June 19, 2005
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Genesis 21:8-21

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”

The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”

So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.”

And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

Matthew 10:24-39

“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Sermon: Identity Theft

If I had been picking a text for Father’s Day, I doubt I would haven chosen the passage from Matthew which we read this morning, especially the line “For I have come to set a man against his father.” But I don’t pick what is read each Sunday – we follow the suggestions of what’s called the Common Lectionary – and so sometimes a passage presents a particular challenge.

Naturally on Father’s Day I’m not thinking about the ways my father and I might have been set against each other, but about the good parts of our relationship and the closeness we had. I was reminded of my father the other night while watching the movie “Confidence” with Edward Burns – it was the part where Burns is having a long conversation while at the same time spinning a basketball on his finger. It was perfectly balanced and stayed up there through the whole scene.

Now many of you know that my father – I should say our father since my brother is here today – our father was a gifted athlete. He had an impressive record in sports, some of which I don’t even think he knew about. The Elias Sports Bureau provides most of the statistics you hear when you’re watching Major League Baseball or National League Football. They have done extensive research into the evolution of records back even before the leagues bothered keeping them. I recently was sent an Elias publication called Grid Graphs, and it showed that when my father retired from the New York Giants in 1933 he held two NFL records – one for the longest run from scrimmage and the other for the most yards gained receiving in a single game. The receiving record was from the first game the Eagles ever played - they were defeated by the Giants 56 to 0 so you can imagine how long ago that was.

As a child I knew that my father had played pro-football but that was far less impressive than the fact that he could spin a basketball on his finger and just keep it balanced up there for as long as he wanted. Try as I could I could not master that skill – that and whistling really loud – those were the things that impressed me most and those were the things I wanted to be able to do like my father.

My brother is much, much older than me, so his experience might have been different, but I cannot recall any pressure to play football or any sports coming from my parents. When I went to high school I did get driven to football camp by the athletic director who was old enough to remember my father from the Giants, and who I think was sorely disappointed at my lack of aggression or ability on the football field.

I just could never quite get accustomed in football to the part where you take those hard hits. I liked swimming. There was no threat that in the middle of your race some anti-social 250 pound psychopath was going to do a cannonball on your back from the high diving board – which was about what football felt like to me. You might hit the wall a little hard in swimming or get smacked with an oar in rowing, but the pain level was pretty much in your hands and under your control.

Looking back I’m glad that my father did not have the expectation I would follow in his footsteps into sports. If I had been forced to find my identity as a football player, I would have had a very frustrating and painful school career. I give my parents a lot of credit for allowing me the freedom to forge my own identity apart from their life and experiences – both the failures and the successes.

One scholar that I read in trying to understand the meaning of the passage we read about Jesus setting a man against his father explained it along these lines of identity. John Sanford, an Episcopal priest and psychologist, had this to say:

By instinct human beings are a group animal. For hundreds of thousands of years we have exited through the group, and the individual has found his identity and meaning by virtue of inclusion in tribe, clan, or nation. But God calls us to go beyond this ancient herd instinct and to establish an individual consciousness of oneself and of God.

Separating ourselves from the group identification is a painful process, for as long as we remain submerged in the group, we find a certain security. When this group identity gives way the illusory peace is shattered. So Jesus declares: Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth; it is not peace, but a sword.

A part of becoming an individual necessarily involves a psychological separation from family identification. This sacrifice of the old loyalties seems incredibly hard, so Jesus says: For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.

Jesus words are no justification for quarreling with the members of one’s family, no excuse for hurting them on the basis that this is finding our individuality. By realizing our own identity, we can then relate creatively and positively to our family for the first time.

So part of the message I hear from Sanford is, take heart, there are necessary times of argument and separation, of distance and hurt feelings, but these are not the end of the story, just a predictable step along the path to growing up and coming into your own and having creative, loving relationships as an adult.

Of course it is not just parents who might want to own a piece of our identity – we live in a world that is flooded with commercial messages that are trying to persuade us to invest our identity in ways that are profitable to the sale of products and services.

Tribalism, in our culture, is now as connected to products as it once was to ethnicity, religion, or social class.

I invite you to join me for a few minutes in the Abercrombie and Fitch store in the Danbury Mall. Listen to the music, take a close look at the photographs, check out the clothes, sample the attitude of the salespeople – it’s a seductive offering of a complete package – not just what to wear but how to understand your place in the world, your membership in the tribe, your fulfillment as a consumer. I buy, therefore I am.

If you go into any of the many sports supply stories you find the same kind of packaging. Just Do It!. Creating a sports centered identity is driving our culture into having younger and younger youth leagues, weeknights and weekends that are completely given over to organized practices and competitions, and newspaper headlines like the this one: Doctors See a Big Rise in Injuries as Young Athletes Train Nonstop.

We see sports as establishing a healthy identity, but maybe we’ve reached a point where it’s all out of balance.

Of course, some might say, with great justification, that religion remains the most dangerous form of tribal identity on the planet. Think of that first lesson we heard this morning – of Abraham sending Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness at the command of Sarah. A good number of people on the face of the earth, the entire Muslim community in fact, take their identity as the descendents of Ishmael and in the conflict between Muslim and Jew, Ishmael and Isaac, East and West, these tribal loyalties fuse with modern politics to create a dangerous and difficult situation.

At some point the children of those who are dedicated to violence and terror will have to be set against their fathers and find a new identity in a larger context with higher loyalties - then peace will have a chance.

With everything that is going on it may seem that our world is spinning out of balance – that it looks something like Mike trying to spin a basketball on his finger – unstable and not very steady. But in the old hymn, This Is My Father’s World, there is a line that goes, “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

We all share an identity as the children of that one God – an identity no one can ever steal from us. If we keep our lives centered around that everything else will find its place, our lives will be in balance, and God’s blessing will be seen in all we do.

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