"Who Do You Think You Are?"

"Who Do You Think You Are?"
Sermon by Tom Are, Jr.  Delivered at the 1989 Montreat Youth Conference on Monday, August 7, 1989.
Conference Theme: "Caution: Under Construction"
Transcribed by Mark Baker-Wright

“So, who do you think you are, anyway?”

I never did like that question. I heard it a lot, but I never did like it. I guess because I never felt that I answered it when I wasn't feeling at least a little bit defensive. It's a question that's always asked, or most often asked, when the asker believes that the askee thinks a little too highly of him or herself. And when we know that, it's really not a question at all. My father says there's a whole category of questions that really aren’t questions, they're more statements. They're not offered to obtain information. They are uttered to impart information. Therefore, they may sound like questions, but they're really statements.

Now, you know what I'm talking about. It's happened to you. You come home from dinner an hour late, and before you even get through the kitchen, there it is: “And where have you been, young lady?”

“Well, we were at the mall, and then we cruised through McDonald's, and we had to take Jim...”

Don't say that! It may sound like a question, but it's not a question. She's not asking for an itinerary. What she's saying is, “wherever you have been, you were supposed to be here, and next time, you better make sure you are!”

Or my mother's favorite: “So, Son, just how long are you planning on leaving your room in that condition that runs contrary to the health laws of this state?”

“Well, let’s see. Today's Monday, tomorrow's band practice, how about...”

Don't... say that! I'm telling ya, don't say it! It sounds like a question, but she's not asking for a schedule.

Or the one that I've heard more often than I would like to admit: “Sir, could I please see your license and registration?”

They sound like questions, but they're really statements. So it is with the question tonight: “Who do you think you are?” Most of the time, it's really a statement, and the statement behind the question goes something like “whoever you think you are, I want you know, that I don't think you're that hot. No matter who you think you are, I want you to know, that I don't think you're that big stuff.” And I don't care who says it, and I don't care who hears it, it's never good news. Because if you're like me, if you're at all like me, then there will be those times. Those quiet, still times, when we're left alone with our own gut, and those questions will rise up and haunt us. And we will wonder: “Is it true? Who do you think you are?” And we find that the masks that we talked about this morning, that the masks are not only between us and them, but sometimes we've masked up so well, we don't even know ourselves. And the question becomes real: “Who do you think you are?”

Now the psychologists help us a little bit here. Because they'll tell us that an awful lot of who we are, is determined by that little gizmo called the genetic code. It's that thing that Mom and Dad give you. And it determines, not only your hair color, and your eye color, and how crooked your teeth are. But it also, to some extent, determines your disposition and personality. So you can blame it on them.

The psychologists also tell us that we are greatly influenced by the world in which we live, by our environment. And that means, that that crazy world, out there.... we somehow must sort through it, because it affects us. Which means, that among other things, that the generation that's seated in this auditorium will be affected by the reality of drugs and drug abuse in our society. It means, among other things, that this generation will be affected both by single parent homes and by double income homes, because there are more of both than have ever been before. It means, among other things, that we, as a generation, as a people, will be affected by threats to the environment. We will be affected by nuclear threat. As a people, that is part of who we are. It's our world.

Psychologists, they also tell us, that we are greatly influenced by those we love. By those who love us. And that's true. For you'll have friends, and they'll tell you that you're funny, or that your fun. That you're kind, that you're generous, that you listen well, or they wish you'd listen a little bit. And you'll have parents who will tell you, that you are the cherished treasure of their lives. Or they will tell you that you are a holy terror. And you'll have teachers, and they'll tell you that you're bright, or that you're average. Maybe they'll tell you you're just plain dumb, I don't know. But they'll tell you!

And in the midst of all these influences, in the midst of all these voices, sometimes we will find ourselves alone in the corner of our room, staring into the middle of our own soul, and we'll be asking the question: “Who do you think you really are?” In the midst of all this: “Who do you think you really are? There're all those pieces of me, but when they come together, what's the big picture?”

And knowing who you are, it's important. Because it affects how you relate to your world. It affects how you relate to your environment. It affects how you relate to your family. And your friends. And even your homework. And not knowing who we are… being confused about who we are, it allows us to submit to all the voices of the world. The voices of all of those folks that we bump into. “Jocks, and cheerleaders, and snobs.” “Ma, and Pa, and the Brats” “Geeks, and Jerks, and cl…” I can’t remember all of them, but you remember all of them. But, you see, those folks will be glad to tell you who you are. If you’re not certain, those folks will be glad to tell you who you are, or tell you who you can be, if you will just….

And we see that. We see that every day. We try to determine who we are. We try to claim some identity by what we do. We see that in schools. There’re those who try to claim identity through grades. They’ll make the best, you know? Graduate “ultra super cum laude” and stuff. They’ll be the validict… whatever that... I can’t even say that, you know? You said that in my school, you could get punched out. “You call me that again, ‘Valley who?’” And then there’re those on the other end. They just drop out. They don’t try. They’ll act like it doesn’t matter, and in that try to claim some identity. And there’re those who’ll do drugs. And they’ll profess that there’s a sense of identity, they know who they are when they’re high. And there’s an identity search in sex. Sometimes in becoming pregnant. And none of those are decisions we make by ourselves. Because they’re there: the others. They have the advice. The influence. The pressure. And there’s enough pressure in all of that to scare most of us to death. And that happens, to a lot of us. For there are a lot of us, perhaps some of your friends, who just can’t cope anymore, and they take their own lives, and they tell us that in our country alone, we perform up to ten funerals every day for teenagers, who just can’t make it! Because the pressure out there, of trying to discover who they are in the midst of all that mess is just too great.

Friends…. That may be who we feel like, sometimes. And that may be who they tell us we are, sometimes. But here, clearly, God did not create us to have a life that is wiped out by suicide, or drug abuse, or to find ourselves living under a bridge somewhere. That is not why we were created!

Our text tonight tells of the events of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus comes to John the Baptist. And John takes him down into the river Jordan, and there he’s baptized. And the Scripture says, that as soon as he came up out of the water, two things happened. The heavens, they opened up, and the spirit of God came down upon Jesus, and then, there was a voice. God’s voice. And the voice said “you are my son, and I’m pleased with you.”

“You are my son.” That’s who Jesus is. He was claimed God’s son at his baptism. He called himself a man. The crowds called him a prophet. The disciples called him “Teacher.” The Pharisees, they called him “Satan.” But God called him “Son.” Because that is who he is. He is the Son of God. And that is proclaimed and claimed at his baptism.

Now you read the gospel of Mark carefully. There’s no story of Christmas there. There’s no virgin birth, no shepherds, that’s not there. There’s no story of Jesus hanging around the temple straightening everybody out, that’s not there. Mark starts with John the Baptist. And it is at the baptism of Jesus that Jesus knows clearly who he is. Now, maybe he knew before, we don’t know. Maybe he knew before, but what is the point here, is that his identity is claimed here. And proclaimed here. It is at Jesus’ baptism that we know that he is the Son of God, and your identity is claimed and proclaimed at baptism, as well. It is there that we know who we are.

Now, you may be saying, “what if I haven’t been baptized?” It’s not that baptism works some kind of magical spell. You’ve seen the babies, they go up there, they’re baptized, they come down. They cry just as much afterwards as they did before. There’s no real change in us. Baptism isn’t magic. It is a celebration. It celebrates who we are. And who we are is determined by our creator. And what we claim at baptism is that God created us all as His own. We belong to God. That is what is claimed at baptism. Our identity as God’s children is claimed and proclaimed at baptism.

Now, if you’re like me, you probably don’t remember your baptism. Because, if you’ve been brought up in the Presbyterian tradition, we baptize infants. And one of the rules about being an infant is you don’t remember that stuff. Because, really, about all you did was poop and drool anyway, and so nobody wants to remember. And our memory of being baptized is not so important. But at your age now, it is important that you have some idea of what takes place there. Is it important that you begin to hear what takes place at baptism.

Have you ever listened to a baptism? I mean, really listened, to what’s said there? I told you before, it’s not important that you remember your own baptism, and it’s not. As a matter of fact, it may be a blessing. Because one of the things that happens at baptism, is the preacher will call out your full name. Full name means “middle name included.” Parents do mean stuff to you with your middle name. I think they’re trying to get back at you for all that pain you just caused your mom, you know? My wife, she’s a nurse, I know how this stuff works. They go in there, you know? You pop out, {pop!}, there you are. The nurse kinda wipes you off so that you don’t look quite so much like a squirrel. And then they walk over, and they show you to Mom. Mom’s still sweatin’, she’s still breathin’, she’s still cryin’, she’s still screamin’, and they say “Darlin’, what would you like to name it?”

And she says “Name it ‘Helmut’!”

And she says “Darling, this one’s a girl!”

“I don’t care! ‘Helmut’!”

It’s the medical staff, they take care, they give you a real name like “Susie,” or “Linda,” or “Frank,” or something. If it was left up to parent’s we’d all have names like that! And then when you grow up, they try to get out of it. They tell you that it’s an old family name, right? They tell you, “you know your great-uncle Helmut on your father’s side.” That guy never lived! He wasn’t there! And you ask anybody “Oh, he was really a nice boy, Uncle Helmut, yeah.” He didn’t live! They try to cover their tracks!

I remember the first time, or the first time that I remember my full name in public. It was first grade. You know how first grade teachers are, they’re kinda goofy anyway. I walked into my first grade class. I was nervous! I walked into my first grade class, and my teacher, she leans over, with big glasses, you know? Well, she leans over, got the pencil stuck in the back of her head. And she said “And what is your name, Son?”

I said “My name is Tommy Are...” because I was Tommy back then, you know... “Tommy Are.”

She said, “Well, that’s just fine.” I was real relieved to hear that, it was the only name I had!

I found my friends Bobby Armstrong and Danny Martin sitting over there, so I went and I sat with them. And as soon as I got comfortable, she said “Now when I call out your name, I want you to come have a seat.” She’s getting ready to do that seating chart thing, you know?

And she said “Robert Herbert Armstrong.”

We didn’t have any “Robert Herbert Armstrong” in our class! We were saying, “Who’s the new kid?”

All of a sudden, Bobby Armstrong stood up. Danny Martin said “Herbert! What kind of a name is ‘Herbert,’ man?” I was dying laughing. I was loving it!

And then exploding from the front of the room: “Thomas…… Lorraine…. (at this point the auditorium bursts into laughter, which lasts for over 10 full seconds) Are.”

I’m saying “she didn’t do, what I just think she did.”

Danny Martin said “Lorraine! That’s a girl’s name, man!”

Frank Campbell says “My grandmama’s named Lorraine, man!”

For six weeks, they’re calling me “Lori” for short. Except Frank Campbell, he just called me “Grandmama!”

That was a bad day, man! And I’m sort of grateful that I didn’t hear it when I was an infant. That might have… affected me, you know?

But that’s not all they said when they baptized me. They baptized me “Thomas Lorraine Are: Child of the Covenant.” “Child of the Covenant.” You see, that’s my name, too. I was baptized “Thomas Lorraine Are: Child of the Covenant.” That’s who I am, because that’s who God made me. And that’s who you are, too! You see, we’re baptized “Thomas Lorraine Are: Child of the Covenant.” “Robert Herbert Armstrong: Child of the Covenant.” “Susie Helmut Jones: Child of the Covenant.” That’s who we are. That’s the promise of God that we claim at baptism: that we are God’s children, and that will never change. We cannot lose it. We cannot destroy it. We are God’s children. And in essence, that is who we are. We may not think that all the time, but that is who we are.

Now, I can promise you. I can promise you that if you live your life, there will be parents who will tell you who they are. And they will tell you that you are their cherished treasure. Or they will tell you that you scare the beejeebers out of them. And they will probably at some times tell you, that in ways that you won’t understand, you are the greatest gift of God’s grace that they have ever known. There will be friends, who will tell you. That you are fun. That you are honest. That you are trustworthy. There will be teachers who will tell you that you’re bright, or that you’re average. That you’re disciplined, or that you’re lazy. There will be preachers and Sunday school teachers who will tell you who you are. There will be coaches. There will be strangers and enemies, and for some of us, even grandmamas, and they will all tell us who we are. But hear this: everything that they say may be exactly right. Everything they say may be accurate. They may know you better than you know yourself. But everything they say must be understood. It must be interpreted. It must be filtered through your core identity: who you are, in essence. And that is, you are God’s child. And as God’s child, then you can be “brother” or “sister,” “son” or “daughter.” As God’s child, then you can be “student.” As God’s child, then you can be “athlete.” But you are always and forever God’s child. That is who you are.

And I believe… I believe that no matter what you do, you are God’s child. I believe no matter what you become, you are God’s child. Because, see, that is not your act. You do nothing to create it. You do nothing to bring it about. That is God’s act, and God’s act alone. You see, that’s why we can baptize an infant. You remember seeing the infant here this morning? That child would have no idea of what’s going on at baptism. Absolutely no idea what’s going on. But it doesn’t matter, because that child doesn’t do it! God does it! It’s God who makes us God’s children. And I believe… I believe that as the water of baptism moistened your brow, there may not have been an audible voice. But you need to know the words were there. They were there, and they were clear. And the words were “you are my child, and I’m pleased with you.”

Let us pray.

Gracious God, we believe. Help our unbelief. In Christ’s name, Amen.


This transcribed version of the sermon has been mildly edited and formatted for Transforming Seminarian. It is noted that the original sermon was delivered in an extemporaneous style, and that this transcript has attempted to retain that style, not to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template. Copyright for this message is retained by Rev. Tom Are, Jr.

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