Sunday, February 19, 2017

February 12, 2017 - Reshaping our Identity

1 Cor 3:1-9; Matt 5:21-37

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. ... And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” So, right off the bat, it’s important to say that I don’t think Jesus meant this literally. I think he was being rhetorical, using an extreme example in order to shock us into paying attention to the point he was really trying to make, which is that we should never treat wrong-doing casually or superficially, or make excuses in order to avoid the consequences of our actions. We should never make excuses for adultery, or rape, which is more likely what Jesus is talking about, or forget that divorce has serious consequences for all parties. Jesus wants us to be aware that even our casual references - insulting someone, or saying, “Boy, wouldn’t it be great if someone assassinated that President to the south” - are not casual. They reflect our deeper, and more troubling, tendencies to turn away from righteous and godly living. And so he uses hyperbole to get our attention. He picks dramatic examples.

But I wonder if Jesus really considered that losing an eye or a hand is also not something to be treated casually, or used rhetorically. It is, in fact, very serious. Losing a part of your body, or even losing some aspect of physical functioning, is a tremendous loss. It is life-changing. You don’t have to physically lose an eye to know that losing your sight can be devastating. Or losing your hearing. Or losing the ability to run or jump or skip. Transitioning from walking on your own to needing a walker or a wheelchair. Losing the ability to take a shower on your own, or brush your teeth - these are losses akin to death.

In fact, they are a kind of death. They are a death of our self-identity. When we go through a major loss, whether physically or emotionally, we lose who we are. The person who we were with these things or these people or these situations is gone. Dead. And we must construct a new person - a new self - a new identity.
All losses, physical or otherwise, are the death of who we are - of who we have been up until that moment. When we move from one place to another - even if it is from our house to an apartment in the same city - it is a death of who we were as homeowners. When children move out of the house to go away to university - it is a death of our identity as parents of school-aged children. When we lose a job, or even just retire - it is the death of who we are as income-earners or as participants in our professional careers. When we lose both our parents, it is the death of our identity as children of living parents. When we face the loss of this congregation as it closes, we face the death of who we are as members of St. John. Any major change in our lives, whether it is from a physical disability, or a major change in our relationship with our parents or our children or our spouse, or a physical relocation, or the loss of a community, these are all losses that confront us with the death of who we have seen ourselves as up to that moment.

And when we sense that loss coming, or when we’ve just experienced it, we often find ourselves going through the famous, or infamous, stages of grief: denial or disbelief, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression, and finally, by the grace of God, acceptance or hope. And particularly in those first few stages, we tighten our grip on whatever it is that our identity is built on. Whether it is our idea of ourselves as physically independent, or whether it is our idea of ourselves as employed, or as a wife, or a mother, or the child of our parents - we will try to hold on to those things that represent our physical independence, like our cars or our driver’s licenses, or we might find it hard to let go of books or tools that remind us of our jobs, or we might find it hard to let go of any number of things that keep us connected to the way things were. When my family and I moved from California, it was a profound loss of community for us, and even three years later, up until just a few weeks ago, I was still following the community newsletter from where we used to live. I just couldn’t let go of that, or of the identity that I had there, as a member of that particular community. It can be overwhelming, when all of these losses start to add up. And the more we lose, the more tightly we start to cling. We hold on to whatever those remaining things are that help us to remember who we are.

But our identity does not truly rest in any of these things. Who we are is not determined by our physical abilities (or lack thereof), or our jobs, or our relationships, or what church we grew up in. And I know you know this, but sometimes we need to be reminded of this: Your identity, who you are, comes from your identity as a baptized and beloved child of God. When you were baptized, all those old identity markers were washed away, they were made secondary, and this new identity as God’s child was made foundational. And so the most important thing about your physical abilities is that your body was created by God. The most important thing about your relationships is that the love you experience and share is an overflow of God’s love for you. The most important thing about your work is that your skills and talents and energy are gifts from God. The most important thing about the communities you belong to is that they are extensions of the community of Christ that you are brought into by God. The most important thing about you, the only thing that anybody needs to know about you, the only thing that will make a difference at the end of the day, is that God loves you. God loves you so much that God is willing to give you God’s own identity - that is to say, God is willing to give you a title that identifies you to the world as one of God’s own, that of God’s beloved child. When everything else has fallen away, you are God’s child, sister or brother of Jesus.

This identity is renewed every time we come forward for Communion. When you make your way forward to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, given and shed for you, your physical losses, the work you weren’t able to finish, the relationships you’ve failed at, the communities you’ve belonged to that have dissolved, all of these things are left behind as the Holy Spirit brings you forward to stand before God with the only thing that truly matters, the cross made with water on your forehead when you were baptized. It doesn’t matter that you can’t move the way you used to, or see, or hear like before, or that you can’t think as fast as you did when you were younger, or that your circle of family or friends gets smaller every year. I mean, of course it matters, but it doesn’t matter. You are still who you became the day you were baptized, and who you will always be no matter where you go or what happens to you.

And so, considering all of that, maybe Jesus really did understand the seriousness of what it is to lose an eye or a hand. In calling us to pluck out our eye or cut off our hand, or sell a building or close a congregation, maybe what Jesus is telling us is that these things really are only superficial when it comes to determining who we are because our identity is so firmly founded on God. Maybe Jesus is calling us to let go of those things that get in the way of us remembering who we truly are, because Jesus knows that God has already given us the most important identity of all, the one that tells you that you are God’s child for whom Christ died and was raised. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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