It is when we are clear who we are that the trouble begins

Phyllis Anderson—February 25, 2007
All Saints, Novato

Readings:
Luke 4:1-13

As we enter the season of Lent, we think about what it costs to be faithful. We know that we are beginning a six weeks walk with Jesus that will inevitably lead to trouble, big trouble. For Jesus, it will lead through suffering and betrayal and temptation to the cross. Where will this journey lead us? I expect we are headed for trouble too, if we know who we are. It is when we are clear who we are that the trouble begins.

Last week in our churches we read the story of the Transfiguration. Here Jesus appears glorified and shining on top of a mountain. The voice of God from a cloud proclaims: “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him! “At this moment Jesus is absolutely clear that he is the very son of God. After that, the next thing he does is to tell his disciples that he will suffer and die. And he tells them that they will suffer too if they follow him, if they claim this identity. It is when we are clear who we are that the trouble begins.

Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan is another defining moment when Jesus’ identity as the Son of God is made crystal clear. Like the story of the Transfiguration, the heavens opened, a dove came down, and a voice said: “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Then the trouble began. Jesus came up out of the water and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There he was challenged and tested to his core. For forty days he fasted alone. In this barren place, the devil stalked him, tempted him to pervert his powers for his own glory. It is when we are clear who we are that the trouble begins.

The temptations the devil offered Jesus have great appeal to us. They were temptations to power and ease and entitlement—a better life. Yielding to these temptations would have made Jesus immune to the sufferings of ordinary human beings: hunger, danger, limitations. Who wouldn’t be tempted? Particularly after forty days—six weeks—of going without food or a warm bed or the comforts we take for granted.

In the end, Jesus said no to those temptations. He turned his back on riches and fame and glory because he knew who he was. Instead he followed a path of humility. He identified completely with our human lot. He spent his short life teaching, healing, proclaiming the coming reign of God. He was betrayed by his friends, crucified as a criminal. It is when we are clear who we are that the trouble begins.

So what about us? Where does our identity come from? I am the daughter of Alice and George—and the sister of Jeff Brosch, who worships with you here at All Saints. Surely that family identity has formed me. And so does the man I married, the schools I attended, the work I have done, and the friends I have kept—and who have kept me—through the years. They have all shaped who I am, what I value, how I think, what I do.

As Christians, our identity also comes from God. For most of us it begins in our Baptism. Like Jesus, when we were baptized we were told in no uncertain terms that we belong to God. We are God’s dear and blessed children. That is our primary identity. In Baptism, we are marked with the Cross of Christ forever. That’s when the trouble begins. Baptism is a dangerous ritual. Because we are marked with the Cross, we know that we have to die in order to live. We have our life by letting it go. It is when we know we are that the trouble begins.

But this deep sense of identity does not come only—or for everyone—at our baptism. Throughout our lives, certain moments give us a heightened sense of the closeness of God. I think of these moments like little transfigurations. They are the times when we hear with new clarity what it means to be a child of God, to be a member of Christ’s body, the church. For some it comes at confirmation, when you say out loud that you really believe all this stuff you’ve been taught, that you claim this identity, this life. Sometimes it is a close brush with death or a mid-life crisis or the loss of a loved one or the birth of a child or totally and unexpectedly falling in love. The very things that shake us up, the things we call troubles, are often the very things that wake us up to the deeper movements in our lives and bring us back to church, back to God.

If you have had such experiences, then you know something about the troubles that follow. You could probably tell us stories about the troubles your faith has gotten you into. When you claim this Christian identity for real, your values change in ways that can put you out of step with your friends. You don’t share the common assumption that power and control are the most important things. The drive to the top does not justify how you treat others along the way. Your money is not just for your pleasure, your security, your legacy. You can use it to make the world a better place, more like the vision Jesus has for it. You can share your knowledge and your time with people who need them.

Because you identify with Jesus, you can’t just turn your back on the plight of refugees or immigrants or whoever is the least and the last and the lost among us. You might get politically involved. That could get you into trouble. Treating people as parts to be used up, fudging the accounts to please the stockholders, using legal knowledge to justify immoral action, ignoring inconvenient friends all become more difficult to do when we are clear what God is calling us to be. Behavior like this could cost you your job, and it could gain you your life. It is when we know who we are that the trouble begins.

These days I am privileged to hear the stories of men and women for whom coming to terms with who they are has meant making a decision to come to seminary—to study, to be formed by life in the seminary community, to be open and ready to respond to God’s call to serve as a pastor in the church. We have a couple of these people with us today: Tim Feiertag and Erica Adams.

I met a woman recently who plans to come to PLTS next year. She is a student now at a large research university in the Midwest. Most of the way through college, she fought a nagging sense of call to ministry because as she looked around the only religious people she knew were a little weird or not too bright. The status and prestige all went to people in the sciences, pre-med, pre-law. It was clear that the people who were going to make big money were in business. She majored in chemistry and set out on a career path that made her parents proud and promised high rewards.

The campus minister talked her into coming to a retreat. There she met people like her—smart, gifted, leaders at whatever they did, passionate about the hurts of the world, strangely, passionately in love with God. Somewhere in the prayer time, and the quiet time, and the conversation with new friends, she experienced a deep and liberating sense of clarity, as though she knew who she was for the first time. That’s when the trouble began for her. And her trouble will only multiply through exhilarating, challenging studies over the next four year. She will be turned inside out by required cross-cultural experiences and immersion in the life of a parish on a full-year internship. She will most likely accumulate a debt of more than $30,000, to be paid off over the years on a pastor’s salary. I have no doubt that she will be approved for ordination and a life of serious trouble—and abounding joy and great fulfillment and meaningful service. Because she knows who she is, she will surely face troubles.

The decision to follow Jesus is costly—whether you are a pastor or a chemist or a father or a computer programmer or a school teacher or a cop. Some of the troubles will be the straightforward kind that comes with long hours and demanding work, giving until it hurts. Some of the troubles will come in the form of temptations—temptations to duck the tough ethical issues, temptations to doubt, temptations to forget who we are, temptations to want to preserve our lives instead of giving them away. These six weeks of Lent are a special time to focus on the troubles that come to Jesus and to us when we are true to our identity.

One thing should be clear for all of us who know who we are, who have heard Jesus call us by name. There is joy and peace here that go deeper than any troubles. Because we belong to God, we are not in trouble with God even when the trouble begins. With the call, comes the blessing. You are my beloved ones. We are God’s dear children no matter what. We can always come home. Jesus walks with us through our troubles. Jesus faced all these troubles before us. Jesus had to struggle to preserve the identity which became clear in God’s blessing at his baptism and again at his transfiguration. He was able to say no to temptation. Because Jesus chose as he did without regard for himself, he was set on a path that led to death. And that death is the door to new life for us all. So I will say once more: it is when you know who you are that the trouble begins. And that trouble, that turmoil, that costly obedience is the beginning of life—of peace and joy and life everlasting.