Who am I?

Matthew 19:13-14

Who am I? I don’t think there’s a more fundamental question than that.

The notion of identity and of calling is at the heart of the biblical narrative.

Repeatedly, when God identifies God-self in the Hebrew scriptures, it’s not the

name ‘God’ that is used, nor specifically ‘Lord’ or even “Yahweh” or “Jehovah.”

It’s ‘I am.’ Who am I? ‘I am.’

The notion of identity and of calling is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry and

definition of discipleship. In other gospel texts, Jesus is constantly quizzing the

disciples with questions of identity - Who do people say that I am? Who do you

say that I am? It is unlikely that Jesus was having a crisis of identity himself, so

much as he was interested to learn whether his teachings and miracles were

taking hold with the larger population or even with his own disciples. There had

been numerous false prophets and false messiahs in recent Jewish history to that

point, so Jesus was wary of being linked with those individuals and of having his

message confused or distorted by their actions. Guess that ‘fake news’ was

prevalent in Jesus’ time as well.

The notion of identity and of calling is at the heart of the church’s

understanding of itself and its purpose. The Church of the Brethren denomination

is currently in the midst of a compelling vision process. Ironically, it is not the first

vision process the denomination has utilized in the 21 st century. It’s not even the

first vision process this decade. There was one in the early 2000’s, and there was

one that resulted in a solid, but forgettable vision statement adopted by the 2012

Annual Conference. If a denominational church cannot identify its vision by

repeatedly engaging a visioning process, then perhaps there are deeper questions

of identity and call that it is overlooking.

What is clear is that we know calling and identity when we see it. I’m not

talking about identity politics and socialization that we see in our social media and

cable news, although examples of that dynamic are also pretty clear. I’m talking

about when individuals, congregations, and organizations whose identity and

calling are reflective of gospels values at their best. These are inspiring and

invitational. They are ministries that people want to engage, because they make

the world a different place.

In two weeks, our friend David Radcliff from New Community Project will

be here as our guest preacher. For many years, David worked as the Director of

Witness for the COB denomination. Due to budget cuts about twenty years ago,

David was released from his position, and chose to start up a new organization -

New Community Project. I think anyone who has heard David speak can tell that

he is clearly passionate about his work and has a clear calling to partner with

marginalized communities and address climate change and environmental

degradation.

Earlier this week, those who attended the Simple Supper program heard a

passionate presentation by Angie and Carrie of MadeStrong ministries. These two

women clearly have a calling and a heart for ministering to women in our city who

work at local strip clubs. Due to the overwhelming amounts of trauma that bring

people to those establishments or happen while there, I don’t believe this is the

type of ministry that anyone would enter into without a deep sense of call. It is

the type of ministry happening in places that most of our city would prefer not to

see. But it is exactly the type of ministry where Jesus himself would go.

Sometimes, the little children are the ones who lead us. At Weisser Park,

the school where Jacari, Oliver, Maya, and Loreli attend, and where Henri,

Garrett, and other Beacon Heights children in the past have attended, the

children and PTA worked together on a project called a ‘Buddy Bench.’ It’s a

simple, yet profound concept to help prevent bullying and child alienation. A

‘Buddy bench’ is a special place in their playground area where a child who is

feeling lonely or isolated can go to sit. When another child or children sees the

classmate sitting on the buddy bench, the children are encouraged to invite the

isolated child to play, talk, or simply sit together. It’s a powerful way of building

community.

Our scripture is one that is very familiar. Jesus is preaching. His listeners are

engaged. The disciples are protective of Jesus’ time, energy and space. After his

speech, the crowds do what crowds do – they want to interact with him, touch

him, and talk with him. Parents of young children want their kids to experience a

moment with Jesus. We do not know all of the details, but we can imagine the

situation is already or could easily become chaotic. It is unclear whether the

disciples are preventing the whole crowd from getting close to Jesus or whether it

is just part of the crowd. It is clear that the disciples are keeping the children away

from Jesus.

This decision is not surprising. As we’ve noted before, children would be

part of the overlooked and marginalized class, alongside women, widows,

Gentiles, the infirmed, eunuchs, and others. In this moment, as in others, Jesus

embraces his identity as one who welcomes all and affirms the important identity

of children as among God’s beloved, with value and worth beyond what his

society has determined. This is not the first example of Jesus seeing those whom

the dominant class has missed. There are countless others. The important detail

here is that Jesus not only welcomed children, but embraced children for who

they are. He reveled in their presence. He found as much joy in the interaction as

they did. He embraced their identity as part of his calling. And his identity as One

who loved and welcomed all of God’s children, was re-affirmed in doing so.

Last year’s movie musical “The Greatest Showman” about the life of P.T.

Barnum is almost entirely a story about identity. It is a story about seeing those

who have been marginalized, and not only creating a space for them to shine, but

also celebrating them for who they are as people. There is one song, perhaps the

most known song from the movie, where the characters that have been hired to

perform in Barnum’s show are shut out of a reception of a famous singer by

Barnum. In this moment, these people claim their own identity and self-worth,

and claim their own solidarity and family with one another.

The song, ‘This is me,’ is one that speaks powerfully to the concepts Jesus

taught and the ministry he embodied. We will be listening to the music, but also

pay attention to the lyrics that will appear on the screen. Play video of “This is

me.”

Identity and calling are such important parts of church life and ministry.

They are such important parts of who we are as individuals and how we claim our

self-worth as well. Fortunately, we follow One who sees our self-worth, who

invites us to claim our identity as children of God, and who encourages us, as

individuals and as a congregation, to continue our call to welcome those who

would be the marginalized ‘children’ in our society today. Amen.

A time for conversation: Today is Saint Patrick’s Day. Happy St. Patrick’s Day. In

the spirit of the Irish gift for gab and love of ‘craic’ or conversation, we will spend

a few moments in conversation. During this time, I invite you to reflect on the

memory scripture that will be listed on the screen behind. Reflect on who the

little children are today that Jesus would invite but others would deny. Reflect on

your own identity, as a believer of God, as a follower of Jesus, and/or as a child of

God. Reflect on what wisdom God is leading you to discern during this year’s

Lenten season. Join with 2-3 other people and converse together for about 5

minutes. The band will call us back together with the song “Seek ye first.”