The Common Identity of Those in Christ

7-8-18 Scripture:  Mark 6:1-13

Theme:  Those who follow Christ can be identified by a few “characteristics” that their faith produces:  testing, togetherness, and traveling.  Being tested by the misunderstanding of the world about who we are, what we believe, and who God is; taking the journey of life together with our brothers and sisters in the community of faith; and traveling outwards from ourselves towards others in order to share Christ.  Christ himself sets the bar; Christ himself shapes our common identity.

 Have you ever said yourself, or heard someone else say, “YOU KNOW WHAT THEY SAY?”  Or “What on earth were they thinking?”  Or “They know what their doing.”  Or “They don’t have any idea what’s going on.”

A key question here – JUST WHO ARE THEY?  Are they experts, or scientists, or mathematicians?  Are they politicians, bureaucrats, or CEO’s?  Are they prophets, sages, or wise-guys in general? 

Let me share with you an interesting article I read recently:  “As an inventor, Andrew Wilson holds the patent on 14 different products. Now he’s licensed something else that is uniquely his. In September 2004, a county judge granted Wilson’s request to change his name to “They.” Immediately, They was on a first name basis with the entire English-speaking world.

One reason the single man from Branson, Missouri, made the switch was to have a little fun. “I was just having a good time,” They said. “Life is short, and you should try to find a way to make yourself smile.”

Cindy Gosa, They’s insurance agent, offered another reason. “They likes to stand out from the crowd,” she said. They has achieved both, for now. The name is still a novelty, and They’s friends are having fun with it, phoning him to ask, “Is They there?”

They admits that the name change could drive grammarians crazy. But other than the violence his new name does to the English language, They sees only positive effects from turning a ubiquitous pronoun into his moniker. “There are thousands of Andrew Wilsons,” They said. “They won’t likely have a problem with mistaken identity.”

He also sees the change as an opportunity to take credit for countless actions, both good and bad, people refer to every day. “‘They do this,’ or ‘They’re to blame for that.’ Who is this ‘they’ everyone talks about? ‘They’ accomplish such great things. Somebody had to take responsibility,” They said.

John Beukema, Western Springs, Illinois; source: Kathryn Buckstaff, “Now, They’s Gone and Done It,”

Now you know who “They” is!

I thought this article did a good job at highlighting a very prevalent part of human nature – namely, that we tend to lump people, issues, ideas, experiences, and life in general into categories, contrasting and comparing differences.  We have a tendency to see opinions, appearances, lifestyles, behaviors, beliefs, and associations before we see or consider the actual person; we may think that we do this in order to identify things in certain tangible ways to make them more digestible, to make them less nebulous.  But I worry that, if we were honest with ourselves, we probably do this so that we may more easily judge persons who are different from us.  Think about how often you hear those phrases using the word “they” as differentiated from “us” – are not many, if most, of those uses derogatory regarding the “they”, and complimentary regarding the “us?”

I sense that this is the kind of thing Jesus faced in our scripture lesson today.  Jesus had come home; many people recognized him as Mary and Joseph’s son, the family who lived down the block.  But he had changed; he was teaching in the synagogue, saying things that astounded the crowd, things they didn’t expect him to say.  And then it says that the people took offense at him.  It’s as if they were saying, “Just who does he think he is?”  Maybe it was that they were offended he wasn’t like he used to be, just a normal guy who lived in their town, just a person like everyone else.  But Jesus somehow wasn’t like every one else; he was no longer one of us; he was one of them.

And the scripture says “Jesus could do no deed of power there, for he was amazed at their unbelief.”

Jesus could do no deed of power there, because the people no longer identified him as one of us; he was one of them – whoever “they” were.

Us and them.  We and they.  Differences used to identify groups and individuals, and all too often, used to grow distance through judgment.  I do not think this is an overstatement to say that this is the predominant characteristic of our national conversations today, on the media, in the protest movements, on the political platforms, and in the segmentation of groups polarized and agitated by differences.

I don’t like it at all; how about you?

And yet, it is a part of all of us, this tendency to identify the “they’s” who are different from us, and even add a sprinkling of judgement in the process.

Would you be willing to participate in an exercise with me this morning?  This is a risk, for I’m going to do something with you that will potentially reveal something about you personally that you might not want to reveal – but I think it’s worth the risk.  It’s really simple – I’m going to give you two choices; if you choose the first one, raise your right hand; if you choose the second one raise your left hand.  Got it?  These choices are about your likes and dislikes.  ARE YOU A (or, what do you prefer?):

 

         Dog person or cat person?

         Meat eater or vegetarian?

         Chocolate or caramel?

         Do you put the toilet paper roll over or toilet paper roll under (do you know what I mean?)?

Ford or Chevy?

         Bridge pizza or Biga Pizza?

         New York City or L.A.?

         Rock and roll or country?

         Contemporary or traditional?

         Fishing or hunting?

         Motorcycles or two-wheeled motorized vehicles?

Now, let me challenge you to be completely honest with yourselves (do not share out loud!)  — did you look downwardly a little on those who were opposite to you, even the teeniest-tiniest bit?  Did you have a hint of thinking just a twinge less of someone who raised their hand opposite to yours?  If you had no such hint or twinge of judgment or negative thought, you qualify for sainthood and a free pass to heaven.  If you had such a twinge or hint of judgment, welcome to the rest of us, including your pastor!

         I’m playing nice, of course, for pastors are required to do so, but all I need to do it apply this “us” and “them” exercise to our national and global atmosphere presently, and I believe no one here would be able to hold back a degree of judgment about the “Them” who think differently from us.  For example, do not raise your hands please, but see what these contrasting labels do for your blood pressure:

Republican or Democrat.

Pro-life or pro-choice.

Griz or Cats.

Capital punishment supporter or abolitionist.

Liberal or conservative.

Climate change denier or climate change affirmer.

Pro-border wall or anti-border wall.

CNN or Fox News.

 Gun rights or gun control.

         Anybody’s blood pressure elevated?  Even in the least?  Especially when thinking about the “they” who think differently from “us?”

         Here’s where the challenge of the gospel hit us solidly in the heart – when we are quick to play the game of “us” and “them,” we may be keeping God’s work at bay; we may find Jesus saying that he can do no deed of power in that place.

         Could it be that Jesus is challenging us to see something much more fundamental about “us” and “them,” in that we all share a common identity as beloved children of God?  And perhaps out of this understanding can come the realization that – dare I say it? – WE ARE ALL REALLY MUCH MORE ALIKE THAN WE ARE DIFFERENT?

         I remember a time quite awhile ago when I had a fairly long conversation with someone who was different from me in what seemed like every way possible – she was theologically evangelical, she supported a whole range of issues I did not, she did not support a whole range of issues I supported, and she even had the audacity to make a comment that he hated motorcyclists to boot!  (don’t worry – this was not a person in our church!  Not even in our state….).  I kid you not – we had nothing in common, everything was opposite and contrary; she was one of “them.”

         Or so it seemed, until we talked about her worries about her children – they were much like mine – we both hoped for health and happiness for them as they grew, worried about peer pressure and grades, and what kind of world they would inherit when they grew up.  The conversation changed dramatically; she was no longer one of “them;” we had found an element of our common identity in our love for our children.  And this is the biggest point I remember – not only could I begin to hear what she was saying, I believe she began to hear what I had to say, too.

         To me, this is what God is after for us all – to discover that we all have enough of a common identity as children of God to remove from ourselves the need to judge each other, or to see others solely in the light of our differences.  Our common identity as beloved children of God, as human beings with frailties and brokenness as well as joys and beauty that are very similar to each other deep down – our common identity needs to be not only understood, but trusted, if we are to see past who we really are in the world of opinion and variety. 

And just what are the elements of our common identity?

Pretty much everyone I’ve ever met deals with fear in one form or another.

Pretty much everyone I’ve ever met wants to know that they matter.

Pretty much everyone I’ve ever met wants to be needed by someone else.

Pretty much everyone I’ve ever met longs to understand life better.

Pretty much everyone I’ve ever met loves puppies and kittens.

Pretty much everyone I’ve ever met regrets something they’ve done – whether they acknowledge it or not.

Pretty much everyone I’ve ever met longs for personal peace.

Pretty much everyone I’ve ever met feels somehow incomplete.

Pretty much everyone I’ve ever known likes to laugh every now and then.

Pretty much everyone I’ve ever known not only longs to be loved, but longs to love someone else.

It is along these kinds of lines that our fundamental identity is quite similar across the whole of humanity – and it is the fundamental identity that defines us first in God’s eyes.  May we seek to define each other likewise, that God may indeed do great deeds of power in our needy, hurting world.

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