Beyond Identity Theft


A sermon preached on April 20th, 2008 (Earth Sunday) based upon Acts 7:55 – 60 and John 14:1 – 14, entitled “Beyond Identity Theft.”

Imagine if you will, a certain man – we’ll call him Joshua – who comes each day to sit on a park bench.

Another man – we’ll call this one Barney – has never actually met Joshua, let alone sat with him on that park bench. Barney lives quite some distance from Joshua. He does, however, know some significant information about Joshua: his name, for instance, as well as his address, his date of birth, his mother’s maiden name, and, his social security number, as well as the number on his credit card. You see, Barney is a computer hacker, and he makes his living perpetrating what is known as “identity theft.” Barney routinely speaks on behalf of Joshua, making purchases in his name, and people assume Barney has authority to do so, but, he doesn’t.

Now imagine a third man – we’ll call him Omar. Omar often goes to the same park as Joshua, and on several occasions he has sat for extended periods of time next to Joshua on that same bench. As is often the case when strangers find themselves together, Joshua and Omar would fall into conversations, sometimes quite intimate conversations, without ever sharing the kind of basic information that Barney knows about Joshua. Omar doesn’t even know Joshua’s name. But in a certain sense he knows Joshua himself, at least far more than Barney does. He knows of course that there is much he doesn’t know about his bench companion, but Omar has witnessed Joshua’s interactions with the various people who pass by in the park, and he has reached a point where he can with some accuracy predict how Joshua will respond to the variety of people who pass by. He knows him that well.

This little fantasy is all by way of getting at the basic question, what does it mean to say we “know” someone? The word “know” used in this sense shows up seven times in this morning’s Gospel lesson, including these words by Jesus: “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” So what does it mean to “know” Jesus, and in knowing him, to know the Father, the Creator of the heavens and the earth?

There are many people in this world who call themselves “Christians”, which is to say, “People who know Jesus,” but what they are actually doing is perpetrating “identity theft.” They’ve gotten a hold of Jesus’ name, address, date of birth, his mother’s maiden name and social security number. They know the formulas and the creeds, they can quote certain passages, including these words in today’s Gospel lesson, which they like to recite smugly, in which Jesus said, ”I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Which for them means, “I know Jesus’ social security number, and you don’t, nani, nani, boo boo!”
But they have never really absorbed who Jesus is. And when Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life,” he wasn’t saying that his name and social security number were these things, but rather the whole distinctive way he approached life was the way, the truth and the life.
These so-called Christians are out there running up Jesus’ credit card on self-righteousness, when in fact Jesus is putting all of his money into reaching out to the downtrodden.

There are also people in this world whose relationship to Jesus resembles that of Omar to Joshua. They don’t know the codes, the formulas, the social security number. They may not even know the name of Jesus. But they have met Jesus in disguise, like those two disciples we heard about last week on the road to Emmaus, and they have gotten to know him quite well. Tim Tyler is presently teaching a wonderful adult Sunday School class about great world religions; within these traditions there are many who have sat with Jesus.

Mahatma Gandhi comes to mind as an example of this sort. Gandhi was drawn to Jesus, but never came to call him self a Christian, in part because the Christian Church rejected him for his skin color, and supported the oppression of his people. But Gandhi was like Omar, knowing Joshua in a way that Barney never did with his identity theft. Asked once what he thought of Christianity, Gandhi replied, “I think it’s a good idea. Christians should give it a try,” implying that most of the Christians he knew bore little indication in their lives that they actually knew the one in whose names they pretended to act.

To know Jesus is to know the grand themes of his life, the things he consistently taught and lived out throughout his ministry – the themes for which he was willing to die.

To know Jesus is to know someone who emphasized love above all else – love of God and love of neighbor – going so far as to call for the love of enemy, not only teaching this, but living it as well.

To know Jesus is to know someone who reached out in that love to the outcastes of society, to the poor, the rejects, the vulnerable.

To know Jesus is to know someone who was all about forgiveness.

To know Jesus is to know someone who said people were far more important than money and possessions, and warned that far too often people value money and possessions more than people.

To know Jesus is to know someone who desired for people to be whole, not broken or divided.

To know Jesus is to know someone who valued integrity and honesty over appearance and image.

To know Jesus is to know someone who refused to coerce or manipulate people, knowing that people’s love can never be coerced or manipulated.

To know Jesus is to know someone who took risks on behalf of these things that he cared so deeply about, willingly laying his life down for these beliefs, and trusting God to take care of him come what may in the taking of these risks.

To know Jesus is to love him, and to begin, as best we can, to emulate him, to try as best we can to be like him, and to embrace the grand themes of his life.

The little story we heard from the book of Acts about the earliest church talks about the death of Stephen, who clearly did know Jesus. Stephen wasn’t afraid to speak the truth to the self-righteous who were oppressing the little people, although he was risking his life in doing so. He trusted God to take care of him in death. And then the clincher: he forgives those who are stoning him to death, just like the Jesus he knew so well and aspired to be like.

A while back the letters, WWJD became popular – short for the question, “What would Jesus do?” Not a bad question. What would Jesus do? Sometimes the answer is a no-brainer: Given a choice, Jesus would be kind, rather than cruel, honest, rather than deceitful, generous, rather than stingy.
But some things can be harder to discern, because the stories we have about Jesus come from a different time, a different culture. There are lots of things Jesus never dealt with during his time on earth.

What would Jesus do in regard to global warming? The idea of human beings damaging the environment in some possibly irrevocable manner would have been pretty hard to imagine in Jesus’ day, as would, of course, so much else about our modern, technology-driven society.

If you know Jesus, however, if you’ve absorbed the things he cared about, it isn’t hard to see where he would come out in regard to caring for the earth. Jesus is the guy who told the story about the rich man who has everything he needs, his barn full of grain, and wonders what to do next: “I know,” says the rich man, “I’ll tear down my barn and build bigger barns to keep all my stuff in.” “Fool!” says God, “this night your soul is demanded of you, and what good will all your stuff do for you then?”
Jesus would say, “My children, all this consumerism that is doing in the earth has always been a fool’s path, a dead end. Turn, give away your excessive stuff, and follow me. Learn to live simply; find joy in the birds of the air and the flowers in the field.”

Something that Jesus would assuredly have focused upon if he were standing among us is the often overlooked fact that as time passes and large portions of the earth become parched, it will be the poor who will suffer the most, forced to roam the earth as starving refugees, searching for food to eat and water to drink.
We who, relatively speaking, are rich will initially be only inconvenienced by the impact of global warming, and as such, it will be easy to ignore the transformation of lifestyle that the crisis requires. We will have to pay more for the gas we put in our cars, but the impact on the poor will be an inability to feed their children.

When there were five thousand poor people who needed to be fed, and the disciples were trying to shirk responsibility for them, it was Jesus who said, “You give them something to eat.” It is hard to imagine this same Jesus telling us not to concern ourselves with what our patterns of consumption are doing to the earth’s capacity to provide for the least of God’s children.

When you look directly at what the scientists are telling us about where we are headed with global warming, it’s scary stuff indeed, and it becomes easy to despair. Perhaps it is necessary to go through this stage, like the disciples going through Jesus’ crucifixion, before we get to Resurrection.

There is a great, hope-filled affirmation contained in the words of Jesus this morning: “If you know me, you will know my Father also me.” What Jesus is saying is that the One who created the heavens and the earth is concerned about the very same things that Jesus was concerned with. As we begin to confront the great problems brought about by our abuse of God’s earth, God is on our side. When we come to know what Jesus is all about, and begin to align ourselves in harmony with his concerns, creative possibilities open up that we wouldn’t have been able to imagine before. Jesus is with God in heaven working behind the scenes to assist our efforts to care for our planet and all living inhabitants. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” said Jesus. “Believe in God, believe also in me.”

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