This summer a fundraiser for ALS - Lou Gehrig’s Disease - went viral as the ice bucket challenge. It involved either donating money to ALS research or dumping a bucket of cold water over your head; many, of course, did both. It caught on incredibly fast as people challenged one another. Coverage and awareness of ALS soared.
But along the way, the challenge became unmoored from the disease; the challenge itself became its own phenomena unconnected to any awareness of ALS.
I realized the ice bucket challenge had lost its identity when the high-fashion designer Donatella Versace took part. A youtube video captured the moment.
Versace accepted the challenge and then passed it along to Prince and other celebrities. Donatella dressed impeccably in white: a queen of celebrities. On either side of her stood two male models - bare chests decked with gold chains, sculpted abs, strong arms, matching haircuts, low-slung black pants with the top button undone. No one saw them and thought of ALS.
The male models poured water from exquisite porcelain ice buckets. Donatella screamed and ran off camera. The video did more to reinforce Versace’s celebrity status and wealth then to raise awareness or funds for ALS.
What happened with the ALS ice bucket challenge happens all the time to social movements - we can become disconnected from our identity.
The Golden Calf story can be understood as a moment when the Israelites lost sight of their identity. The incident takes place after the Israelites fled Egypt - the one-time slaves escaped through the Red Sea and now wandered in the Sinai Peninsula. Moses led them to Mt. Sinai. The people sent Moses up the mountain to meet with God, but when Moses did not return, they began to worry.
When the Israelites left Egypt, they took gold and silver from their former masters with them. Now they decide to turn the wealth of Egypt into a statue of a god.
The Israelites sculpted a new god out of their gold, a god shaped like a calf. Aaron, Moses’ brother, led them in worship. “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
Of course we know it’s all not true. The God of Abraham led them to freedom, not a calf of their own creation. They forgot their own story. And yet, it’s not the only forgetting that happens. God hears the commotion down below the mountain. He turns to Moses, “You brought those people out of Egypt and now look what they are doing!” God retold the story of their shared past in a way which creatively forgot all his own involvement.
Moses reminded God of his identity, “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And then Moses, after our reading, went down the mountain to remind the people of their identity, too. Our identity, even God’s identity, must be continually reclaimed and embraced.
Daniel Mendelsohn, in a memoir about his own search for identity, pointed out the roots of the word. “The English noun identity comes, ultimately, from the Latin adverb identidem, which means ‘repeatedly.’” And the Latin root was formed from the word idem, same. Identity means same-same or the same, repeated.
Mendelsohn sees the irony in this. “It seems odd … that a noun that we associate with distinctiveness and individuality, with the irreducible uniqueness of each person, should derive from one that denotes … nothing but mechanical repetition.” And yet, this history of the word also fits - an identity means something will remain the same, you can count on it, and, of course, we do form our identity on the stories we tell ourselves again and again and the actions we do all the time. Identity comes from repetition.
The Golden Calf crisis came as a moment of lost identity - the Israelites stop repeating “the Lord led us out of slavery” and God stopped repeating “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Both forgot their essential identities, forgot what bore repeating.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez made a similar point about identity. He wrote, “What matters in life is not what happens to you, but what you remember and how you remember it.”
Moses led the people on from the Golden Calf crisis by having them always remember: God led us out of slavery. Judaism arose as a religion shaped by this memory. Today, when you came to church, I’m sure you noticed the Sukkah, or booth, on the church yard built by our Jewish synagogue, Shir Hadash. It’s part of a religious festival called Sukkot, or festival of the booths. A Sukka reminds Jews of the booths their ancestors lived in during their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Sukkot and all the festivals of Judaism repeat a central memory: God saved us from slavery.
What memories shape the Christian identity? What do we constantly repeat at Plymouth?
Many differences arise between the Old Testament and the New Testament, but one of the most meaningful to me may be one of the easiest to miss. In the New Testament, Jesus addressed God as Father; and the disciples followed him in this. It represented a major innovation: in the Old Testament God was only called Father eleven times; but in the New, hundreds.
In recent years, the work of feminist theologians questioned the use of “father” language for God. Excessively male language for God can be deeply problematic.
That’s why we’ve moved in our language here to talk of God as Mother and Father. When I baptized Milo this morning, I said, “I baptize you in the name of God, Mother and Father of us all.” The move to inclusive language preserves the essential insight of Jesus and the earliest Christians into God.
And that insight - whether we call God Father or Mother or both; that insight is that God cherishes us like a parent cherishing a child. It’s the whole message of Jesus - God cherished Jesus at his birth, God cherished Jesus at his baptism, God cherished Jesus through life and death, and God cherished Jesus even unto eternity. And the one who cherished Jesus cherishes us, too. We hold this memory close to us whenever we celebrate baptism. As Bridget said this morning, “through baptism we celebrate publicly what is always true: God loves every person, God treasures every life, God rejoices over our nearest relative and the most distant person.”
This memory can be found in Judaism, too. It’s the reason why God led the people out of slavery - because God cherished Abraham and Sarah and their descendents. It’s the message we feel in our bones when we read Psalm 23 - the Lord cherishes me, I shall not want.
We shape our identity around this one great memory: God cherishes every person.
Over the last the last year our Plymouth Church Council undertook a strategic planning process, a process of listening, reflecting, and imagining to answer the question, “What is God calling us to do?” Our moderator, Matt Kamm, will share some of the council’s insights this morning at our congregational meeting.
But I want to share with you this morning what the Council learned about our identity. We looked at past strategic plans. We read statements of faith. We thought about our six practices. We shared what we most treasured in our congregation and acknowledged where and how we need to develop. In short, we went through a process of remembering our identity.
Through this process we affirmed our mission statement printed at the front of your bulletin “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here to discover meaning in life, grow in relationship to God, and serve neighbors near and far.”
The statement echoes with the great memory of our religious heritage: we believe - no matter what - God cherishes every life. It’s the memory behind our advocacy for gay and lesbian couples to have the right to marry. It’s the memory behind our efforts to tutor children and to feed people who are homeless. It’s the memory fueling our joy at Milo’s baptism. For we are a congregation formed around this great insight of Jesus and our tradition: God cherishes everyone.
Our identity leads naturally to our work. We begin with the memory that God cherishes every life and then we work to make that memory ever more real in our world. From our memory, we proceed to a hope, a hope of every person knowing in the depths of their bones, “I am cherished.”
I thought of the way our identity guides our work last week. I met with a leader of an Alcoholics Anonymous group using the church. Peter’s group works especially with young men by combining a traditional group meeting with a competitive game of basketball. Peter explained many younger men struggle with a simple question as they face their addiction: “Will I ever have fun again?” Sobriety can sound like the end of good times. So they come out to do something normal, like playing basketball, while also engaging in something transformative, working their 12 steps. Some nights twenty or thirty young men come out to play basketball and to work at changing their lives.
Talking to Peter made me glad our church could be a place where these young men made change in their lives. But it also reminded me of all the people whose lives can be changed for the better by realizing “I’m cherished.”
Over the last few weeks I’ve tried to promote our congregation on facebook. And along the way I find our ads generate interesting responses. On Thursday, I put up an ad based simply on our mission statement - our no matter what welcome - and it included a photo from the service where we blessed recently married same-sex couples in June. Among the responses came a comment by one angry person, “Why are you advertizing sin!”
Not everyone knows God cherishes them. And not everyone believes God cherishes all. That’s why we have work to do. We’ve got lives to change by reaching out to people caught in addiction or shame. We’ve got lives to change by connecting with people who feel lost and lonely. People need to hear “God cherishes you.” And others need their understanding of God’s love expanded - and so we advocate for justice, teach respect for other religious traditions, and serve all kinds of people so that we can demonstrate and witness to God’s expansive, inclusive love for all.
We can’t just rest on our memory of God’s love; we’ve got work to do, lives to change, love to share, until everyone knows in their bones, “God cherishes us all.”
Alleluia and Amen.