Secret Identity

**You can hear this sermon, along with an interview with radio host Peter Wallace, on the nationally-syndicated radio program “Day 1” at http://www.day1.org.

Day 1

The abduction of Elizabeth Smart is well-known, as are many of the details of her story.  In mid-summer 2002, Elizabeth was kidnapped from her Salt Lake City bedroom under cover of darkness by Brian David Mitchell, a deranged, messianic drifter.  She was taken to his camp deep in the woods, where she was brutalized by Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee.  For nine months, Elizabeth endured her captivity, until in March of 2003 she was recognized on a Salt Lake City street and freed.

These broad strokes have been known publicly since the events occurred a decade ago.  But it was not widely known until more recently how flagrantly Mitchell and Barzee paraded through Elizabeth Smart’s own neighborhood with Elizabeth in tow.  Scott Carrier, a neighbor and a parent of one of Elizabeth’s classmates, reported in Mother Jones magazine, “Through the summer Elizabeth’s photo hung in every window of every shop and on every lamp post.  Her father and her family appeared regularly on local, national and international news programs, begging and weeping for her safe return.  It seemed she was hidden somewhere far away, somewhere just beyond the broadcasting spectrum, or like in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy’s family calls to her through the crystal ball.  Then, when she was found nine months later…we realized she’d actually been right here in front of us, walking around downtown, reading in the library, eating in fast-food restaurants…They began coming into the city by day, passing within a quarter-mile of Elizabeth’s home…And no one figured it out.”[i]

Elizabeth Smart today

Elizabeth Smart today

Elizabeth has subsequently attested that she would not, could not cry out and reveal her name, because she believed Brian Mitchell’s threat to kill her and her family.[ii]  Of all those around her, only her captor, the near-demonic Mitchell, knew her name.  But she never forgot who she was.  She knew her identity, even when no one else recognized her.

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Halfway through Matthew’s gospel, Jesus asks his disciples to identify him.  By that time, Jesus has traveled the countryside preaching hope to hopeless people.  He has extended a healing touch to those cast off by society.  He has told cryptic stories of judgment that seem to be aimed at those in power.  People have begun to whisper about who Jesus might be and what he’s up to.  And so, in a side moment, when Jesus is with his disciples away from the crowd, he asks them, “Who do people say that I am?”

The fact is, people aren’t sure.  The disciples respond that people think Jesus might be John the Baptist reincarnated, or Elijah, or another of the prophets.  So Jesus pursues the question and asks them, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter—bumbling, brash Peter—responds, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  Very soon thereafter, Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James and John, and God’s own voice from heaven confirms in their hearing the true identity of Jesus.

This is when Jesus’ identity is made known publicly and explicitly, when others begin to recognize accurately who Jesus is.  But long before Peter’s proclamation is Jesus’ own recognition of his identity.  Jesus has known who he is since his baptism, since today’s Gospel passage, since John immerses him in water and—to Jesus alone in Matthew’s telling, to only Jesus’ eyes and ears—the heaven of God opens and God’s own Spirit alights upon Jesus, tethering within the creation the Trinitarian connection that has, in truth, existed since before time.  Today, God’s own voice names Jesus, saying, “You are my Son, with whom I am well-pleased.”

For thirteen chapters, then, from now until Peter’s proclamation in the middle of the Gospel, Jesus must walk through the world—including, during a trip home to Nazareth, on the streets of his own neighborhood—knowing who he is but unable to cry out his identity, unable to share his true nature.  Throughout all that time, he is a stranger to those who purport to love him.  In what must be a cruel irony for Jesus, only the demons he encounters recognize him for who he truly is.Baptism of Jesus

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It is a common literary motif: the character who knows his identity but cannot declare it, who must walk through the world hidden in plain sight.  It is painful thing, difficult to read or watch.  Strider is secretly Aragorn, the heir to the throne of men in Lord of the Rings.  He lives in shadows, conflicted about the discovery of his true name. Clark Kent is really Superman.  His alternating urges to reveal himself and to remain in disguise so conflict that he removes and replaces his eyeglasses as a nervous tic.

In writing this sermon I almost posed the question, “What would it be like to walk through the world in this way, hidden in plain sight, unrecognized even by those who love us?”  But then it occurred to me that we all already know the answer.  Writers return again and again to this notion not because it is tantalizing fiction, but because it is agonizing truth.  We, each of us, travel the streets of our hometowns, the hallways of our workplaces, even the rooms of our very homes, with our true identities unknown to any but ourselves.

Think how often both the accolades and the criticisms you receive seem to you to be spoken about someone else, about some stranger who only vaguely reminds you of yourself.

Consider when your most beloved gazes upon your face, and you know full well that he or she is really looking at an opaque mask.

Remember those times when you believe if the world just knew the real you it would love you and rejoice in you, along with those times when you feel quite sure if the world knew the real you it would recoil in fear and disgust.

Think of the times you want to cry out your identity, to rip Clark Kent’s glasses from your nose, to emerge from the shadows and claim your true name.

And admit the irony that the only ones who truly seem to know you—the real you—are your demons: your self-doubts, your anxieties, your weaknesses toward vice.  The demons know your identity, even when no one else does.

Superman...or Clark Kent?

Superman…or Clark Kent?

Except that today, above all other days, we are reminded that there is more truth than this, greater truth.  On this day of the Baptism of our Lord, we are called to remember into whom we are baptized.  At his own baptism, God spoke to Jesus, and half a Gospel later God spoke to the disciples, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

That only is truly Jesus.  That is his identity.  And in baptism, in this sacrament that rehearses the action to which Jesus consented at the hands of John the Baptist, Jesus’ identity becomes our own true selves.  We emerge from the water reborn into him.  Lest we forget, baptism is not primarily about the opportunity to unpack granddad’s traditional christening gown, or take family photos, or eat good cake.  Baptism is the sacrament in which we declare—in which God declares—that we no longer need Clark Kent’s glasses.  We no longer need to mute our tongues from declaring who we are.  We no longer need to duck into the shadows for fear of exposure to the world.  Because who we are—who you and I only and truly are—are the sons and daughters of God.  That identity is etched upon us more deeply than any mask.  Its beauty smoothes all ugliness.  Its truth silences the mocking laughter of the demons.

It turns out that even we did not truly know ourselves.  What we secretly thought we were, in both our best and our worst moments, was wrong.  We are neither the expert nor the fraud; the angel nor the monster; the beauty nor the beast.  The truth of us is far simpler and far more glorious.  We are the baptized, bearing the seal of the Holy Spirit on our brows just as the dove alighted on Jesus.  We can walk the streets of our neighborhoods, the hallways of our workplaces, the rooms of our homes—indeed, we can look in the mirror—and say, “Look at me, the real me.  I am a child of God.  I am beloved, and with me God is well pleased.”

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Whose side are we on?

**You can hear this sermon, along with an interview with radio host Peter Wallace, on the nationally-syndicated radio program “Day 1” at http://www.day1.org.

Day 1

Julius Caesar knew that people wanted to kill him.  There were few men he could trust.  But one was a young man named Brutus, whom Caesar had treated practically as family.  And so when, on the Ides of March—that fateful day when the Theatre of Pompey became place of violence and blood—the mortally-wounded Caesar looked up as this very Brutus turned the knife in his side, Caesar lost the will to resist.  Shakespeare immortalizes Caesar’s final words as “Et tu, Brute?” meaning “You too, Brutus?”  But the ancient Roman historian Suetonius reports an even more wilting response.  According to Suetonius, Caesar looked upon his friend and asked plaintively, “You too, my child?”

Benedict Arnold was friend and protégé of General George Washington, one of the few with whom Washington could trust his very life.  Except that he couldn’t.  Arnold, as you know, was in fact a spy for the British and his most intimate correspondences with George Washington he turned over to Washington’s most dangerous enemies.  Arnold’s plot to facilitate George Washington’s capture or assassination and surrender West Point to the British crushed the proud general.

"You, too, my child?"

“You, too, my child?”

In fact and in literature, Brutus and Benedict Arnold are both intriguing and loathsome figures.  They symbolize betrayal, but more than that they represent characters whose allegiance leaves one unsteady and unsure.  More recently, fantastic characters like Gollum in Lord of the Rings and Severus Snape in the Harry Potter books are also presented in this way.  Until the very end of the story, we’re not sure whose side they’re on, and that makes us nervous: What are their intentions?  Will they help or harm?

It is with this in mind, I suggest to you on this Sunday that is the Eve of Epiphany, that we look with fresh eyes at the story of the Magi.  Forget for a few moments the wonderful Wise Men costumes that children wore in last month’s Christmas pageant.  Set aside even the words of “We Three Kings” that hone our minds to this story in this season.  Let’s look at this account as Holy Scripture gives it to us.  When we see it this way,

We don’t know their original intention for seeking out the baby Jesus.  We know that their stated intention was to pay the baby homage.  But it is also the case that they emerged in a geopolitical situation that was fraught with intrigue.  They are “from the East,” which means they are likely Parthians, the ancient and vicious enemies of Rome.  No doubt they are genuinely in awe of the star’s heavenly sign.  They surely have a tentative appreciation for the God who could cause such a sign.  But it’s also not far-fetched to suppose that they are agents of their own empire, sent to make sense of this unusual sign in the heavens—this star—that they have seen.  Is this baby, whom their astrological readings tell them is a king unlike all other kings, a threat to them?  Is he one who will change the razor’s edge balance of power in their world?  They come to find out.

The Magi arrive at King Herod’s court and tell him about this newborn king, Herod that megalomaniac who is not beyond murdering his own children and, just a few verses after today’s reading, all the children of Bethlehem.  No doubt Herod is wary of these strange men from the East.  But Herod also knows he can’t send his own thugs tromping around Bethlehem without sowing fear and flight, and consequently he sends the Magi to collect information for him.  Herod conscripts them to be his own agents.  Herod is the epitome of chaos, and the Wise Men become his spies.

"One conclusion is inescapable: The Magi were spies."

“One conclusion is inescapable: The Magi were spies.”

And so, to the first hearers of this story, unlike those of us who have told and retold it a thousand times in our nativity pageants, there may well have been ominous background music when the Wise Men finally arrive in Bethlehem.  They are overjoyed at finding Jesus, but why?  Why are they really here?  Who do they really work for?  Whose side are they on?  When they lift their hands from their traveling chests, will those hands hold gifts or a knife?

The text is tantalizingly sparse at this point.  Scripture tells us, “On entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.  Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts.”

No matter the Magi’s original intention, no matter their conflicted and questionable allegiances, when they meet Jesus, something happens.  The most important line in this story is the final one: “They left for their own country by another road.”  The Wise Men won’t turn the knife in Jesus’ side.  They won’t betray him to his enemies.  Even if their original plans included both, meeting Jesus changes everything.  Can you imagine crazy Herod’s anger when they don’t return to him?  Chaos can’t stand not to have its way.  I bet he spit and stammered and threw things around the room.  But the Wise Men do not return that way.  They walk a different road, beginning that day and continuing all the days of their lives.  No matter whose side they were on, in the end they choose the side of the child over whom the star shines.  They refuse to comply with the plot to destroy him.  They choose Jesus.

Why are they really here?  Who do they really work for?  Whose side are they on?

Why are they really here? Who do they really work for? Whose side are they on?

It is a story told in countless ways throughout Christian history.  It is your story and my story.  It is the story that every Christian must confront in his or her own life.  Because, you see, we come with mixed motives and our intentions are not clear.  Why are we here?  Why are here in the church?  Undoubtedly, we, like the Magi, have wonder and a vague appreciation for God.  But there is also social status to being a member of some churches.  There is business cache.  There is also cultural privilege to identifying as a Christian, at least in Southern culture.  It carries political umph.  It makes us feel good about ourselves relative to others.  And I’m willing to admit that all of these things apply to being the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral as well.

But none of these things—none of them—is the same thing as being a disciple of Jesus.  None of these things has anything at all to do with loving or following him, with truly being on his side.  In fact, sometimes our real reasons for being here undoubtedly give great pain to Jesus.  Like Caesar to Brutus, he may say to us, “You too, my child?”  Sometimes we’re like spies pretending to cleave to Jesus but secretly serving chaos instead of love.

Soul-search for a moment.  Why are you here?  Why do you call yourself Christian?  Down what road did you come?

Here’s the wonder and grace of it all: It doesn’t matter!  It’s possible that the Wise Men may have been spies twice over, double-agents for their own kingdom and that of King Herod.  But when they met Jesus, that road changed.  Forgetting about all that went before, they experienced new joy, they knelt before the new lord of their lives, and they opened the treasure of their hearts and laid it at that king’s feet.

That’s why we’re in church, even if it’s not what originally brought us.  The King of Love is born.  He is real, and he is the Lord of the world.  The pivotal question for us is not why or how we got here, but what road our lives will take now that we’ve met Jesus.  The encounter can be momentary.  We can leave this place and walk back into the intrigue, wrong intentions, and mixed motives of our prior lives.  That’s what the chaos of our old lives wants us to do.  Like Herod, that old master will spit and stammer and do its best to call us back.  Or we can, with all that we are, humble ourselves before this newborn lord, handing the whole treasure of our hearts over to him.  We can rise and walk a different road, guided by the light of Jesus.

The child is born.  Whose side are we on?