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.

Echoing “I Am”

Sermon for Sunday, March 30, 2014 || Lent 4A || John 9:1-41

blindmanelgreco“Let me see some I.D.”

“Yessir.”

I have had this exchange a handful of times with police officers and one very friendly Texas state trooper. They, of course, want my driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance so they can go back to their cars and run me through their databases looking for past infractions while I’m sweating through my palms and my stomach feels like I just swallowed several gallons of quick-dry cement and my mind is racing in compound-complex run-on sentences such as this one. A warning. Yes, officer. Yessir, no more rolling stops. Yessir. Thank you. You too.

But the words they use are telling: “Let me see some I.D.” Some identification. Really, they just want my name and some corroboration that the picture next to the name matches my appearance. They ask for my identity, and all I give them is a plastic card with my name on it. Date of birth. Address. Sex. Height. Eye color. The fact that I’m an organ donor.

But there’s so much more to my identity than the information listed on that plastic card. I’m a husband and a son and a brother and a priest and a writer and a guitarist and a board game enthusiast. And I’m a follower of Jesus. In fact, my identification card has no room for the most important pieces of my identity. The relationships we hold dear, the values we live by, the priorities that shape us – these are the markers of our true identities.

In our Gospel reading today, we hear the story of a man who discovers and proclaims his true identity. Jesus heals this man, but the miraculous granting of sight is only part of the story. The truly extraordinary aspect of his healing is his ownership of an identity he always had, but which was hidden within him.

Jesus sends the man to the pool of Siloam to wash, and this man, who was blind from birth, comes back able to see. Do you remember what happens next? His neighbors don’t recognize him! Now, he hasn’t put on weight or grown a big bushy beard or dyed his hair. Nothing cosmetic has changed about him. And yet these people, who have presumably lived near him his entire life, can’t decide if he’s the guy they always saw on the street corner begging. All they ever saw was his blindness; they never looked deeper to see the identity of the man beneath his physical challenge. And since others’ impressions of us tend to shape our identity, I bet the man himself had stopped looking deep within himself, too.

That is, until Jesus heals him. He returns home, and when his neighbors ask him if he’s the blind street corner beggar, he says, “I am.” Now, we’d be hard-pressed to find two more important and impactful words in the entire Gospel according to John. Jesus says these two little words all the time: I am the bread of life. I am the good shepherd. I am the light of the world. I am; don’t be afraid. I am. I am. I am.

These are magic words in the Gospel. Mystical words. These two little words, “I am,” transport us all the way back to Mount Horeb, to a man exiled from his home in Egypt, to a bush ablaze with flame, to an encounter with the Creator-of-all-that-is. Near the end of their conversation, Moses asks God what God’s name is. “I AM WHO I AM,” responds God. “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

When Jesus echoes God’s “I am” in the Gospel according to John, he reveals his divine identity in small pieces, pieces small enough for us to digest over the course of a lifetime. Jesus’ echoes God’s “I am.” And the man who was formerly blind echoes Jesus’ “I am.” Thus, the man reveals his discovery of Jesus’ identity within himself. Jesus heals him in order that he might take on this identity that he always had buried deep inside, but which had never come to light.

After discovering Jesus’ identity within himself, he can’t help but proclaim it. Even as the religious officials hound him about the details of his story, he sticks to the truth and proclaims Jesus’ healing presence in his life. No threat, no argument, no earthly authority can take away this new identity he has discovered within himself, this new identity as a follower of Christ.

But what of us? What of our identities? We may have never washed in the special pool of Siloam, but we have washed. We have washed in the waters of baptism. We may never have had mud spread on our eyes, but we have been marked as Christ’s own forever. Our baptism into Christ’s body reveals an identity we’ve always had, an ability to echo Jesus’ “I am” with one of our own. The act of baptism marks and celebrates our identity as followers of Jesus Christ.

Each of us has this identity within us. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t. But if you’re anything like me, the times when this piece of my identity rises to the surface are few and far between. Other pieces of my identity take charge, and “follower of Jesus” sinks down the list. But if I’m honest with myself, if I listen for the whispered invitation of Christ in my depths, I hear him beckoning me, I see his radiance shining within. And God’s promise resonates in my bones: seek God first, own your identity as Christ’s follower, and each other piece of your identity will find a snug fit, properly ordered so that you can experience the abundance of life, so that your default nature is one of service and love, so that you may invite others into the brilliance of the Light of World each day of your life.

Promoting “Follower of Jesus” up the list of pieces of our identities takes commitment. “Husband” wouldn’t be high on my list if I weren’t whole-heartedly committed to my marriage. “Writer” wouldn’t be high up there if I didn’t write every single day. “Follower of Jesus” trends upwards when we commit to praying daily, serving the least of those around us, dwelling deeply in God’s word, and cultivating an awareness of God’s presence in our lives. As this season of Lent marches toward Easter, dedicate yourselves to owning your identity as followers of Jesus. Like the man born blind, hear Jesus’ divine identity echo within you. Look yourself in the mirror and say aloud: “I am. I am a beloved child of God. I am a follower of Jesus Christ.”

This is and always will be the primary piece of our identities, whether or not we put it at the top of the list. God created us to be God’s beloved, and following Jesus Christ leads us to embrace God as our beloved. This is our true identity. This is what the card we hand to the police officer should say. To begin to own this identity, I invite you to sit down and write out a list of all the pieces of your identity. Order those pieces from most to least important. Be honest where you slot in “Follower of Jesus.” Does it make the Top 10? Top 5? When you’re done, recommit yourself to partnering with God to move “Follower of Jesus” up just one slot. Just one. Baby steps here. Over time and with God’s help, move it up the list. Notice how your life changes. Notice how you change the lives of those around you. Own your true identity and shine with the Light of the World.

*Art: Detail from “Christ Healing the Blind Man” by El Greco (1560)

What a Good Boy, What a Smart Boy, What a Strong Boy

The following post appeared Tuesday, November 2nd on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

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When you listen to the Gospel, you might notice the trend that folks rarely answer questions directly. Instead, the responder either completely ignores the question or says something so profound that the question ceases to matter. Most things Jesus says in the Gospel fall into one of these two categories. Think about how often someone asks a question, and Jesus responds, “Well, let me tell you a story about that. Once there was a farmer…” Before Jesus enters the scene, however, John the Baptizer finds himself under interrogation, and he does just a good a job as Jesus in not answering questions with the expected answers. His unexpected responses to the folks interviewing him (as recorded in John 1) show John’s understanding of his identity, which helps us understand ours, as well.

The priests and Levites come to John and ask him a series of questions, the first being “Who are you?” This question seems to have an obvious answer: I’m John from over yonder, my parents are so-and-so. But that’s not what John says. Instead of saying who he is, he explicitly says who he is not. “I am not the Messiah.” And what’s more, he’s quite emphatic about it: “He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed…” By his answer, John seems to know what they are getting at, so he makes sure with his first response that any gossip about his messiah-ship is highly overrated.

So they try again: “What then? Are you Elijah?” He says, “I am not.” They try once more: “Are you the prophet?” “Nope.” John steadfastly refuses to play into any expectations these priests and Levites have about his identity.

I wonder to what degree our identities are based on the expectations of others? It’s not necessarily a bad thing for others to have expectations for us, of course. A community (family, church, team, circle of friends) plays a significant role in the development of our identities, and expectations are a natural part of that role. But if those expectations begin to suffocate us or make us begin to dislike the people we are becoming, then there is something wrong.

In the film Dead Poets Society, Neil Perry has a passion for acting. When he sees the flyer for auditions for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he says, “For the first time in my life, I know what I want to do. And for the first time, I’m going to do it!” He throws himself into the role of Puck, and he’s good, he’s really good. But his father expects him to be a doctor and thinks this acting business is nothing more than a dangerous whim. Neil defies his father’s wishes and continues rehearsing for the play. After Mr. Perry discovers him at the theatre, he furiously tells Neil that he is not going to let Neil ruin his (Neil’s) life. Neil feels suffocated and trapped: he has found his calling as an actor, he has found himself. But Mr. Perry is stifling this identity with his expectations for Neil’s future. That night, Neil commits suicide.

Expectations like Mr. Perry’s can smother us. They can make us feel less worthy, less capable, less adequate because our worth and capability and adequacy fall outside the limits defined by those expectations. In their song “What a Good Boy,” the Barenaked Ladies lament:

When I was born, they looked at me and said,
‘What a good boy, what a smart boy, what a strong boy.’
When you were born, they looked at you and said,
‘What a good girl, what a smart girl, what a pretty girl.’
We’ve got these chains hanging round our necks,
People want to strangle us with them before we take our first breath.

When we feel smothered, stifled, or strangled by expectations, troubling questions form in our minds. What if I’m not a smart girl? What if I’m not a strong boy? What if I don’t measure up? Then another question compounds these: Will they still like/love/accept/welcome me? These expectations that help shape our identities now morph into ultimatums. They signal the possible breaking of a relationship: This is who I am, and if you don’t like it then fine. And the door slams shut. In this scenario, we begin to define our identities by focusing negatively on the rebellion against expectations rather than by stating positively who we are.

Expectations themselves are neutral things. They surely can be used to spur us to excellence or to inspire us to continue to grow and discover who we are. But they can also be used to deny our self-worth or sense of belonging. When John the Baptizer refuses to be defined by the expectations of the priests and Levites, he is holding onto the identity he has as the voice crying out in the wilderness.

The priests and Levites are unable to pin their expectation on John, but they can’t go back to their bosses empty-handed, so they press John asking: “What do you have to say about yourself?” The Baptizer answers with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ ” Even here, when they ask him deliberately about himself, he answers by pointing ahead of himself. Their concern is based on his seeming lack of authority to baptize, for he is not the Messiah or Elijah or the prophet. But such trifles don’t worry John. He states dismissively: “I baptize with water.” And then he points ahead of himself again: “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.” Everything John says about himself, he is really saying about Jesus. He only speaks in terms of Jesus; he deflects questions about himself, preferring to point to the one “who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”

Rather than playing into their expectations, John flourishes in his identity as an arrow pointing to Jesus. To change the metaphor, he shines because he lives fully into his own particular, God-given identity. Like the moon, he has no light of his own, but he reflects the light of Jesus who is coming after him. Even as we struggle with the expectations of others and with discovering our own identities as God’s children, I can think of no greater joy than to be a moon to Jesus’ sun, reflecting the light of Christ.