Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, January 10, 2016
Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Who are you? If you were to write down 3 or 4 words to describe who you are, what would you write? What are the first things that come to mind? Most of us would write down our profession or our role. In our culture what we do shapes who we are. But what happens to our identity when our abilities change and we can no longer do what we used to do? What happens to our identity when we retire?
Ministers have a hard time retiring. That’s partly because our calling to ministry is a life-calling, not a job that ends upon retirement. Even after retirement, we are still expected to remain in good standing with our Presbytery, for one never knows when we might be called to another short-term ministry. This congregation is fortunate to have a number of retired ministers who, I expect, will all tell you that they have tried to retire over and over again. Being a minister is part of our identity. This is why it is particularly difficult when our bodies change and we are no longer able to minister in the manner in which we have been called. It can lead to a crisis of identity.
I expect that other professions have a similar pull. Teachers will always be teachers, even after retirement. Professors will always feel that there is one more article to write. Our professions are part of our identities. We get into trouble, though, when our identities are inseparable from our professions. If who we are is reduced to what we do, we will have difficulty when we retire or leave our positions. Yes, our identity is shaped by our work, but it is much more than that.
Those who find their core identity deep within themselves are less shaken by external changes in their jobs, their roles, their situations or their abilities. My guess is that their answers to the question, “Who are you?” look a little bit different than the answers from the rest of us. I talked to one person who has worked very hard to claim a core identity that is not dependent upon doing. When I asked her how she would define herself in 3 or 4 words, she said that, deep at everyone’s core we are the same—we are love, peace and compassion. Who we are depends on how well we access the centre of our being. It depends on how much we truly believe that we are created in the image of God.
Isaiah was addressing a people who had lost not only their jobs but also their homes and their country. They were exiled and were just beginning to return to Israel. Isaiah knew that they were fragile and that their identities were shaken to the core. He wanted the people to know that, regardless of what had happened to them, they were still beautiful inside, created by God and very precious in God’s sight. If they could hang onto this and really believe it, if they could ground their core identities internally in their character and faith, they could make it through the challenges that lay ahead.
This passage from Isaiah leads us not only to the question, “Who are we?” but also “Whose are we?” A sense of belonging is crucial to our identity, because we are communal creatures. “Do not fear,” says the God of Israel, “for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine.”
Our names tell us who our people are. They ground us in our ancestral roots. When Indigenous children were torn from their families and roots, and transplanted into a foreign culture, many became lost. They no longer knew who they were nor whose they were. Some are now rediscovering their roots through traditional ceremonies and elders are giving them their spiritual names. These names help them access the core of their being and provide a pathway to the Creator. They help them know both who and whose they are. Names act like an internal compass—they help us know when we’re off track and guide us back home.
Baptism in the Christian church is similar. We never use last names in baptism—only our first names—which is why they are called our Christian names. There is some indication that Christians in the early church were given a new, Christian name when they were baptized—hence the term “christening”. When we use first names only in baptism, we are declaring that the one being baptized is taking on a new identity that is separate from their familial identity. They are named and claimed as God’s own. This new identity has at the core of its being an assurance that they are dearly loved by God and created to be love and compassion. This new identity gives us an internal, moral compass through the Holy Sprit, who gently tugs us back to our core identity when we get lost and lose ourselves.
It was Jesus’ baptism, when he was affirmed as God’s beloved, which launched him into his ministry. Because Jesus was clear about who and whose he was, he was able to associate with society’s outcasts without worrying about what people thought of him. He lined up with those seeking baptism for the repentance of their sins. He didn’t worry about being identified as someone who had seriously sinned and needed to be baptized. His confidence about being God’s beloved child gave him a humility that didn’t care if others looked down on him.
Unlike Jesus, I had an experience during my theological studies many moons ago, which made me realize how much my identity was caught up in what people thought of me. We were assigned to spend a day living on the street with no money. I remember sitting on the sidewalk, waiting in line for the soup kitchen to open, when a well-dressed man walked by and looked down on me with utter disgust. I was not prepared for that; my shields weren’t up and his disdain shot through my bones, shaking my very core. That happened over 30 years ago, but I still can feel his repugnance. I had never experienced such contempt before and I realized that my identity depended very much on other people liking me. If they didn’t, I was in trouble. I also realized what a constant battle people living on the street must have because they are often recipients of people’s revulsion. It is no wonder that the self-confidence of those living in poverty is usually low.
When you are thrown off kilter by your world crashing down around you, or just by a passing comment of disapproval, you would do well to stop and breathe in deeply to the core of your being. Know that you are precious in God’s sight; that God honours and loves you dearly, no matter what has happened. “You are my child, my beloved. With you I am well pleased”—not because of what you have done, but simply because you are love and compassion at the core of your being. Amen.