“Identity” by Rev. Stephanie Cooper

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Listen to the sermon from Sunday, September 9, 2018, titled “Identity” by the Rev. Stephanie Cooper.

24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

A few Saturdays ago while making brunch, Ashley and I were listening to one of our favorite game shows “Ask Me Another” hosted by Ophera Eisenberg. The guest for that week was Derek DelGaudio, a magician and a storyteller with a new Off-Broadway show called “In & Of Itself”. The show mixes vignettes of storytelling with the slight of hand to engage the audience into more than just your average magic show. The show engages the audience in a unique way. When the audience arrives to the theatre, they are faced with a huge board that says “I AM” and covered in hundreds of cards that say different things like “I am a veterinarian”, “I am a helper”, “I am a lawyer”.

So as folks enter the theatre they grab one of these cards with which they self-identify and hold onto it throughout the show. And then, midway through show the audience is asked to confront their chosen card and if that is really how they see themselves. The feel-good humor and wonder of magic dives deeply below the surface and asks people to confront who they are, how they see themselves, and how the world sees them. And according to Derek DelGaudio, it can get a little uncomfortable.

In the interview with Ophera on “Ask Me Another”, Derek said there are cards that are chosen in almost every show- cards like ninja and unicorn, but there are also cards that are regularly chosen like “I am a failure” and “I am a nobody”. And Derek, during his show, asks his audience- “Is that card that you chose really how you see yourself? Is that your identity?”

What a good question:

Who are you? What identifies you?

If you were to pick a card off of the wall: I am __________. What card would you choose? What would your word be?

This fall I am entering the second year of the Doctoral program at Brite Divinity School. And it will be my 22nd year as a student.

One of the ways I could identify myself is: “I am a student”. I’m sure there are many in this room that can identify with that chosen identity. A new semester starts right across the street and we have students buzzing about all around us.

But for many years I had a hard time identifying as just a student. I’d much rather choose athlete or musician because too often my focus as a student was on things like:

I am a slow reader.
I am unfocused.
I am a bad test-taker.

And even though I was a good student, I let those narratives shape my view of myself, instead of things like:

I am a learner.
I am curious about the world.
I am energized by new knowledge.

Who are you? How do you define yourself? What narratives are you telling yourself about yourself? How does the world see you? And who has the power to name that for you?

If you have a high Christology, today’s Gospel lesson may be a difficult one to swallow. Particularly the first story where Jesus encounters a Syrophoenician woman who is advocating for the life of her little daughter.

We read it earlier, but let’s recap a little bit.

Jesus and his disciples set out to the region of Tyre a region north of Genesserat, where they had just been. It is unclear why he chose to journey this way, but you might say he needed a break from the crowds. And so he ducks into a house and didn’t want anyone to know he was there. But word was already out and a Syrophoenician woman came searching for Jesus and when she found him, she bowed down at his feet and begged for him to come to heal her daughter.

And Jesus’ response? “Let the children eat first, It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus begins with: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 15:24).”

And this tenacious, quick-witted woman hits back at this man of power and renown with, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”.

Jesus has no plans to bless her and shows her no real care and calls her and her people dogs. But she takes the power of those words and turns them on their head to convince even Jesus to change his mind.

Now we know how that could have gone when the power dynamic between the powerful and the weak are shifted. “Woman, do you know who you’re talking to? Don’t you know your place?” And how could Jesus be so harsh? Some scholars try to explain it away and protect Jesus’ character by saying that he was trying to test the woman’s faith and ah, she passed. But I think that is making an excuse for a man, like we often do, when Jesus really was just tired and kind of fed up and lashes out at this woman who just happened to be the one in front of him and, unfortunately, probably had heard that a time or two before.

But she, like women often are, was resilient and played the deck that was dealt.

“Yes, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” she says. And Jesus has a change of heart and heals the woman’s daughter.

And then after this encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, we come across a deaf man with a speech impediment in the region of the Decapolis where after spitting on his fingers and sticking them in the man’s ears, Jesus heals both the deafness and the speech impediment of this man.

Sometimes an encounter with the Holy, however strangely that might happen, will leave us walking away changed by the experience.

Now both of these stories of healing, for me, hinge on identity.

You’re a dog.

No. I am a mother.
I’m an advocate.
I’m a fighter.

You’re the deaf man.
No. I am what I say I am.
I am healed.

We are constantly faced with this false dichotomy with what others say that we are and who we say we are and who God says that we are. And it is happening a lot in our polarized political landscape. Names are chosen for the opposing side to demean and dismiss.

And see this even with Jesus. The Pharisees say he’s a heretic. The crowds say he is a prophet. And when Jesus asks the disciples, “who do they say that I am?” And they reply: “John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

And then Jesus asks: “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter replies, “Well you’re the Messiah.”

Yes. They can say all kinds of things about who I am, but who do you say that you are? And what will your inner circle say you are?

We can claim identities put on us — poor, rich, elite, uneducated, lazy, apathetic– or we can strip away the facade and step out to be and to claim we are.

Who are you? What claims your identity?

And who are we? The University Baptist Church? We know who we’ve been but who are we now? How do we make a claim on who we are? What we stand for, what we will create, and how we will be doers of the word? What is the identity of this church?

We have to get real clear about who we are so that we can reach out into the world in meaningful and life-giving ways.

It’s likely that this isn’t news to you, but on Thursday, Nike released it’s 30 year anniversary ad with the start of the NFL season, narrated and starring Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who began taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice in America in 2016.

Kaepernick said, “This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice: people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard and affect change. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up as far as… giving freedom and justice and liberty to everybody.”

And, as you likely know, Kaepernick’s action stirred a whole lot of controversy into the NFL and what players are and are not allowed to do. I don’t know that they ever figured that out. But let’s be clear about something: Kaepernick’s actions were not a protest of American values or the flag. But his protest is that our country is not living up to everything our flag stands for.

So Kaepernick doesn’t have a job in the NFL. He claimed a different identity than simply that of “football player.”

So, here’s the ad.

“Believe in something. Even if it costs you everything.”

Who are you? Will you be a football player or will you stand for something more?

I have a reminder that goes off on my phone every morning, and it says: “Bring your best self to the table.”

Bring your best self to the table. Every day I have a choice about how I will live into the world: I can choose to be selfish, a jerk, cranky or self-serving; or I can choose to be generative, curious, and creative. Now, I may not be the fastest person in the world and I’ll never beat Serena Williams in a tennis match, but I can be the best Stephanie True Cooper ever. I can push beyond those uncomfortable moments, learning from where I’ve been, dig deep within myself to understand what makes me tick and bring that best person to the table.

I can wake every morning seeking an encounter with the Holy and be open to where those deep wells will open up in my world and my experience.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of that popular Frederick Buechner quote: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”.

Regardless if you are seven years old or retired for 30 years, when you dig deep within yourself to listen for that still small voice, it is then that you are able to lean into the fullness of who you were created to be. You can lean fully into being a beloved child of God.

So what’s your identity. Is it big enough? Does it reach into the depths of your soul enough?

I am __________________.

Amen.

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