An acquaintance of mine used to dismiss the youth following the Eucharist with the tag line, “remember who you are, and whose you are.” This gentle admonition was both a reminder to the youth about the genuine source of their identity, and a caution against all the forces that prey upon their sense of self.
As for the forces that prey upon our sense of self, we human beings are infatuated with identity; not only our own but with those of others as well. And when our own or others’ identities fail to capture enough attention, there are professional purveyors of identity who are happy to prey upon our infatuation. These professional purveyors of identity often refer to their identity development as “branding.”
Now, for those cowhands among us, I am not referring to the branding that follows a roping and hog-tying, although that may be fitting treatment for some of these predators. No, this “branding” refers to creating a marketing brand for oneself or others; creating an identity that will get likes, shares, and re-tweets.
There are downsides to this pursuit: we invest all kinds of treasure and energy to create this identity; and in doing so we reduce our identity to a commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace of trends or pop culture. Other consequences of touting your brand to pop culture include: memories and allegiances that are short-lived and fickle; and shifts in public opinion that happen quickly and leave one vulnerable to whiplash and ridicule, especially where we have been reckless in our self-promotion.
The hazards of self-promotion are not modern phenomena; consider Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes. In this 19th century fable an Emperor’s infatuation with the latest and greatest clothing makes him vulnerable to a swindle by two clever and manipulative weavers/tailors who promise him a magnificent suit of clothes that happens to possess the extraordinary ability to be invisible to anyone who is either unfit for their role in the Emperor’s court, or unusually stupid.
As you no doubt recall, all the Emperor’s courtiers are terrified of being considered unfit or stupid, so they perpetuate the swindlers’ lie to the point that even the Emperor, despite the evidence before his eyes and hands, gives in to the swindlers’ lie for fear of being called unfit or stupid.
Finally the day of the big reveal arrives; the Emperor, his courtiers, and the public, who have been repeatedly told the swindlers’ lie, are gathered for the great procession where, because they do not wish to be called stupid, still deny the reality of the Emperor’s unclothed body.
So off they go on their procession of denial only to be proved foolish, stupid, and unclothed by a guileless child who, caring not one wit about others’ opinion, cries out the obvious truth, “But he hasn’t got anything on!”
Who do we relate to in this fable? Do we feel more like the Emperor, the courtiers, or the guileless child? Is our sense of identity more dependent upon the expectations of identity developers and charlatans, such as the swindlers and social media; or is it more dependent upon what we know is trustworthy and true? Certainly we can relate to the pressures to conform to the identity developers’ or swindlers’ expectations, especially when the crowd is going along; but do we find ourselves confused and pulled between courtier and guileless child?
Today we have two other stories about identity before us. From Genesis, we have the renaming of Abram and Sarai; and from the gospel, Jesus’ identity prescription for those who would follow him.
The story of Abram and Sarai is not a re-branding to curry social approval; rather it’s a fundamental transformation of their identity. The name Abram, which means, “exalted father,” perhaps reflects the expectation and blessing bestowed upon Abram by his family of origin. It may be debatable whether he is living up to this identity, having fathered only one child – Ishmael. But God knows that Abram’s identity is to far surpass his family’s expectation; he is to be the “father of a multitude” and accordingly God re-names him Abraham.
But what we don’t hear today are the next two verses of this story in which Abraham laughs to himself because he thinks this is preposterous, and then he exclaims to God, “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!” Despite God’s promise, Abraham hesitates to embrace this new identity, instead he is prepared to settle for what he has rather than embrace what may become. This is not unlike how Sarai will respond when she hears of the child that she is to bear. But for now it is Abraham who hears that Sarai’s parents’ hope that she would be a “princess” is transformed by God into Sarah, a childbearing “noblewoman” instead of a childless “princess.” Both Abraham and Sarah will have to overcome their own reluctance and their families’ expectations for them to live into this new God-given identity.
We too can struggle to accept surprise identities that others drop on us. For example, just when Peter thinks he has Jesus’ identity as Messiah figured out, Jesus drops the Passion identity bomb. Jesus tells the disciples that he must undergo rejection, suffering, death on the cross, and resurrection. Rather than gracefully accepting this fundamental truth about Jesus’ identity, Peter rebukes Jesus because he just can’t reconcile this truth with his own expectation. In response Jesus calls Peter his adversary – or Satan – for setting his mind on messianic pop culture instead of divine things.
Jesus goes on to leverage this Peter moment as a teaching moment for the crowds by presenting them this riddle.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves [that is let them give up their popular sense of identity] and take up their cross [that is their new identity in Jesus Christ] and follow me. For those who want to save their life [that is cling to their popular identity, they] will lose it, and those who lose their life [that is give up the illusion of their popular identity] for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
You see, our very salvation hinges on our willingness to accept God’s call to live into an identity greater than we in our smallness can imagine. Like Abraham and Sarah, we may find it preposterous at first; or like Peter we may find it confusing at first, but with practice, forgiveness, and God’s grace we will get there. Then we, like the guileless child will unabashedly proclaim to the Emperor and the charlatan purveyors of identity, “But [they haven’t] got anything on!” because we will be certain who we are, and whose we are!
 Mark 8:34b-35