Remember who you are …

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.”[1]

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!

[1] Mark 8:34b-35

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The path before us …

This particular Sunday – with its stories of treks by Elijah, Elisha, Jesus, Peter, James and John – always makes me think about hiking, and the adventures or misadventures that occur on a hike.

As a teenager I was an enthusiastic and experienced hiker and backpacker. I hiked a lot in the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and Virginia. While some of these treks were well thought out and planned, others were just spontaneous larks. Nonetheless, regardless of the effort put into planning, these hikes always had unexpected surprises – some inspiring – such as majestic sunsets and sunrises; and others dispiriting – like the morning I woke up to find that I had slept all night in a patch of poison ivy because we had pitched camp in the dark. All the same, each of these treks, whether inspiring or dispiriting, were formative parts of a greater journey.

The stories of treks we hear today, which occur almost 800 years apart and in different parts of Palestine, are simultaneously awe inspiring and dispiriting; and each has a unique outcome. Still, these two treks need to be considered together as two parts of one story that illuminates the direction of our upcoming mutual trek. You know, the one that begins on Wednesday.

In the Gospel according to Mark, six days earlier on a hike to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus tells the disciples, “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering … and be killed.”[1] And Peter, bless his heart, is not having any part of this. It’s as if Peter has gotten disoriented and thinks they are on an entirely different trail, and Jesus rebukes him for losing his way. Now this is the first time Jesus tells the disciples what is to happen to him, so if they are disoriented it is understandable because this story doesn’t fit into the landscape they are imagining.

Today, six days later, Peter and James and John are hiking up a mountain with Jesus only to see him transfigured before them in the presence of Elijah and Moses. The three disciples are dumbstruck; well, except for Peter, who is basically babbling. Between what they have heard and seen in the past six days, I imagine they must be thinking, this trail has some wicked twists and turns we hadn’t counted on.

This Gospel story is a mile marker of sorts from at least two perspectives. First, it evokes the image of the passing of the mantle to Jesus from Moses – the giver of the law, and Elijah – the only biblical prophet to have been taken into heaven alive. All of this happens with God’s seal of approval; thus this is something to make us sit up and take notice. The second perspective is of particular interest because it is not only a mile marker but also a turning point – a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. Up to this point, his ministry has been confined to the northern region of Palestine around Galilee. It has been composed of teaching and healing – but there have not been overt messianic overtones – that is no one has been touting Jesus as messiah yet. Now however, we see clearly the endorsement of his ministry by the Law and the prophets, Moses and Elijah, and what is more – the divine seal of approval of God, his father. Jesus’ ministry has reached a turning point; the blazes on the trail are now clearly pointing toward Jerusalem and the cross. Ash Wednesday will be the next mile marker; and like the Transfiguration, it is intended to get our attention. From this point forward, if we are attentive, we will have the opportunity to hike this Lenten trail with Jesus and his disciples.

In the lesson from 2nd Kings we hear the story of a different kind of trek – one that will end in separation and loss, as well as the passing of a mantle. Elisha and Elijah are hiking a loop from the river valley into the hill country and back to the Jordan River. Both of them are facing their own personal turning point. As they are on their way Elijah repeatedly tries to get Elisha quit following him; yet Elisha is dogged in his refusal. On the one hand it could be said that Elijah may have the vain hope that if Elisha doesn’t follow him maybe he can avoid being taken up to heaven. On the other hand, Elisha’s dogged persistence seems to point to a story about faithfulness and loyalty in one’s devotion even in the face of impending loss. While I can imagine that Elisha, at some level, would like to avoid the moment, he is nonetheless devoted to walking all the way with his mentor, who is almost a father to him. This father-likeness can be seen in Elisha’s response to Elijah’s offer, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” By requesting a “double share” of Elijah’s spirit, Elisha is requesting what the eldest son would receive as his share of an inheritance. Elijah’s conditional response places the nature of the relationship in God’s hands. And God chooses to affirm the relationship; for when Elisha sees Elijah swept into heaven he cries after him “Father, father!”

As these two stories orient us toward Lent, they direct us to different points along the trail. The Transfiguration points through the cross to the good news of Easter. Whereas Elijah and Elisha’s story points to the last mile we will trek with Jesus in Holy Week.

While the reading stops short of telling us what happens after the whirlwind carries Elijah away, I think it is helpful for us to consider it. After Elisha tears his clothes in two pieces, the next two verses tell us,

“[Elisha] picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, ‘Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’ When he had struck the water, the water was parted to one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.”[2]

Elisha does not let his grief or doubt paralyze him in this story; rather he acts, he takes up the mantle and continues the prophetic journey Elijah has prepared him for.

As you and I look for the trail markers on our Lenten trek to the radical transfiguration of the Resurrection, may each of us follow the doggedly faithful example of Elisha at the side of the Jordan, by acting: by taking up the mantle of our Baptism, and by following the path blazed by Jesus .

[1] Mark 8:31

[2] 2 Kings 13-14

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

Wow, what a week this past week has been! My head is spinning over what has become a three-way row among the branches of our government. The legislative, the executive and the judiciary are descending into what I can only describe as an Abbott and Costello-esque routine of who’s on first. If the stakes weren’t so high I’d have a stomach-ache from laughing so hard. But the stakes are so very high, and we are left with the quandary of discerning among “who,” “what,” and “I don’t know;” and, by the way, I have a stomach-ache – and it’s not from laughing.

Would this were just a comedy routine, but it isn’t; and alas, in the midst of this discombobulated story, we are left distinguish between what is true, tested, and trustworthy and that which is hype, hyperbole, and hysteria? In this mess of conflicting narratives it is difficult to make out the “who,” “what,” and “I don’t know” of this story. It is with great relief that I am reminded that Scripture has the ability to meet us right where and as we are, and to clarify our thinking; this week is no exception.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is [the Lord] who sits above the circle of the earth, …
who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.[1]

In these words of Isaiah, the prophet is telling us quite clearly who is on first base. It is the Lord, our creator, to which we, and all things, return in the end. In this Isaiah’s words are reminiscent of the words we will hear ten days from now, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”[2] Like our Ash Wednesday reflections, the words of Isaiah are a reminder for us of the futility of our machiavellian machinations; we, as long as we imagine we have power, are nothing and our machinations come to naught. Our beginning and our end rest in the “who” of the Lord. The words of Isaiah continue,

“[The Lord] gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
… [and] those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.”[3]

In these words, we who are discombobulated and have stomach-aches over the machinations of others are reminded of God’s favor and care for us. This is the second base we seek. If we will only trust in God’s care and provision and give over our worries to God we shall be strengthened and not faint in the face of the machinations of others who seek only their own desires.

But perhaps we still “don’t know.” How are we going to get to third base? Just where is the proof of God’s provision for the powerless? The proof is spread throughout Scripture, and today it is clearly presented in the good news of Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing. It is not the powerful that Jesus, God incarnate, seeks out. No, Jesus calls those without power and influence to follow him. Jesus heals those marginalized by disease and possessed by demons so they can be restored as children of God. In Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing, not only are we shown how to get to third base, we are shown the source – the answer to “I don’t know.” Jesus repeatedly reveals to us the source of his power when he goes out to a deserted place and prays. Jesus tends daily and reverently to the source of all power; the unwearying and unsearchable Creator of all things. This is the source of Jesus’ power and ministry, not the praise and recognition of others. The answer to the “I don’t know” does not lie in the powers and princedoms of the world; the answer is not about me – it’s not even about you; the answer to the “I don’t know” is found in our relationship with our divine Creator “in whom we live and move and have our being,”[4] the source of all guidance.

Will we submit to God’s answer to “I don’t know,” or will we wander about in a discombobulating maze of hype, hyperbole, and hysteria? Well, because we are gathered here for this service of thanksgiving, my hunch is we desire to purge the demons of machination and to submit to God’s power in prayers of thanksgiving. Therefore, let us embrace the divine truth of our “who,” “what,” and “I know,” and let us laugh until our sides hurt.

[1] Ibid., vv. 21-22a, 23

[2] BCP p. 265

[3] Isaiah 40:29 & 31

[4] BCP, p. 100; A Collect for guidance.