I can remember when I was young; I was frequently known as “Rob and Ginny’s son.” I can remember liking that most of the time. Aside from a brief season of teen-aged rebellion, I didn’t mind being known as their son. Perhaps there was time in your life when you were also known according to your relationship with your parents.
As time passed, the roles changed, at least a little bit anyway. As I became busy in High School, I wasn’t introduced as much as ‘Rob and Ginny’s son.’ Whether it was at band functions or Scout events, or later, in the church, more often they were introduced as “Al’s parents.” I must admit – I kinda liked that a little better! Hopefully, they were as proud to be known that way, as I was to be known as their child.
Aside from Allen Schoonover, I’ve been introduced as a Boy Scout; a band and orchestra member; a student; a teacher’s husband; and a pastor. The bank knows me as one set of numbers; the government, as a different set of numbers. For the last 17 years, I’ve taken on the identity of father; first, as “Abby’s Dad,” and for the past 7 years, as “Amy’s Dad.” I really like that identity!! I hope they are as proud to be “Al and Karen’s daughter” as we are to be their parents
It seems to me that you and I will take on a number of roles and identities in our lifetime. We will take some of them on gladly, even eagerly. We’ll wear others less willingly; less joyfully. Nevertheless, it’s important to be clear about who we are. If we don’t have a clear sense of personal identity, then we’ll flounder throughout our life
If we don’t know who we are as individuals, we will be vulnerable to many different pressures in life. If we don’t have a clear sense of boundaries, then others will take advantage of us. If we don’t know who we are, our self-esteem may suffer. Psychiatrist’s couches are filled with people who are trying to get in touch with who they are, because they don’t know or like the person they’ve become
It seems to me that this is a timeless concern. We face it as toddlers when we first begin to assert our own independence. I can vaguely remember telling my mother when I was still pretty young, Please, mommy, do it self. Our daughters have said the same thing to us almost daily. This is only right and proper. We need to discover who we are and be able to assert our independence. Later, as teenagers, we continue to struggle to distance ourselves from our parents; to be “our own self.
And the struggle continues as young adults. In the work world, in our personal lives, in our relationships with those closest to us, who will we be? We have such power to shape our identity. Other powers in the world would also help shape the type of person we would be. The pressures to be ‘successful’ in business might influence us to make certain life choices. The need to find affection and companionship might influence us to choose less than healthy partners
The struggle over our identity doesn’t stop when we hit 25 or 30; it continues through mid-life as well. The life we anticipate as we leave school may not measure up to the reality we face as we approach our 40s. Our body shape may change. Our ‘unlimited potential’ as teenagers and young adults runs smack into the realities of limited time and energies. And our mortality. So our struggle for identity can lead us to inner peace or into a mid-life crisis
But our search for identity doesn’t end here. As we face and enter retirement, we hit another pinch point. If we were employed all our life, who are we when we no longer have a job? If our identity comes from raising a family, what happens when the nest is empty? If our identity comes primarily from being a spouse, what happens when we are widowed and we are left alone?
Without a clear sense of identity, we don’t really know who we are or what our purpose is. And if this is true for us as individuals, it’s equally applicable to a church.
As you know, we’re in the midst of a pastoral transition. As a congregation, we are nearly 70 years old. It’s a good time to ask some thoughtful questions about ourselves and our ministry: Who are we? Whose are we? What is it about our experience of Jesus that Madera needs? Do we have a clear sense of purpose, of mission? If so, then we will remain healthy. If not, then we risk entering a cycle of decline.
Our reading from Matthew, however, offers us some guidance with this issue of identity. The story is of Jesus’ baptism by John at the River Jordan. This is a key moment in Jesus’ life, because here he receives the assurance of his relationship with God. God’s voice tells him that he is God’s ‘son’ and that he is ‘the beloved.’ The one whom God loves and will be with. Even as Jesus is driven out into the wilderness in the very next verse to face a long period of testing. You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased. (Mk 1.11).
While not exactly the same, our baptisms provide a similar assurance as to who we are and what our purpose is to be. At the font, you and I become children of God. We are made heirs of a promise of an eternal relationship with God. That God will be with us always, through all the trials and temptations we face in this life. That we, too, will be ‘beloved’ in God’s eyes. In spite of all the changes in life and fortune we might face, this identity stands the test of time.
Do you remember the movie, “Toy Story?” In the movie, a little boy named Andy has a host of toys, but his favorite is a cowboy named “Woody.” In the world of the toys, Woody is also the leader of the toy community. Each birthday, though, all the toys shudder to think what new toys Andy will get. One year, Andy gets a super astronaut, Buzz Lightyear as a gift. Much to his dismay, Woody is tossed aside as favorite, and Buzz becomes the new ‘favorite.’
To make matters worse, Buzz believes the programming the toy makers put in him. He thinks that he is the “real” Buzz Lightyear, with the mission to save the world. Woody knows better, so he spends a long time trying to make Buzz understand that he’s only a toy, and not the real Buzz Lightyear. When Buzz finally makes this connection, he becomes clinically depressed; he’s lost his identity and purpose. He mopes around, and when the evil kid next door gets him and Woody, Buzz isn’t willing to do anything to save either of them.
At the last moment, however, Buzz looks at the bottom side of his shoe and sees where Andy has written Andy’s name on the sole. It hits him — he is somebody’s toy. He has an identity and a purpose — to bring Andy pleasure. True, it’s not saving the galaxy from the evil Emperor Zurg. But it does give Buzz the spirit to get himself and Woody away from the next-door neighbor and home to Andy and the other toys
It seems to me that who we are ought not be limited by the ‘programming’ we receive from the world. Whatever our jobs might be, or our roles in life, or our responsibilities as parents, these identities and missions change. Our sole, primary identity comes, instead, from the one who inscribes a name on us at our baptism. Not on our feet, but on our foreheads. In our liturgy we say to the newly baptized, You have been sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the Christ forever. Paul reminds us that we have been given a “spirit of adoption” and made heirs and children of God (Rom 8.23; Gal 4.5 6).
This identity as God’s children infuses our ministry here. As a church, our identity, our mission ought not be limited by the perceptions placed on us from outside or from within. God is doing a new thing in us, personally, and that new thing has the capability of changing both us and this community called Trinity.
The identity written on our foreheads and nurtured through the faith community and at the table of our Lord is one that gives us a particular mission and purpose. Through our baptism, we become ministers of God’s reconciliation in the world (2 Cor 5.16-21). This identity is one that will last forever; or, as Buzz would put it: “to infinity, and beyond.”