I want to speak this morning about a kind of “identity theft”—not the sort where thieves break in and steal your internet and credit card identity, but the insidious identity theft which secular society inflicts upon us to become people we’re not meant to be. We’re not meant to be shallow, self-seeking mortals who find our identity in owning things and exploiting other people and the world around us; but that’s the sort of pressure society tries to impose on us. From every direction—from the media, from the government, from the business world—we’re being robbed of, or pulled away from, our identity as infinitely precious human beings who are true to ourselves and to our Creator, and who have a generous regard for the infinite value of others.
There is an old story which still circulates around Princeton, New Jersey, where one day a fashionable New York society woman arrived at the Princeton Inn in her touring car. (The Princeton Inn, incidentally, is where Joannie and I spent our first night of married life.) As the socialite emerged from her car, she noticed a nondescript little man standing near the entrance. She fished around in her purse, pulled out a quarter and pressed it into the little man’s hand. “Here,” she said offhandedly, “take my luggage in.” And she breezed on by him into the lobby. The little man happened to be Professor Albert Einstein, who had stopped for a moment on his way to class. He looked quizzically at the quarter, as the story goes, picked up the luggage and carried it into the hotel.
Unlike that shallow, self-centered society woman, with her delusions of grandeur about herself, and her facile assumptions about others, Jesus was the quintessentially authentic human being, who personified the goodness and glory of God. Steeped in the Scriptures as he was, he used them early in his ministry to claim publically his identity. In the synagogue it was customary to invite a visiting rabbi to stand up and read a passage of Scripture. In today’s gospel, Luke tells us,
[Jesus] stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.
He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit
of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to
the poor….release to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind, to let the
oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:16-19
Jesus made that prophet’s mission his own. He would live his life for others. He would single out the poor, the captives, the blind, the op-pressed—those whom the world overlooks, those whom the world despises, those whom the world finds inconvenient. With burning pas-sion, he would live for them; he would die for them. This would be his identity. “Today,” he declared, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And the New Testament writers are of one mind that this is exactly who Jesus is. He is the personification of God’s love for others.
If anything good can be said about the utter devastation in Haiti from that massive earthquake, it would be the incredible outpouring of ge-nerosity which has resulted. Somehow a tragedy like this draws forth in us our finest instincts. It moves us to reclaim our true identity as people who are created to care for one another. The forces of self-seeking, exploitive secularism that plague the world are pushed back. Into the airport at Port-au-Prince come giant cargo planes from China and Israel and the United States, rescue teams from Britain and Belgium and Luxembourg, volunteers from Doctors Without Borders, Feed the Children and countless other agencies—people who love enough and care enough—ordinary people who at least for a time rise above self and pour themselves with passion into relieving the pain of others.
Right now, the words of Paul in today’s epistle seem written upon the hearts of people everywhere. Paul likens the followers of Christ to the members of a body—feet, hands, ears, eyes, noses, and so on. And he talks about how every single member is important. He says, “If one member suffers, all suffer together….” As Paul sees it, it is of the very identity of Christian people to care that much about one another. I be-lieve that. I also believe God has made and intended every human being, to be that same way. Granted that people in a particular community, like St. James’s, are more naturally devoted to one another; yet it is of our basic identity to see ourselves connected intimately with others.
One of the pioneers in the study of human identity, and the source of the popular term “identity crisis,” was Erik Erikson, the great psychologist who taught at Harvard, Yale and Berkeley. Erikson’s research convinced him that trust of one another is the crucial ingredient in the forming of a mature identity. Our formation, he says, goes through a series of eight stages, each a kind of identity crisis, progressing more and more toward the assurance that we both matter to other people and have a positive impact upon other people. A sure evidence of our maturity, he says, is that we care enough to help the next generation.
The disaster in Haiti has sensitized the whole world to the urgency of caring for one another, and has awakened in us, I believe, our primary identity as caring people. But one of these days, and it can’t come too soon of course, some measure of relief will finally have reached every corner of that ravaged land, and life will have returned to some degree of normalcy—not a normalcy you or I would find remotely acceptable, mind you, but one which will see an end to today’s extraordinary relief efforts. Faithful volunteers, to be sure, some of them from right here at St. James’s, will continue their heroic work among the people of Haiti, but much of the world will turn its attention elsewhere. And that’s when the secular forces of society will resume trying to steal our identities and turn us into self-serving people we’re not meant to be.
You and I can’t safeguard anyone else’s identity, but we can certainly safeguard our own—with God’s help. God holds before us the image of Jesus in the synagogue, the One for others, the One whose passion for the poor, the oppressed, the blind, the broken, the forgotten, knew no bounds. And it’s that passion that you and I need fervently to hold on to. It makes my heart sing that so many members of this parish have the passion to sign up for mission trips to Haiti, and Honduras, and Sudan and Appalachia and elsewhere to minister to the poor in the name of Christ. It reinforces my own identity to be surrounded by faithful souls here who serve others in this community—feeding the hungry, tutoring inner city children, advocating for justice, finding homes for the homeless, giving generously of their blessings to support God’s work.
The passion of others around me feeds me with the passion of the Living God. That’s where it all comes from! It’s pure gift—God’s gift of his own nature of pure love, personified in Jesus. Society wants us to forget that and to find our identity in living for self. And that’s so easy to do, especially when huge relief efforts such as those in Haiti wind down. But let’s don’t allow that to happen. Remember the passion of Jesus, friends! See and feel that passion all around you. Never, ever, forget how much God loves you!
Let me leave you this morning with this Franciscan Blessing:
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths and superficial
relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people,
so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation
and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference
in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done,
By the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.