“Just Us Chickens?”

January 15, 2017: May God’s words alone be spoken, may God’s words alone be heard.  Amen.

You know, about a year ago I mentioned that the great comedienne, Lilly Tomlin, once said “I’ve always wanted to be somebody, but I see now I should have been more specific.”[1]

I think most of us have felt just like that from time to time.  I think Jesus, at times, could most definitely understand that too.  See, this desire to “be somebody” is fairly universal.  You see ads all the time now for Ancestry.com and other websites offering a chance for you to know your DNA, to find out your family history, which is a way of trying to understand who you are, right?  And of course, there is the classic scene from Steve Martin’s “The Jerk,” who, when he finds out his name is in the new phonebook (remember those – actual phone books), anyway, when he finds his name he gets all excited and shouts “I’M SOMEBODY NOW!!!”

Being somebody is about identity – about naming (or being named).  It is about who we are. And that is what is happening in the gospel from Matthew today too.

The baptism of Jesus marks a beginning in his life – the start of his living into his identity.  Now, you may be thinking I am talking about his identity as the Messiah; but I am talking about something else here.  And it happens just as he is baptized.  At that moment, when he is rising out of the water, a voice from heaven proclaims “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Now, this wasn’t the start of his being loved by God, or his being a child of God, so why this proclamation?  Because it is the moment when he is bonded to God in a covenant of relationship – named publically as being in relationship with God, and that means a world of difference in his life, and subsequently in ours.

You see… Lily Tomlin was right… she wanted to be somebody – I think we all do…and in baptism – we are made somebody in a way that is distinct. But what does that identity mean?  What makes it different than what we get when we are born, or what we get in the envelope from Ancestry.com?

See, I think there is a reason that Jesus’ ministry begins AFTER he is baptized, not before.  Jesus was loved by God before his baptism, and so are we; but, in baptism, his identity, and ours, is made known, and it is an identity that nothing can ever take away.  Baptism is a sacrament – an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace – We are sealed at baptism by the outward signs of water and chrism, which mark us by the Holy Spirit as Christ’s own forever.  And today, little Elizabeth Marie Fay will receive this sacrament of baptism, and we will welcome her into the household of God.

It is an identity for her, and for each of us baptized, that is for all time. Even when we seem lost, broken, without a sense of purpose, it remains our identity, whether we feel it or not.  It is something given to us by God, and nothing – not even our own stubbornness, can ever take it away.

“I am reminded of a story about a man who was walking through the forest one day, and he found a young eagle who had fallen out of his nest. He took it home and put it in his barnyard where it soon learned to eat and behave like the chickens. One day a naturalist passed by the farm and asked why it was that the king of all birds should be confined to live in the barnyard with the chickens. The farmer replied that since he had given it chicken feed and trained it to be a chicken, it had never learned to fly. Since it now behaved as the chickens, it was no longer an eagle.

“Still it has the heart of an eagle,” replied the naturalist, “and can surely be taught to fly.” He lifted the eagle toward the sky and said, “You belong to the sky and not to the earth. Stretch forth your wings and fly.” The eagle, however, was confused. He did not know who he was, and seeing the chickens eating their food, he jumped down to be with them again.

The naturalist took the bird to the roof of the house and urged him again, saying, “You are an eagle. Stretch forth your wings and fly.” But the eagle was afraid of his unknown self and world and jumped down once more for the chicken food. Finally the naturalist took the eagle out of the barnyard to a high mountain. There he held the king of the birds high above him and encouraged him again, saying, ” You are an eagle. You belong to the sky. Stretch forth your wings and fly.” The eagle looked around, back towards the barnyard and up to the sky. Then the naturalist lifted him straight towards the sun and it happened that the eagle began to tremble. Slowly he stretched his wings, and with a triumphant cry, soared away into the heavens.

It may be that the eagle still remembers the chickens with nostalgia. It may even be that he occasionally revisits the barnyard. But as far as anyone knows, he has never returned to lead the life of a chicken.”[2]

You see, we are in a world of chickens.  Now, I have no issue with the noble chicken, the bird that is, and if a chicken is truly a chicken, it should be proud to be one, because God created it to be just that way.  But what I am saying is that we are surrounded by a world that will, if we let it, re-brand us until we forget who we are, or come to believe that who we are just isn’t good enough.  We are labeled – democrat, republican, black, white, gay straight, rich, poor, male, female, immigrant, refugee, native – some of which is part of the identity we are born into or take on, and some is placed upon us – and either way – we are sometimes lifted up in it, or beaten down because of it.

There is also branding that we pursue or follows us around – what car we drive, the clothes we wear, the phones and other gadgets we use.  Heck, if you have ever been on the internet, then you know that our purchases (or even stuff we shopped for, but didn’t purchase) follow us from site to site in a really creepy way.  And, in this sea of branding, we can often forget who we are – like the Eagle in the story, and we can lose our way and think we are something we are not – even thinking we are what we buy, consume, or do for a living.

And so it becomes all the more important – this baptism – because while other identities may define who we love, how we think, or what we may look like – this identity is about who loves us – who we are – God’s own, precious, beloved child, in whom She is well pleased.

The renowned theologian, Henri Nouwen, put it this way, “The truth, even though I cannot feel it right now, is that I am the chosen child of God, precious in God’s eyes, called the Beloved from all eternity and held safe in an everlasting embrace.”

And in this crazy world, that can have us feeling from time to time like we dropped out of some nest on our heads, we need to remember this unconditional love God has for each and every one of us.  We need to remember it for ourselves, and for the world too. Because this identity comes not only with a hope and promise for us, but for the whole world.

As it was for Jesus, baptism for us is about identity and covenant – or put another way, who we are, and what we are called to do. Our collect today, the prayer we offered at the beginning of this service, was this: “Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made…”

And it is that covenant that we hear in our passage this morning from Isaiah.  About the prophet, God says “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”  Now, think about that…and then hear again the vows we all make at baptism either for ourselves, or as is the case today by the parents, and Godparents of Elizabeth on her behalf.  We promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and striving for justice and peace among all peoples, respecting the dignity of every human being.”

See, the thing is…when we are baptized, we are baptized into some-thing…or really baptized into some-body.  It is an identity that comes with a calling – the calling to free the captives, fight for justice and peace, and to love and serve.  We are baptized into a life of Christ – because we are the body of Christ alive in the world today.  And as the body of Christ, we don’t just leave the waters of baptism, grab a towel, and continue as though nothing happened.  We do as he did after his baptism – we live the life we are called to live – a life of ministry in a broken world.

Why is that important?  Because we live in a world where we not only need to live into our identity – we MUST!  Things have taken a bitter turn of late.  People are more fearful and pained by the hate and violence that seems to spew from the strangest of places, even from our nation’s leaders.  But our covenant with God calls us to speak truth, to act for justice, to stand for peace, to offer hope and love to a people in darkness.

It is our identity to be the ones to speak up against those who traffic in hate and violence.

It is our identity to be the ones to stand against those who seek to oppress and marginalize.

It is our identity to be the ones to act in the cause of justice and peace.

And it is our identity to be the ones to proclaim by word and deed God’s all inclusive love – that EVERYONE is a beloved child of God – NO EXCEPTIONS!

That no matter who you love, what you look like, where you came from, where you live, or how you think – you are loved just for being the person you are.  And grounded in that knowledge, we are freed in a very real way to love others – changing the world one heart at a time.

But, the truth is, this being the body of Christ is an identity that will fulfill us as no other part of our human existence can, but it can also wear us out.  And we will get tired…bent like the reed in Isaiah.  We will lose our way like the eagle. Even Jesus sought rest from time to time.  And, Jesus surrounded himself with community.

See, this is not an identity that is easy to do alone, not if we want to be the radical world changing force that we can be as the body of Christ.  Look, we sometimes have even re-branded Jesus into some sort of hand holding, kumba-ya singing, blond and blue-eyed co-pilot forever reverent and pastoral.  Yes, he did pray, and he did preach about peace and love – but he was definitely NOT blond and blue-eyed, and he wasn’t quiet or meek either.

Remember – Jesus – our Lord and Savior – was one fierce, rule-breaking, table over-turning, tradition toppling Savior of the world, and Lord knows, the world needs us to be our radical Christ selves now!  And this radical life we are called to is best done in community.  Jesus knew that – and surrounded himself with others.  He also knew he would not always be with them, and that they would need one another if they were to be what they were called to be.  They would need to gather, and be renewed in him by one another, and by his body and blood in the Eucharist.

That is why being in a faith community isn’t something we do as some sort of obligation – it is part of living into who we are as those baptized into Christ.  It is where, as children, we come to know our faith, and our identity, and as adults, to be grounded to do the radical work of Jesus in the world.  It is also where, like the naturalist who helped the Eagle, God will do all that She can to help us remember who we really are.  It is also here where we find ways of working together to live out that identity too.  And on February 12th, our Outreach Group will be holding an event that offers every one of us a chance to listen and to share where God is calling us in our identity as prophetic witnesses in the world.  I hope that all of you make it a point to be here to help this fast growing community we call Christ Church to be guided by the Holy Spirit – discerning ways we can love and serve the lost, the least, the lonely, and the last.

God says “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”

There are many in prisons now – dungeons of poverty, hopelessness, loneliness, addiction, and oppression.  This is not time to throw the covers over our head and attend the church of the Holy Comforter.  This is not a time to tune out.  This is not a time to not pay attention.  This is not a time to forget who we are, mumbling in response to the knock on the door that “there’s nobody here but us chickens.”  It’s time to fly – to be that grand and wonderful creation God made – if we are ever to be who we were born and baptized to be – beloved children – called to a radical life of Christ – the light to break through a darkened world.


For the audio from the 10:30am service, click here:

[1] Lily Tomlin in Jane Wagner, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

[2] Theology News and Notes, October, 1976, quoted in Multnomah Message, Spring, 1993, p. 1.

Rev. Diana L. Wilcox
Christ Church in Bloomfield & Glen Ridge
January 15, 2017
The Second Sunday After The Epiphany
(Texts from January 8)
1st Reading – Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
2nd Reading – Acts 10:34-43
Gospel – Matthew 3:13-17