Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at All Saints’, Cuddesdon on Sunday 10th June 2018.
Readings: Exodus 3: 5-8, Mark 3:20-35.
You may have heard that the bank TSB has been in some trouble lately. Many people’s accounts have been tampered with and as a result money has been lost to computer hackers who have accessed their accounts. Somehow, these criminals have been able to steal an individual’s identity in order to infiltrate the confidential information that enables them to have access to their money and so steal it away even as the owner is watching their account figures diminish before their very eyes.
Identity theft is nothing new. With more and more information being shared electronically, sometimes carelessly, this information is extremely vulnerable. A cunning advert a few months ago highlighted just how easy it was for someone to gain enough information about us to do this. One might say, if we consider our identity in these terms then our lives can be summed up in numbers: National Insurance number, bank account, post code, phone number, credit card and so on. If someone can find out enough information about us to have a good guess at what our right passwords might be, then they can pretend to be us. Of course our unique human identity is much more than just a set of facts or a few numbers, but in this digital age having their number is enough to impersonate and destroy someone’s life, just as a tattooed prison number has done in the past.
Like a clarion call to our age, our readings this morning pose two questions which seek to remind us of where to look for the true source of our identity. They are ‘where are you?’ and ‘who are you?’
The first of these questions, ‘where are you?’ is the question God calls out to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They have eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and now hide away from God, because they feel shame. God’s question is not merely about their physical location but about where they now stand in relation to Him and the created order. Their innocence is gone forever. They are no longer in a relationship of childlike trust with God and nature, but stand in a place of confusion, shame, and distrust. Paradise is lost. John Calvin called it Noetic damage. At the fall, humanity’s perfect perception of the divine through the natural world was damaged, so that now we can only catch a glimpse of God through the world, such as one might see a spark of a fire or a flash of lightening on a dark night. It is there for a moment and then darkness returns. We are now east of Eden.
Where are you? This weekend sees an exodus from the village of Cuddesdon as the final year students set off for pastures new to take on new identities as curates, clergy families and spouses. But before even a collar is put round their necks or they take their first service, they will be wondering where on earth they have landed both physically and spiritually. There is nothing like moving to a new home or new role to dislocate us, disorientate us and frankly just wonder where we are. Nothing is familiar, the home is new, the uniform if new, the schools are new, even where to buy a loaf of bread can leave one feeling lost. On the contrary for those of us left behind, where even the rustle of a leaf is an old friend, we know where we are physically even with our eyes shut. But sometimes when we have been in a place for a long time and nothing is new or surprising we can forget to see where we are, we have become lost in a different sense, in a world of over familiarity. At the heart of this question, where are you, lies a deeper issue of identity. The story in Genesis assures us that amidst all our sense of dislocation God is looking for us, seeking us out, no matter, where we are or how we feel about where we are. As Bishop Nick Baines has written, ‘The purpose of the Church is to be in a place, where we can find that we have been found by God.’ If we realize that we have been found by God then we begin to find an answer to the second question: ‘who are you?’
In today’s gospel, Jesus is still at the beginning of his ministry, but he has done many astonishing things, including healing the sick and driving out demons. These are signs of God’s power and God’s will for life. People are following Jesus everywhere and serious questions are being asked about his identity. Some say that he is mad and some, the doctors of law, suggest that he is possessed by the devil. They demonize Jesus, just as so many people in the public eye are demonized today. But Jesus argues away this assessment as nonsensical and easily wins the point.
A more poignant assessment of Jesus’s, and our, identity, is found at the beginning and end of the passage. The Gospel reading begins with Jesus’s family trying to look after him and, at the end, Jesus’s family searching for him and waiting for him. On the latter occasion Jesus makes it clear that his family are not only those connected to him by blood, but also those connected to him by faith and conviction; those who seek to do his will. And that means us.
So now our identity is challenged. Who are we? The question simply cannot be answered without addressing the issue of ‘whose are we?’ We are not defined by the world’s assessment, or what internet data has to say about us. Our identity cannot be, ultimately, stolen from us, for it is defined by a love that is before and beyond time. Our identity is framed by our relationship with God our creator, Jesus our redeemer and the Holy Spirit, our guide; the undivided Trinity who was, and is, and is to come, and also by our relationship with each other, the family of the church.
So whether this time of year brings change, renewal, anxiety, excitement or just another turn of the old familiar seasons in the place we love and know so well, be assured that your true identity can never be lost, for God calls to you, seeking you out, and finds you with these comforting words: ‘Do not be afraid – I have redeemed you – I have called you by name – you are mine.’