Baptism of Our Lord, 2023
(slide 43) Identity Matters
Baptism of Our Lord 2023
(slide 44) Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis on April 5th, 1945. He was executed at the Flossenburg concentration camp in southwest Germany. He died fourteen days before Allied forces liberated the camp. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor, seminary professor, author, and a member of the German resistance to Hitler. He was thirty-nine when he was murdered for that resistance.
Many of you know about Bonhoeffer. He is probably as close to an “official” Lutheran saint as we can get. Bonhoeffer is an icon, an example, and an inspiration to many of us. Yet, he didn’t see himself that way.
Bonhoeffer wrote poetry as well as sermons, books, and bible studies. One of his best-known poems is called “Who Am I.” He wrote this poem while he was imprisoned. It goes like this:
(slide 45) Who am I? They often tell me
I would step from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country-house.
(slide 46) Who am I? They often tell me
I would talk to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.
(slide 47) Who am I? They also tell me
I would bear the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
(Slide 48) Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself,
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
(Slide 49) yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
trembling with anger at despotism and petty humiliation,
tossing in expectation of great events,
(Slide 50) powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
(Slide 51) Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
(Slide 52) Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from a victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.
“Whoever I am,” Bonhoeffer confesses, “thou knowest, O God, I am thine.” Bonhoeffer knew the truth of today’s gospel.
(Slide 53) The most important thing is not “who” I am. The most important thing is “whose” I am.
People these days make immense investments in identity. People choose an identity and then carefully curate that personal exhibit. People carefully select which elements of themselves they want to display to the public. They arrange those chosen items for best effect. They put the unwanted and unattractive bits in their emotional basements for long-term storage.
(Slide 54) In fact, people today don’t have “identities.” We have “profiles.” We trim and manicure and polish those profiles for public consumption. We have different profiles for different audiences and different goals. And after a while, like Bonhoeffer, we get very anxious about who we are.
Bonhoeffer knew that he put on a brave front. He did that for his family and friends, and for his fellow inmates. Bonhoeffer spoke with confidence to his captors rather than surrendering to their bullying and abuse. He talked about when he would be released and what he would do when he got out. This comforted those who loved him. And perhaps sometimes he half-believed it himself.
But underneath it all was the truth. “Restless and longing and sick,” he wrote, “like a bird in a cage, struggling for breath…” When have you felt that way underneath it all? When have I felt that way underneath it all? Well, what time is it?
Who am I? Am I one or the other? Am I both at once? How many selves are struggling to control me and failing at every moment? You don’t have to be on a Nazi death row to wrestle with these questions.
(Slide 55) Jesus gets baptized. He does that to identify with us as we strive to fulfill all righteousness. As he comes up out of the water, something else happens. The heavens open. The Spirit of God lands on him like a gentle dove. The very voice of God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I take delight.” The most important thing is not “who” Jesus is. The most important thing is “whose” Jesus is.
As we begin the season of Epiphany in the Church, we remember Jesus’ baptism. As we remember Jesus’ baptism, we remember our own baptisms. We are baptized in Christ Jesus. In that baptism, the most important thing is not “who” I am. The most important thing is “whose” I am. “Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.”
(Slide 56) That’s what I hope you will take with you today. In Jesus, you are God’s child. You are God’s beloved child. You are God’s beloved child, and God is just tickled pink about you. That’s who you are. But more important, that’s whose you are.
(Slide 57) During the season of Epiphany, we’re going to do two things in worship to remind ourselves of all that. Each week we will begin our worship with a “Thanksgiving for Baptism.” You probably noticed that at the beginning of our worship today. And when we confess our faith in the Creed, we will make renew our commitments to our baptismal covenants.
(Slide 58) What does that second part mean? When you belong to someone, that affects your identity. For example, how do you show people which sports teams you support? [Ask for suggestions]. You might wear a jersey for that team. Maybe you have a bumper sticker or a pennant or a poster. You probably watch your team on TV. You might attend some of the games. You may trash talk family and friends about their terrible taste in teams.
When you belong to someone, that affects your identity. That’s especially true when we belong to Jesus. But our belonging shows up in our behavior, not just in our wardrobe.
Belonging to Jesus shows up in five actions. Those actions are listed in our commitments. First, I will ask you a question. Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in holy baptism? God has made that covenant with you in the name of Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Is that something you want to stick with?
(Slide 59) Before you answer too quickly, I list the details of that sticking with. You’re entitled to know what you’re getting into. Continuing in that baptismal covenant means:
- to live among God’s faithful people,
- to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper,
- to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,
- to serve all people, following the example of Jesus,
- and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?
If I belong to Jesus, I’m a person who does these things. I don’t do them to impress God. I don’t do them to get a reward. You and I can disagree about the details of the doing. But we don’t do them to win some sort of Christian competition. I do them because I belong to Jesus. Belonging to Jesus tells me who I am – and whose I am.
Remember, in Jesus, you are God’s child. You are God’s beloved child. You are God’s beloved child, and God is just tickled pink about you. That’s who you are. But more important, that’s whose you are.
(Slide 60) And that’s who we are together. So, here’s your homework assignment. This week, tell at least three Jesus followers that they are God’s child; that they are God’s beloved child; that they are God’s beloved child, and God is just tickled pink about you. If you get the chance, let me know how that goes. Let’s pray…