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.

The Last Week in July

Sermon for Sunday, March 1, 2015 || Lent 2B || Mark 8:31-38

lastweekinjulyThe last week of July has been a wonderful week of my life ever since I was eleven-years-old. This is the week my family takes our annual vacation to the mountains of North Carolina, to a quiet Episcopal retreat center called Kanuga, where we sit and read and play board games and enjoy each other’s company and never watch TV. In 2010, the last week of July became more special because it’s the week Leah and I got engaged. And in 2014, it became even more special because it’s the week Charlie and Amelia were born. Whenever I think about the moment I slid the ring on Leah’s finger, I am overcome by the joy that echoes into the future from that hot July afternoon. Whenever I think about Amelia and Charlie screaming their welcome to the world, I am overcome by the extravagance of the gift God gave us in them. In both cases, when I remember those two focal moments, I realize again and again a profound truth. I realize that I am no longer the main character in my own life.

For the first 27½ years of my existence, my chief concern, whether I acknowledged it or not, was me. I was Numero Uno, first in line, the Big Cheese. I was in the spotlight. Sure, I lived my life with a dollop of self-sacrifice, of serving the other at my own cost, but this behavior was much more garnish than entree. I was the main character of my life: the rest of the cast never really could rival me for my own attention. Then I met Leah and everything changed. Suddenly, not only did I desire to share the spotlight, I would have been excited to give the prime spot to her alone. A whole new world of service opened up to me that I don’t think I was ever aware of before. When we came together as a couple, I finally understood the edge of the expanse of the joy of self-sacrificial love. Adding the twins to the mix makes me understand even more of that joy, but I know I have a long way to go yet.

Leah and I met five years ago this month, and looking back, I chuckle at God’s sense of humor and rejoice in God’s providence. I can just hear God the Father saying to God the Son: “You know that Adam Thomas fellow? He’s my beloved child, he’s even a priest of the Church, but he just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand your words, Son, when you said to your friends: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ ”

“You know what we should do?” says God the Son. “We should get him to Massachusetts so he can meet Leah Johnson. I think she will clue him in.”

You see, I spent 27½ years – that’s 86% of my life, by the way – trying to have my cake and eat it to. I tried to follow Jesus and remain the main character in my own life. But Jesus’ words and his own self-sacrificial love show us a different way.

Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” We Americans are programmed to cringe at the thought of “denying ourselves.” We want giant SUVs that have great fuel economy. We want the beer to taste great and be less filling. We want to treat ourselves to chocolate desserts that don’t have any calories. We want to pursue our happiness, and we don’t seem to mind advertisers telling us just what our happiness should look like. These marketers know they will rake in so much more money if they continue convincing us that being the main characters of our own lives is the best way to live.

Until I met Leah, I bought into the hype. I’ll let you in on a secret: when I was in elementary school, my parents sent me to a session or two of therapy because of how awfully and brutally I insisted on getting my own way. The temper tantrums I threw if we didn’t go to the restaurant I wanted to go to were the stuff of legend. One of these tantrums happened on my mother’s birthday. While that behavior faded as I got older, I still succumb all too often to our me-first consumer culture. I’d be willing to bet that you do to.

But when we deny ourselves and stop striving to be the main characters, we no longer feel shortchanged when Jesus spins the spotlight away from us and shines the light on others. These others are always the ones that Jesus desires us to see: the ones who seem to us to be the ensemble, those brought in just to fill out the cast, the extras. In our version of the film, these extras are those who have no roof over their heads or who have no money for food or who lay in the nursing home with no one to visit them. But in God’s version of the film, these extras are the stars. When we insist that the spotlight stay on us, these others remain in the shadows, too unimportant to garner any attention. But when we follow Jesus Christ as he yearns for us to, we let go of our stranglehold on the spotlight and finally see those whom he would have us see.

And when we see in this way, when we notice those outside our own spotlights, something happens that the advertisers and marketing directors never prepared us for. We discover a latent desire that Jesus’ words planted within us when we were looking the other way. We discover the desire to be generous and welcoming to those who never enjoy the spotlight. We look the ensemble cast members in the eye and realize that we want to know their names and where they grew up and what their hopes and dreams for the future are. We turn out our pockets and volunteer our time and invite the stranger to become friend because by doing so we notice clearly the footsteps of Christ walking one step before us. We feel the life of Christ welling up from within us and connecting with the life of Christ welling up from within the other, who now shines in the spotlight.

Jesus Christ is always walking one step before us, but we don’t always walk one step behind him. We stray, we go off on our own, we set up camp rather than continue following. But even with all of our wilderness wanderings and our prima donna tendencies, he continues to stay one step away, calling us back to his path. His path is hard: the way of denial, of self-sacrifice, of cross-carrying. But his path is also the way of true joy.

When we walk down Jesus’ path, the spotlight is never on us, but on those around us, those walking with us. Now that God has blessed me with a partner and children to remind me that I am not the main character of my life, I have crept slowly and haltingly onto this path and found the joy of stepping out of the spotlight, the joy of generosity and welcoming and service. Perhaps you have, too. Here’s truth: as we turn the spotlight on each other and on those Jesus would have us see, together we will notice, there marking the ground in front of us, the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

The Spotlight

 (Sermon for Sunday, September 16, 2012 || Proper 19B || Mark 8:27-38)

I put the guitar down on the wooden bench, dropped my right knee to the root-strewn ground, and produced the ring from my pocket. The green light that shone through the trees of the outdoor chapel glinted off the diamond and sapphires, a perfect analog for the light that I felt sure was bursting from my own chest. The last words of the song I had just finished singing clung to the hot, humid, late-July air and surrounded us with the most important question I have ever asked: “Leah, darling, will you marry me?” She nodded her head once, unable to find her voice. Then, after an eternal moment during which I could feel in the depths of my soul the momentum of our entire lives converging on that one point in time, she whispered the single word I longed to hear: “Yes.” My hand trembled so much that I had trouble finding her finger with the ring. And as we embraced, I realized something profound – profound and wonderful. I realized that I was no longer the main character in my own life.

For the first 27½ years of my existence, my chief concern, whether I acknowledged it or not, was me. I was Numero Uno, first in line, the Big Cheese. I was in the spotlight. Sure, I lived my life with a dollop of self-sacrifice, of serving the other at my own cost, but this behavior was much more garnish than entree. I was the main character of my life: the rest of the cast never really could rival me for my own attention. Then I met Leah and everything changed. Suddenly, not only did I desire to share the spotlight, I would have been excited to give the prime spot to her alone. A whole new world of service opened up to me that I don’t think I was ever aware of before. When we came together as a couple, I finally understood the joys of self-sacrificial love.

Looking back on those days two years ago, I chuckle at God’s sense of humor and rejoice in God’s providence. I can just hear God the Father saying to God the Son: “You know that Adam Thomas fellow? He’s my beloved child, he’s even a priest of the Church, but he just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand your words, Son, when you said to your friends: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ ”

“You know what we should do?” says God the Son. “We should get him to Massachusetts so he can meet Leah Johnson. I think she will clue him in.”

You see, I spent 27½ years – that’s 93.2% of my life, by the way – trying to have my cake and eat it to. I tried to follow Jesus and remain the main character in my own life. But Jesus’ words and his own self-sacrificial love show us a different way.

Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” We Americans are programmed to cringe at the thought of “denying ourselves.” We want giant SUVs that have great fuel economy. We want the beer to taste great and be less filling. We want to treat ourselves to chocolate desserts that don’t have any calories. We want to pursue our happiness, and we don’t seem to mind advertisers telling us just what our happiness should look like. These marketers know they will rake in so much more money if they continue convincing us that being the main characters of our own lives is the best way to live.

Until I met Leah, I bought into the hype. I’ll let you in on a secret: when I was in elementary school, my parents sent me to a session or two of therapy because of how awfully and brutally I insisted on getting my own way. The temper tantrums I threw if we didn’t go to the restaurant I wanted to go to were the stuff of legend. One of these tantrums happened on my mother’s birthday. While that behavior faded as I got older, I still succumb all too often to our me-first consumer culture. I’d be willing to bet that you do to.

But when we deny ourselves and stop striving to be the main characters, we no longer feel shortchanged when Jesus spins the spotlight away from us and shines the light on others. These others are always the ones that Jesus desires us to see: the ones who seem to us to be the ensemble, those brought in just to fill out the cast, the extras. In our film, these extras are those who have no roof over their heads or who have no money for food or who lay in the nursing home with no one to visit them. But in God’s film, these extras are the stars. When we insist that the spotlight stay on us, these others remain in the shadows, too unimportant to garner any attention. But when we follow Jesus Christ as he yearns for us to, we let go of our stranglehold on the spotlight and finally see those whom he would have us see.

And when we see in this way, when we notice those outside our own spotlights, something happens that the advertisers and marketing directors never prepared us for. We discover a latent desire that Jesus’ words planted within us when we were looking the other way. We discover the desire to be generous and welcoming to those who never enjoy the spotlight. We look the ensemble cast members in the eye and realize that we want to know their names and where they grew up and what their hopes and dreams for the future are. We turn out our pockets and volunteer our time and invite the stranger to become friend because by doing so we notice clearly the footsteps of Christ walking one step before us. We feel the life of Christ welling up from within us and connecting with the life of Christ welling up from within the other, who now shines in the spotlight.

Jesus Christ is always walking one step before us, but we don’t always walk one step behind him. We stray, we go off on our own, we set up camp rather than continue following. But even with all of our wilderness wanderings and our prima donna tendencies, he continues to stay one step away, calling us back to his path. His path is hard: the way of denial, of self-sacrifice, of cross-carrying. But his path is also the way of true joy.

When we walk down Jesus’ path, the spotlight is never on us, but on those around us, those walking with us. Now that God has blessed me with a partner to remind me that I am not the main character of my life, I have crept slowly and haltingly onto this path and found the joy of stepping out of the spotlight, the joy of generosity and welcoming and service. Perhaps you have, too. Perhaps, as we turn the spotlight on each other and on those Jesus would have us see, together we will notice, there marking the ground in front of us, the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

Looking in the mirror

I don’t know about you, but I have to renew my relationship with God every single day. I have to look myself in the face in the bathroom mirror and let myself know that I still believe in God. I have to take a deep breath and remember that I am alive for one reason and one reason only — because God is still speaking and singing and loving me into existence.

Some days I look myself in the eye in the mirror and I know I don’t have it. Not today. I scratch off some dried toothpaste splatters from the mirror and take that deep breath and wonder where it all could possibly go. So quickly ’cause yesterday I had it. Yesterday, I was so full. Yesterday, I had that electricity surging up from the soles of my feet and arcing across the spaces between my fingertips. Yesterday, I had that peace in my heart that makes me want to run around the block a dozen times just to tire myself out enough that I can be still and know. And know that you are God.

Why do I have it some days and other days not? Heck, I’ve never used the word “it” more times in two paragraphs. But I use “it” now because I don’t know how to be more specific. I don’t have the vocabulary to express the utter joy I have when I discover and rediscover that I am a vessel of God’s grace, of God’s light shining in the darkness.

I do have the vocabulary to describe the days when I don’t have it, when I can’t seem to access the grace that I’m sure dances all around and within me. Restlessness. Exhaustion. Void. Desolation. Despair. I try to fill my day up so that it can end and I can sleep and I can wake up tomorrow and I can look myself in the mirror again.

In this week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells his disciples what’s going to happen to him. I’m going to suffer and be rejected. And I’m going to be killed. And three days later I’m going to rise again. And Peter rebukes Jesus for saying these things that couldn’t possibly happen to someone who he, Peter, has just proclaimed to be the Messiah. But Jesus rebukes him back: “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Then Jesus says something that makes looking myself in the eye in the mirror so very difficult: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

When I don’t have “it,” when I am desolate and the void seems so real and close and gaping wide, I forget that I gave up my life a long time ago. I gave it up, and when the world closes in I grasp at straws trying to grip that life again. I set my mind on those human things that only fill me up like junk food. And I spiral downwards from desolation to despair because my chosen cure is more of the disease.

So every single day, I have to renew my relationship with God. I have to decide to become a follower of Jesus Christ again and again and again. Sometimes, when I’m looking at myself in the mirror, I turn around and see the cross tattooed on my back. I remember that I got that cross etched into my skin because I so often lost the one I wore around my neck. My right hand reaches for the top of the tattoo and feels the raised bump of the black lines. I take that deep breath and know that God sure as hell isn’t done with me yet.

And so Jesus hands me the cross. And Jesus puts me and my cross on his back. And today — maybe not yesterday, and maybe not tomorrow, but today — I have “it.”