The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio.
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
If you were invited to spend the next 60 seconds completing the sentence, “I am ________ (blank),“ how would you fill in the blank? What descriptors would you use to identify yourself, to describe yourself? Friendly; shy; happy; sad? Maybe vocationally: teacher, a singer, a student? Maybe familial: wife, mother, sister, daughter? In this season of Advent, maybe you would put: hopeful, expectant or, for some, sad, lonely, afraid? Some of you, at this point, might put “bored!”
If we were to compare notes at the end of that minute, we would find a lot of common threads, but there would be some very distinct differences—and those matter. Part of what I’d like to explore with you this morning is the tension that exists sometimes between self–identity and what our culture may impose on us in terms of identity. It seems an important topic as we make our way to Bethlehem to receive the greatest gift God has ever given.
There’s an arresting article in the current issue of Christian Century by Joyce Shin. She begins the article with a page from her past where she describes that as a little girl her family in the summers would make a two–day car trip from Kentucky to Minnesota to see relatives. Very early on the morning of departure, her mother would get her up, tell her to wash her face, brush her teeth, carefully brush her hair, and put on the tidy clothes that had been set aside for her. When she queried her mother on “why can’t I just sort of roll out of bed and get in the station wagon? We’re going to be in the car for two days;” her mother carefully explained, “we’ll be going through some towns along the way and we may be the first Asian people those people have seen and we need to make a good impression.” At a tender young age, Shin realized that there are differences, that we live in a land with a landscape of differences.
She goes on in the article to talk about the work of psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum who uses in her teaching the question I began with. She asked her students, “Take 60 seconds, complete the sentence, I am ______ (blank).” It elicits the sort of things that you would expect, but over time she noticed another pattern developing. She noticed that students of color or ethnicity tended to cite that. “I am black.” “I’m Puerto Rican.” “I am Korean–American.” White students, if they were from really strong ethnic backgrounds, might put ”I’m Irish;” “I’m Italian;” but by and large, white students don’t mention it. She notices the same pattern when we move to the issue of gender or religion or sexuality. Women tend to say, “I’m a woman.” Men don’t seem to mention their maleness. In terms of religion, Jews tend to self–identify: “I’m Jewish.” Those of us in mainline Protestant denominations tend not to mention that. And in terms of sexuality, those of us who are heterosexual don’t really put that in the blank either.
What she talks about is the development of a minority identity, that when a person is in a dominant place and culture or socially advantaged place in culture, we take it for granted because our culture takes it for granted. But don’t be confused. There are definitely differences in our country and as we’ve learned in the last few weeks and months, sometimes those differences are dangerous and sometimes even deadly.
Who are you? How do you respond? We can find the tension in the answers to those questions and if you look at our gospel lesson today, John is navigating some of those waters, as well. In one of the most ironic back–and–forths in the entire Bible, John spends the majority of this time saying who he is not.
The Levites and the priests go to him and ask, “Who are you?”
“I am not the Messiah.”
“Are you Elijah?”
“Well, then, who are you?” What do you say about yourself?”
“I am the voice crying in the wilderness; make straight the path of the Lord.”
You see, John rejected the identity that others might have tried to put on him. He was very clear on who he was and who he wasn’t. His job, given to him by God, was to be the voice, the witness, always pointing to the Light, the Divine Light. And in doing so, to bring others to faith so that they too might welcome the Divine Light, the greatest gift God ever gave all of humanity: the Light that can bring hope where there is no hope.
What is our call? What is our passion? If we fill in the blank with “I’m a Christian” what does that mean? How do we manifest that in our lives? Part of that is serving the underserved. Part of that is journeying with those who sit in our midst who would fill in the blank with “I am lonely;” “I am afraid.” That’s part of our call as Christians to not only self–identify, but to live lives of meaning that matter, that help change a world that desperately needs to receive and embrace that Light.
One of the ways in which I have seen this Cathedral community lift that up in a very powerful and tangible way is with our Cathedral Scholars Program. The program has been around for some years. In the program every year, 15 ninth graders are selected to participate in a rigorous three–year college prep program. These students are selected in conversation with their counselors and teachers and school superintendents. They come from D.C. public schools whose graduation rate, by the way, is 63%. Over the course of three years these Cathedral scholars are given academic tutoring, college prep, leadership training, community service awareness, and they slowly but surely begin to transform. Their teachers and counselors believe in them and over a three–year period of time they really believe in themselves. The graduation rate and college acceptance rate for the Cathedral scholars is 98%.
It became truly crystal clear for me in terms of how they would change their answers to “I am ____ (blank)” when they made their T–shirts for graduation this year. Now, bear in mind, these students get a lot of peer pressure and push back on “Why are doing this? Who are you? What do they call you?” And they have to persevere and believe in themselves. Do you know what their T–shirts said? “What do they call us? Scholars!”… I am a scholar. In the words of graduating senior Malachi: “This program taught me to follow my passion and not give up my power as a scholar to make a difference in the world.” CJ: “I am now ambitious, knowledgeable, and a better person.” Amen, Malachi and CJ and we are better people because of you.
We’re 10 days out from Bethlehem. We’ve been watching and waiting but we’re also called in this time for self–reflection, repentance, and yes, preparation, because at the end of those 10 days the Light that God brought into this world is waiting to not only illumine our lives, but to empower us to illumine the path for others. We’re almost there. He is coming. May our lives manifest what we profess with our lips. Come, Lord Jesus, come.