A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 22, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Mark 1:9-15 and Romans 8:14-16
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
More years ago than I care to add up, a professor asked the members of our class to introduce ourselves. The class was an introduction to pastoral counseling in which we would be sharing quite personally, so it was important that we start right off getting to know each other. The exercise took most of that first class. We were asked to say something real about who we were, to start the process of taking the risk of intimacy and vulnerability.
What would you say that is real and vulnerable about who you are?
One of the things that happened in the introductions – we came back to this when we were discussing gender differences – was that the men in the class tended to speak about who they are in terms of what they did while the women tended to speak about who they are in terms of their relationships.
So Frank would say, I’m in my second year of the MDiv program at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. This is my second career. I used to work at Pacific Bell as a technician. My favorite summer activity is white water rafting.
And Ellen would say, I’m also in my second year, but I’m at Pacific School of Religion. I’m recently divorced and have three kids, all teenagers, who live with their father while I’m in seminary. It’s clear to me that pastoral care and counseling will be an important part of my ministry because I’ve always been the person my friends come to to commiserate.
This was an interesting difference to notice, but I wonder if any of us really introduced ourselves. Who are we really? Are we what we do? Are we who we’re related to? Or are we something else?
Who are you? And how is your answer to that question similar to and different from who God sees you to be?
The traditional gospel lesson for the first Sunday of Lent is the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. You may have noticed that Mark’s version of this event is much shorter than Matthew’s and Luke’s. Matthew and Luke list the temptations – or at least three of the temptations – Jesus faced. Mark only says that Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days, tempted by Satan. It doesn’t even say that he fasted. In fact, it says that angels waited on him, which might mean that he ate.
Mark’s version of the temptation is so short it could be told in one-and-a-half tweets. Mark’s version of the temptation is so short the creators of the lectionary tacked on Jesus’ baptism and the summary of his message and ministry. I think this is a helpful thing because the three things – the baptism, the temptation, and the summary – are, I think, connected.
At his baptism, Jesus heard “a voice from heaven” tell him who he was. “You are my Son, the Beloved.” And before he had done any public ministry, the voice said, “with you I am well pleased.”
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” Did you ever notice that? “Immediately after his Baptism, Jesus is driven – not just led, mind you, but driven – into the wilderness by the same Spirit that just earlier had descended upon him and conferred to him God’s profound blessing?” There is a connection between Jesus’ time in the wilderness, this time of temptation, with receiving this announcement of identity.
As I said, Mark doesn’t tell us how Jesus was tempted. With Mark’s gospel, we’re free to imagine. And I imagine Jesus wrestling with what this identity means. Is being God’s beloved child a good thing or a bad thing – or both?
In the scope of the whole story, I’d say both. What could be better than knowing you are God’s child, God’s beloved child? And I don’t just mean knowing intellectually or even knowing in your heart, but knowing at a cellular level. An encounter with a voice from heaven is likely to put its message deep into your being. Yet being God’s child means also knowing the wonderful, scary, world-changing, good news that the kin-dom of God has come near. And that news means a change of life. It means living in a way that is resistant to the kingdoms of this world.
Jesus moves from baptism to temptation to proclamation. Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” And that proclamation eventually got him killed.
If you were to ask Jesus who he is, how would he answer? “I’m Mary’s son, a rabbi who leads disciples, an itinerant preacher and healer”? Or would he say, “I’m God’s beloved child”?
And if I asked you who you are, what would you say?
Theologian and author Father Richard Rohr says that we are two selves, a false self and a true self. He says, “The false self is the fabricated, concocted self that we have to do. It’s not wrong. The false self is not bad. But it’s your persona, it’s your education, it’s your race, it’s your sexual orientation, it’s your country – all of which are necessary to create an ego structure. But it’s not you.…
“It’s the raw material you fall through to find your true self.… You don’t create [your true self]; it’s already there … your inherent self, your authentic self.”
Rohr says, “God isn’t ‘a being’ as much as Being itself,” and that “[our true identity] is who we are in God. [That is, our true identity is who we are in Being itself.] … And that no one can give to you and no one can take away from you.”
“[But the true self isn’t the same as the soul,] because the true self includes embodiment. Therefore, there is a physical, material, emotional, sexual … element to the true self.”
What Rohr is talking about is the radical, integrative mystery of the incarnation. We see it in Jesus: the true self, that I would even say is a part of God, is not only a part of God. It is the God-ness that takes on flesh. But in taking on flesh, we also build up an ego structure that says we are what we do and who we’re related to.
Yeah, my brain is starting to hurt, too.
Years ago, a member of the church I was serving had a baby. It was a wonderful, joyous moment, until Jenny (that’s what I’ll call her) developed some post-delivery complications. She got an infection, which triggered an immune system response that went into overdrive and she developed Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Guillain-Barré Syndrome is scary. It’s an ascending paralysis. It starts in the feet and ascends the body and if it keeps going it can be fatal because you ability to breathe becomes paralyzed.
Jenny didn’t die. In fact, she almost fully recovered. During her recovery, another member of the church (I’ll call her Kathy) occasionally brought Jenny presents to cheer her up. One time, after all this happened, Kathy and I were talking about vocations and identity. Kathy said she noticed something about the presents she brought Jenny who had been so sick – something she had not done intentionally.
The first present she brought was presented in a gift bag with tissue paper covering it. The second give was wrapped in paper, but the paper wasn’t taped. The third present was wrapped and taped. The fourth present was wrapped, taped, and had a ribbon around it.
Without realizing what she was doing, Kathy was making it harder and harder for Jenny to get to the present. Kathy was making each gift an exercise. Kathy had not done this intentionally. It happened naturally.
Now some of you might be able to guess what Kathy’s vocation is. She is an occupational therapist. And if you asked Kathy who she is, part of her answer – a central part of her answer – would be that she’s an occupational therapist. That is an integral part of her identity and sense of self. And Rohr would say that the identity of being an occupational therapist is part of her false self. Remember, Rohr says that the false self isn’t bad, it isn’t wrong; it’s just concocted.
But I wonder. Because the real self, according the Rohr, is the soul embodied, isn’t part of Kathy’s embodiment occupational-therapist-ness?
This sermon is the beginning of a series based on themes that come out of the Lord’s Prayer. My hope is that you will take these themes that we preach on and find some way explore them in your life a little more deeply this Lent.
Today’s theme, Identity, comes out of the first line of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” This line points who God is, and who we are in relationship to God. If God is “our Father,” we are God’s children. That’s what Paul was writing about in our lesson from his letter to the Romans.
“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”
The implication is that our true identity is that we are children of God. Rohr would tell us that this is true, and that everything else that we cling onto as part of our identity is construct. Rohr also says, “It is the struggle with the false self that reveals to you your true self.”
Which reminds me of a story. A seeker after truth came to a saint for guidance.
“Tell me, wise one, how did you become holy?”
“And what are they, please?”
The seeker was fascinated.
“How does one learn to choose rightly?”
“One word! May I have it, please?” the seeker asked.
The seeker was thrilled. “And how does one grow?”
“And what are they, pray tell?”
“It is the struggle with the false self that reveals to you your true self.”
The invitation to you during this first week of Lent is to find some activity that will invite you into a reflection on your identity, some practice that will allow you to listen for what God has to say about who you are. Yeah, you’re getting homework during the sermon series. Still, I hope you will take on this task, to find some activity that will invite you into a reflection on your identity, some practice that will allow you to listen for what God has to say about who you are. Perhaps it will be some desert time. Perhaps it will be something else.
I believe you will benefit from what you learn, as will the people around you.
 David Lose, “Wilderness Faith,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/02/lent-1-b-wilderness-faith/ (posted and accessed 16 February 2015).
 Father Richard Rohr in an interview with Oprah Winfrey for one of her “Super Soul Sunday” episodes, accessed at http://www.oprah.com/own-super-soul-sunday/Full-Episode-Oprah-and-Author-Richard-Rohr-Video on 21 February 2015.