John the Baptist’s words today tempt us to run screaming in the opposite direction from Jesus. It’s a harsh message—who wants to follow a guy who’s going to separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire? John is not willing to soft-pedal the truth of the coming reign of God in Jesus—he has his winnowing fork in his hands and those things that are not of God, that are not part of salvation, that are not at the heart of God’s love, must go.
It reminds us of other similar images where God transforms us into who God calls us to be—pruning the grape vine that does not bear fruit (John 15) and burning out the impurities in metal in a refiner’s fire (Malachi 3). Redemption can hurt. Transformation into who God wants us to be can involve painful letting go of who we were and what we thought. When we decide to follow Jesus, we must expect the winnowing fork that removes all that gets in the way of the God’s work and preserve the good seed in us that can grow into the fruit of love.
I learned how important it is to allow Jesus to burn away the chaff in my life as a new pastor in Detroit. The ELCA congregations in the early 90’s were formed into a Coalition of urban churches who worked together to grow and learn in struggling urban communities. The big challenge was that all of us were white pastors serving in predominantly African American communities and congregations.
While Detroit of 1990 was different from Richardson of 2019, there are parallels whenever we seek to share the love of God in an increasingly diverse community. We had two African American Lutheran seminary professors who mentored the white pastors using the very winnowing fork mentioned in today’s passage. What assumptions of ourselves, our education, our authority our cultural style did we have to let go of in order to serve faithfully in a multi-racial community? Our professors spoke of the difference between Identity and Identification, one of the most important learnings of my ministry.
As Christians, created by God, we all share the very same Identity—beloved child of God conferred on us in our Baptism, just as it is on Jesus. When he was baptized, “and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” That’s Jesus’s identity and our identity. Beloved child of God. Period. Nothing more. Nothing less. It’s true for all believers, and we can even say it’s true for every human being—for we are all created in the image of God. The banner that hangs above the baptismal font confirms this idea with words from Isaiah 43, “I have called you my name, you are mine.” A few verses later, Isaiah records the most direct words of love from God to Israel: “You are precious to me, and honored and I love you.” That’s our Identity.
Our Identifications on the other hand, are those things conferred on us through the particularity of our birth---our cultural or ethnic group, our personality, our language, even our talents or skills. Our identifications are the delivery system through which we express our identity. Jesus entered history and had to take on some identifications in order to become human—he came into the world as a first-century Jewish male, born of a working-class family in an insignificant part of the eastern Mediterranean world. But no matter what his culture, race, class, or gender was—his identity was the same, “you are my Beloved Son with you I am well-pleased.”
When we hold to our common identity as children of God—that we are each a child of God, precious, honored and beloved, then the diversity of cultures, ethnicities, style of worship and expression become a source of celebration and learning. But the temptation for all of us, is to make our identifications our identity—to make our culture, class, skin color, education or income—the source of who we are and therefore the only right way to be in the world. Then those with a different identifications of skin color, language, culture or class become threatening and fear-inducing. We see this happening over and over in ethnic and political conflict in our country and around the globe. Martin Luther called this sin turning in on self. In his ministry, Jesus repeatedly challenged the religious community by including those who were excluded because of their identifications--Gentiles, the poor, disabled, lepers, and so on.
When we make our identifications our identity, Jesus comes to clear the threshing floor and to instill our true, Baptismal identity: Beloved son or daughter, Beloved child of God. Part of St. Luke’s witness in Richardson, is to embody unity in Christ in the midst of diversity—that’s the meaning of our welcome statement—that there’s no human condition or identification that excludes you from our common identity as children of God—All Are Welcome! The apostle's embrace this truth as we see in Acts 8 as the baptize and pray for the Holy Spirit on Samaritans, traditional enemies of Israel.
As white pastors in Detroit, our mentors brought out the winnowing fork to separate our identity as children of God from the identifications of culture and class we clung to. It was painful to come face to face with our assumptions of white privilege—we had to let these cultural identifications burn away like chaff—because they were getting in the way of living out of who we really were—beloved children of God who had a place at the table with all other beloved children of God. We had to let go of being right, having all the authority, being the expert, and even having the music and worship align with our own preferences and identifications. We listened and learned. It was humbling to experience that people in the congregation and community did not dismiss me out of hand because of my identifications; rather, they looked at my heart, they looked for the seed of love given by the Holy Spirit, and I was accepted.
Of course, none of us maintained our true identity as God’s children perfectly. There were times when we made our identifications our identity and we slipped into divided camps based on class, or color, or music preference. But when our focus remained on our common identity as beloved children of God baptized into Christ, our ministry, worship, outreach and Coalition partnerships thrived, and we held special worship services that reflected the diversity represented in our community.
I remember one particular moment when our identity in Christ superseded our identifications. It was a coalition-wide worship service for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. One congregation had Laotian members who often didn’t feel a welcomed part of our services as they had limited English and the worship style was difficult to follow. The rest of us did not speak Laotian, but their pastor gave us the phonetic spelling of the second verse for the opening hymn, “Glory to His Name.” The entire congregation sung the second verse in Laotian. I was standing up in the chancel as the Master of Ceremonies and as we sang, I watched the group of Laotian Lutherans singing in the front two pews. They looked up and their faces lit up like Christmas trees as they were surrounded by brown, white, and black Lutherans singing and celebrating in their language, our common Identity as children of God.
That moment was only possible because Jesus cleared the threshing floor, burning away our sin of making our identifications, our identity. The Holy Spirit landed on us in bodily form that day instilling once again our common and only true identity: Beloved son, beloved daughter, beloved child of God, precious, honored and beloved.
I do not mean to say that there’s anything wrong with enjoying and taking pride in our ethnic and cultural heritage. A couple of weeks ago, I visited my Dad in the hospital after he broke his hip. I had just stopped at his house to pick up a few of his favorite things. I walked in the room and I said, “Hey dad, I brought you some herring, hard tack, lefse chips and Ole and Lena fortune cookies!” He said, “oh, that’s great!” The nurse looked at me and said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about!” and I said, “then you’re probably not Swedish!” Our cultural and ethnic heritage can be a source of delight, comfort and joy, but it’s not who we are.
God loves us with a fierce, unflinching, burning love—so much so that God sends Jesus Christ into a human culture and ethnicity so that all of us—no matter our heritage or history—might know beyond a shadow of a doubt, our true identity as a beloved child of God, precious, honored and loved. When we are clear about our Baptismal identity, we open ourselves to being powerful seeds of love in our diverse community.
People from all over the globe are moving to northern Texas. We can, by the power of the Holy Spirit, succeed in expanding our diversity and growing seeds of love as we follow Christ into our community. I wonder who, in 2019 will light up like a Christmas tree because they felt beloved by this community and heard God say to them, “you are precious to me, and honored and I love you.”