I don’t know if you heard about it – the news outlets, for whatever reasons, stayed pretty mum about it – but hackers got into the system of the Internal Revenue Service, short IRS, and tens of thousands of taxpayers may have been affected by this security breach. And, of course, the blame game has started. Who’s responsible? My favorite explanation: government funding for internet security was cut, and that’s why hackers were able to get into the system.
But let’s face it: identity theft is nothing new. With more and more information being shared electronically, sometimes carelessly, this information is vulnerable. And I know there are a few here who have been affected by identity theft. It’s a nasty thing.
Now if we look at identity in this context, we are basically nothing but a bunch of numbers: social security, birthdate, zip code, plus some other similar information. As long as someone can get their hands on this information, they can pretend to be us.
But we are so much more than numbers, right? Our identity is comprised of so much more than some data. Just look at little Amelia, who will be baptized here today. One may look at her and wonder: what kind of person will she be as she grows older? But nobody can deny, even at her tender age, that she has an identity. That she is someone, someone special, someone precious. Like all of us.
If you paid closer attention to the lessons printed in the bulletin today, you may have seen something we usually don’t do: those questions that I chose as headlines for each lesson. As I was studying the texts for today, I was struck by the theme of identity in all of them: where are you – wo bist du? Where do you belong – wohin gehörst du? And, last but not least: Who are you? Wer bist du?
Where are you – wo bist du? This is the question God calls out after Adam and Eve have eaten from the forbidden fruit and now hide away from God, because they feel shame. Where are you? And I think it’s more than just a question concerning the whereabouts of the first human beings – after all, God is all powerful and all knowing – but it is also what we would call a philosophical question: where are you? Where do you stand? What is your position?
In the case of Adam and Eve, eating from the fruit of the tree of knowledge has changed everything – they are in a different place. Their innocence, which likened them more to all the other animals God created, is gone forever. They are not in a trusting and childlike relationship with God anymore – but rather in a place of confusion, shame, even distrust. Knowledge of good and evil gets human beings to a place where they feel vulnerable, a place where they may feel utterly alone and on their own. Their position has changed, and so it is no surprise that paradise is lost for them, and they have to leave this place of original purity and innocence.
Where are you? Wo bist du? We know paradise is lost. We know we are living in a world that is far from perfect – one just has to listen to the news to realize that. We feel the disconnection to this perfect relationship of trust with God that the first human beings had in the Garden of Eden. We are east of Eden, in this world today. We live in a world where we have to find our place – and that’s not always easy. Now I want to invite you to ponder the question, ‘Where are you?’ Where are you in your life? What brought you to the place, the circumstances you are in? And now the million dollar question: does it feel right to you where you’re at? Does it feel like it’s the place you’re supposed to be? Maybe there’s a place or a circumstance you’d rather be in? Maybe God would want you in a different place? And if you feel out of place – what can you do to get where you want to be, or what can you do to make the place or the circumstances you’re in a better place? Where we are in life has so much to do with our identity, doesn’t it?
But no matter where you are – the story we heard from the Book of Genesis today assures us that God is looking for us, seeking us out, no matter, where we are.
And all this leads to the next question, which is addressed in today’s lesson from 2. Corinthians – ‘Where do you belong?’ – ‘Wohin gehörst du?’ In this lesson, the Apostle Paul talks about a life east of Eden, a life with hardships and doubt and the outer nature that is wasting away, as Paul describes it. A life that has to come to an end at some point here on earth. And Paul points out that, despite the fact that we live lives marked by death, we belong. We belong to Christ, we are embraced by grace, and even though the earthly tents are destroyed, we have an eternal building from God. No matter how hard life is here on earth at times, the assurance that, in baptism, we are claimed by God and made God’s own, gives us hope and something to hold on to. We belong. We belong to a God whose love and grace and will for life is greater than anything else. And how wonderful that this promise will be given to Amelia today, as she is baptized and welcomed into the family of God.
Where do you belong? Wohin gehörst du? Yes, we belong to God, but then we have to find the people and the places in life where we feel that we belong. We find purpose only if we have the feeling that we belong. Why do you think so many minority youth in this country join gangs? Why do you think young Muslims in Europe fall for the promises of religious fanaticism and extremism? If you are not integrated – if you don’t feel you belong – you seek for a group where you feel accepted, where you find some sort of purpose. Belonging is essential for our identity.
Which leads us to today’s gospel. ‘Who are you?’, ‘Wer bist du?’, is the question that jumped out at me when I read this text from Mark’s gospel. People are quick to judge others. We got a taste of that this past week, when Caitlyn Jenner, the athlete formerly known as Bruce Jenner, appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, and I am sure you have an opinion on the whole thing as well, if you’ve followed this in the media. No matter, how complex people are, and the circumstances they’re in, no matter how multi-faceted someone’s identity is, we like to simplify things, because otherwise they don’t fit into our view and understanding of the world.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is still pretty much at the beginning of his ministry. And yet, he has done astounding things: mainly he has healed the sick and driven out demons. These are signs of God’s power and God’s will for life. People are following Jesus everywhere, and his own family doesn’t recognize him anymore. ‘He has gone out of his mind,’ his family says, and they want to restrain him, which, in my mind, evokes images of straightjackets. Who are you, Jesus? Or: who do you think you are? Not the Jesus we know.
And it shouldn’t surprise us that the scribes from the temple, learned men, try to answer the question, who this Jesus is. And for them, he is Beelzebul, or Satan, a life denying force – just because they can’t understand who he is and whose he is. They literally demonize Jesus – and, again, isn’t this something that the media, and we, do with people who are different or whose actions we don’t understand?
Now Jesus makes quite clear that he is not acting on behalf of a life-denying force, but has come to bring back to life that which is ill and possessed. That he has come to restore the relationship between God and humans as it was in the beginning, in the Garden of Eden.
Today’s gospel story is framed beautifully, because first we hear about how his family thinks Jesus has gone crazy, then we read about the accusations against Jesus that he is of the devil, and then the story shifts back to the family, his mother and his brothers, to be more precise, and how they come to presumably get him and restrain him, and deny him his new and strange identity. And at this point Jesus takes a stand: who is his family? Not those connected to him by blood, but rather by conviction, and the faith in God, the Father. His identity is tied to the Father in heaven – and to his brothers and sisters in faith. The question who Jesus is, is connected to the place, the circumstance he is in – and it is connected to those he belongs to.
However, there’s a flipside to it. If Jesus considers those who do the will of the Father his family, that also says something about our identity. Who are we? As those who profess the Christian faith, we are sisters, we are brothers of Jesus Christ. The question who we are cannot be separated from the question whose we are. This is our identity. And no one can steal this identity away from us, because it is not comprised of numbers and data, but is defined by relationship.
There are still many questions about how Amelia’s life will turn out. Right now, we see a beautiful new human being with her whole life ahead of her – and all over the world, for that matter. Where is she? Just at the beginning of the road of life. Where does she belong? To those who love her and care for her, her family, and, in a minute, she will also belong to this greater family of faith here. Who is she? Whatever happens in her life, and whatever she will do with this life, one thing is certain: she is a beloved child of God. That’s who she is and will be forevermore. Just like all of us. We may ask ourselves at times, who am I, how did I get where I am, where do I belong? But we can be certain that all these questions are wrapped up in the great ‘I am’, the one who was, who is, and who will be, and who has spoken to all of us: Do not be afraid – I have redeemed you – I have called you by name – you are mine.