Mistaken Identity

Sermon for Sunday, September 13, 2015 || Proper 19B || Mark 8:27-38

mistakenidentityThis week has been a particularly tough one for our twins, Charlie and Amelia. At thirteen and a half months, we think they are cutting their molars, so their extreme fussiness is understandable. On Tuesday, I walked in the door of the kitchen, and before I had taken three steps, Charlie was toddling up to me as fast as his little legs and precarious balance would allow. He ran into me and buried his head between my knees, which is his way of saying, “Pick me up, Daddy.” I hefted him into my arms. He put his arms around my neck and his head on my shoulder. And for the next twenty minutes, I just walked around, holding him and speaking softly into his ear. It was a special moment, a physical heart to heart.

The next morning, I was preparing to write this sermon and reading Jesus’ question over and over again: “Who do you say that I am?” And this question about identity got me thinking about Charlie, about how he would answer the question if it were asked about me. Who does Charlie say that I am? I think Charlie’s answer and Peter’s answer share a lot in common.

You see, Charlie’s first word was “Dada.” Early on he used it for everything, so it wasn’t really my name, it was just what he said. Then, as the months progressed, Charlie’s collection of sounds increased, “Dada” became “Daddy,” and, for the most part, focused in on my personage. He says “Daddy” in the sweetest, high-pitched singsong that melts my heart like butter. And yet, I wonder what his toddler’s mind imagines when he identifies me.

Judging by the way he wanted to be held on Tuesday, the way he clung to me so fiercely, the way he calmed down immediately when he was safe in my arms, I think I have a lot to live up to. In his eyes, my identity must be larger-than-life. I am, quite literally, the largest person he sees regularly. And I’m not around as much as Mommy, so there’s an air of mystery to my presence, a rock star quality. I’m a super hero. I just don’t have any super powers. I can remember the exact, illusion-bursting moment in my own adolescence when I realized my parents were not the infallible super heroes I always took them for. And I wonder when Charlie and Amelia will figure that out about me.

Identity is a tricky, slippery thing. Our identities are multi-faceted. They are synthesized and refined and redefined throughout our lifetimes as we gain new skills and interests, as we adapt to new circumstances and relationships, as we deal with success and failure. For example, for nineteen years (about 60 percent of my life) “student” was the most important facet of my identity, but no longer is. The importance of one facet of identity might rise or fall in direct proportion to another. My identity as “sports fan” has fallen significantly with the rise of my identity as “father.” Identity is also a negotiation between what we think about ourselves and others’ expectations of us. If someone asks me, “Are you a golfer,” I always respond the same way. “I own golf clubs.” I don’t want that person to generate an undue expectation of me, as someone with a handicap less than the maximum.

The reality (or unreality) of expectation is where Charlie’s and Peter’s answer to the question converge. Who do you say that I am? You are the Daddy: bottle giver, tantrum calmer, crib rescuer, super hero! You are the Messiah. And while Peter doesn’t expand on this identity, his reaction to Jesus’ explanation of it shows us what Peter’s expectation is. You are the Messiah: Israel’s deliverer, Rome’s exterminator, mighty warrior, sure victor. It’s no wonder Peter takes Jesus aside to clarify things. Jesus is obviously mistaken. Had he heard Peter right? Peter had said “messiah,” not “sacrificial lamb,” not “victim.”

Bur Jesus had heard Peter. Jesus could sense the underlying expectation of such a baggage-laden identity as “messiah.” That’s why he starts speaking openly for the first time in the entire Gospel. He needs to clarify things. He needs to make sure his disciples know just what he thinks the identity of “messiah” means. If he had wanted to live into the militaristic expectation of “messiah,” he probably wouldn’t have recruited fisherman. “Look around,” he seems to say to his disciples. “I don’t have an army. I have you guys. I haven’t been fighting. I’ve been healing.”

We follow Jesus precisely because his expectation of “messiah” runs counter to Peter’s. We follow Jesus because he chose not to fight. We follow Jesus because he gloried not in destruction, but in resurrection, in new life, in deep relationship that lasts beyond death. That’s Jesus identity as “messiah.” He suffered not because suffering is good, but because suffering was the natural outgrowth of his taking on the isolating, dominating, death-dealing machinery of this world. We follow Jesus because we believe he won that fight by not fighting back, by not fighting fire with fire, but by clogging the machine with the love, grace, and peace of God.

And that brings us to our own identity as followers. “If any want to become my followers,” says Jesus, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” It’s quite possible this isn’t what we signed up for. It’s quite possible we expected more comforting words. Perhaps we expected Jesus to say, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Perhaps we expected Jesus to say, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Perhaps we expected Jesus to say, “I came that [you] may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Well, the good news is this: Jesus does say all those things. It is these promises of rest and relationship and abundant life that make us able to accept his strident expectation of identifying as his followers. Denying ourselves means letting go of our stranglehold on our own lives – our self-determination, our bootstraps mentality – in order to allow Christ to live in us. And when Christ lives in us, we find we can resist the machinery of this world. We take up the cross because from the cross Jesus beckoned  everything that’s wrong with this world to come die with him. When we come to the cross, we come face to face with all the manifestations of evil, snarling in its death throes. It’s a scary place, teeming with poverty, racism, disease, violence. But this is the place our followers’ footsteps lead us because this is the place we partner with Christ to bring resurrection and new life.

Someday, Charlie is going to realize I’m not the super hero he thought I was. That expectation will crack, and our relationship will change. Some days, we follow Christ more closely than other days. Some days, the identity of follower takes us to dark places, despite our expectations. But that identity takes us there because part of being a follower is being a light-bearer to such darkness. The light we bear is the light of Christ, our healer-messiah. And our identity as followers is safe in his hands because no amount of evil or darkness will ever extinguish his light.

PB&J

Five years ago, during my summer as a camp counselor, I discovered I had within my untested vocal cords the “Dad” voice. The final day of the last week of camp came at last, and parents bumped their minivans up the gravel road. The parents (who, a few nights ago, the campers could not imagine living without for another homesick minute) had to wrestle their children away from new friends and into the confinement of the backseat and the long drive home.

Doing the morning "Launch" for Junior Camp at Peterkin.
Doing the morning "Launch" for Junior Camp at Peterkin.

I remember one mother attempting to corral her son, who was determined to expend every last upside down second of monkey-barred bliss. After a few minutes of bargaining and cajoling, she looked at me and shrugged plaintively. Now, that summer had taught me many things, among them the “Dad” voice. So, in my best drill sergeant, I barked: “JOHN.” John swung down from the monkey bars and walked over to his mother, who was looking at me like I had just pulled her six of diamonds from an intact navel orange.

At camp five years ago, I learned that I possessed the “Dad” voice, but it was not until last week at the same camp that I discovered I really, truly want also to be the Dad behind the voice. Sure, I’ve always wanted to have kids in that vague procreative instinct sort of way. Last week, however, awoke within me the deep, abiding notions that God might call me to Fatherhood and that I might actually be okay at the whole Dad thing.

This realization hit me Wednesday at lunch. I sat down next to a boy who is going into the third grade. He looks exactly like the boy in Finding Neverland, and he melted the hearts of all the female counselors at camp (and, to be honest, mine too). On his plate, he had arranged two pieces of bread (white), a tub of peanut butter (creamy), and a tub of jelly (apple flavored). For a few minutes, he stared at these ingredients, but they remained inanimate, a Cézanne from his sandwich period. Then the boy looked up at me, and I looked down at him. “Would you like me to make your sandwich?” I asked.

“Yes, please.” And he grinned and nodded his freckled face ostentatiously and a hundred miles away his mother (I am sure) felt the tremors of his good manners.

I pushed my plate out of the way and slid his over. Then I picked up one slice of bread and spackled on the peanut butter. Next came a moment of indecision. I looked solemnly at the boy. “Do you want me to spread the jelly on top of the peanut butter or on the other piece of bread?”

He giggled. Apparently, my question was that of a naïve apprentice. “The other piece.” I spread the jelly and stacked the slices of bread. Then another moment of indecision and a further necessary question: “Rectangles or triangles?”

“Triangles,” came the firm response. “Four, please.” I twice cut the sandwich diagonally and slid the plate back to him — four little tea sandwiches, but without the cucumber or pretension.

With both hands, he picked up a sandwich quarter and nibbled the edge like a chipmunk. Then he took a big bite, and my anxiety that I would be a deficient sandwich maker released. Now, this event might seem small and ordinary, and in a way it was. But small and ordinary do not preclude God from revealing God’s hopes for us. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In my case, this was neither small nor ordinary for two reasons. First, until last Wednesday, I had never made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before. Yes, I know how strange that is. I don’t like cake either. And second, I had never made a sandwich for a child who potentially could  be mine (if I had been more stupidly adventurous in high school).

These two reasons mixed with the ordinariness of the situation and God infused the whole thing with revelation. As I watched the boy eat his PB&J, I knew in that place that knows before your mind does that I want to be a Dad. I want to know the kind of love that I see in my father’s eye when he welcomes me after a long absence. I want to play catch and praise scribbles and help do long division and frighten potential suitors and change diapers. Well, maybe not that last one. I’ll get there when I get there. I know that my image of fatherhood is still gilded with romanticized glitter. I know that not everything is picnics and ice cream. But I also know that the sacredness of a PB&J sandwich crafted with love puts more points in the “pro” column than anything could match in the “con.”

You might be thinking: why are you writing about this? Is there something you’re not mentioning? Don’t fret. I am either a series of well-planned, time-consuming steps or one really dumb decision away from being a father. And the former is the only option I’ll ever consider. There are just moments in our lives — small, ordinary moments — that make us realize certain things. God reveals God’s goodness in such moments. Last week, making a sandwich unlocked the door to Fatherhood in my future. What will it be today? I don’t know, but I pray for the attentiveness that helps me resonate with God’s hopes for me. I pray for something small and ordinary. I pray for PB&J.