Your Deepest Identity
Our reading from the Old Testament may sound very harsh to us. Amos is prophesying the destruction of Israel with pretty tough language!
He begins by attributing God as saying:
“See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel”
I imagine most of you are familiar with plumb lines. In construction they help us be sure our vertical construction is “right." Amos conveys that God is going to make things “right” among the people. It is appropriate to use a construction metaphor, as he’s talking about building the kingdom of God. But all of the destruction that follows rather than construction is a shock to the system.
Amos prophesied at a time when King Jeraboam and Israel were experiencing massive prosperity. It was at least a forty year reign. They were living lavishly but had lost their ethical compass (or you could say plumb line) as a nation. They were not taking care of the needy. They were taking advantage of others.
Earlier, in Amos 2:6-8 he recites:
They sell honorable people for silver
and poor people for a pair of sandals.
7 They trample helpless people in the dust
and shove the oppressed out of the way.
Both father and son sleep with the same woman,
corrupting my holy name.
8 At their religious festivals,
they lounge in clothing their debtors put up as security.
In the house of their gods,*
they drink wine bought with unjust fines.
Amos is speaking to that community, that audience.
Amos is concerned with social justice - and he connects it with the righteousness of God (God’s judgment of the people). God is offended. (Rightly so.)
The story is aptly paired with the parable of the Good Samaritan in which Jesus also connects the quality of our interpersonal relationships with the ability to inherit eternal life. The lawyer asks Jesus this question: How do we inherit eternal life?
In Jesus’ usual form he answers a question with a question: What does scripture tell us? Of course the lawyer knows Jewish law: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus is satisfied. But the lawyer is not. Instead he asks Jesus “who is my neighbor?”
So Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan: When a man is attacked, robbed, and left for dead along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, it is a Samaritan traveler (and none of the other local citizens) who comes to his rescue. The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us that Life in the Kingdom of God requires mercy. We learn what Jesus means by "loving your neighbor as yourself.” To love your neighbor is not only to feel mercy and compassion for others, but show mercy and compassion through our actions.
The pivotal point of the story is that the merciful neighbor is one the audience doesn’t anticipate. The Jewish lawyer and audience don’t expect a Samaritan to be the hero of the story. The Samaritan and Jewish communities lived alongside one another with much enmity. The parable is not just about extending kindness, but about extending the scope of our community.
Jesus was helping the lawyer identify that Samaritans were also Israelites. It is a story about expansive identity…
What is your identity?
The Newspapers and media are constantly telling us we are a divided nation. And the state of our leading nations doesn’t look too different from the time of Amos. This is why the scriptures speak to us through time. We are struggling with the same human impulses that people did thousands of years ago. How can there be so much for some - and so little for others with disregard? And the question remains: Are we children of God? Or are we primarily US citizens, Liberals, Conservatives, Republicans or Democrats; White, Hispanic, Black, Christian?
What is your deepest identity?
What is the call we have to identify with one another?
Jesus saw the whole human race as part of one body. This is the piece that Jesus was so good at drawing upon. Unlike Amos and many other prophets that prophesy destruction and pain, Jesus looks deep into our humanity and draws out the best of us. He does not say, “and now you shall suffer.” Instead he says “and now, to really be human, to really be fully human, you shall be merciful. That is your identity.”
When we listen to the news and hear such painful reports around the world, the pain and compassion that stirs in us is part of that true identity. We cry, “Mercy.”
Last week Jackie Allerton shared with me a very sweet story that Safira’s favorite new song is the Sanctus: This three year old doesn’t sing it perfectly. But she tries: Holy Holy Holy Lord. God of Power and Might. Heaven and Earth are full of your Glory. Hosanna in the Highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the Highest.
To be a Good Samaritan is to be one that comes in the name of the Lord…… And more than our good deeds as citizens: It is about expanding the circle of our identity wider. (Little Safira is absorbing this)
The restoration of Israel has become a metaphor for the restoration of the World. When Christians study the Bible, Israel means us. We are all of us in every nation the chosen people: the beloved children of God.
When we expand our sense of community, our solutions for society’s ills will expand because they must.
In society right now a very conservative fundamentalist Christian community is growing. They do not believe in the separation of Church and State. While we may agree with them that our lives in God form our deepest identity, we find ourselves in disagreement over tenets of the faith. Do you ever feel, like “if they would just listen” they would understand us? Do you ever feel like the Fundamentalist Christians give Christianity a bad name? Perhaps they think they hold the Truth with a big T? Do you think dialogue would help?
Even closer to us than fundamentalists are Black Episcopalians. They are trying to open up dialogue with us and most of us aren’t really participating. If we won’t enter into dialogue even with other Episcopalians - what are we truly saying about our identity? I know many of us believe we are not racist; that it is a non-issue because our Presiding Bishop is Black. He is saying it is an issue. Part of our body is saying it is an issue. And we are suffering. Do we think it doesn’t really impact us like the Pharisee and the levite? Can we really just ignore the suffering set in front of us?
We do not have power as individuals to change all of the suffering in the world, but we do have power to open our hearts to those we previously thought were different from ourselves. To see our shared belovedness. There is a power in a collective community that at its foundation is love and redemption. (And we might not yet completely understand it…like Safira’s Holy Holy Holy)…but, it is there deep in our hearts.
We also have the power to stay in difficult conversations and listen whether it is with our crazy uncle, a neighbor, or someone in our faith community. It’s about expanding our hearts. In doing so, we know God better. And knowing God is what it means to gain eternal life.
Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
To summarize Jesus: Rejoice! You are conduits for the healing power of God.
The readings today are all about the healing power of God, and the healing power that flows through us - and the greater joy in that reality. They also speak to us of pride and how that interferes with our joy. All three of our readings today act as their own parables for this greater lesson: “let go and let God.”
In the Gospel of Luke and in the book of Acts, joy is a consistent and vital part of the expression of Christian spirituality. There is freedom in this joy. We do not need to be so troubled that things happen exactly the way we personally expect. There is freedom in letting go of our personal pride and desire for control.
In the Old Testament lesson from Kings today we see Naaman’s pride turn to anger because of expectation. His young servant offers him a simpler solution. How often have we created a more complicated and difficult situation because of our pride - only to discover there was an easier way that could’ve caused less damage. We don’t need to project our own ideas about how something should be done. When we do so, we may miss the opportunity right in front of us; to be present to the gifts in the moment. Naaman is awakened by a servant who acts as that conduit of healing and allows him to receive God’s greater healing.
In the New Testament reading some of the earliest Christians were pressuring the Galatians to be circumcised. How often does our pride get in the way of offering a healing and inclusive response to another. We want others to look like us, or (in our worst moments) even have suffered like us before we think they deserve the grace of God. Paul reminds us that we don’t need to pressure others to fit into our mold of what it looks like to be a child of God. Focus and take pride in your own works. “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” How much more freedom we’ll have than wasting our God-given energy on trying to control how others show up. Instead offer the healing welcome to those who have heard the word.
Finally in the Gospel Jesus reminds us, do not miss the mark by believing that the grace and healing of God is your personal power to yield, but rather know you have the gift to be a part of God’s powerful healing work in the world.
All of these passages point to a greater message of joy: a saving joy, a healing joy in letting go of our pride. We suffer when we desire things to always go our way. Others also suffer when we desire things to always go our way. There is Freedom in letting go and a joy in that freedom! The Gospel of Luke has a primary thread of Joy running through it. Yet, why do we not notice it? Why are so many teachings heard as a tough shot across the bow rather than as a window into God’s greater perspective? …A window to our own freedom?
In the Gospel Jesus sends seventy followers out ahead of him to spread the news that the power of God is a healing power. They are successful everywhere they go in sharing the good news through healing: curing the sick and casting out demons. The seventy returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in Your name.” So He told them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy. Nothing will harm you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
The disciples express joy that even the demons were subject to them under the name of Jesus. Jesus responds by transferring their joy from a pride of victory - to the joy of their salvation. But this is far from a stern teaching. Jesus is elated!
One problem I have with our selection from the Gospel today is that it is cut short. It doesn’t include the next two lines (which I not only love) but the Church seems to fail to convey: Jesus jumps for joy!
The end of our reading of Luke 10:20 reads:
Nevertheless, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Directly following is: 21At that time Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and declared, “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was well-pleasing in Your sight.”
The word that is used here for Jesus’ rejoicing is different from the other forms of joy the disciples express. (In the Greek) It is literally “jumped for joy.” It is a wild and exultant joy, not simply gladness. And Jesus reminds the disciples to be awake to the real source of their joy. We are rejoicing (not because we have the power to heal, but because we are conduits for the healing power of God).
The second part of his message is that in their healing work they are ushering in the Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth. They were told,
Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, `The kingdom of God has come near to you.’
Jesus is reminding the disciples that their Joy in the present (their excitement about successfully healing so many) is connected to their bond in an everlasting relationship with God. “Jesus is also jumping for joy over all of the new believers who know that they are loved for all eternity... (David Garland).
So the Gospel message we are receiving is that through the power of healing, the reign of God is here - and it has come close to all nations who received it.
Our ability to act as healing conduits for others makes us gateways to the joy of the Heavenly Kingdom. Contemplatives suggest the gateway to Heaven is everywhere! It is available if we are awake and act. We are indeed - and in all nations available to be that healing presence for one another. If we get out of our own prideful way, the grace of God will flow more freely. And how liberating.
On this fourth of July weekend we are reminded of our responsibilities. “Letting go and letting God” is not being complacent. We still need to raise children and grandchildren, vote, have peaceful and informed discussions, make difficult decisions and challenging compromises. We strive to discern and develop sound opinions. We hope to offer wise and thoughtful advice. We pray to be a safe and healing presence to others.
While always remembering:
We are beloved by God within a greater story of redemption and joy.
Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to God from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:20,21
The Rev. Heather K. Sisk