Who am I? Reflections 6-19-19

Texts for Sunday June 23, 2019
The 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 65:1-9
Psalm 22:19-28
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

Who am I? How am I? Trapped in a realm of unanswerable questions. That is a part of a “poem” I wrote in the midst of my teenage angst. Note: My foray into writing poetry was mercifully short. I had also written about pancake syrup which indicated a different path might be wiser.

I did, however, go on to get a bachelor’s degree in sociology and psychology. In those fields, the question who am I  figures significantly. At different points in life and through many lenses, who am I can feel like an unanswerable question.

At the most basic, identity is simply the fact of being who or what a person or thing is. Sociologically, identity describes the connection to those with whom we have a close similarity or affinity.

So many of the issues that divide our society and globe are questions of identity which divide groups and individuals. I started to write a list of examples, but decided that you probably have your own list from which to draw. Personal and group identities sort us into camps and are used to make judgments about each other, to divide and “circle the wagons”, to vilify or exalt.

We reveal our understandings of both our identity and the identity of others in the way we talk about them. Over many years, I have written the “intercessory prayers” or “prayers of the church” for worship. Those prayers are to reflect “the wideness of God’s mercy for the whole world”. One insight from a resource on writing prayers from a while back has really stuck with me. The counsel given was to avoid using words that start with “the” …. the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, the lonely. “The” locks them into a singular identity. The suggestion was instead to say people “who are” whatever, or those who are whatever. Can you feel the difference? 

In the text from Galatians, Paul states that identity demarcations no longer divide us in Christ. We are all one. Race, ethnicity, social status, gender do not determine our worth; our shared identity as one body of Christ takes precedence. I was struck that Paul writes in present tense. Um, sir, that is not how the Church is currently functioning. There are all kinds of identity divisions swirling around. I guess this vision of Paul’s represents the “not yet” of the new creation. But it can bring hope and encouragement to begin moving that way. 

Let's focus on the who am I in the text from Luke.  This story provides a great example of the part community plays in creating the identity of an individual. This man in the story, when lucid, who do you think he understood himself to be by the way the community treated him?

Whatever gripped this man, people in the city decided that he was dangerous. They kept their eye on him. They chained him. But they obviously went out to the wilds where the demons had driven him, found him, and brought him back. My commentaries debate whether they were afraid he would be harm others or whether they were trying to protect him from himself. He lived in the tombs, but Luke is not clear whether that is his choice or those from the city. Social psychology would say that he was dangerous because the city said he was. They had given him this identity. He was dangerous and outcast.

Whatever gripped this man, he must have, for a moment, seen Jesus and recognized a possibility of new life. The text says the man met Jesus and fell at his feet. The demons addressed Jesus at that point, but I really want to believe that whatever part of the man was still there used his own volition to stumble over to Jesus. I know people who have physical and mental ailments often feel like the disease is their identity; one woman said she was just “a disease walking around”. I can imagine how frustrating it was to see hope standing before him but not being able to break through the chains to ask for help. Instead the demons took charge once again.

It is interesting that suddenly the demons claim their identity. They are Legion, a Roman military term for thousands of soldiers. They had occupied and oppressed this man; they owned him. They were powerful and cruel. They recognized that Jesus was able to take them down, do, they quickly tried to discuss terms of surrender – send us to the pigs, they begged. And he did.

At this point, the city faced a man with a new identity. He was sitting with Jesus, clothed, and “in his right mind”. The city too had “occupied” this man, controlling him through the identity they had placed on him. Jesus, who obviously destroyed those chains as well, looked a whole lot more dangerous to them than the man had when he was possessed. They recognized that everything was now different; a new world had broken in through Jesus. 

They were afraid. Maybe they realized they were being asked to change their identity. Instead, they asked Jesus to leave.

Finally, our man could claim a new identity: healed and whole. And grateful. He was now a follower of Jesus and was sent to tell others his story of restoration.

This leaves a couple of questions for us. 
Who are you? Who or what give you your identity? 

Do your clothes contribute to your identity?  Paul talks about being “clothed in Christ”. What, if anything, does that mean for your identity?

How does “one in Christ” impact your identity?

three years ago, when these texts were last used for worship, it was a week or so after the Pulse Nightclub mass shooting in Orlando. My reflections were guided by that event.

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Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Iowa City

Gathered by grace. Scattered for service.

123 E Market Street
Iowa City, IA 52245