Identity Theft

Ancient Testimony ~ Matthew 16:13-20

September 13, 2009

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

The ongoing misunderstanding of Jesus is a lot like identity theft. You don’t really know it has happened until a bill shows up that is not yours. Then you spend a lot of time on 800 numbers, talking to robots that really don’t care that some of you is gone. Following that you get a kind of repaired status, replete with some fear and an excess of caution. Identity theft is a terrible thing when it happens to you. It is even worse when it happens to Jesus. Hate takes over. Hate is rationalized, disguised, and realized. There are large consequences to the identity theft of Jesus, in which theft even we skeptics have participated by a fuzzy inarticulation of the alternatives.

The sick healthcare system flourishes because love is misunderstood. When love is not central, privatized indifference prevails. People can walk around with signs saying, “Get Government Out of Medicare,” because ignorance loves to take the place where activated love is meant to preside. Hate speech flourishes because love is lost or sentimentalized or made illegal. When love is not central, people can dare to use the airwaves to sneer. Or shout out at the President that he is a liar. Absent an active, activating center in love, even the word “public” has permission to be damned—as in, not giving a damn. Or not bothering to bother.

A lack of definition about Jesus causes his detractors to enjoy a field day. The punishmentalists and their cynical allies insert notions of belief into the place where love is supposed to live. Love is caring as much for the other as you do for yourself. Both self and other, not either/or. Love is caring as much for the other as you do for yourself. A delightful syncopation and simultaneity of caring. A jazz of caring. Love is a bothering to bother about someone else as well as yourself and your bloods.

Love’s failure is not just a public failure. It is the private pain we experience when we are alone and don’t think anybody is going to bother to care. It is the private fear we experience when our best friends tell us to “chill” and we don’t dare tell them that we no longer know how. The consequences of de-centered love are serious. The theft of the identity of love puts you in the world of large bills and long phone calls, calls at the end of which there is no one there. The wine miracle is reversed: the wine is replaced with water.

When Jesus was asked to tell folks who he was, he deferred to the text: “Who do you say that I am?” Obviously he was postmodern before his time. He seems not to be too interested in titles, like Messiah or Son of Man or Lord. Love is what he finds important. Not identity, but love. Not belief, but love. Jesus is a love doer, not an identity chaser. He strictly warns his disciples to not go around blabbing about belief in the Messiah.

Unfortunately, many churches have forgotten this passage. They have not had their action and behavioral identity stolen so much as given it away. The privatization of the American religious experience is all but complete: our main public identity is as the people who think they get it right. We are considered the goodies who think others are the baddies because they don’t get the answers right. I am arguing here that they don’t even get the question right: the question is not about believing right things but loving the doing of things we hope are right.

When we place love at the heart of the Gospel, as the genuine identity rather than the stolen identity of belief, we find some exquisite difficulties. There is nothing as tiresome as activism when it believes too much in doing and too little in thinking or too little in resting or too little in waiting. What might be wrong with American liberals in the last half-century is that our antidote to injustice has been action as opposed to it being love. It is easy and downright sneaky to wash your hands and hearts of the identity of love. “Well, at least I did something.” “At least I said something.” Or, “At least I didn’t do or say nothing.” Love is not self-justification. Self-justification is an identity theft of love. Love rarely feels good about itself. Love feels good about what it is in love with and also with its self. As sappiness is to happiness, right action is to love. When you love something or someone, you feel them as part of your own heart’s beat. You bear their burdens and sing their songs. You connect. You engage. You feel. You don’t even think about running away; you think about getting closer. You make an art out of just standing there, being useless.

We here at Judson are particularly a part of the American Left and its activism. We also belong to Jesus, not as believers so much as followers. Practitioners. Amateurs. Skeptics. Stumblers and fumblers in the name of the Lord, whom we don’t call Lord so much as friend. Why? Because he explicitly asks us to stay away from that separating highway known as imperial intolerant certainty of belief.

There is a kind of parabolic smallness to this love. It is not always successful. We rarely have to spread its news because the news spreads itself. I know this is blasphemy to those of us who live in Manhattan, where our song is making it here and making it anywhere, with emphasis on how the news will spread about how we have made it. (They did read my clips in Georgia, didn’t they?) Love is instead humility. It is small. It does not always prevail. We can love undocumented immigrants but not be able to save them from hatred. Cancer can have our bodies, even sometimes our spirits, but it cannot have our capacity to love or be loved. We can love the world, even love each other and not be able to save each other from either world or each other.

The identity we have is more deft than definite. Because love is humility, we are not encouraged to brag about it. Nevertheless, we do try to excel as part of our identity. Our identity is more deftly clumsy than flat-footed clumsy. We are lovers first. We know that belief is too often an identity theft for lovers. Forgive the upcoming Julia Child reference. She did not write a book about French Cooking for Dummies. Or French Cooking Simplified. Instead, she wrote a book about Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In certain ways, New York City is a masterpiece. Simultaneously, it is also a place where a kind of idolatrous belief in our personal performance teases us all the time. “If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere,” appears to be the 11th commandment for those of us who live in this potential masterpiece. Jesus said the only commandment was to love the other as we love ourselves.

We can get so involved in boning a duck that we can forget to love our partners. True identity is often stolen in striving for excellence. One of the ways identity is found is to choose a larger identity in which to place our masteries (and our urgencies for them). Love is the identity, which allows excellence to thrive. It is deft enough to manage talent. Don Hewitt, recently deceased producer of Sixty Minutes, talked about what made the show so good: people were told by the culture of the show, “Make me proud.” Today, many organizations have a culture that tells their people to please just stay out of trouble. Love often finds itself in delicious trouble.

I hope Judson’s identity will consist of a deft mastery of the art of loving. I hope we will fret less about the Messiah and more about his message. I hope Judson will get in and out of trouble by ferocious forms of love, of each other and of this city and world. I hope making it will be replaced by loving it. Mastering loving is our true identity—and they can’t take that away from us.

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