God’s plan by orchestrating His death.  Last week we heard from the magnificent 2nd chapter of Philippians how our Lord laid aside the privileges of Deity, emptied Himself by becoming human, then humbly and obediently died on the cross.  

Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name

that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

            that Jesus Christ is Lord,

            to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:9-11)

The Word who was in the beginning with God, the Word who was God, the Word through whom everything was created (John 1:1, 3), was willingly silenced on Calvary.  The Son of God who was definitely Somebody became a nobody on the cross.  In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul describes it this way:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

By going from Somebody to Nobody He became our Savior.  In Holy Baptism we were mystically joined to His death and resurrection.  In the letter to the Philippians Paul passionately writes:

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.   (Philippians 3:10)

We experience many losses and traumas, many painful endings and setbacks in this life that make us feel like nobodies.  But Luther said that all of those slaps in the face, even the physical end of our life on earth, are “little deaths” compared to the death of the old self that is drowned in Holy Baptism.  Ever after we’re raised up anew each day, forgiven again for our sins and infused with the power of the resurrection.  We simply need to claim what is ours.

            People may label us, mistake us as “nobody”, but we’re somebody, in God’s eyes.   We may be tempted to label ourselves as “nobody,” but we’re somebody, in God’s eyes.  Not because of who we are, but because of who Jesus is.  Amen

Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham