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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Identity Theft

Lent 1, Yr. A - March 13, 2011

Matthew 4:1-11; Genesis 2: 15 - 17, 3: 1 – 7

Elizabeth Elin Hooper

Mo. Betsy


Betsy Hooper-Rosebrook

and one of my favorites, from the kindergarten students, Mrs. Mother Betsy

Who am I? My titles? My roles and skills? Does it depend who's asking? Or what I feel like in the moment? Or what I'm doing? I know my answer can be very confused sometimes, when expectations and needs collide, or when a role suddenly drops out from under me, or even when I resist a particular label because I don't want it or it doesn't feel right or grab onto another that isn't really truthful. Into the midst of that swirl of questions come this week's readings, suggesting that "Who am I?" might not even be the right question, or at least not the right first question.

There's that almost comical, ever-so-familiar passage from Genesis. We've heard it more times than we can count, the images abound in art, the theme repeats endlessly in literature and media. There's a lot I could say about it—poor Eve gets a bad rap as the one who took us all in the wrong direction, the Apple Marketing Board has to struggle with the misconception that what's identified as a fruit was actually an apple, and Adam has probably gotten off too easily—but those are topics for another day. What I really noticed this time around is what the serpent is trying to do. The serpent wants Eve and Adam to look at themselves as separate from God, in opposition to God in a certain way. "Are you really satisfied being a wimpy patsy who just does whatever God says, rather than using your own intelligence and common sense to gain wisdom equal to God's?," the serpent asks seductively. And, as we all know, they fall for it, and so do we. Who wants to accept the label of pushover or unquestioning follower or even fool? Those are the images the serpent brought to mind. I'd rather be a Wise One, an Adventurer, One Who is Not Afraid and Is.In.Control. So my fingers reach out for that sweet, juicy fruit, always forgetting that it won't come anywhere near satisfying me; I'll only end up all the more aware of my need and vulnerability, ultimately rushing for cover. The serpent wants Adam and Eve to label themselves, to define themselves independently, rather than continuing to understand themselves as existing, wonderfully, in relationship with God.

Fade to Jesus in the desert, that place which is so completely not the Garden. He's fresh from his baptism, from hearing, "This is my son, my beloved," when he heads off to the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And once again…well, really, three times again…comes the invitation to define himself independently, apart from God, to find his own answers to "Who am I?" "Turn these stones into bread" = Be a miracle worker. "Throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple and let the angels catch you" = Be a person of extreme faith (except that it's really a false and shallow faith, but the devil doesn't bother pointing that out!). "Worship me and rule over all the kingdoms of the world" = Be a man of power. With each temptation, the devil tries to draw Jesus into claiming a role, an identity for himself, that's separated from being God's beloved son.

Adam and Eve, being only human, succumbed to the serpent's temptation, a first example of the desire that bites us all, whether blatantly or with deceptive subtlety, to stand on our own, to choose for ourselves who we are and who we will be. We actually believe it's possible, and for a while it might be. We're smart or successful or wealthy or wise; we're powerful or pious or hard workers or heavy hitters. And then a crisis comes, an illness or unemployment, an unfair or undeserved setback that's nonetheless very real in its impact, a natural disaster beyond comprehension or economic collapse, or maybe simply a gnawing emptiness…any of those things that suddenly cause us to hold up a mirror, only to see that who we thought we were doesn't have the substance we supposed. I once lost the funding for my job to the need to repave the parking lot. Let me tell you, though I can laugh about it now, at the time I sure felt like the victim of a sort of identity theft, of losing my sense of who I was…to a parking lot!

That's really what the serpent and the devil are trying to do: steal our identity, get us to put our foundational sense of self in something of our own making. Jesus turns the tide when he says, "No. No. No." With each offer, he refuses that answer to the question of who he is and instead claims a relationship. Who he is is determined by whose he is. With every one of his responses, he places himself firmly in his relationship as God's beloved son, One who knows and trusts the Source of all life.

We're invited to do so as well. We're sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ's own forever: that's whose we are. The roles we have—as Wise Ones, Adventurers, Fearless and Faithful Disciples, Wounded Healers, Loyal Workers, Constant Encouragers, Loving Friends, Trustworthy Confidants, Esteemed Scholars, Steadfast Relatives, even Confused or Angry Questioners—those roles all emerge from our relationship with God. We're called to let our choices and actions in life be our response to that relationship, not a way of setting ourselves apart from or in place of God.

Remember whose you are, and you're on the road to figuring out who you are. As in everything else, sometimes we do better than other times. We may go for the deception of the fruit and fall flat on our face, or we might feel like we've been pushed off the pinnacle with no one to catch us. But on our best days and on our worst, we are still God's beloved sons and daughters…and the angels will wait upon us with God's healing, renewing love and grace.

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