TEXT OF SERMON
“Who am I?”
That is a question of identity that we all face
over and over and over again.
”Who do others say that I am?”
will not really get us to the issue of our own identity
because identity has to do with what and who we say we are.
But the question of who others say we are
will rattle our world and sow self-doubt,
and so bring us to the question of our own identity.
For example, were you all to refute
the authenticity of my priesthood,
it would become impossible for me to serve
as your priest.
That would throw into question
one of the primary ways I have of seeing myself.
But the bigger question,
underneath what others say,
is what we say.
Folks who study issues of identity
as a part of human development,
suggest there are three primary questions
that serve as scaffolding
for whatever it is we use
to understand ourselves
in relationship to the world around us:
What do I do?
Who am I with?
What is my meaning?
Those are big questions
and you would think that by the time we get to be
50 or 60, 70 or 80, or even 95
the answer to those questions
would be buttoned down.
But not so much.
They may feel very solid to us
but a sudden change or loss
can call one or more of those elements of identity
When that happens, no matter how old we are,
the earth underneath us gets squishy.
For example, maybe we are in a long-term marriage
that has navigated all kinds of changes
when suddenly our financial security crumbles,
or the health of one person in the relationship deteriorates,
or both people respond very differently
to the same terrible loss.
That instability can cause one or both people
to call into question one or more
of those frames of identity:
Who am I?
Who am I with?
What is my meaning?
Or maybe we have had a long career
or professional association or job –
even a long time of volunteering somewhere –
and whatever it was we did
was tremendously important to our self-identity.
Even more so if we wore a uniform every day
like the military
But then we retired
or stopped doing it by choice or by fiat.
Who are we any more?
How will people know who we are
and what it means to be us?
If we no longer have a cohort of others
we work with every day,
who are we with?
If I am not working or volunteering
what is the meaning or purpose of my life?
You see, these are simple,
that people do and go through every day.
And yet, they are simple,
that can wreak havoc on our sense of identity.
Again, those lofty folks who study these things,
say that when one or more of these
three realms of self-identity
are called into question,
it instigates a crisis.
When two of them are challenged
at one and the same time,
look out, it’s a big identity crisis.
struggle, change, loss,
even sudden success,
can upend things
and bring us to a moment of reckoning.
Whenever and wherever
the tectonic plates
below the surface of our lives
move or shift or rumble
we will wobble for balance.
A paradigm shift that takes place around us
will also rattle the bones of our identity.
And we have been going through one paradigm shift
after another for decades it seems.
A paradigm is the template or prototype
by which we operate.
All those assumptions I was talking about last week
form a lens through which we perceive
the people and events of our lives.
We are generally unaware of our paradigms
until something happens to crack them open.
For example, a common paradigm
in many Christian churches
is that God rewards the good
and punishes the bad.
But that paradigm can suddenly crack badly
when someone we love dies.
Any tragedy shreds a paradigm like that
as we suddenly are left to question
if God does actually punish or rewards anyone.
Likewise, loss or change
can call into question the meaning of our faith
and whether it is true and substantial.
And of course, any tragedy
can call into question who we are with
and what kind of care or support
they have or can give for us.
Seismic shifts are taking place
in our corporate thinking
and shared perceptions
just as they always have among our species.
We were hunters and gatherers
who became hunters and farmers,
who then became farmers and manufacturers,
only to morph into manufacturers
and then information technologists.
This pandemic has called into question
the wisdom of a service economy
with a supply chain
spreading half way around the globe.
Whatever happens, I am guessing
our economy will change in significant ways.
So it is no surprise
that religion is going through a whopper
of a paradigm shift – so many in fact,
it sometimes feels as if our fuselage
is rattling apart on the way to a crash.
But that is nothing new.
When we think of Christianity
we tend to think an imperial religion
with massive cathedrals and ornate riches
and a monolithic history.
But our religion has the history of one major shift
after another, after another.
The first big shift, which we almost never talk about,
was when the paradigm went from
being the followers of Jesus
to the leaders of a resurrection cult.
Did you know
that the word “church”
only appears in any of the four Gospels twice?
Both times are in Matthew.
Don’t you think that is odd
when we are so accustomed
to thinking of Christianity as “Church?”
I mean really, for millions and millions of people
“church” is the paradigm for Christianity.
But “Church” was not a familiar paradigm
to Jesus or his first followers.
In fact, ecclesia, which is the Greek word
we translate as “Church,”
only meant an assembly to Jesus.
It was generic,
and referred to people called together
for a specific purpose.
As a matter of fact,
the group of Roman soldiers called together
to crucify Jesus was an ecclesia, a church of executioners.
So when Matthew has Jesus say,
“You are Peter, the rock
on whom my church is built,”
we hear it from OUR paradigm of “church.”
But whatever image or idea of church we carry
it was NOT the one Matthew had in mind.
To be honest, we do not know what Matthew
or Jesus or Peter
meant by the word, “church”
because the paradigm has changed
so many times
and so radically
since that story was first told.
We have no idea what “church” actually meant
to the people who first heard this story.
I raise this gnarly truth
about the meaning of church
because the pandemic is provoking a long-simmering
identity crisis for us and our institution.
By the way, we also do not know
what Peter meant by “Messiah.”
When he answered Jesus’ identity question,
like the word church,
he used a word that meant something
much different from what we mean by it.
(“Messiah” is the word we translate as “Christ.”
Remember, it is a title not a name).
The word “Messiah”
evoked a Jewish paradigm
for a servant of God.
Yet “messiah” had multiple meanings
to divergent groups of Jews
over a good many generations.
For example, all the ancient Kings of Israel
were considered messiahs
because the word means, literally, “anointed one.”
The kings and queens and prophets of Israel
were all anointed for their position or vocation,
usually with oil.
So, in this sense, to say “Jesus Christ”
is to say, “Jesus Oily Head.”
The concept of Messiah
included the idea of a human anointed by God
to lead a successful rebellion
against the Roman Empire,
and who would install a new
and authentic leadership
to the Temple and throne.
At the same time,
some groups quivered in anticipation
of a supernatural figure
who would launch a new age
and the beginning of a new era –
a new Adam.
This god-like figure
would bring holy wrath
upon oppressors and sinners alike
and elevate the poor and pure
to the highest stature in the New Creation.
The title “Messiah”
could mean any and all
of those things and more:
purely human, a earthly or heavenly warrior,
a supernatural, godly judge…
and literally, dozens of other paradigms.
The shear volume and intensity of ideas
surrounding the title of “Messiah”
makes it impossible for us to know
what Peter meant
when he said he believed
Jesus was the Messiah.
Which one, Peter?
Which Messiah do you say he is?
So now we are in an identity crisis.
Fewer and fewer people
are interested in the church paradigm
because of a paradigm shift happening
in the greater culture.
The church paradigm shifted away from
the followers of Jesus paradigm
and then, when the church was gobbled up
by the Roman Empire,
the church paradigm shifted again
and took on the empire paradigm.
But the empire paradigm of church
shifted once more
and took on the cultural and political paradigm
and we have seen the church paradigm splinter
into a thousand different paradigms –
many if not most of which are failing now
on their way to something new.
“Who do others say that we are?”
That is a terrifying question to ask
because of clergy sexual abuse,
anti-science and anti-evolution craziness,
and an evangelical fervor for binary thinking
about the bible – declaring it is all factual
or none of it is true.
Heck, I bet most of us
would be hard-pressed to come up
with a clear and distinct response
to the question of church identity.
That is because we are having an identity crisis.
What do we do?
Who are we with?
What is our meaning?
The pandemic has separated us
and limited what we can do.
It has isolated us
and thinned our sense of community.
It has caused us to wonder about the meaning of church
and of our baptismal practice
when we cannot be together
or demonstrate our love of God
in what seem like meaningful ways.
Who are we with?
What is our meaning?
I want to offer an uncharacteristically clear
answer to those questions:
The Lord’s Prayer.
Underneath the hulking ruins of the church metaphor
is buried the still fresh and breathing body
of the original followers of Jesus paradigm.
That paradigm has everything to do
with our passionate pursuit
of the Lord’s prayer:
”Make it heaven here.”
Who we are as followers of Jesus,
who we are with as participants in spiritual community,
and the meaning of our ministry together and apart,
has everything to do
with how we embody that prayer:
becoming agents of God
to make heaven and earth become as one.
In that prayer Jesus pleads,
“thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.”
In other words: Make it heaven here.
Make it heaven here.
Or, as The Message version renders it,
“Do what’s best – as above, so below.”
Or, in the New Zealand version,
“Your commonwealth of peace and freedom
sustain our hope and come on earth.”
Or, in a version from Parker Palmer,
“Let heaven and earth become one.”
The paradigm, embedded in that prayer,
tells us what we
and this spiritual practice of ours
is all about:
Making heaven out of earth – nothing less.
It is not only our prayer,
it is our paradigm –
our long ago forgotten paradigm
of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
It got buried underneath the church paradigm
that was all about building an institution
and beautiful buildings
and extravagant or hip ways to worship.
But none of that helped to make earth heaven.
Sometimes it contributed to making earth hell.
The pandemic is a double-edged sword.
It is is creating a crisis in our sense of identity and meaning
but also holds the potential to bring about paradigm shifts
that have been trying to bloom for years and years.
Whether it is our personal identities
or that of our spiritual communities,
a dedicated openness
to asking the questions
and an authentic willingness
to listen for what comes,
will offer healing and renewal.
Thank you for listening
and thinking about it.
Peace be with you.