Sacred Identity

God offers us one bedrock, unshakable identity: you are born a child of God; beautiful, unique, loved, cherished.  Nobody can take that sacred identity away from you. Everybody else has that identity too. God is big enough.  This identity may seem buried pretty deep in some people, but it cannot be extinguished in anybody.

Brea Congregational United Church of Christ   
March 11, 2018

Identity and Freedom

Scripture: Luke 8:26-39.
[After crossing the Sea of Galilee] They landed in the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As Jesus stepped ashore he was met by a man from the town who was possessed by demons. For a long time he had neither worn clothes nor lived in a house, but stayed among the tombs. When he saw Jesus he cried out, and fell at his feet.  ‘What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?’ he shouted.  ‘I implore you, do not torment me.’ For Jesus was already ordering the unclean spirit to come out of the man. Many a time it had seized him, and then, for safety’s sake, they would secure him with chains and fetters; but each time he broke loose and was driven by the demon out into the wilds.
Jesus asked him,  ‘What is your name?’  ‘Legion,’ he replied. This was because so many demons had taken possession of him. And they begged him not to banish them to the abyss.
There was a large herd of pigs nearby, feeding on the hillside; and the demons begged him to let them go into these pigs. He gave them leave; the demons came out of the man and went into the pigs, and the herd rushed over the edge into the lake and were drowned.
When the men in charge of them saw what had happened, they took to their heels and carried the news to the town and countryside; and the people came out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone out sitting at his feet clothed and in his right mind, they were afraid. Eyewitnesses told them how the madman had been cured. Then the whole population of the Gerasene district was overcome by fear and asked Jesus to go away. So he got into the boat and went away. The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him; but Jesus sent him away:  “Go back home,” he said,  “and tell them what God has done for you.” The man went all over the town proclaiming what Jesus had done for him.

Buried in this Gospel story is a Jewish joke. I know, the Bible is not allowed to have jokes in it. But it does; we just don’t usually get them. Jesus makes a deal with some unclean demons to leave a suffering man; they can possess some unclean pigs instead.  Those unclean demons terrify the unclean pigs and they stampede off a cliff into the Sea of Galilee. The unclean things destroy each other, voila, and the man is saved.  And this is the only recorded instance of Jesus making deviled ham.

Seriously, this is a story about a man who had lost his identity, and the power of God to free him to take on a new identity as a follower of Jesus, but at a cost.  This story tells us that God’s power gives us the freedom to choose a life-affirming identity, but it won’t always win us popularity contests.

Identity. Who are you? Some of us identify by our jobs.  Some of us get our identity from our family relationships.  Student.  Caretaker.  Unicycle rider (that’s how my husband is known around UC Irvine.) Or we identify with our sports teams, or our political affiliation. Sometimes a label gets put on us.  A diagnosis, or a disability, or an ethnicity or a sexual identity. These labels can empower us, or they can oppress us. 

We live in an era of identity politics.  Slap a label on somebody, so you can dismiss them as the other side, just plain wrong. And all I see when I think of “those people” is their label, not a three-dimensional person, who is that neighbor Jesus told me to love.

Yet we need an identity.  We can’t function without it.  When our identity shifts, as it does throughout our lives, we can get very disoriented.  From the age of four, I was an avid reader. I often didn’t know how to fit in with other kids, so I read instead.  That was my identity: bookworm. I read all the time. A book a day sometimes. I was proud of that identity, because my dad was proud of me.  But it didn’t make me many friends. I did acquire some friends and people skills by high school, but I remained a voracious reader.  That identity served me well through a lot of years of college. Then at age thirty-two I had a baby, and I thought, great, I’ll be home from work for a while, I can catch up on my reading while Mark nurses. Only I couldn’t read, for months. I couldn’t concentrate. I could not make it through a book. This was not me. Who am I, if I’m not a devourer of books? It was comical, but it was also a little scary. Well, it was lactation hormones, and it was temporary. But it made me realize that that identity was at the whim of my body chemistry. 

Adolescence is a time when identity shifts, and that can be hard on the whole family. Challenging events challenge identity: unemployment, serious illness, loss of a loved one. Even joyful life events like marriage change our identity.  My brother got married at age forty-one, and my mom became a great-grandmother.  Whoa.  Life keeps changing, and our identity doesn’t always know how to keep up.

God offers us one bedrock, unshakable identity: you are born a child of God; beautiful, unique, loved, cherished.  Nobody can take that sacred identity away from you. Everybody else has that identity too. God is big enough.  This identity may seem buried pretty deep in some people, but it cannot be extinguished in anybody.

You may have a second sacred identity: you can choose to be a follower of Jesus: join his great adventure of celebrating and learning and loving and being a part of the Kingdom of God. These two identities, child of God and follower of Jesus, have sustained me through a roller coaster of job changes and unemployment in my adult life.

Who are you?  How do you identify yourself? Ponder that for a minute. Does beloved, precious child of God come first? Is it even on the radar?  Does follower of Jesus make the list?  I didn’t say perfect!  There are no perfect followers of Jesus. But does that relationship make a difference in your life?

I hope you will claim these sacred identities, because they give you great freedom from all the other labels our society would put on you that might be helpful for a time, or never were helpful at all. Nobody can take your sacred identity away from you.

I hope you also claim your identity as a member or a friend of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ. Please mark you calendars for Heritage Sunday, April 8. The church is taking stock of its own identity after 32 years with the same pastor.  That is, by the way, an unusually long run. Our personal identities shift, so it sure would be nice if the church identity could just be fixed and assured.  A rock in the storm. That rock is God, not the church.

People come and go, even pastors. So the church too changes. Yet we still carry God’s message of inclusive love, but with new voices, in new ways, to a community whose identity is also changing. Brea is now officially multiracial; white European-Americans are not the majority. Tech changes our relationships, and not always for the worse. People keep moving to Southern California; the suburban gets more and more urban. Cultures clash and blend.

As our community changes, Brea Congregational does have an identity that is sacred and enduring. We declare this place holy ground, sanctuary, safe space for each of us to claim our unique identities as children of God.  This church is the body of Christ, the gathered followers of Jesus who seek to make his message of inclusive love real in our own lives and for those around us, whatever their identities.

If our identity is sacred and deep, we don’t need to be right every time.  We can find common ground. We can respectfully disagree about politics and policy, but be willing to hear each other.  We can welcome somebody who doesn’t fit into our boxes, doesn’t wear our labels. I remember when Rozlyn became a part of my church in Irvine. She is transgender, and she didn’t pass very well. And we didn’t know how to let go of our labels and let Roz be Roz.  It was confusing. But we learned, and I am grateful for her courage.

We are called to be a welcoming church. To make room for the stranger. You voted on it, right?  It says so on the back of the bulletin. So we need to trust our church’s sacred identity that is not based on a certain style of worship, or a set of friends, or a program of the church. Those things can change. Our church’s identity is rooted in the values that Jesus teaches us.

Having a clear, deep, values-based identity is like having a good immune system.  We can welcome that which is life-giving, and recognize and set boundaries around that which is not life-giving.  We can make changes in our surface identity, and be safe in a core identity that can weather any storm.

Back to the Gospel of Mark, where we left Jesus and his disciples weathering a big storm on Lake Galilee.  Reading the Gospel of Mark, we just can’t get away from this demon possession business, which doesn’t sit well with our modern views. We don’t need to diagnose this man. He doesn’t need another label.  His God-given identity has already been overcome by some force that controls him, wants to destroy him, drives him from his home into the land of the dead.  People tried to help him by chaining him up.  Hmm.  I am a little skeptical about that.

This man has identity issues so severe he cannot even give his own name.  When Jesus asks the man his name, he says, “Legion.” Legion was not a Greek word. It was a Roman military unit, numbering five or six thousand soldiers. Palestine was occupied by a Roman legion at that time.  There was a legion roaming the countryside, and a legion in the man’s head. I wonder what an occupying Roman army might have done to this man to so thoroughly warp his identity.

Jesus, after stilling the storm and getting a bad night’s sleep, has just landed on the eastern shore of lake Galilee.  That’s the territory of non-Jews and their unclean pigs. If you feel sorry for the pigs who drowned in this story, consider the context.  Jews had no respect for pigs. 

Barely has Jesus set his foot on land when this afflicted man somehow finds him. Everybody else has given up on this guy.  His identity was “Danger to self and others. Hopeless case.”  But Jesus wastes no time in healing him, saving him, rescuing him; it’s all the same Greek word.  Soon the man is clothed and in his right mind, and sitting at Jesus’ feet.  Sitting at Jesus’ feet means he has taken on a new identity: follower of Jesus. When you remove an old identity, you need to replace it with a new identity. Unless you’re a Buddhist.

This healing seems so easy. Until the aftermath. What did it really cost to free this man? A herd of pigs off a cliff; some wealthy man’s fortune.  Maybe that was economic disruption, or maybe it was political allegory: doing away of the Roman legion. Either way, the cost was too high.  “Go away, Jesus. Please get back in your boat and leave us with our pigs and our hopeless cases and our fixed identities and stop causing us trouble.” Because our identities are all interconnected, and when you one person’s identity changes, everyone else feels it. 

Jesus does get back in the boat and go away, but he leaves one man, with his new identity as a follower of Jesus. He gives the man instructions to go back home, and tell people that hopeless cases are not hopeless to God, and that a soul-crushing identity can be transformed by God.  Good news for people needing freedom from an identity that oppresses them. Troubling news for the Powers that Be, who too often have profited from cultivating identities that convince people that it’s hopeless, they’re worthless, they’re powerless.  But God’s power is available to every child of God.  Can you begin to hear how revolutionary that identity, child of God, is?

People will keep trying to put the freed man into back into his box, “Danger to self and others. Hopeless case.” The owner of the pigs may never forgive him. If this man is counting on his home town affirming his identity, he will be out of luck. Jesus must know he has some fellow followers in the neighborhood to support him, because very few people can pull this kind of identity shift off alone.  In order to hang on to our sacred identity, we need friends, a community, a church, to remind us who we are, and whose we are. So somewhere on the eastern shore of Galilee there was already a community of Jesus followers, helping free each other from oppressive identities.

My sister Denise suffers from a condition that produces effects much like this man’s: alcohol addiction. When she is drinking, my sister is lost; the alcohol robs her of her identity, and she comes near killing herself. I believe in God’s power: I will not label her a hopeless case. But I want my sister back.

Twelve or thirteen times a week, people gather in our hall. They are recovering from this affliction that at its worst can be like this man endured, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Miracles happen in those meetings, when people do the footwork. God is restoring peoples’ sacred identities.  Alcoholics Anonymous requires no creeds, just an open mind and a willingness to practice the steps and tools that worked for the people before them.  And they support each other.  Some people go to seven meetings a week, to remember their identity as recovering alcoholics, and to help others recover. Their work is sacred, and we are blessed to have them.

When we see somebody’s identity crushing them, maybe we can offer them a message of hope.  They can be free of the label that harms them.  They can claim their God-given identity. The best way to share this message is to live it.  Claim your identity.  Child of God, sacred, valued, loved. There are no hopeless cases, for God. There are only children of God.  Amen.

Prayer is Connection

I sometimes get asked, “Does prayer really work?” I have a stock reply.  “Prayer works.  Prayer changes me.” At root, prayer is connection, relationship.  It is self-connection: taking the time to look within, being honest, naming our own hopes and fears, griefs and joys. It is connection with others, when we pray for another person.  It is connection with the larger world, when we enjoy and give thanks for the wonders around us, and ask mercy in dealing with forces beyond our control.  Prayer is connection with the Source. 

Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
March 4, 2018

Demystifying Prayer

Mark 4:35   On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”  36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.  37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.  38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.  40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”  41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Praying out loud, in public.  How many of you are comfortable doing that?  It doesn’t require a seminary degree.  But it does require practice, and modeling by someone you trust other than your pastor.  I’ve served six churches as solo or senior pastor.  Five were United Church of Christ and one was Disciples of Christ, our sister denomination. At the Disciples church, which was born out of a holy roller camp meeting tradition, I could ask any of the church leaders to pray at the beginning of a church meeting, or over a meal, with a little warning on Sunday morning, and they’d happily accept.  At UCC churches, not so much. 

Growing up in my Catholic home, we said grace over dinner but no other prayers aloud outside of church, ever, though my parents were devout.  Imagine my surprise when I asked my mom about prayer and she said, “Oh, I pray all the time.  I don’t know how I’d get by without it.” You could have knocked my over.  I was over 50 when I asked her.

Thanks to those of you who have done listening interviews with me.  I intended to finish all my listening interviews with a personal prayer; it was written right on the list of questions.  I succeeded with about three quarters of you. For the rest of you: sorry.  Old habits die hard.

I have discovered that some UCC folks do have satisfying prayer life, if a quiet one. Sometimes a morning ritual, sometimes an ongoing conversation through the day, sometimes the very simple and effective prayers that Ann Lamott recommended in one of her early books: “please please please,” or “thank you, thank you, thank you,” depending on the situation.

Some people meditate.  In my book, that’s prayer, of the listening variety.  What other ways can we pray? Some people walk in nature. Or sing.  There are so many kinds of prayer.

For those whose religion is about ethics and community, and you want to avoid things that might be labeled supernatural or superstitious, personal prayer may be problematic.  If that describes you, please know you’re welcome here, and thank you for putting up with me.

Some people were told that they must pray a certain way, or must not pray a certain way.  Or they have witnessed prayer that seemed self-serving, or unfair, or even cruel. Whatever the reason, it can be hard to relax into prayer when it has all that baggage attached. Your pastor is happy to talk that through with you over coffee.

I sometimes get asked, “Does prayer really work?” I have a stock reply.  “Prayer works.  Prayer changes me.” At root, prayer is connection, relationship.  It is self-connection: taking the time to look within, being honest, naming our own hopes and fears, griefs and joys. It is connection with others, when we pray for another person.  It is connection with the larger world, when we enjoy and give thanks for the wonders around us, and ask mercy in dealing with forces beyond our control.  Prayer is connection with the Source. 

Relationship with the Source of the creative transformation of the universe.  You might think, how is that even possible?  Or how is it possible not to be in relationship with a force that is in and through everything, including us? That relationship is there whether we acknowledge it or not. But when you live in the same house with someone, it is generally considered good form to acknowledge the person, have conversation with them; not treat them like furniture. If we picture God as a force rather than a person, that could get in the way of relationship.  And that is why throughout history, people have personified God.  Jesus did it too; he called God Father, and invited us too to imagine God as a loving parent. This assures me that we don’t have to be too careful about our prayers.  Children who trust their parents are comfortable saying all kinds of outrageous things to them.  The parent can sort it out.  And if you do not know how to imagine a God you can relate to, you can also envision The Force from Star Wars.

Prayer is authentic relationship. It invites honesty, and it can transform you. Which is probably why the phrase “thoughts and prayers” as the only response to the latest gun massacre can seem like an obscenity.  No real prayer is happening there.

So what’s prayer got to do with a boat in a storm? Mark’s gospel is not a literal history.  It is a manual for discipleship, for following Jesus.  We can map any story onto our own experience, and see where it takes us.  The traditional mapping is as follows. Storm = trouble. We all get those. Deep water = the primordial chaos from which the world was created. That chaos is always there, ready to unmake.  We moderns have been good at staving off chaos.  But the second law of thermodynamics will get us all in the end. Boat = the church!  Or any other community.  We never pray in a vacuum.  Jesus = God.  The love that created the universe, and that is with us in the boat.  And the disciples’ cry: “Teacher don’t you care that we’re going to die?”  There’s an honest prayer for you. And then Jesus stills the storm. Prayer answered!

But there’s always more going on than the standard interpretation. What’s Jesus doing sleeping in the boat? What happened to the God who neither slumbers nor sleeps in Psalm 121? Jesus is having human limitations again, as Mark and only Mark allows him. Luke and Matthew don’t copy this story. Mark pictures Jesus asleep in a half-sunk boat in a stormy sea.  Hemust have been dreadfully tired.

According to Mark, Jesus was grumpy when he was woken up.  He challenged the disciples’ faith… possibly their faith in themselves; that they didn’t need to panic. And don’t we all get ourselves panicked now and then about a tempest in a teacup? We certainly notice when other people do. If we want to participate in building God’s Kingdom, we can practice praying before we panic.  Or at least shorten the lag time.  That little bit of perspective we find when we take time for prayer often right-sizes our problems, and leaves us in a calm enough state to be of service to others.

But some storms are very real.  They are beyond our power to fix, maybe beyond our power to endure.  And now we get to the crux of the matter.  Jesus stilled the storm.  Prayer answered.  What if our storm doesn’t get stilled?  Prayer unanswered?

Remember what prayer is: relationship, not problem solved.  This is where my process-relational theology is showing.  If God were all-powerful, controlling everything, then God would either decide to fix things, or not.  In an intimate relationship with one more powerful than we, we get a loving and reassuring presence in the midst of the storm. We get coaching on boat steering and boat bailing and boat repair. We get told to call the Coast Guard.  (Prayer is not a substitute for ordinary reality help!) We might even get a scold now and then, but we won’t be abandoned.  And sometimes the storm stills.  And sometimes the storm persists, but we get the strength and guidance to endure it.  And sometimes the boat sinks.  And then, as the cross shows us, the sacred will go down with us into the depths, into chaos and unmaking, and not let that unmaking have the last word.

If we make prayer about getting the outcome we want, we will continue to be mystified, and probably offended.  But if we trust that prayer is relationship with one who is powerful and loving, and wants to help us thrive but doesn’t force anybody, instead partners with us, if we allow it, to create a more just and loving and beautiful world… then prayer is nurture, challenge, reassurance, accountability, guidance, forgiveness, renewal, strength, inspiration, mercy, and hope.

And if prayer is still mystifying you, there is one way to fix that.  Just start doing it. See how it works for you. You can pray, “to whom it may concern,” and that can work surprisingly well. Try whatever form of prayer you like, and if that doesn’t work, try something else.

I have several friends who are not shy about praying in public, and it is so precious when they offer to pray for me, right on the spot, out loud.  I’ll be telling them my current struggle, asking them for advice, and they’ll say, “Have you prayed about that?” and I’ll say, “Oh right.  Good idea.” And we’ll laugh, because we’ve had that conversation before.  I keep forgetting that I don’t have to pilot the boat alone.  We don’t have to wait till it’s sinking to ask for help.  Amen.