Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost 2000 (Proper 14, Year B)

Proper 14, Year B
August 13, 2000
Old Saint Paul’s, Baltimore
The Rev. Timothy E. Schenck

There’s nothing quite like an Elvis impersonator. You may have seen one in a movie.  You may have seen one in a parade. Hopefully you weren’t married by one in Las Vegas.  But they’re out there. And the amazing thing about a good Elvis impersonator is that they seem to have Elvis right down to the smallest detail. They’ve got the sequined outfit.  They’ve got the sideburns. They’ve got the voice. And if they’re worth anything at all they’ve got that hip thing going.

Now as fascinated as I might be with the cult of Elvis (and for the sake of argument let’s just assume that he actually is dead), there are quite a number of God impersonators in the world as well. They may be a bit more subtle and presumably they don’t drive gold Cadillacs but they do impersonate God by the way they act.  I guess the technical term would be to say that someone has a God-complex. You know the type. It’s usually an arrogant know-it-all who’s in some sort of position of power.  Maybe a politician, maybe a doctor, and maybe even a member of your own family. (Of course clergy are immune to this). But to encounter someone with a God-complex is never a pleasant experience.  How could it be? They seemingly have all the answers, are seemingly in control of every situation, and seemingly know what’s best for us. And that can seem pretty obnoxious after awhile.

With this in mind it seems odd then that Saint Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians, which we just heard, encourages us to be imitators of God.  Now, we’re not asked to be impersonators of God but rather we’re asked to be imitators of God. And I think there’s an important if subtle distinction here. To impersonate God leads us to a false characterization of God and winds us down the road to the God-complex. The point is, we are not God. God may or may not have sideburns, we don’t know. Jesus tells us that no one has seen the Father except the one who is from God, that is Jesus himself.  We simply don’t know God fully enough to impersonate God. We cannot act like God because we don’t fully know the heart of God.  

To imitate God, on the other hand, is to internalize and appropriate those qualities that reflect God’s love for us. And that’s a good thing, a way of life that stands in sharp contrast to the God-complex mentality. So how do we this? How do we attempt to imitate God?  How do we take on those qualities that reflect God’s love for us and for those around us?

Jesus stands as our guide on this path of imitation. Jesus is our mirror, reflecting the God-like traits Paul encourages us to appropriate. Jesus is the perfect example of what it means to imitate God. And we can strive to do likewise. We’re not always going to get it right – we are human after all – but imitating God by following the example of Jesus should always be the goal. A goal that Jesus promises to help us with at every moment of our lives. So we have help in striving to live up to this seemingly unreasonable goal of imitating God. And even if we fall short occasionally, or often, or always our task is to keep striving, to keep seeking after God, and to keep allowing ourselves to be sought after by God.

Practically speaking, we can imitate God by walking in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God. That’s Paul’s advice anyway and I think it’s quite sound. By loving our neighbors as ourselves we reflect the very image of God.  And by loving those we encounter as strangers or those we know profoundly we are imitating God. Because love is at the heart of the Christian Gospel and because love is at the heart of God.

“Be imitators of God as beloved children” is how Paul phrases it. Children do tend to imitate their parents. I’m very proud of myself for having taught my 14-month old son how to slap me five (one of life’s important lessons). But imitating a human parent can be both a good thing and a bad thing. When parents abuse their children it’s often because they themselves were abused and when parents love their children it’s often because they themselves were loved. As natural as it is for children to imitate their parents how much more natural is it for us to imitate God, our divine parent. The problem arises when we act like some teenagers and rebel against God. We may not dye our hair purple or pierce our noses but we rebel by impersonating God rather than imitating God.

And truth be told, we are all guilty of the God-complex syndrome at various times in our lives. Of course it’s easy to rail against “those people” whom we perceive as having God-complexes. But unfortunately it usually hits just a bit closer to home than we care to admit. When we live under the false assumption that we are ultimately in charge of our selves and our lives we act as impersonators of God. And this is such an easy trap to fall into. “If I only work harder things will be better in my life. If I only make more money I’ll be happier. If I can only control my family things would be much more pleasant.” To imitate God is to walk in love while putting all of our trust in God. At the very root of the God-complex mentality is a lack of trust in the actual God.  And if we put our trust in the one, true, and living God it sure takes off a lot of pressure. Playing God, impersonating God is a great burden. It puts all of the responsibility for our lives and the world directly upon our shoulders and leaves God alone to deal with other people and other people’s problems. But that’s not the point of God’s relationship with us. The point of this relationship is to take away the burden, to take off the pressure, and to relieve the stress.  

To deny that God is the one in control of our lives is ultimately a way of pushing God out of our lives. We cannot replace God by impersonating God – to attempt to do so is arrogant and, yes, sinful.  Oh we can do it for a while but in the end the false world that we end up constructing invariably comes crashing down. And when we try to be someone or something that we’re not, we end up looking as foolish as, well, an Elvis impersonator without sideburns.

Imitation is the highest form of flattery yes, but to be an imitator of God does not mean that we take over for God. When we follow Christ we become imitators of God but we don’t become God. And that’s a good thing.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2000

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