If I asked you to give three words that most defined your identity, what would they be? Would they reference your politics, your education, your marital status, your family, your profession, your gender. sexual identify, the sports teams you support, your age, your religion?
We hear a lot today about identity theft, but this can involve more than our wallets. There are multiple forces in the world telling us who we are — or should be: advertising which tells us that we are not smart enough, pretty enough, strong enough, rich enough, young enough, thin enough, healthy enough, to deserve respect and love – but that buying certain products and services can change this. Young people are bullied for an identity that does not fit the cultural norm. Psychologists — and our mothers—tell us that we should remember who we really are and act accordingly — but it’s not always that easy.
Today’s lessons are as much about identify as they are temptation.
The serpent thwarts the identity of Adam and Eve by convincing them that they can make their own rules and be God-like themselves.
Satan does the same thing in the Gospel, offering Jesus a more powerful identify than “Son of God.” Yet Jesus clings to that identify and also that of his Jewishness. Three times he responds to the devil, quoting Deuteronomy. “It is written,” he says.
We might look to science to tell us who we are — about our biology, our anatomy, and also the context in which we live. Last Wednesday, NASA reported that “seven Earth-size planets that could potentially harbor life have been identified orbiting a tiny star called Trappist-1, similar to our sun and not too far away, offering a realistic opportunity to search for signs of alien life outside the solar system.” (New York Times)
Art can give us clues: In the Oscar-nominated movie “Lion,” a five-year-old East-Indian boy is adopted by an Australian couple after he gets lost in Calcutta. Years later, he struggles with memories of his birth family, and decides to begin a search for them on his computer using Google maps, looking for Calcutta neighborhoods where something looks familiar and then moving in closer and closer…”
The macro to the micro; casting our gaze millions of light years away, or at tiny image on a screen as a young man looks for home, together these images revealing the vast scope of the world and universe in which we live – from way out there to way in here. From the rationality of science to the complex feelings of the human heart. That is the ibcomprehensible scope of the Creator.
Science explains the how of things; religion asks what they mean.
I confess that I’m a Humanities person. It’s not that I don’t like science, in spite of that C+ I got in the third quarter of high school Chemistry – when that weasly little tiny man who taught the class and probably didn’t like me because I was female and tall…but who remembers that stuff anyway? It was high school….
What is the essential element of Christian identity? The bottom line so to speak?
Some of you may know the epic Russian novel The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyefsky and the chapter called “The Grand Inquisitor.”
In this story, Christ comes back to Earth in Spain at the time of the Inquisition. He performs a number of miracles (echoing miracles from the Gospels). The people recognize him and adore him, but he is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burned to death the next day.
The Grand Inquisitor (not a Jedi) is an old man, a cardinal of the corrupt Catholic Church who visits Jesus in his cell and questions him at length, faulting him for not succumbing to the Devil’s temptations so as to be a more effective ruler. His biggest mistake, the inquisitor says, was in not compelling people to believe in him. The sly Inquisitor continues that fortunately, “the Church has recognized this problem and is now correcting it, even as we speak.”
The “correction” was the Spanish Inquisition when thousands were burned at the stake for being unwilling to confess Christian faith. The penalty for disbelief was often enforced baptism and then death. Jews and Muslims were particular targets, as well as those who officials felt might have “insincerely” converted to Christianity.
Jesus says nothing, but remains silent through it all.
At the end of the interrogation, Jesus gives his only response, his singular answer. He approaches the Inquisitor and kisses him on his “bloodless aged lips”. Completely unnerved by this, the Inquisitor sends him away, out into the night.
The kiss cannot overcome logical argument but at the same time there is no logical argument that can overcome the kiss.
What indeed can overcome the power of love? Is there anything in your own life that is is any match for it? But it’s not without a price. The price is what one person describes as “the vulnerability to which love dooms us all.”
The Anglican writer C.S. Lewis lost his mother at age nine and subsequently put a wall around himself to protect from further pain. But in his late forties he meets a divorced Jewish-American poet visiting Oxford and falls deeply in love with her. Here name is Joy.
A short time later, Joy becomes ill, diagnosed with an aggressive form of bone cancer, and it becomes clear that she will not recover.
One day on a picnic in the English countryside, awash with the colors, sounds, and fresh smells of spring, Joy reminds Lewis of how sick she is and that she will die—probably soon—but later to remember that “the pain then is part of the happiness now. That’s the deal.”
After a long period of mourning, Lewis understands: “Twice in my life,” he says, “I’ve been given the choice. As a child I chose safety; as a man I chose suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”
But how do we love especially when people don’t seem to want it?
In my favorite movie, “A River Runs Through It,” the 22-year-old son of a Methodist minister is killed as a result of his own bad choices. Preaching at his son’s funeral his father observes that it is often those we are closest to who most elude us. We want to help but don’t know what to offer and what we have to give is not wanted. “But we can love them; we can love completely without complete understanding.”
Pain and love are linked in some ways that only God knows and that plays out on the Cross where Jesus is crucified for loving too much. But the sibling of love is justice and it is the cries of Jesus for justice that most upset the authorities, those who had power and could be asked to give up some of what they have. But in the Resurrection where we learn that ultimately love wins. “So it is written….”
I am struggling with my own identity right now as an ordained person, as a preacher. I have devoted a good part of my life to teaching students of all ages the fundamentals of public address: how to make an ethical argument; how to evaluate “evidence,” how to eliminate logical fallacies from your reasoning. I have been a political speechwriter.
So when I hear what is coming from our government at the highest levels, I am distressed and often outraged. Attacks made without evidence. Arguments made without support: 99% of scientists agree that humans are causing global warming which is at a critical level. And yet programs to protect our environment are being slashed by 20% as defense spending grows by 25%. A student presenting that as an argument in class would be given an F!
So often outrage can turn to fear, at least for me. And I’m scared of the disrespect, the fabrications, restrictions on the press, the lack of experience of so many in power. I am scared of tough talk with potential consequences too dark to imagine. I am scared that my friend who has cancer could lose her health coverage. Scared that so many wonderful immigrants I know live in daily fear now of being deported –even without their children.
I am scared that I won’t have the energy to persist in calling congressmen, writing letters, showing up when I should.
While fear is a legitimate human emotion, it is not the basis of our identify as Christians. How many times did Jesus have to remind his disciples not to be afraid?
That same cross traced on our foreheads at Baptism marking us as beloved of God, is placed there again on Ash Wednesday, reminding us that part of our human identity is mortality.
Our friend, Mariann Budde, currently the bishop of the Diocese of Washington DC, always said that she believed that after we die somehow the essence of who we are will be preserved, that there is some form of survival that love makes possible. That’s the statement I remembered when I saw this ad someone sent me on uTube.
It is a two-minute visual story of an older man and his faithful dog who goes with him everywhere and clearly adores him. One day the man is taken to the hospital in an ambulance. The dog follows it and then waits outside the door, into the night during the next day, in the rain.
And then the door opens and a woman being pushed in a wheel chair appears. She’s had some kind of surgery because you can see a bandage on her chest. The dog takes a close look and then runs to her, puts his feet on her lap and licks her arm, wagging his tale like crazy. She smiles and pets him.
Then the screen goes dark and the words appear: “Become an organ donor.” The man had died and one of his organs given to the woman in the wheel chair. And the dog knows it.
The essence of who we are — our identity — will be preserved and will be recognized by love.
It is amazing grace that brings us home. And for some of us, it is Jesus, the face of God turned in our direction, who will show us the way and remind us who we are, helping us turn our fear into love and action.