Abridged version of the sermon preached June 21, 2020 in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Lectionary Focus Texts: Matthew 10:24-39, Genesis 21:8-21
|Hagar and Ishmael by Alan Jones
Siblings in Christ, the past few months of the pandemic have been quite a wild ride, and we have been among the lucky ones able to spend them in Slovenia, where lockdowns kept the infection rates low. That doesn’t mean that our lives haven’t been directly impacted, though. There have been the canceled trips, school and business closings, fear and uncertainty about health and finances, and a lot more time in our homes. And in our homes we’ve watched the news from around the world—places where people we love live. We watch from afar, and we pray, and we wonder what we can do. How is a disciple of Christ supposed to respond in such a time as this?
Amidst the tragedies, injustices, and violence that escalated since we last gathered, there have also been heroism and voices speaking truth to power. And something remarkable happened. Conversations around systematic racism—at least in North America and much of Western Europe—gained considerable traction, and many things I doubted I’d live to see occurred seemingly all at once. For the first time ever, books about the sin of racism are dominating The New York Times Bestseller list. Statues memorializing white men who treated Black and Brown bodies as objects to use, abuse, and dispose came toppling down. The NFL admitted it was wrong for censuring its players for taking a knee, and NASCAR banned the display of the Confederate flag at all its events and properties. We still have a long way to go, but now I have renewed hope for the future as more and more people are re-examining their understandings of the past and present, confessing their complicity in injustices, and resolving to take action.
And so here we are this day after the summer solstice—the day where the day finally conquers the night. The world isn’t the same as when we last gathered, and, hopefully, neither are we. What does this mean for us as disciples of Christ, as a congregation? For some, you may find that many Bible stories suddenly hit you differently. Take today’s lectionary reading from the book of Genesis. In it and earlier in chapter 16, we are told that our patriarch Father Abraham and matriarch Sarah kept a young Egyptian woman named Hagar enslaved in their house, that with Sarah’s encouragement Abraham assaulted and impregnated Hagar. Sarah became livid when after this Hagar looked at her with contempt, and she abused Hagar such that she ran away into the deadly wilderness, only returning at the encouragement of an angel, who promised her she was to become the matriarch of multitudes of descendants. When Sarah herself gave birth to Isaac, and he had been weaned, she saw Hagar’s son Ishmael playing with his half-brother and was horrified at the possibility that the two brothers might one day share their father’s inheritance. I wonder which thought upset her more: that her husband might decide that the life of his half-Ethiopian son mattered as much as his son born from Sarah, that her son Isaac would recognize Ishmael as his beloved elder brother, or that she might soon be forced to treat Hagar as having equal or even higher status than herself? The text tells us that the thought of those enslaved in her house posing a threat to the power and privileges she held motivated Sarah to demand that the mother and child be tossed into the wilderness, where they would most surely die of thirst. I find myself rolling my eyes at what comes next. The writer attempts to absolve Abraham for tossing out his firstborn son and Hagar with the “God told him to go ahead and do what Sarah wants with ‘your slave woman’ because Isaac will be the father of the nation named for you and, besides that, I’ll make a nation of ‘the son of the slave woman’ because he’s your offspring too” fig leaf excuse. Abraham sends Hagar off with barely a day’s worth of bread and water. When the water runs out, she loses all hope and places her beloved son under the shade of the bushes.
In chapter 21 verse 16 we reach the line that has echoed through the generations and, in the age of smartphone video cameras perhaps even more so. “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.”
I’ve heard a lot of people refer to the Bible as a book of answers. I’m not quite sure how they reached such a conclusion, because I’ve found that reading it raises more questions than answers. Yes, there are some great teachings on ethics, justice, love, and one’s spiritual life scattered throughout—especially in the four Gospels—but there are also a whole lot of cruel and violent stories and instructions that the Church historically has whitewashed or glossed over because wrestling with them head-on can feel destabilizing, threatening even. As much as Sunday school curriculum writers try to make these stories into G-rated lessons complete with coloring pages, that’s not what they are. No, but they are giant mirrors reflecting the realities of humanity and our interpretations of God’s will back to us. They are sacred not because what they reflect is beautiful, but because of who we may become if we are willing to honestly engage with them.
And what happens if we do? Jesus’ teaching in today’s reading from Matthew 10 gives us a clue. Most of us grew up on the comforting part about God valuing us more than the sparrow and having counted all the hairs on our head. But it’s the next part about how “one's foes will be members of one's own household” and that whoever does not love Christ more than one’s family and isn’t willing to pick up their cross and follow is not worthy of him--that’s the part that rang loud in my ears this week as I increasingly found my desire to avoid conflict in my extended family and my desire to speak publicly about racism at odds with one another. What does it mean to say that we are the descendants of Abraham and Sarah? What is risked and gained by talking honestly about our more recent ancestors, our inheritance, and our complicity in denying our siblings what is rightly theirs? Who are we to Hagar as she weeps? Who are we to her child? Who are we to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Trayvon Martin? Sisters and brothers—who are we, and what are we willing to give up and pick up to follow Christ?
Last week I confessed my embassy’s DCM that when I arrived here last fall, I had wanted to invite the book club read Ibram Kendi’s new anti-racism book with me, but I chickened out, worried that it would get me branded as a wavemaker. And now I confess to you, my congregation, that in my desire to make sure every member experienced our gatherings as a cathartic ritual and positive exposure to Church for our children, I failed to prioritize the fact that being and raising disciples of Christ requires so much of us than a monthly communal act of worship. The role of a pastor is to assist disciples in discerning their individual and collective callings in service to God’s kingdom.
And so, I’d like to challenge us all gathered here today to spend this summer in a period of prayer and discernment about how we can do better as individuals, as families, and as a community of faith in following Christ every day and everywhere we go. For those who are preparing to leave Slovenia, I encourage you to find a church home that is actively involved in speaking out and taking action against injustice. And for those who are remaining here, let’s explore together how we can work together to become more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.