“I Am What I Am”
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11; Luke 5:1-11
“By the grace of God I am what I am….” — 1 Corinthians 15:10
The title of this sermon reminds me of two things, one profane and one holy. The profane is the song Popeye the sailor used to sing (and possibly still does), “I am what I am and I don’t give a “clam,” I’m Popeye the Sailor man.” He said his muscles came from eating spinach, so he wasn’t exactly a favorite of mine. My mother used to force spinach down me in the name of Popeye, promising me mighty muscles. The holy memory is that of the name of God given to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 6. “God is who He is” and that is the only name Moses would know Him by.
Both of these reminiscences are probably irrelevant to the texts for today, because they are about “vocation” or “calling” and the way our identity is bound up with our vocation. In the Gospel passage Jesus calls the first disciples, Peter and Andrew, James and John, and in the Epistle the Apostle Paul defends his own identity as one called and sent, that is, as an Apostle, in the face of accusations that he could not be an Apostle because he had not seen the historical Jesus.
We know there were such critics because Luke in the Acts defines the chief qualification for an Apostle as being “…that he is one of the men who was with us when the Lord Jesus went about among us, beginning from the baptism of John up to the day he was taken up from us, (a man who is) like us, a witness of his resurrection (Acts 1:21-22).” Paul does not qualify on any of those grounds so he argues that he has nevertheless seen the Lord, the Risen Lord, and received a commission from him to be the Apostle to the Gentiles.
Our chosen snippet from the longer passage expresses all the anxiety and indignation of one whose professional legitimacy is being challenged and therefore whose identity is at stake.
That is my cue to say a brief word about the challenge of identity. We have a crime called “identity theft” nowadays, which is an ironic notion, (probably made up by insurance and credit card companies for their own benefit) because very many of us do not have identities that could be stolen or would, in any case, be worth the effort. After WW1 Robert Musil, an Austrian, published, “Der Man ohne Eigenschaften” (“The Man without any distinguishing feature”). He described an early stage of the disease that is now pandemic: the plague that blurs our faces, levels our brows, and makes us good members of the herd.
Identity is fundamentally formed by our vocation. The historical Jesus called Peter and Andrew, James and John to be first disciples and then Apostles; the Risen Jesus called Paul to be Apostle to the Gentiles. So when Paul defends the legitimacy of his apostolic status he is defending himself against the most monstrous form of identity theft, the theft of a vocation and thus the theft of an identity and a meaning.
Yes, ones vocation is the meaning of ones life. We have been moping about “meaninglessness” for most of a century now, and thoughtless thinkers ask for the “meaning of life,” as if there were a syllogism or algorithm to define a meaning for ones life and for everything that comes about in it and around it. Thoughtless thinkers believe there is always a cause for every effect and an encompassing explanation that can be understood and then used for rectification.
For example, we write and speak as if the current financial collapse, which is getting worse rather than better, was the result of technical factors that can be scientifically rectified, when common sense and one open-eyed look tells us that we crashed because of greed and dishonesty that made of a flock of sheep a herd of swine that stampeded downhill and over the cliff. Bankers are now called “banksters” and I share that sardonic mood.
And Physicians, and Lawyers, and Clergy, and Business people, especially the scum on Wall Street, and Politicians, and the Press, have all become banksters, mutatis mutandis. They have lost their calling, and we as a notion have lost our vocation, because they are not the worst among us, they are the best; they are America’s finest, God help us!
The third wave of settlers to this country, the Calvinists of New England, who arrived long after the Spaniards arrived in our part of the now United States, and somewhat after the latitudinarian Anglicans arrived in Virginia, shared a stern sense of vocation that gave us the “Protestant Ethic” and was a bulwark of our prosperity and power. Calvin taught that every profession or trade or service you do in this world is in response to a calling from God, a vocation to be done in that spirit, answerable to the creator and redeemer of my life and his demand that I love the neighbor as I love my self.
Each occupation had its high calling, the physician served life, the lawyer served the law, and if possible justice, the clergy served God and God’s people, the press served the truth of fact, the politicians the next generation not the next election, the warriors the safety and security of us all. Now, alas vocation falls silent, no one hears the call, and honor lives only in wistful memory.
This sermon is already a pale replica of the Jeremiad genre, which the old New England preachers were so good at, so there is no point in my denying it. I know Jeremiads belong in the now despised tradition of fire, brimstone and censoriousness. Rather than deny that I feel today like I imagine Jeremiah the prophet felt when Jerusalem fell down around his ears and the Babylonian exile began, let me point out that I have not yet promised brimstone and as for censoriousness, let me assure you that I include myself among the censored.
I weep rather than rage at the fading of the light. I look for cleanly etched characters serving their vocations rather than money, steady as they go, charting a course by the lodestar of integrity, serving God rather than Mammon. I find that Mammon rules America; I find, not as Lincoln hoped, a “government of the people by the people and for the people,” but rather a government of the people by the rich and for the rich, despite the fact that it is mostly the poor who lie in those military cemeteries at Gettysburg and Normandy and countless others, in Iraq, and Vietman, and Korea. Banksters and shysters, hypocrites and liars have poisoned our precious Union, and now we sink slowly in the West as China rises quickly in the East.
“I am what I am,” says the Apostle. That is the voice of integrity! ‘I am not someone else, I do not wish to be other than what I am, but by God that shall I be, The Apostle to the Gentiles.’ So who are you? Paul makes his proud claim in the face of his critics and detractors, what proud claim do you make?
God calls you every day of every year of your life, and God has something for you to do. Jack can barely walk but he can open up this church and it far-flung restrooms; Natalie can hardly walk but she can bring these lovely flowers for every service. Your vocation changes with your life but it is always there. The meaning of life? Why, it to live as if every minute we are responding to God’s call. And we are, but not always positively.
You think I have forgotten the most important part of Paul’s affirmation? I have not. “I am what I am” he says, “by the grace of God.” That grace is always there for you and for me. Thank you Jesus!