Our Identity in the Father’s Blessing
Last Sunday of Epiphany
Rev. Chase Whitmire
Exodus 34:29–35, Psalm 99, I Corinthians 12:27–13:13, Luke 9:28–36
I must confess with you all that I recently went down the proverbial YouTube rabbit hole. Who here remembers the interview Oprah had with Michael Jackson back in 1993 at Michael’s home at Neverland? I remember watching it live when it happened then and I couldn’t help but click on the link and watch it in its entirety for old times sake. One part has continued to haunt me over the past several weeks since I have seen it. There was a point near the end of the one-on-one interview before he gave Oprah a tour of the estate where she asked Michael about his relationship with his dad. As Michael talks his whole demeanor drops when he describes how cruel his father was especially during his adolescence as he had, as most of us did, acne. He recounted his father making fun of him, laughing at him and repeatedly calling him ugly. He also divulged that his father repeatedly beat him and described a deep fear of his father.
I am sure many of us, as we think back to our own relationships with our parents, have wounds that we continue to carry to this day. I personally remember vividly in the basement office of Hell’s Kitchen in NYC about 10 years ago having a conversation with my dad and right before we hung up the phone, he said something like, You are a great dad. I’m really proud of you Chase”. To which I promptly started weeping. Now, I am sure he had said it before, but for some reason it hit a nerve within me that I deeply needed touched.
I am amazed at the power of the words and actions our earthly parents have on us.
As we enter our final week of Epiphany and transition into the beginning of Lent, our lectionary ends where it began in a sense as the Gospel writers take us once again to one of the few places in scripture where the Father speaks audibly to Jesus. My childhood pastor has said more than once, with all due respect God, if you were only going to speak out loud a few times, couldn’t you give us more? Why did you or would you repeat yourself?
I don’t know that we can fully know why, but there might be several things we can conjecture about. First, for those of those that were in the audience hearing God’s proclamation over Jesus, it was the audible, “this is my chosen one”! It was for us 2000 years later as a confirmation that Jesus was God’s son and his chosen one that had come to rescue us and to bring us back into right relationship with Him. I wonder too if one of the reasons He says the same thing to Jesus both times has something to do with God addressing the fully human side of Jesus that we often forget about and downplay. At Jesus’ Baptism in the first week of Epiphany, he is getting ready to start his ministry and will first be driven into the desert to be tempted by Satan for 40 days and 40 nights. It was a time that Jesus needed to know who and whose he was in a real and tangible way.
In today’s Scripture, we find Jesus at a similar point. He has just told his disciples after their declaration that they believe him to be the Messiah, that he must suffer and die. The plan of what is getting ready to happen is being revealed to Jesus. He knows that his time is short. He once again, as his rhythm always is, retreats to be with the Father. The transfiguration happens at the climax of his time with the Father. Knowing that he is now moving towards his suffering and death, once again, God reminds him of who Jesus is…
Henry Nouwen talked much about the words of God the Father over Jesus. In a wonderful sermon series, he gave at a conference back in the mid 90’s Nouwen talks about the importance for us as human beings to answer the central life question, who am I? All of us, throughout life, wrestle with this question. In his talks he outlines and expounds on three ways we typically try to answer this question. .
The first is what I do. This is often the first question we ask of each other when we first meet someone. For some this can be an ego booster. For others of us, it can be an embarrassment. This does not even have to be vocationally. It can be what we have done in the past that defines us either good or bad.
The second way we find our value according to Nouwen, or answer the question, who am I is by what people say about us. We long for great accolades and to be praised or recognized by those we respect and look up to. That is why the example earlier of Michael Jackson’s father mocking him over and over and calling him ugly is so damaging.
And finally Nouwen says we can attempt to answer this question by assessing what I have–my bank account, my family, my possessions.
The problem that arises in all of these is, what happens when I lose my job, when people say bad things about me and when I lose my possessions? Nouwen suggests all our energy in life tends to be managing these three things which leads to large swings of our emotions up and down trying to control what we do, what people say about us and what we have. It is exhausting to say the least.
When people are asked “how are you”, we often hear the answer I AM SURVIVING… This sums up the struggle to control the larger image to the deeper question of who am I.
Does this resonate with you as much as it does with me? Think about the conversations you have with your coworkers, family and friends. Does a lot of the stress boil down to these things and the desire to hold onto and answer the big life question, who am I? After Nouwen pointed this out in my own life it became glaringly obvious all around me.
So back to our scripture this morning, and to the original question…
Why does God tell Jesus the same thing as he told them 3 years prior? I imagine Jesus desperately needed to hear his Father remind him who he was. “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased, listen to him.” “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of all my delight”. It was out of this proclamation that Jesus was able to realign with his purpose, and most importantly his identity as the beloved of God as he descended the mountain towards Jerusalem and his captures.
Peter, who was one of the three disciples who was honored with being an eye and ear witness to the event, reflects on it in his letter in 2 Peter right before his own execution and uses it to define his purpose and identity and encourages the believers he is addressing. He quotes again God’s words over Jesus and tells his audience, “we could be more sure of we saw and heard–God’s glory, God’s voice. The prophetic Word was confirmed to us. You’ll do well to keep focusing on it. It’s the one light you have in a dark time as you wait for daybreak and the rising of the Morning Star in your hearts.”
Where is your identity this morning?
We are moving headlong into the season of Lent, where we as a church have a focused time to reflect on our own mortality. This Wednesday we will hear, “remember you are dust and to dust you will return”–and we as a body will walk with Jesus on his journey to win us back through his suffering, death, and resurrection.
My hope for us this morning is that we can begin to identify our place alongside Jesus as a child of God to hear his proclamation over us that we are his beloved, the focus of his affection. How would our lives be different if we lived out of that space? Think what we could focus our attention on if we were not’ using all our energy to work on what we do, or what people say about us or to hold on to what we have…Consider the freedom we might be able experience if we were able to live in light of this truth.
As I was preparing for this week’s homily and thinking through the main point of living our lives because of our identity as the beloved of God, I was thinking about those I know who exemplify this around me. To be honest, my list was not that big… But one stood out to me.
When I first lived in Maryville around the turn of the millennium, I was the beneficiary of a donor to the local nonprofit I was leading. His name was Steve (name changed to protect the innocent). I first met Steve when he and his wife offered to host an annual event for our major donors to thank them for supporting the work we were doing in Blount County. Now I did not know this at the time, but the family was one of the wealthiest in the community and their house was second only to the Biltmore in size and grandeur. As I arrived at the house and was running around helping prepare for the event, I realized that Steve was nowhere to be found. Eventually, as the guests all arrived, I went outside to check on our volunteer college aged valet parkers and that is where I met Steve. He was outside hanging out with the lowest on the serving totem pole asking these guys about their schoolwork, their volunteer service with Young Life and things like local football…
Later that year I was asked as part of my training to find a local successful businessperson to be a mentor over the next couple of years. I immediately thought of Steve and asked him to be my mentor. That began a relationship that continues to this day. Every time I would ask Steve about his success either in life or his business he would deflect and say things like, oh i was just in the right place at the right time but would always end up saying something like, “God has just been so kind to me.”
Now you might be thinking, well it is easy for him because he has done a lot, people like you say good things about him and he has a lot of things! But, that has not always been the case. In fact, he came up in very humble beginnings. On top of that as a child he contracted polio which basically left him crippled. As a kid he was not able to keep up with his classmates or play sports like his peers. He is no stranger to pain and heartache that the rest of us have experienced.
Regardless of all of that, when I look at Steve, I see one of the most humble, generous, and loving people I know. He would tell you it’s because of the kindness of God and his love for him. You see Steve, despite what he has done, what people say about him and what he has, is grounded in what his heavenly father says about him and his life flows from that center first and foremost.
I pray that we as beloved children of the God of the universe, would dive headlong into this mystery over this season of lent and beyond. Would you join me in attempting to release some of these things that we are trying to hold onto so tightly to define us and instead follow Jesus down the mountain empowered by our identity as beloved Children of God.