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What's in Our DNA?

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Sep 16

Text: Mark 8:27-37

This summer my husband and I travelled to Scotland and Ireland. It was a spectacular visit. The craggy beauty of the Scottish Highlands and wildness of the islands took my breath away. We went out to Celtic sessions—live music—in Edinburgh and Glasgow. We met locals and talked about Brexit. And not so much about Trump. It was refreshing.

 A major highlight of our trip was a six-day walking tour along Giants Causeway and Antrim Glens in Northern Ireland, a self-guided tour where B&Bs are booked for you. You receive maps and detailed directions, set out on the trail each morning, go at your own pace, and walk all day! There’s nothing I like quite so much in the world as being on the trail in wild places. It’s an embodied spiritual practice that pulls me deep into the joy, pain and serenity of the body, while inspiring continual awe.

 It was also an ancestry tour for both of us. No, I have lots of strands of DNA running through me and I won’t presume to tax you with the details. But one big healthy strand is Scots. And my husband, Kevin, is almost full Irish. We did genealogical research and discovered untold family stories of migration. Movement from Scotland to Ireland, and from Ireland to America. And we wondered. What prompted these families to move? What were they seeking? What did they find? Why did they stay? Why did they leave?

 We read history. Scottish history, Irish history, the history of clan warfare, the brutal history of Catholics and Protestants through many centuries—beheadings and battles and villages burned to the ground. The history of England and its colonizing projects. I learned that my people were dispossessed of their land. They, in turn, dispossessed others from their land. I suspect that my Scottish ancestors were used as pawns of the British empire to take control of Ireland, settling in Northern Ireland at a time when England was encouraging settlements.

 I don’t know—and will never know—whether they were eager participants in the colonial project, or unwitting. Did my Protestant Scots ancestors war against my husband’s Irish Catholic ancestors? I suspect that my ancestors were an oppressed minority seeking religious freedom. Possibly non-conforming Protestants, who were not deprived of the rights of citizenship.

 I share this personal history at considerable risk. First, I acknowledge that even to be able to locate records and to trace one’s ancestry is a privileged activity. To ask why they migrated is a privileged question, since the European settlement of this land was based on the expulsion of indigenous peoples, the forced migration of millions of enslaved Africans, and the intentional obliteration of culture and family ties. So, I appreciate what may be considerable forbearance on your part to even listen to this white-ancestry story.

 Second, the particulars of my story are so very important, and I don’t wish to impose them on you! But I do want to share what I learned. As we began to piece together the histories of the Dinsmoors and Dohertys, McIntoshes and McGregors, Kevin and I discovered that we were searching for meaning in continuity with the past. We have inherited a puzzling and dislocated past, and we were trying to locate ourselves.

 This insight came when we visited Kevin’s Doherty cousins in county Donegal. The Dohertys live in Carrick, a tiny coastal village of sheep farms and fishing boats. And they have been there for centuries. This is the branch of the family who did not emigrate, the family who stayed. Their stories are of the Irish Civil War, divisions within families and communities, the displacement of local fishermen by EU fishing fleets.

 In Carrick, we stayed in what is fondly known as The Wee Cottage—a simple house that generations of Dohertys have inhabited. And each morning we stepped out into the yard to see cousin Sean’s sheep grazing in the pasture in front of the cottage.

 We spent afternoons around the peat stove, sipping tea, watching the national hurling championship semi-finals, and listening to stories of the Dohertys who stayed. Kevin asked 95-year-old cousin John, “When did the Doherty family get the land?" And John, Rita and Pearl—all in their nineties—looked at each other blankly and said, “We’ve always had the land. We don’t remember a time when our family wasn’t right here.” Their story is one of continuity—of land, family, a sense of place. They are the ones who stayed.

 There can be something deeply comforting to the human psyche about continuity —at least some kinds of continuity with tradition, family, and culture. It can help us make meaning, find our place, interpret our experience. We see this exact dynamic at play in the morning scripture reading from Mark.

Jesus and the disciples are walking together in the region of Caesarea Philippi. The story takes place about halfway through Mark’s gospel. Jesus has been teaching and healing for a good while, and his little band of followers have been walking with him from village to village, receiving crowds and speaking with anyone “with ears to hear.” For the sake of imagination, let’s say it’s a hot, dry day and they’ve been on the road awhile. 

 And then Jesus asks two provocative questions. “Who do people say that I am?” and “Who do you say I am?”

 Oof. Interesting questions coming from Jesus’ lips because—honestly—it seems that throughout the New Testament, everyone is trying to figure out who Jesus is.

 As followers of Jesus, even now, we ask ourselves, “Who is Jesus?” Our tradition answers this question in many ways: savior, messiah, shepherd, guide, teacher, healer, prophet, companion, friend, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, Begotten, not made, one in Being with the father.

 And since we here gathered are from a rich variety of traditions, cultures and families, we may gravitate toward—or shy away from—certain of these answers. The United Church of Christ is not a denomination that is going to get in your face and tell you what you have to believe. Yes, we do stand for something. We love God and we seek to follow in the ways of Jesus. We love our neighbor, and seek to follow in the ways of Jesus.

 We are going to ask the question, “Who is Jesus to you?” And we are going to ask you to wrestle with it. We are people of “differing but kindred minds”—an old Congregational phrase. Part of the DNA of our tradition is freedom of conscience, freedom to ask the hard questions. We understand that a mature adult spirituality may arise from that freedom. We believe that grappling with the hard questions—both alone and in community—is a spiritual practice that can lead to growth, deepening, and commitment. But this means that we must ask the questions.

 “Who do you say I am?” is such a great question. It calls for honesty. It calls us to grapple with who we are-our very identity. It calls us to decide where we stand and what our lives are about.

 I am reminded of a very wise CPE Supervisor years ago (CPE is shorthand for Clinical Pastoral Education—the hospital internship that’s required of candidates for ministry in the UCC.) My very wise supervisor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital asked us over and over again, “What is a chaplain?” The most basic question! We found our answers were informed by so many things—our faith tradition (this was an interfaith cohort of Muslims, Christians and Jews), our professional training, vocational calling, cultural context, political commitments, our individual personalities, the patients’ needs, the challenges and experiences of each day on the hospital floor. What is a chaplain? It was helpful to peel away all the layers of the question as we worked to integrate our experience with our developing sense of identity.

 I suspect Jesus’s question prompts the same of his followers. When he asks, “Who do people say that I am? He’s not just looking for intel. He’s not really asking, “What’s the word on the street?” Rather, he’s provoking his followers to think about who he is and who they are. “Who do you say I am?” is a question that invites, Think deeply, open your heart as you walk with me. Allow yourself to be touched, to be transformed.

 And on that day in Caesarea Philippi, the disciples turned to what was familiar and consonant with their tradition. They articulated a narrative of continuity. “Some say John the Baptist. Some say Elijah. Others say, one of the prophets.” Jesus is like all of these figures in the Jewish tradition. He is a student of Torah, a healer, a speaker of wisdom. And for his first century followers, possibly this fits him into a familiar narrative. And as we know, the familiar is often more comfortable than the unfamiliar.

 A narrative of continuity allows us to say, “We’ve seen this before! We know what to expect.”

 But the story doesn’t end here. Jesus, himself, breaks that continuity wide open. He begins to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering and even death. What? What? A messiah who suffers and dies? Who needs that? Who even wants that? This does not sound like a fulfillment of our hopes. It feels like a radical break. And we are going to need to adjust our expectations!

 Do we want suffering and death to be part of our narrative? Is this the narrative we would choose for ourselves?

 What if—it is not so much a story we choose—as a story that chooses us? What if God chooses us? What if Jesus calls us to faithfulness, not counting the cost? And the narrative that is ours to write is the story of our response.

 Like our ancestral DNA, what if this story of suffering that leads to true freedom is part of us? “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” What if the new life that comes through Jesus is part of our inheritance?

We are already walking on the dusty road of life. Let us open our hearts, then, to the question, “Who do you say I am?”

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