August 18, 2019
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
My sister’s two year old granddaughter, Marqui, is the spitting image of my sister when she was that age, right down to the bright blue eyes and Shirley Temple blond curls. Wendy looks at her granddaughter and says, “My DNA has landed.” There is no telling, of course, whether Marqui will retain that eerie resemblance to her grandmother as she ages but at this moment, if you held photos of two year old Wendy next to two year old Marqui you would be hard pressed to identify which is which, which begs the question, “What does make Marqui unique from Wendy?” If Marqui continued to resemble Wendy as she matured, passing through all of the physical changes that Wendy experienced, what would give her her own identity separate from that of a second Wendy tagging along behind her doppelganger? Unless you are an identical twin, your sense of identity has always been linked to some extent to the shape and look of your physical self. I remember the first time someone called me a brunette — it was a shock to my psyche because I was born blond and spent most of my childhood with what is rudely called dirty blond hair. That moment when someone called me a brunette was the first time I had to untangle my self-identity from my appearance, something that begins in the physically awkward years of adolescence and becomes increasingly necessary as we age because not a single one of us is walking around in the body in which we were born. As we grew up, our bones became firmer, our muscles strengthened, and our bodies lengthened and widened. The skin cells that you had when you were born have been completely replaced thousands of times over since your birth. The cells of your organs are constantly dying with new ones taking their place: a liver cell lasts about a year, your stomach cells only make it for 5 days, fewer if you eat at McDonalds. Even your solid seeming bones are shedding and growing new cells all of the time. If we dissected your body at this moment, and distilled out only the cells that were there when you emerged from the womb, there might be a cup of brain neurons and the lenses of your eyes. Even then, however, your brain didn’t manage to hold on to all of those original neurons and it went on to add many new ones enabling the “adult you” to do things the “baby you” couldn’t even imagine, like imagine! Nevertheless, in spite of all of these remarkable changes, that infant whose physical body was more than 99% different from the person that is sitting in the pew listening to me right now was still “you.” What makes you “you”?
Now, most of us 21st century scientifically educated types would probably answer: it’s our DNA. Wendy expressed this idea when she said, “My DNA has landed,” because we know today that when the cells of our body are replaced, they are remade by the blueprint that is carried in our DNA providing some continuity between the dead cells and the new ones. Even then, however, blond hair turns gray, bushy heads go bald, small noses grow large, and cancer cells mutate. In fact, to demonstrate just how clearly DNA is not the whole story, consider that though Wendy’s granddaughter Marqui is the spitting image of Wendy at her age, that blue eyed blond haired toddler is 1/4 African American because Wendy’s husband is black. Marqui’s nordic appearance makes a mockery of our attempts to classify people by their racial identity and reminds us that our physical selves cannot be the totality of who we understand ourselves to be.
Maybe you would argue that your identity is grounded not in your physical self but in the psychology of who you are. Unfortunately, we are not on much firmer ground here than before because your likes, dislikes, opinions, your impulses or your ability to control those impulses, and your way of thinking about the world are not stable over time. Teenage hippies become grumpy old men; conservative Christians leave the church to dance in the moonlight with Wiccan friends. Our psychological selves, like our bodies, begin changing from the moment we are born. Maybe you can think of a few people who have not matured much since they were two but most of us don’t respond to the world in the same way we did as toddlers. So we are different people than we were as toddlers, but not totally different people because that toddler is still you, right? You are you and have always been you but at the same time, the you that is you has changed and will continue to change tomorrow, so who are “you?”
A self important executive was boarding a plane but the line was moving very slowly. Becoming increasingly impatient, the man began to wave his first class ticket demanding to be allowed on the plane immediately. The ticket agent said, “I’m sorry, sir, but these people are ahead of you. You’ll just have to wait. The man yelled back in anger, “Do you know who I am? Do you have any idea who I am?”
The agent calmly picked up his microphone and said, “Attention please. There is a man at Gate 3 who does not know who he is. If anyone can identify him, please report immediately.”
Who you are? What does it mean to be you when bits of you are constantly disintegrating, and new bits are coming into being? What holds all of this together and forms your identity in the world?
I think that this is the question Jacob faced when he wrestled through the night by the stream at Peniel. At Peniel, Jacob underwent what we would call today an identity crisis except that instead of going out and buying a Porsche to distract him from his existential angst, he confronted the question of who he was and struggled with it all night. And when the night was through, he was blessed with understanding.
In order to understand Jacob’s crisis, we have to go back to the beginning of his story — to the very beginning when Jacob emerged from the womb. Jacob was the younger of two sons, but not younger by much. His twin brother Esau was born only seconds before him and the Bible says that Jacob came out holding onto the heel of Esau, a foreshadowing of Jacob’s life. Like many younger siblings, Jacob spent the first part of his life forging his identity based on his rivalry with his older brother. How many of you defined yourself as you were growing up not by who you were but by comparing yourself to who your older brothers or sisters were, striving either to imitate them or to set yourself distinctly apart from them? My youngest sister, Sandy, played flute growing up but she chose that instrument not necessarily because she loved flute but because she had three older sisters who already played guitar, recorder, piano, and accordion. She wanted an instrument that no one else had tackled. We older sisters tried to get her to learn drums so that we could have a percussionist to accompany our playing but she was obstinately determined not to shape her life for our convenience! So too, Jacob, the younger brother, began his life always comparing himself to his older brother Esau. The Bible says that Esau was a man of the forest, hunting game, strong and hairy, but Jacob — and in that ‘but’ we see the constant comparison that forms the self-identity of the younger sibling — but Jacob was quiet and preferred to stay in his tent. Jacob says to his mother, “Esau is hairy but I am smooth of skin.” While Esau didn’t seem to think about Jacob at all, Jacob lived in Esau’s shadow, and dwelt on their differences. Moreover, the system in which Jacob lived accentuated this tendency since Esau, being officially the oldest, was the heir to his father’s estate and the family blessing. Esau was handed his identity at birth while Jacob, as the youngest, was left to figure out his identity on his own. Jacob’s initial solution to this problem was simply to steal Esau’s identity. He tricked his brother into handing over the family birthright and then literally dressed up as his older brother in order to fool his father into giving him the family blessing. Jacob’s scheming was successful but his theft of Esau’s identity left Esau in a murderous rage and Jacob had to leave town to save his skin. He lost his home, his future, and a rift opened between Jacob and the brother that Jacob had tried so hard to become.
Jacob took refuge with an uncle and eventually married and had a slew of children and then, since becoming Esau didn’t work, Jacob tried becoming his father-in-law. He tricked his father-in-law out of a good portion of the man’s livestock, and once again, he had to flee for his life which is how Jacob comes to be at Peniel. The crisis of identity that Jacob experiences that night is both chronologically and geographically a mid-life crisis because on one side of that place is his brother Esau still, as far as Jacob knows, breathing murderous threats against him and on the other side is his father-in-law, whose threats are even fresher in Jacob’s ears. Jacob sends his wives, children, servants, and livestock across the stream and the Bible says that that night he is completely alone. Everything that once might have defined him is gone and it is here, in the most vulnerable self-scrutiny that Jacob may have ever faced that “a man wrestles with him until daybreak.” We say that Jacob wrestled with an angel, but the identity of his opponent that night is unclear and it is only when it is all over that Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face.” At the end of that night, Jacob finally understands who he is, not in comparison to anyone else, not even in comparison to his past self, but he understands himself in a way that makes sense of all of these disparate parts of himself that have come and gone and been changed by life and circumstances. That night Jacob undergoes a profound transformation of identity and he is blessed with new understanding.
What is it that Jacob discovers that night? What is it that holds you together and gives you your identity when everything around you is changing? As you move from job to job, or retire from your job, as you live in this town and then that town, as you marry, divorce, are widowed, or remarry, as you become a parent or an empty nester, as you age and your body splinters and weakens, what makes you you?
Jacob’s opponent says to him, “What is your name?” and he says, “Jacob,” and then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel:” Israel which means one who belongs to “the upright God,” or “the one who struggles with God,” or as one translator puts it, “the one who is a receptacle in which God can be received and retained.” Jacob comes to understand himself not as an isolated entity moving alone through time but as one who is held together by the framework of God’s covenant. In other words, his identity is not to be found in his physical being or in the quirks of his personality or in the external circumstances of his life that are constantly undergoing change but in his choice to live within the structure of God’s love, to be a receptacle in which God can be received and retained.
While your physical and psychological identity may be ever shifting and hard to pin down, the identity that most defines you is the the one that you choose for yourself, the one that is shaped when you actively decide which parts of your personality you will cultivate and which you will choose to prune; which hurts you will allow to become permanent parts of your self-understanding and which wounds you will work to forgive, to heal, and to overcome, which opinions you are willing to cast off admitting the error of your thought, and which values you will insist on retaining no matter how difficult the task. That toddler that was you is still you in that the material for your becoming was the same stuff you have to work with today but that toddler is different from your present self because you have made decisions each step of the way as to what parts of that self you will nurture and which parts you will choose to put aside. We think of our identity as Jacob initially thought of it — as created by our biology, our families, and the external circumstances of our lives — but in fact the most important and enduring identity is not the one thrust upon us at birth but it is the framework — the context — in which we decide to place all of the pieces of our days. As Jacob wrestled through that dark night in Peniel, he came to see that his best self was the one lived out in the context of God’s love. He might be Esau’s younger brother and Rachel’s husband and Joseph’s father, or he might be all alone in the night at Peniel, but wherever he went, he would always be the vehicle of God’s covenant, the receptacle of God’s grace, and at the moment he embraced that identity, Jacob was blessed.
It is for this reason that our church says to you, “We welcome you regardless of your background, your race, your sexual orientation, the color of your eyes, your DNA, your BMI, your marital status, your health history, the condition of your liver, your mental fitness, your bank balance, your political leanings, your prowess at Scrabble, your artistic sensibility, your culinary skills, or your taste in music,” because the only identity that we worry about here is our call to be people of the covenant, vehicles of God’s grace, consistently received and consistently given throughout all of the circumstances of our lives. When we are able to claim that as who we are, we too will be blessed.
You are simply God’s own, and if you live every day in the context of that identity, you will know blessing and you will be blessing to others.