A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 14, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 5:1-16
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            I’m sure you’ve all been there, in a gathering of some sort – a meeting, a class, a club – and the leader asks you to go around the room and introduce yourselves.  Sometimes the leader will ask for some specific information:  “Tell us your name, your favorite color, and your shoe size.”  “Tell us why you joined the club and what you hope to accomplish here.”

Sometimes the invitation to introduce yourself is very open ended.  “Let’s go around the room and tell us something about yourself.”  What would you say?  What would you say to introduce yourself to a group who didn’t know you or knew you only a little bit?

We were invited to do the second sort of introduction, the open ended introduction, in my Introduction to Pastoral Counseling class way back when I was in seminary.  We went around and introduced ourselves.  Then the professor reflected on what we said.  She noted that about two-thirds of the students included in their introductions something about themselves in terms of their relationships (I’m a mother of two) and about one-third introduced themselves in terms of what they did (I was a history major in undergraduate and I’m currently doing my field work at First United Methodist Church).

My professor’s point was that our sense of identity is an important factor of who we are and how we are in the world.  Then she noted that men and women typically have a different sense of identity (at least in the United States – and I’m not sure if they holds up across racial and ethnic groups).  The two-thirds of the students who introduced themselves relationally were the women in the classroom; the one-third who introduced themselves in terms of “what they do” were men.  I don’t remember if we talked about that difference coming from biology, psychology, or enculturation, (or a combination of the three), but I do remember how stark the difference was.

And since then, I’ve reflected on how true it is that our sense of identity impacts, maybe even dictates, who we are and how we are in the world.

We are now four days into the forty days of Lent (Sunday’s don’t count, so Wednesday to Saturday is four days).  The forty days of Lent are traditionally connected to Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert when he wrestled with temptation.  There’s mention of this in Mark’s gospel and the story is much more detailed in Matthew and Luke.  Jesus is tempted with turning stones into bread to easy his hunger, with political power, and with testing God’s trustworthiness.

I think that to understand these temptations, one needs to think about what happens right before.  Right before Jesus sojourns in the wilderness, he goes to the Jordan River and is baptized by John.  As he comes out of the water, he hears God say that he is God’s child, God’s beloved.

I think the temptation is Jesus wrestling with what it means to be God’s child, God’s beloved.  He’s wrestling with his identity.  The temptations he faces are all about his relationship with God and who he is in that relationship.  So, it seems appropriate to being Lent by thinking about identity.

mount-of-beatitudes-and-sea-of-galilee-tbs75369303-bibleplacesWe’re going to spend Lent looking at the Sermon on the Mount.  The Sermon on the Mount takes up three chapters in Matthew’s gospel and is the core of Jesus’ teaching, at least as Matthew presents it.  Let’s start by putting ourselves there.  “Imagine yourself in Galilee, on a windswept hillside near a little fishing town called Capernaum.  Flocks of birds circle and land.  Wildflowers bloom among the grasses between rock outcroppings.  The Sea of Galilee glistens blue below us, reflecting the clear midday sky above.

“A small group of disciples circles around a … man who appears to be about thirty.  He is sitting, as rabbis in this time and culture normally do.  Huge crowds extend beyond the inner circle of disciples, in a sense eavesdropping on what he is teaching them.  This is the day they’ve been waiting for.  This is the day Jesus is going to pass on to them the heart of his message.”[1]

Jesus begins.  He begins with the lesson we heard today.  But what a strange beginning.  Jesus begins by offering a benediction.  Jesus begins by offering a blessing.  In a sense, he’s beginning with his conclusion.  And his conclusion is so contrary to conventional wisdom.  Conventional wisdom really hasn’t changed all that much.

Conventional wisdom said then and still says:
“Do everything you can to be rich and powerful.
Toughen up and harden yourself against all feelings of loss.
Measure your success by how much of the time you are thinking only of yourself and your own happiness.
Be independent and aggressive, hungry and thirsty for higher status in the social pecking order.
Strike back when others strike you, and guard your image so you’ll always be popular.”[2]

That’s not where Jesus is going and not where he’s inviting us.
The poor and those who are in solidarity with them – they are the ones who are blessed.
Those who mourn, who feel grief and loss – they are the ones who are blessed.
The nonviolent and gentle – they are the ones who are blessed.
Those who hunger and thirst for the common good and aren’t satisfied with the status quo – they are the ones who are blessed.
The merciful and compassionate – they are the ones who are blessed.
Those characterized by openness, sincerity, and integrity – they are the ones who are blessed.
Those who work for peace and reconciliation – they are the ones who are blessed.
Those who keep seeking justice even when they’re misunderstood and misjudged – they are the ones who are blessed.
Those who stand for justice as the prophets did, who refuse to back down or quiet down when they are slandered, mocked, misrepresented, threatened, and harmed – they are the ones who are blessed.

In just two or three minutes, Jesus has flipped things over.  Jesus has identified a new kind of hero.  “Not warriors, corporate executives, or politicians, but brave and determined activists for preemptive peace, willing to suffer with him in the prophetic tradition of justice.”[3]

Jesus begins with the benediction.  “If we want to be his disciples, we won’t be able to simply coast along and conform to the norms of our society.  We must choose a different definition of well-being, a different model of success, a new identity with a new set of values.”[4]

And there it is:  If we want to be Jesus’ disciples, we must choose a new identity with a new set of values.

Jesus goes on to say that this new identity “will give us a very important role in the world.  As creative nonconformists, we will be difference makers, aliveness activists, catalysts for change.  Like salt that brings out the best flavors in food, we will bring out the best in our community and society.  Also like salt, we will have a preservative function – opposing corruption and decay.  Like light that penetrates and eradicates darkness, we will radiate health, goodness, and well-being to warm and enlighten those around us.  Simply by being who we are – living boldly and freely in this new identity as salt and light – we will make a difference, as long as we don’t lose our ‘saltiness’ or try to hide our light.”[5]

For years, part of my identity has been “justice seeker.”  I’ve seen myself as someone who works for peace and justice.  Be it working against wars or be it working against domestic violence, I’ve seen myself as someone who works for peace.  Be it working for sentencing reform and immigration policy reform or be it working with individual juvenile delinquents, I’ve seen myself as someone who works for justice.  Part of that identity has included seeing myself as someone working to end racism.

Well, I spent my days off last week at an anti-racism training and my eyes were opened.  I may be working toward being a non-racist, but I’m a long way from being an anti-racist.  The difference between the two deserves a sermon of its own, so this is an over simplification.  Non-racism works to overcome individual racial prejudice; anti-racism works of transform systems that have racism baked into them from their formation.

This cartoon may explain more simply than I can what I mean by having the racism baked into the system.[6]

a-concise-history-of-black-white-relations-in-the-united-states

Racism has three powers.  It has the power over people of color – which we see, for instance, in the legal system and the banking system.  It has the power for white people – which is typically invisible to the people who benefit from it.

And it has the power to take from us our identity as children of God.  For people of color, this is when racism gets (consciously or unconsciously) internalized.  For white people, this is when racial superiority gets (consciously or unconsciously) internalized.

It is this third power of racism, the power to take from us our identity as children of God, that makes me wonder if I’m really salty enough.  If I’m really going to take on this identity as a disciple of Jesus, if I’m really going to conform my life to the values of the beatitudes, I need to become anti-racist.  I need to recognize the power of racism within me and within the institutions and systems around me (including this one right here).  And then I need to work to transform that power.  You see, if I really accept this new identity that Jesus offers, everything changes for me.

So here’s the invitation.  In this time of quiet, imagine darkness and into that darkness imagine light coming – from a candle, a sunrise, a moonrise, a fire, a flashlight.
Hold these questions open before God:
Which is more fragile and which is more powerful, light or darkness?
How can my life become like light?

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), 127.
[2] Ibid, 127-128.
[3] Ibid, 128.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid, 129.
[6] “A Concise History of Black-White Relations in the U.S.A.” copied from http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/10/history-of-black-white-relations on 13 February 2016.
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