Last Sunday, I preached a sermon about our identity. In it, I found myself wondering at how complex we are — each of us an interplay between our biology and our circumstances, our race, ethnicity, experiences, choices, unconscious impulses, relationships. Monday afternoon, I received a phone call that brought me up sharply against the other way to look at who we are: the appallingly simplified postmodern way that identifies us, not by our humanity, but by strings of numbers and digital codes that anyone can replicate, given the right information.
In other words, I was told that the packet of documents I had sent to my tax preparer, which had gone missing in the mail, had finally arrived, and that it had been opened before it got into their hands. That means that somebody — benign or not — has had the opportunity to see my social security number, my address, my bank statements, my mortgage information, my pay stubs, etc., etc., etc. And so I have to lock down my credit scores, my various accounts — anything so that someone cannot pretend to be me.
It’s a bit unnerving: to think that I might have an electronic doppelgänger out there, someone who might not be short, female, fuzzy-haired, spiritual, silly, dog-loving, but who might be able to convince others that he or she is I — because we live in a world in which many of our most basic transactions are with people we do not know and who do not know who we are, either. This is a strange way to structure a society, and it’s a new one: until the mid-twentieth-century, we had personal relationships with the people who managed our lives. Now, unless we live in small towns, we mostly do not.
Perhaps that’s why people have so much difficulty believing in a personal God: in a God who knows us each by name. We are accustomed to being unknown by those who matter: once we have been defined primarily as consumers, we become interchangeable, valuable only for our money, not for our value as human beings. In the older world, a person who did not earn much but wanted a mortgage might be able to get one from a local bank because the banker would know that he or she was hard-working, faithful, reliable. Today, the application would arrive on a stranger’s desk without that context, and would, most likely, be turned down. Something is lost when our relationships are degraded, something that looks a lot like our humanity.
But Jesus is the one who knows us each by name. In his kingdom, a remarkable alchemy occurs: we are entirely, utterly ourselves, completely known in all our messy, lovable humanity. And, in God’s eyes, we are also completely Christ. St. Paul writes, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me.” (Gal 2:20) Christ, who loved me. Not, Christ who uses me. Not, Christ who wishes me to obey. Not, Christ, who wants some followers, and does not care who they are. But Christ, who loves me. Who loves me for who I am, even as I am. Even today.
Several times each day, I walk through clusters of the children who attend preschool in our church. They are a funky bunch of kids. On any given day, there are kids in swimsuits, kids dressed as ballerinas or superheroes, kids playing with Duplo or holding hands or crying for their parents. And among them are their teachers, teachers who knowthem each by name. Who know which child loves to do which things. Who know who their friends are, what their fears are, what will comfort them when they are frightened or lonely or just plain cranky.
It gives me great comfort that God knows me that way, too. And it challenges me to knows others with that intimacy. Not to keep up amask of perfection, but to be a human being who lives in 3D. It’s not an easy task, particularly not for a priest. People think they want us to be perfect, above reproach. But the truth is, that also makes us beyond approach. Thanks be to God, who shows us a better way.