Identity is a big part of what drives us during our development as teenagers and young adults. Don’t believe me? Think back for a moment, some of you (Pastor Jeff) will have to trace further back in time than others, think about how many different identities you created for yourself through fashion and culture as a teenager. If you are like me, there were multiple identities you created for yourself.
As a teenager, I went from straight-laced wannabe prep to a basketball jock to a grunge/rock and back to prep with a sprinkle of band geek in the course of a few years. Today, social media, specifically Instagram and Snapchat, make it even easier for teenagers, young adults, well, and even older adults to create a new identity for themselves. All you need is a smartphone or computer, a few photographs, a new username, and off you go. You can go from a suburban parent to a fitness god with a few carefully curated photographs and catchy posts.
Our identities are what separate us from one another. Without what I view as my identity, and how you perceive it, I am just a bearded thirty-something-year-old living in Northern Virginia, and I can tell you from being here as long as I have, there are plenty of bearded thirty-something-year-olds in this area.
Christmas is over and we have shifted our attention from the manger and angelic choruses to Epiphany. Christ has been revealed to creation through the incarnation and now we follow His ministry as we begin to realize who the Messiah is more fully. The epiphany for us is that we realize just how awesome the incarnation was and Christ’s ministry is.
Awesome is a word that gets thrown around pretty carelessly.
I found a parking space in the row closest to the entrance to Target and it’s raining and I have Nora with me. Awesome.
Starbucks released their fall drinks, specifically the Pumpkin Spice Latte, at the end of August. Awesome.
The widget you just ordered from Amazon arrived earlier than the shipping confirmation promised. Awesome.
Awesome. Awesome. Awesome.
The thing is, in the grand view of everything, our lives and creation in general, a parking spot, specialty latte, and overnight delivery are simply good things that happened, while awesome is that each of us woke up this morning with breath in our lungs.
Awesome is the incarnation.
Awesome is the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Between now and Ash Wednesday is known in the church calendar as ordinary time but there is nothing ordinary about it. So, we will be examining the awesome ministry of Christ, a ministry that opened the Kingdom of G-d to all people; people of all nations.
While a Pumpkin Spice Latte is August or September is nice, I will take the awesomeness of G-d on display through the incarnation and empty grave over an overpriced cup of coffee with processed sugar any day of the week.
Israel was in the midst of an awesome moment in their history. Nehemiah tells us about the people of Israel returning to Jerusalem, their capital and the home of the Temple, after the hardship of the Babylonian exile. Over the course of 70 years, Israel had been held in bondage and deported from their homeland. Family units were separated, friends lost contact with one another, and religious leaders, responsible for handing down the religious traditions of the nation to the next generation were prevented from doing what G-d had called them to do. The religious identity claimed through the promise made by G-d to Abraham was the identity claimed by the people of Israel. There was no separation between one’s religious and social identity.
First and foremost, they were religious Jews whose lives were structured and centered around the religious life of the Temple and synagogues. Their identity was forcibly removed by outsiders and now, in the shadow of that trauma, had returned home to Jerusalem and Ezra read for them and interpreted anew the Law of Moses, the Torah, the place in Hebrew Bible where their identity was found.
Imagine for a moment, leaving or losing access to the place or thing where you found your identity, and then, a generation later, returning home to reclaim what had been unjustly taken from you. I bet that was an awesome experience.
You may have wondered where I have been for the past two weeks. For 12 days I was immersed into the life and culture of the Oglala Lakota nation on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Their story, what they have experienced because of European colonization, which was encouraged by religious doctrine is not my story to tell. I will tell you though, based on what I saw with my eyes, the stories I was told, and the way the Spirit moves within these people, their experience is not unlike Israel.
As a people, the Oglala Lakota people had their land and identity taken away as white settlers from another land moved west in pursuit of economic opportunity fueled by the discovery of gold in the plains. It was not until the 1920s after the indigenous population had been reduced from over 80 million down to 250,000, that Native Americans were recognized as citizens of the United States. Their religion was considered illegal until the 1970s. Children were taken away from the reservation, taken from their homes and parents and sent to boarding schools where the goal was to “kill the Indian” and “save the man.” The use of their language was prohibited in these schools meaning an entire generation lost their linguistic identity.
While that was going on, the lack of economic opportunity has left 85% of the working population without employment. And while the government shutdown has been tough on many in the DMV, the United States government has a treaty obligation to provided food to the reservation, but because of the shutdown the distribution center is closed, leaving the residents of the reservation without the food, they depend on survive. The 30% graduation rate and 2/3 adults being addicted to alcohol may seem dark, but there is hope as the Oglala Lakota people are reclaiming their identity through their culture and religion.
People like Kelly and Susie Looking Horse are ensuring that the dancing of their people’s past is not lost as they teach this tradition, and an outlet for a spiritual response, to children while at the same time providing a momentary escape from poverty we cannot begin to comprehend.
Will Peters, a high school teacher, put wooden flutes in the hands of teenagers to aid them in healing after yet another one of their peers, his student, committed suicide.
Artists like Joe Pulliam, whose work can be seen at the Smithsonian American Indian Museum, are using traditional Lakota arts to speak out and fight for justice and equity on the reservation, along with applying pressure to the federal government to uphold and honor the treaties that have been ratified and signed.
Hope is not lost.
Through their traditional spirituality and stories, the Oglala Lakota nation is reclaiming an identity that was systematically removed through illegal land acquisitions, massacre, and deliberately embedded illnesses.
To hear their stories, experience the ways they have blended traditional Lakota spirituality with Christianity, and to become friends with these people was an awesome experience.
I saw how, in the midst of what seems like deep darkness, the Light is shining. I saw this best in the stations of the cross at the Church of the Holy Rosary through images depicting Christ’s movements on Good Friday that were culturally appropriate for the Lakota people.
Like Israel returning from exile, a new generation of spiritual leaders is emerging to ensure the identity of this nation is not lost to illegal land acquisitions, massacre, and illnesses.
As disciples of Jesus Christ, our identity is found in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Our Gospel reading does not end with the same climax of “Amen! Amen” like the reading from Nehemiah.
After reading Isaiah 61 and 58, texts that helped form the identity of Israel and the identity of the Messiah they were expecting while living under the thumb of a foreign invader, Jesus was chased from the synagogue in this home town and nearly run off a mountain. The words Jesus read from the scroll formed his mission, his identity, and thus influences our identity as his followers - good news for the poor, release of those held in captivity, and sight recovered to the blind.
As a community and as individuals, those three things reveal to us our identity as followers of the One who overcame the power of death and the grave. We are people proclaiming good news, advocating and working for the release of those held in captivity (to sin, addiction, illness, or physical bondage), and giving sight to those living in darkness. That is who we are.
The awesome thing about the identity we receive through our baptism is that this identity is freely given to us without reservation and with the promise that the One who was chased from his hometown will be with us.
In the midst of cultural and physical genocide, our Creator did not abandon the native people of this nation. Systematic oppression will not hold them down. In the same way, Israel reclaimed its identity after the exile, through reinterpreting the Law, so too are the Oglala Lakota people along with indigenous people around the world. Our Creator has promised to be with us and we find ourselves immersed into that identity, claimed and beloved, especially when we emerge from the waters of baptism and as we gather around the table.