Who Told You?

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights shared in the sacrament of baptism this Lord’s Day.  In so doing, we thought about what it meant to be labeled, to have an identity, and to be called something… and whose job it is to give us those labels and designations.  Our scriptures included portions of Genesis 2 and 3 as well as a part of Psalm 139.  

To hear this message as preached in worship, please use the media player below

To see the entire worship service on YouTube, use the link below:

As we start off this morning, I have a little quiz.  Humor me.  I was an English major!  I’ll give you the opening sentence, you tell me the book from which it comes.  Just go ahead and call it out, or feel free to type it in the comments if you’re watching live.

  • “You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by a Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.” (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain)
  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” (A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens)
  • “It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” (1984, Orwell)
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Pride and Prejudice, Austin)
  • “Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.” (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis)

The way we begin a story matters, doesn’t it?  The opening words and sentences invite us in, create conflict, arouse interest, and more.  I love Gary Larsen’s take on this in an old “Far Side” cartoon:

I’m talking about this because we’ve heard from the beginning of our story today.  The opening chapters of the book of Genesis have been incredibly formative for me for decades.  Many of you have been in conversation with me, or heard me preach about, or lead a devotion stemming from some of what you heard from Stacey a few moments ago.  Unwittingly, perhaps, I have made those verses more important than other parts of the Bible.  Maybe that’s true.  I’m not sure.  But I do know that I have come to accept as truth the fact that “I know what those verses say, and I know what they mean…”, and that leads me, too often, to the point where I wind up thinking that I don’t need to think about or listen to them critically anymore.  They become merely background assumptions…

Adam and Eve are Clothed By God, 14th century manuscript from the Netherlands

But in the past couple of months, two things have happened.  I was reading through this passage and I was struck, quite unexpectedly, by a new understanding.  For decades, I’ve thought about God’s role in this story as the boundary-setter, and as the speaker.  I have focused on God’s question to the humans: “who told you that you were naked?”  And as I did that, I subconsciously construed God as feeling all of the irritation and perturbation that I feel whenever the people around me screw up.  But last week, I noted God as an actor in the story, and saw God, not as the One who sent Adam and Eve into their shame, but as One who met them in the midst of that shame with love.  They chose to believe a lie, which led them to an awareness of their nakedness, which led them to hide in shame and fear.  And God sought them out and acknowledged their pain and dis-ease by making clothing for them – which was a little unnecessary, it seems to me – after all, it wasn’t like God didn’t know what was there… but God loved them enough to recognize that their reality was now colored by a kind of “othering” that God wished they didn’t have.

The second thing that caused me to revisit this passage was my rediscovery of some thoughts shared by Walter Brueggemann, who points out that while the opening chapters of Genesis are undoubtedly significant, they are not particularly declarative when it comes to the rest of the Bible.  He demonstrates that there is no clear reference to this narrative in the rest of the Old Testament and its actual use in the New Testament is marginal at best.[1]

So I went back and tried to re-read one of my favorite narratives with new eyes.  And this is what I saw: as a result of the serpent’s deception, the humans had come to see a single attribute about themselves (in this case, their nakedness and the resulting shame), as the defining aspect of their lives.  The one whom we understand to be Satan, which means “the Accuser”, has led them to believe that a part of their being had become the whole of themselves.

God, however, indicates his refusal to acknowledge this distortion by acting with grace and seeking to renew the covenant of care as God makes them new and suitable clothing.  The Accuser seeks to lock people into a single aspect of themselves; the Creator invites renewal and restoration each and every day.

And this morning I wonder in what ways we have fallen prey to the Accuser? What words have been given to, assigned to, or thrown at you? Who told you that you were smart? Or stupid?

Who has called you gifted, or too emotional, or fat, or pretty?

Who has identified you as being “hot” or funny or boring?

Who told you that you were straight, or poor, or angry?

Have you been referred to by racist, sexist, or homophobic slurs that I will not mention now?  Have you been told that THAT is who you are?

How do you know who you are?

Some years ago, I had the gift of spending significant time with a high school student with a fascinating background. One of this person’s parents was as white-bread, vanilla American suburbia as you might imagine.  The other parent was the child of immigrants and who had, in fact, been born in a country from which in recent years the US Government has sought to make it more difficult to immigrate to the US.  I simply asked the student, “How do you understand yourself, racially?”  Without a thought, he said, “I’m white.  I’m an American.”  I brought up the student’s older sibling – a child of the same parents – and said, “How does your brother understand himself?”  The student thought, and said, “He’s a person of color.  I guess he’s a minority.  He is not white.”

Now, I understand that it is not my business to assign any identity to either of these folks, but I will say that in the months that followed, we had some lively interchanges on the topic of identity.  “Who told you,” I asked, “that you were white?  And what difference has it made?”

I mention all of this because I think that it points out that the stories we are told, the words that we’re given, the compliments that we try to inhabit and the slurs that seek to stain us – they all matter.  And I’m worried that if we accept a portion of the truth as the totality of our identity then we will miss out on something big.  As we settle for less than the complete picture, we are diminished.

Which leads me to the work of the Psalmist, who had access to all of the Genesis stories, and who chose to go even deeper than they did.  The author of Genesis points out a situation and God’s response.  That account calls to mind one very present, very real aspect of our existence: nakedness and isolation.

Nobody in Genesis argues about whether folk are naked.  That’s a given – it’s obvious.  Just as it may be obvious to you that you are smart, or old, or non-binary, or funny, or Latinx, or sexy.  More than one of those things may apply to you now or at some point in the past or the future.  You, like Adam and Eve, are a million things.

Creation of Adam (detail), Michelangelo, c. 1512

And the beautiful thing that the Psalmist does is to look beyond all of those things to the question of core identity.  The Psalmist does not talk about attributes or qualities that we carry or display or feel, but rather digs deeper and points to the manner in which we are made.

You heard it: Rayna read it for us.  “I praise you because I was made in an amazing and wonderful way.”  Other translations include “fearfully and wonderfully”, or “remarkably and wonderfully”, or “amazingly and miraculously”.  The point is this: the you that is at the core of your you-ness is crafted by God and is beloved of God. The thing that is most true about you is not your height, weight, ability to dunk a basketball, intelligence, gender, or sense of humor.  The thing that is most trueabout you is that you have been fashioned, shaped, and curated by God.  And that God is crazy about you.

This is important for many reasons, but perhaps especially today as we baptize little Abigail.  To be honest, it’s pretty easy to hold a baby or a young child and affirm the truth of the Psalm.  From what I can tell, infants and toddlers have pretty remarkable self-esteem and don’t believe anything bad about themselves.  Moreover, once we get past a few of the smells and sounds, it’s tough for the rest of us to put the badmouth on a six month-old.  So Rayna reads that passage, and we look at Abby, and we sigh, “Yes, of course.  Amazing and wonderful.”

And you and I both know that it’s a lot harder to look in the mirror and to remember that about ourselves.  And it can be very difficult to look around at the other faces in class, or on the bus, or at the office, or on the news, and to remember that this is what’s most true about those people, too.

The call of this particular baptism Sunday is that this particular group of people, gathered on this particular day, will presume to speak for the entire Body of Christ as we promise that we will remind Abby of this fact for the rest of her life.  In baptism, we acknowledge that Abby is now, always has been, and always will be God’s.

And yet, somehow, if we make Abby special, if we make Abby the sole purpose of our gathering, then we disempower our promise.  Because some of you know this, but others may not: Abigail lives in Texas, for crying out loud.  And some of you are participating in this service of worship from Massachusetts or Louisiana or Florida or California or even Africa.  Saying that you will help to remind this child of her identity in Jesus Christ could be either the easiest or the dumbest promise you’ll ever make.  I mean, it’s easy to say, “Yep, every time I see that particular person, I’ll make sure to treat her as though she is an amazing and wonderful creation of God, beloved by Christ Jesus.”  Who knows when most of you will ever see this little person again?  Of what use is a promise like that?

Unless… unless we are able to remember that we are making promises on behalf of the whole church… and we are able to remember that the whole church is everywhere… and that this amazing and wonderful creation of God is present in each of us.  Which means that you have never ever, and you will never ever look into the eyes of a person who has not been fearfully and wonderfully made.  That includes when you look into the mirror.  And when you look at “them”.  There is no such thing as a person who has been made less than “fearfully and wonderfully”.  Such a person does not exist.

And that is why we mourn when someone, famous or not, is murdered or dies violently – because the light of one who has been made fearfully and wonderfully has been prematurely extinguished.

And that is why we dare not dance in the hopes of revenge coming to the person who committed the crime – because as hatefully and as evilly as that person acted, as wrong as they were, that one, too, is an image-bearer.

Genesis paints for us a scene in which God calls each and every one of us to a life that is ongoing, regenerative, and eternal.  The Psalmist tells us that is how and why we were made.  Too often, we have chosen to believe or to live in a world of assigned or invented identities that acknowledge a portion of the life for which we were born and the ways in which we were made.  Let us trust God as the author of the selves that we’ve been given, and let us seek to love that self in the way that God does.  Further, let us with our promises today remind each other that we are called to love that self, the neighbor’s self, and every self we see well and truly.

When our brothers and sisters in Germany were trying to get at this truth about five hundred years ago, they came up with a statement of faith, called “The Heidelberg Catechism”, that points to the heart of this.  It begins with a question: “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?”  In other words – what is the truest thing about you?  The answer is this: “That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death, not to myself, but to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ…”

In celebrating Abby’s baptism and in remembering our own, we claim the truth that none of us belong to ourselves, but that we are invited into the larger and more complete life of Christ.  We claim the fact that no one part of us, no accusation made against us, no especially attractive component of ourselves makes up all of who we are.

One of the formative influences of my faith is a musician named Rich Mullins. He embraced this truth in his song “Brother’s Keeper”, which contains the lyric

I will be my brother’s keeper
Not the one who judges him
I won’t despise him for his weakness
I won’t regard him for his strength
I won’t take away his freedom

And so today I beg you – for Abigail’s sake, for your sake, for your neighbor’s sake, and for the sake of the world: remember who you are.  Don’t believe everything that anyone – even me – says about you.  Question what you’ve been told about yourself and each other, and let go of those things that are less than true.  More than that, though, seek to embrace the One who has promised to never, ever, let go of you.

Thanks be to God for the stories we live and the gifts that we share.  Amen.

[1] Interpretation Commentary on Genesis (Atlanta, John Knox, 1982), p. 41

3 thoughts on “Who Told You?

  1. Just outstanding…

    I recently have had a friend that has been interested in personality tests and identifications. And for a while, as a good friend (as any good friend would I suppose), I have had time to take tests with her, and have descriptions planted in my mind.

    This sermon was just what I needed.

    I am aware that it ALL matters… “…And I’m worried that if we accept a portion of the truth as the totality of our identity then we will miss out on something big. As we settle for less than the complete picture, we are diminished.”

    • Ah, sister Beatrice! How good to hear from you, and thank you for letting me know that something we did here in Crafton Heights was an encouragement to your life and ministry. I pray all is well in “the Warm Heart”!

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