We live in a world, and in a time and place, where we all have multiple, overlapping, sometimes conflicting identities; and by the word “identity”, I mean the way we think of and understand ourselves; perhaps also the way others think of us. Our identity can be the lens through which we see ourselves and approach the world. It can also be a box into which someone else tries to put us.
So, speaking for myself, I can say (not in any particular order): I am a woman, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a Christian, an American, a priest; I’m a descendant of the British Isles, a Northeasterner, an alumna of several different academic institutions; a singer, a Girl Scout, an Associate of the Community of St. John Baptist. All of these different experiences, affiliations, and relationships have shaped me. They also each make their own claim on my loyalty, time, and attention.
Sometimes the differing parts of our identity can come into conflict with each other; sometimes our society tries to force the issue. During the first World War German-Americans suddenly became very suspect, as our country moved towards entering that war. It happened again with Japanese-Americans during World War II, when over one-hundred thousand US citizens and residents were imprisoned in internment camps, out of fear that they might be enemy spies.
Race and ethnicity are not the only identities that can cause conflict. Religions – with varieties of beliefs, values, and practices – can also strain multiple identities. In 1960 when John F. Kennedy was running for President there was a large question in some quarters about whether or not a Roman Catholic could lead this country; would he not be taking “orders” from the Pope? And today in some other quarters there are those who believe that practicing Muslims cannot be real Americans – that those two identities are somehow antithetical to one another. And, of course, throughout the history of Europe and North America, being Jewish was often a major stumbling block to acceptance into the wider Christian culture.
Even family life and relationships can be strained and sometimes severed because of an identity that one person has that doesn’t sit well with the rest of the family. At the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s it was often friends and neighbors, and in some rare cases church communities, that cared for the sick and dying, that attended the funerals of gay men, when their families didn’t want to know them. And even a year ago after the shooting of forty-nine people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando – popular with the LGBT community – one father refused to claim his son’s body. When our identities come in conflict within ourselves, or with others close to us, it can be very painful.
Jesus has some pretty clear words about identity and where our deepest loyalty should be, when push comes to shove. He says that his followers should not be surprised that he comes to bring a sword, rather than peace: a sword of justice and righteousness, rather than a false or shallow peace. He says that he has come to set relatives against each other, and that whoever does not love Jesus more than their own family is not worthy of him. This is when the preacher wants to say: OK, Jesus…you can stop talking now! After all, if hearing Jesus counsel the disciples (as we heard last week) to shake off the dust of their feet against the residents of a town that won’t receive their message makes us queasy, these words could well put us right over the edge!
Was Jesus telling us to hate our parents or siblings, or to walk away from them? No. There are plenty of other places in the Gospels where Jesus uses very positive images and examples of families and family relationships. But the point he is making here is that our sense of identity has to transcend that of our family of origin. If we are Jesus’ followers, our core identity and loyalty shifts. We become centered on God first and foremost. In baptism, as Paul say in Romans, we have died to sin and now live to God. We have shared Christ’s death and resurrection, and so we have joined the company of the baptized, the household of God. Our sense of family expands to include all who have also come through the waters of baptism; and rather than being related by ancestral blood, we are rothers and sisters – one new family – through the blood of Christ.
When our primary identity is as Christians, as those joined to Christ by faith and baptism, then there are times we are going to come into conflict with our other identities, with other values and loyalties. Being American is not synonymous with being Christian. If the dynamics of our family-of-origin system expect us to act in cruel or unhealthy ways, our membership in God’s family tells us to act otherwise. If the community or society we live in makes discrimination or oppression a badge of membership, the Cross we wear or bow to reminds us of the sacrifice Jesus made to set us free from all sin – including the sin of oppression.
I have a friend whose father was a bishop in Mexico, which was then a province of the American church, and her mother was often called upon to speak at church gatherings and conventions in the US. At these meetings she was introduced to the audience by her husband’s name: Mrs. Melchor Saucedo. Of course, that was a more formal time, but the American bishop who was introducing her was also noted for being disdainful towards women, and towards women’s gifts and ministries. As time went on, my friend’s mother became more and more uncomfortable with being identified only by her title. So one day she tuned to this particular bishop introducing her at an event and said: “I am a child of God, and my name is Catherine.”
We are all children of God, and God knows us each by name.
In baptism we are washed, we are cleansed, we die and rise to new life, we are joined to Christ, and we are named – given an identity, each one of us known and beloved of God, but all sharing the surname Christian. In God’s family, the values that are at our core are justice, truth, compassion, and respecting the dignity of every human person, as well as love, faith, community, and peace. These are the values that Jesus calls us to live and follow, day by day, with gladness and singleness of heart.
Let us pray.
Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to thee, so
guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our
wills, that we may be wholly thine, utterly dedicated unto
thee; and then use us, we pray thee, as thou wilt, and always
to thy glory and the welfare of thy people; through our Lord
and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Third Sunday after Pentecost
June 25, 2017