Who Am I? – January 13, 2019
Bible Text: Isaiah 43:1-7 & Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 | Preacher: The Rev. Dr. James R. Wheeler
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the few and most prominent German clergymen who spoke out against Hitler and the Nazi regime during WW2, was in prison for his resistance, where in April, 1945, just days before the allied liberation, he was hanged. In the collection of his Letters and Papers from Prison, is a poem, “Who Am I?”
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my
yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voice of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person to-day and another to-morrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine!
(Prisoner for God, Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited by Eberhard Bethge, translated by Reginald H. Fuller, New York, NY, the Macmillan Co., 1954, pg. 165)
The Hebrew people that Isaiah wrote to must have wondered who they really were. Defeated in war, transplanted to Babylon in forced exile many hundreds of miles from their homeland, in servitude to their captors…. Were they still God’s chosen people? Was the God of Israel weaker than the gods of the Babylonians? Was that why they were now in captivity – because they backed the wrong god? Would they continue to be a distinct people? Could they keep their customs, their language, their beliefs, even in this foreign land? Today we hear the Prophet Isaiah proclaim God’s Word to them. Through the prophet God, who created and formed them, speaks directly to them. “Do not fear for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you go through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned…. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. You are precious in my sight and honored, and I love you… Do not fear, for I am with you;” (Isaiah 43:1b-3a,4a, 5a) That’s quite a counter-narrative to the one they must have been saying to themselves: beaten, broken, abandoned, lost, without hope. Instead, through the prophet, they hear God singing to them: “you are precious in my sight; you are loved; you are my people; fear not I am with you; nothing, not even the worst calamities, will overwhelm you.
In our Gospel lesson from Luke, some scholars see Jesus’ baptism as the moment his identity, his unique calling as God’s own Son, became clear to him. In all four Gospels Jesus only begins his ministry after his baptism. So something pretty significant took place for Jesus in that moment. In today’s Gospel from Luke we read that as Jesus was praying, following his baptism, the heavens were torn open. The Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove. And a voice from heaven proclaimed, “you are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Clearly Jesus at that moment knew who he was. He then went into the wilderness to wrestle with the meaning of this calling.
Who am I? I find myself asking that question as I am beginning to come to grips with a new identity as a retired priest. Who am I in this new role? What will I be doing with my life, with my time? What will be my focus? How will I continue to serve God’s mission as a priest in his Church when I am no longer responsible for a congregation? What will become of this congregation I have served and loved and with whom I have shared worship and life and ministry these past 11 years?
You may be asking your selves who you are as a congregation now that I am no longer your Rector. Priest and congregation tend to be pretty closely identified together. And indeed, this is an important time to ask those questions. These coming months are a time to wrestle with who St. John’s is and what you represent and believe and how you want to go forward as a congregation. This is not only a time of leadership transition. You also have a new identity to forge as God’s people who have served faithfully in this place for 276 years, yes, but who are you now at this time in these circumstances?
As individuals we tend to think we know who we are. And, indeed, hopefully we have the self-knowledge to know some of our individual strengths and weaknesses. But we tend to look at our roles, our work, our peer group, our accomplishments and our acquisitions, to define us. But that’s not who we are. That’s not the essence of what we need to know about ourselves. As Christians the essence of what we really need to know about ourselves is given to us in baptism.
In our baptisms, whether they took place when we were 6-weeks old, or toddlers, or children or adults, we are told that we belong to God. God has chosen you. God claims you as his own. As God did with Jesus at his baptism, so he has done for you in your baptism. God has claimed you as his own, his beloved. God is pleased with you. God has torn open the heavens and placed God’s own Spirit within you. God’s life breathes in you. God has claimed that no matter what you have done or failed to do, no matter who you have hurt, no matter if you have nurtured and developed your gifts, or neglected them, whether you have been faithful or faithless, you are still loved and forgiven and called into new and better and richer and fuller life with God and in service of God’s Kingdom. That is our essential identity as God’s beloved children: redeemed, forgiven, loved, called into life with God.
Life is full of constant changes that threaten to upset our equilibrium and make us wonder who we are. We make a move, or a career change, or get married, or have a child, or make a lot of money, or lose all of it, or get divorce, or lose someone we love, or find ourselves in difficult circumstances, or retire, or face the prospect of our own death. What is far more important than our outward circumstances as Christian people is whose we are. Whatever the changes or confusion or difficulty, we are God’s.
As God spoke to the Hebrew people in exile in Babylon through the prophet Isaiah so many years ago, God speaks to you today. God speaks to us both as individuals and as a congregation (a gathered community of believers). Here what God says to you today: I created you. I formed you to be my own. You are precious in my sight. I love you. I have called you by name and you are mine. I have redeemed you and given you new life in Jesus Christ my Son. I put my Spirit in you. I will be with you. If you pass through deep waters you will not drown. If you cross barren desserts I will refresh you. In my strength and with me by your side the rushing currents of our time will not overwhelm you. The fiery trials that beset you will not burn you up. You will still be mine. You will be held in the palm of my hand. I will never abandon or forsake you. You are my beloved child, you are my beloved community, for eternity and forever.
I want you to know, one last time from this pulpit, how privileged I feel to have been your Rector and priest. I have been so blessed in knowing each and every one of you. We have shared so much together and journeyed as a congregation to new places and accomplishments and challenges, joys and frustrations. Thank you for letting me share this parish journey with you. Know that whatever transpires next for St. John’s that God is with you in the journey. God’s love is constantly calling and inviting you into new life and ministry. Our true and unshakable identity is forged in God’s love. Whatever else we are. Whatever others think we are. We are thine. We belong to God. Amen.