Who, and Whose, We Are

Jan 09, 2022

Faith Lutheran Church
The Rev. Dr. Sandy Selby
Baptism of Our Lord - January 9, 2022
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
            The pastor of a church that I attended for many years often said that we ask ourselves three basic questions, especially in times of uncertainty or transition: Who am I? Why am I here? And, what’s going to happen to me? These are questions of identity, purpose, and destiny, which are at the heart of today’s lessons from Isaiah and Luke.
            Isaiah is writing to the people living in exile in Babylon, having been taken there in captivity after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 587 BCE. They feel abandoned by God; their future is in doubt, and they live in fear. Isaiah tells them: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…Do not fear, I am with you” (from Isaiah 43:1-7).
            To the questions “‘Who am I? Why am I here? What’s going to happen to me?” Through the prophet Isaiah, God says to the Jews in exile, “You are my people. I created and formed you for my glory. Don’t be afraid. I will redeem you.” Their identity, their purpose, and their destiny are grounded in God.
            In Luke’s gospel, we find John the Baptist and Jesus in a transition time. John has gone forth from the wilderness to travel throughout the area around the river Jordan, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:3). The people are filled with expectation, wondering if John is the hoped-for Messiah. He tells them that someone more powerful is to come, and he will baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire.
            And then, Jesus comes into the picture. Luke’s version of Jesus’ baptism is spare—just two verses—but in those two verses, we hear, in relation to Jesus, preliminary answers to the questions, “Who am I? Why am I here? What’s going to happen to me?”—the questions of identity, purpose, and destiny. God is very clear about Jesus’s identity, saying in a voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” But Jesus is also clear about an aspect of his identity that will weave throughout his ministry: he identifies with “all the people.” This was no private ceremony; Jesus was baptized along with everyone else! And from his identity, established at his baptism, as the Beloved Son of God who is here for all people, Jesus’ purpose and destiny will unfold through his ministry. Luke also tells us, in this scene, something about Jesus that will be an ongoing theme in Luke’s gospel and a cornerstone of his ministry: Jesus was a person of prayer, and it was through prayer that the Holy Spirit came upon him after he was baptized. He was identified and affirmed as God’s Beloved Son.
            Identity. Purpose. Destiny. These are questions that thread through our lives, and they are also at the heart of our baptism. In the baptismal liturgy, the pastor makes the sign of the cross on the newly-baptized’s forehead and says, ”You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ, forever.” That is our destiny, as children of God baptized into a new life with Christ. What does that mean for us in our daily lives, in terms of our identity and purpose? How does being a child of God baptized into new life with Christ impact our place and role in our family and our friendships? How we make a living, our volunteer work in the community, and our work—whether paid or volunteer—in the church? These are questions of vocation.
            The Presbyterian minister and author, Frederick Buechner famously described vocation this way: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It is true, as Buechner suggests, that some people have a clear sense of being called to very particular work that is, for them, the work of a lifetime. For others, our work is more a series of chapters in the larger story of our lives, perhaps tied together by a common thread. In a recent article in Christian Century, seminary professor Roger Owens described his own experience:
Vocation doesn’t have to be about focus, finding the one right thing, discerning the one right job, landing in the one right place. Instead, we might begin to discern whether there’s a through line—a thread—that gives coherence to the variety of pursuits that call for our attention.[i]
            That has been my own experience. Melissa Johnson asked me to preach this morning at the Informal Service at 10:30 as part of a series of sermons by partners in collaborative ministry with Faith Lutheran Church, and Pastor Jean asked me to preach at this service, as well. Father Steve of St. Hilary and Rabbi Brown of Temple Israel were the prior speakers in this series. I have been a member of this congregation for several years. Occasionally I preach here at Faith Lutheran, but my ministry primarily has been outside this church. I will share a bit of my own experience as it relates to identity, purpose, and vocation.
            After graduating from college, I spent the next 25 years working in the corporate world; the last 18 years of which were at BFGoodrich. The next nearly 23 years I have been in ministry as an on-call chaplain at Akron General and Akron Children’s Hospital—work I retired from two years ago— as a community minister working with frontline workers to address compassion fatigue and burnout, and as an occasional supply preacher here and at other churches.
            It’s been a journey that in many ways relates to what the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr describes in his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. Rohr says that, for many of us, the second half of life is a journey from an emphasis on defining our identity by what we do—which is mostly what the first half of life is about—to defining our identity by who we are and viewing our lives from the perspective of the big picture.
            While forming our identity and purpose is a life journey, there are flexion points in which this shift can be tectonic; I had one of those shifts when I was 46 years old. The CEO of BFGoodrich decided to relocate the company headquarters to Charlotte, a decision with which I disagreed. So instead of moving to Charlotte, I decided to quit my job and move on to the next chapter of my life, pursuing a call to ordained ministry that had been lurking in the background for many years.
            In some ways, leaving my job in corporate America was a relief and an adventure, but it was by no means easy to do. A friend recommended a book that helped me a great deal: Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, by William Bridges. Some of us here at Faith Lutheran read it together as a book study a few years ago.
            Bridges says that all transitions, whether from jobs or from relationships, have three stages: an ending, a neutral zone, and a beginning. He lists several things that one might experience at each stage. When I read the book as I was getting ready to leave Goodrich, one part of the “ending” process hit home. It is what Bridges calls “disidentification,” the way we lose our old ways of defining ourselves. What he means is this: when you are in transition, and you go to a party and someone asks you what you do, what do you say in ten words or less (which is all they probably care to hear)? “What do you do?” they ask. In other words, “who are you?” Like it or not, our society is inclined to assign both identity and value according to what we do. So, when you are out of work—which means that you are not doing anything—you’re nobody! At least, nobody that matters. As unsettling as disidentification may be, Bridges says that “our old identity stands in the way of transition…It’s important for us to loosen the bonds of the person we think we are so that we can go through a transition to a new identity.”[ii]
            For me, what crystallized this crisis of identity is that at around the same time I was leaving my job at Goodrich, I was going to be attending my 25th college reunion! When people were exchanging business cards, as we all had at our 10th reunion, what would I do? What would I say? Well, what I said at my reunion was, “I’m in transition. I’m leaving my job next month, and I’m not sure what’s next, but I’m following my heart, and I’m discerning a call to ministry.” Well, it turned out that many of my classmates, who like me were in their mid-40s, were right where I was: moving into the second half of life and shifting our identity and purpose from doing to being. Much to my surprise, we spent much of our time together at that reunion discussing the meaning of life in times of transition—some, like me, were looking at different work; others were in the transition of becoming empty nesters as their children went away to college; still, others were dealing with divorce or health issues. We were searching for meaning, shifting from doing to being, letting go of our old identity, and moving on to the second half of life.           
            Over the course of our lives, identity and purpose shift, due to external circumstances, our own intuition and longing, and the work of the Holy Spirit. Let’s think, again, about the experience of Jesus, as told by Luke. He went with “all the people” to be baptized. Then he went to God in prayer, and the Holy Spirit came to him in a very real way— Luke says, “in bodily form like a dove.” Then God affirmed him as God’s beloved Son with whom God was well pleased.
            So it is, for us. Think about your life. What is the thread of mission, of purpose, that depending on where you are in life, is starting to be defined, or has carried you through the years and defines your path? What are the affirmations you have received from God, and from others, as a source of your calling— things others have seen in you, that you haven’t yet seen, yourself?
            Perhaps the unifying thread, and the path forward, is not clear, and you’re in the wilderness, the “neutral zone” of which William Bridges speaks, not quite knowing what is next, what God is asking of you. At such times, we do what Jesus did immediately after he was baptized, and before his true identity and purpose were made known: we come to God, in prayer.
            “Who am I? Why am I here? What’s going to happen to me?” We all ask these questions that have to do with our identity, purpose, and destiny. Forming our identity and purpose is the journey of a lifetime. That journey has its vicissitudes, uncertainties, and graces, and along the way, we pray to discern the thread that will give our lives coherence and meaning. As to our destiny, that’s a given! On this day that we remember the Baptism of Our Lord and give thanks for our own baptism, we celebrate the destiny we all share as God’s beloved children: “We are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
[i]Roger Owens, “Vocational Gluttony,” Christian Century, 10/6/21, 13.
[ii]William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, 2nd Edition (Cambridge, MA: DeCapo Press), 117-118