First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
March 17, 2019
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
As [Jesus] went, the crowds pressed in on him. 43Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. 44She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. 45Then Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you.” 46But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.” 47When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. 48He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
In a little book of Devotions, Kirk Byron Jones writes:
“I have a friend who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS. Diagnosed just a few years ago, this beloved wife and mother of two communicates through a device that scans the movement of her eyes.
The sentences she wrote during one of our visits remain with me:
‘I feel blessed to be here one more day.
God has given me a peace that passes all understanding.
I have not let ALS define who I am.’
When I read that devotion several years ago, it was one of the first times I had heard (or paid attention to) someone defying being identified by a condition. I first read this devotion while I was spending a week at a camp for families who have a child on the autism spectrum. Our job as volunteers were to spend time with the kids with autism so their families could relax a bit and enjoy the out of doors or take a nap or go shopping or spend uninterrupted time with their other children. It was during this week that I became aware that to define these kids simply as “autistic” or their families as “families of autistic kids” was to drastically reduce them to a diagnosis – and a much misunderstood one at that.
It’s the same thing if we were to say “the cancerous person” or “the blind person” or the old, the young or middle-aged person; the invalid or mentally ill person, the tall, fat, skinny or short person. The person whose wife, husband, child died. The black, Asian or Mexican person. Have you ever noticed that we don’t say, “the sighted person” or “the Caucasian person” or “the non-grieving person” or “the non-tattooed” person? The underlying message is that those are the norms and need not be said. We put labels on people when those identifying marks are what make them different and often the difference has varying levels of negative implications. Healthy is considered the norm so if there is any kind of a diagnosis, like autism, mental illness or cancer, these are what we use to define people.
Even the writers of our sacred texts have done this so we have come to know some rather significant Bible characters, not by their names, but by their anomalies:
The Samaritan woman at the well
The man born blind
The woman possessed of seven demons
The man with the withered arm.
And today, the woman with the 12 year hemorrhage.
All of these are known by what was “wrong” with them.
Just how is it that we are defined by our circumstances? How is it that we are defined by something beyond our control? How is it that we have been defined because of the choices we’ve made, the addictions we’re imprisoned by, the company we keep? How easily do we define others by their circumstances, their troubles, their ailments?
Before Mr. Jones’ friend wrote her rebellion against being defined by a horrific disease, she set some different parameters around her identity:
‘I feel blessed to be here one more day.
God has given me a peace that passes all understanding.’
She had not only committed to not letting an ailment or a diagnosis define her, she had chosen to first be defined by goodness. She was allowing herself to be defined by her blessings and God’s peace—things that are certainly more reflective of a holy identity than a debilitating disease.
She engaged in a process of Dis-covery, of opening herself up to discovering her identity.
She allowed herself the privilege of shedding the layers of the many things that defined her in order to discover what ultimately described her. From a person with ALS to one who is blessed and at peace.
This process of Dis-Covery works in two ways.
First, it allows us to be more fully who God has created us to be. God hasn’t created a one of us to be a cancerous person. Instead, we are created to be loving, living, creative, compassionate, generous people. Some of whom can sing or bake or tell great stories. And… some of whom have cancer. But, before the diagnosis there was a whole lot of other things that are within us that defines who we are much better than an illness.
So, take a moment and reach into your soul and find the one thing that you know best defines you, not by ailment, ability or even career. Think of things like hopeful, compassionate, love music, like to draw, sense of humor, morning person, night owl. Open up your hands, place them on your lap and symbolically place that one thing into them. You are holding your holy identity in your hands. As you hold it, imagine God surrounding you with great waves of a holy “Yes! This is who I have created you to be!” Then, take your hands and gently press them to your chest, allowing the holy spark of you who are to seep back into your being. Wear this identity as you would a name tag so that everyone would know that God has blessed you to be who you are.
Second–when we step into our own holy identities and allow them to be that which defines us, we are less likely to define others by their circumstances in life. We are able to more fully recognize who God has created them to be and interact with them accordingly.
When we look at the stories in the Gospels where Jesus encounters someone who is identified by an ailment or negatively by gender, ethnicity or nationality, we see that he steps beyond those identities. He steps into their circumstances and defines them a new way. In the case of the woman whose story we heard a few moments ago it is “daughter.” Jesus, the one whom embodies all that God is redefines who they are. The woman who has been defined by her ailment for 12 years is known as “daughter.” The man whose daughter had died is known again as “father.” The Samaritan woman at the well who was scorned is known as “loved.” Their full or new identities are Dis-covered.
If we really want to discover ourselves by our circumstances, we need look no further than the one who creates us to begin with: God. And there we will find definitions that will help us rise above diagnoses, addictions, ailments, disabilities, failures, successes, even those sometimes pesky family relationships. For there we will find that we are created out of pure love and that love continues to define us no matter what.
It’s a holy identity, whispered to us again at the time of our birth, at our baptism, our confirmation. Should we find someone to share our lives with, it’s sung from the mountaintops. Should we loose someone dear to us in death, we are held in this identity, in love, as the tears flow. When we mess up – and we will – our holy identity will not leave us. It never has. Even in the most troubling of times. Even in the most challenging of times.
Not even death can define us for, through the resurrected Christ, God has revealed the depth of God’s own holy identity that cannot be stopped.
May we all be forever blessed to discover and rest in that love.