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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church

Identity Theft

The notion of eating someoneís flesh and drinking their blood is about as abhorrent as it gets

Lent 1

February 25, 2007

Text: Luke 4: 1-13


Identity Theft

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By The Rev. Terry Pannell, St. Maryís, Provincetown, Capecod, MA


A day doesnít go by that I do not receive an email from some joker overseas notifying me that I am the beneficiary of some offshore trust. Apparently vast sums of money await me and all I have to do is to provide my bank account number to affect the transfer.Lucky me!


I suspect that most of you have heard about identity theft. Itís the term commonly associated with incidents where people have been swindled out of their inheritance through the fraudulent practices of others.Legally speaking it is called robbery. Theologically speaking it is called temptation.No matter what you call it, deceit is the modes operandi.


When we speak of temptation nowadays it doesnít carry quite the weight it did in Jesusí time. We tend to see it as a quaint notion from ages past and especially in our culture we like to joke about it.Dana Carveyís parody of the church lady a few years ago on Saturday Night Live comes to mind. But the kind of temptation Jesus faced was no laughing matter because the consequences would have been too great.


Luke tells us that Jesus was tempted by the root causes of evil that have bedeviled the world from the beginning.Like all people who encounter temptation Jesus had choices to make.And during his weakest moments, he faced an unrelenting temptation that threatened to drive a wedge into his relationship with God.In all three temptation episodes attempts were made to deceive Jesus by playing upon those human weaknesses the late Henri Nouwen categorized as the need to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful.


Now this story may be set in a wilderness, but temptation always takes place in the deepest realm of the soul where the struggle between good and evil becomes personalized. The first temptation challenges Jesus to make bread from stones. But Jesusí answer that people do not live by bread alone reflects a profound truth not only about Jesus himself, but also about you and me.Think about it.Jesus is saying that no being worthy of the name beloved of God can suffer a diminished humanity merely because of physical weakness. The essence of oneís humanity rests not upon what we can consume, but upon our response to Godís love.


And when Jesus was challenged to leap from the pinnacle of the Temple, we are not just talking about a building in Jerusalem. The very thought of doing such a thing was tantamount to challenging Godís character. Like a clever prosecutor temptation tried to introduce doubt to erode the bond of trust Jesus had in God. Jesusí response though demonstrates that real trust requires no proof. Love is self-evident.


And in a last ditch effort the tempter offers Jesus power beyond imagination. But this temptation isnít really about power.It is about Jesusí very identity and destiny.In the words of the psalmist, all that is created belongs to God and it is God who will bestow upon the anointed one the nations of the earth as an inheritance. For Jesus to worship someone other than God would have meant denying his own identity. And along with that Jesus would have turned his back on his destiny to change the world not by economic, political or military means but by the cross.

Jesus understood that oneís identity and destiny are tied to God alone and thatís the way he lived his life.He knew that grace enters humanity not through bribery or manipulation, but through love. Given this fact, Jesus unmasks temptation for what it is: a charlatan and a swindler.From this perspective, identity theft is and always has been the only goal of temptation.


Now the fact is that you and I were created to be children of God.We are people made in the image of love. Temptation is most successful when it entices us to forgo that image in favor of something that distorts not only our humanity, but our relationship with God and with one another.And history is replete with disastrous examples where people have succumbed to temptation at a great price to themselves and to their neighbor.


As I speak, history seems to be repeating itself as a handful of bishops and others funded by a Washington, D.C. based organization of dubious motives advocate the demise of the Episcopal Church and the deconstruction of the Anglican Communion.In some circles emotions are running high as bishops of goodwill and some of not such goodwill argue about human sexuality in general and gay sexuality in particular as it relates to ordination and marriage.


Now differing theological views are nothing new to Christianity. The theological beliefs we have today didnít just appear overnight.They took centuries to develop.And during that time there was considerable rancor and a lack of charity as people questioned one anotherís beliefs. The temptation to self-identify with one group or another was strong.


Todayís disagreements look remarkably similar. Some are demanding that the Episcopal Church sacrifice its theology and forego the decisions made together in prayerful discernment by laypeople and clergy alike, that through baptism people are fully members of the Body of Christ.In what appears to be a Solomonís dilemma a small number of bishops and their followers are saying that we cannot be Anglican and consecrate people like Gene Robinson as a bishop of the church.They say that the Episcopal Church cannot bless the relationships of gay couples and remain Christian.As in ages past the current temptation boils down to the desire to elevate theology and institutional power at the expense of love. Not only does this diminish the humanity of all people, it erodes the credibility of the church.


We would all do well to remember the lessons from todayís gospel.The first is that we should think before we jump. Self-righteousness is a flawed, weak safety net and people put their trust in it at their own peril.The second thing we should remember has to do with worship. Jesus was both clear and consistent in his teachings. Forget about commanding stones to become bread for consumption. Elevating pseudo doctrines and institutions to the level of worship guarantees that one will be consumed.

Now I am convinced that the motives behind the current disagreements originate neither from theology nor ecclesiology but from a deep emptiness that people are trying to fill with self-importance and self-righteousness.The fact is though that no one has to prove their relevancy. Being loved by God assures oneís relevancy and that should be more than sufficient. Being a member of the Anglican Communion is not a prerequisite for Godís love nor is grace conditional.


And trying to appear righteous in public or trying to prove how powerful one is might dazzle some people but the One who created life and brought the universe itself into existence remains unimpressed. If Jesus and the prophets are correct, God is far more impressed with compassion, justice and love.That means that one can neither earn nor prove relevancy or righteousness and trying to be more spectacular than the creatures God lovingly created us to be is both extraneous and futile.As for the exercise of power, in humans it tends to breed arrogance when humility is what God calls for from those charged with the care of Godís people.


The example stands before us.No matter what temptation had to offer in exchange, Jesus refused to compromise the bonds of trust he had with God and with the people he came to serve.This is important because a profound truth is found in todayís gospel. Each of you needs to remember and especially those who fear that the Episcopal Church will succumb to the temptation to sacrifice its children who are gay or lesbian on the altar of pseudo Anglican piety, that your identity as children of a loving God and your destiny as inheritors of the kingdom of heaven can never be taken from you by force; only by deceit. The only way to make it out of any wilderness without succumbing to the mirage of relevancy and power is to follow the path Jesus followed.Remember, Jesus let nothing come between him and God because he chose to follow the path of love.






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