Sunday, June 22, 2008

Proper 7A

These characters are so complicated and real, just like us. I preached this sermon at Holy Trinity, Crystal Springs, in the morning and at St. Matthew's, Forest, in the evening. Both churches served a juicy blueberry dessert following the service - Blueberry Crumble (we shall not speak of how much butter is involved here) and Blueberry Poundcake with Blueberry Sauce.

Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

I’m just waiting for the day archaeologists discover that the scriptural story of salvation began not in the ancient near east but, rather, in the American deep south, where one’s faith and one’s family are deep and personal matters. Where you go to church and who your people are can tell a fellow southerner a lot about you – sometimes even more than you know about yourself!

The same was true in bible times. Faith and family mattered more than fingerprints in figuring a person’s identity, and in fact were so intertwined that to belong to one was inherently to belong to the other; to reject one was to reject the other. This was the rub experienced by many in Matthew’s day, as more and more took up the cross and followed the way of Christ. Members of a household, from the eldest son to the youngest servant, were expected to embrace the faith of the household’s head; to abandon that faith for the fledgling church was to abandon the family. Becoming a Christian carried serious social, economic and political consequences that could rip a household apart. After all, Jesus’ followers included outcasts and sinners, not the sort of people usually welcome at the table; believers were apt to give away all their possessions; and the Christian movement, like its leader, aroused the suspicion of the occupying Roman government. Do not be afraid, Jesus said in Matthew’s gospel, and those whose families had already rejected them took comfort. I have come to set a man against his father…and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Jesus was not advocating alienation; he was, however, acknowledging that in choosing him many had become alienated. Jesus knew that his way – the way of forgiveness and grace – would be difficult for the world to accept, that his word – the word of love – would divide communities, friends, even families. I know. Jesus said. Do not be afraid.

It was a refrain repeated time and again throughout scripture. We heard it this morning in the reading from Genesis, when God said to Hagar, rejected by her family, I know. Do not be afraid. It had all started some fifteen years earlier, when her mistress, Sarah, had given up on the laughable notion that she might have a child in her old age. Sarah urged her husband, Abraham, to take Hagar as a wife and have a child with her, so that there might be an heir. When Hagar did become pregnant and, thus, the center of everyone’s attention, Sarah grew jealous of her Egyptian maidservant, and Hagar fled from her into the wilderness.

It was there in the wilderness, beside a spring of water, that an angel first spoke God’s words to Hagar. I know. Do not be afraid. Return to your family. I will so greatly number your children that they cannot be counted. It was the same promise God had made to Abraham and Sarah, the promise that had once made Sarah laugh and that now haunted her. The angel told Hagar that the son she bore to Abraham would be named Ishmael, which means God hears, because God heard Hagar’s cries. And then Hagar named God right back, El-roi, which means God sees, because she marveled that God had seen her and that she had seen God.

Ishmael was nearly fifteen when Sarah, beaming, finally did give birth to her own son, named Isaac, which means Child of laughter. But Sarah’s jealousy returned when she saw the two boys together, and she demanded that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away, this time for good. I know. Do not be afraid, God said to Abraham, who loved his first-born son, the first star in his sky. I know. And so Abraham, before daybreak so that his tears might not show, he gave Hagar a waterskin and some food and sent her, with Ishmael, into the wilderness.

When the water was gone and Ishmael, weak from hunger and thirst, was in a fitful sleep, Hagar sat nearby and wept for her son as only a mother can. And, the story goes, playing lightly with its words, God heard the voice of the one named God hears. And God who sees opened the eyes of Hagar, and she saw a well of water. I know. Do not be afraid. Life and hope and a promise and a future were restored as she took Ishmael by the hand and helped him drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up…

The American family is not the first, then, to be as fragile and fractured as it some fear it has become. Indeed, much of Hebrew scripture reads like a southern gothic novel filled with patriarchs and matriarchs and servants and siblings-at-odds over inheritances or land or the family business. The lines that are their families, like the lines that are so many of ours, twist and turn and intertwine and become a tangled mess, strained sometimes to the point of breaking.

Indeed, we know, and perhaps some of us have experienced, that no one can hurt someone else like a member of their family can. Families share such intimate knowledge of one another, such history, such deep memories. And just as the question, “Who are your people?”, can define us, so can we find ourselves defined by – even find our identities consumed by – any rifts or rejections that have occurred between us and our people. Still, despite our own experiences of how complicated families can be, still we find Jesus’ words about family unsettling. One’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

I know, Jesus said to his disciples, whom he called sometimes his children. I know, Jesus says to us. I know. I hear. I see. Do not be afraid. Most of us have not faced rejection by our families for choosing to follow Christ. But, like our sisters and brothers in the earliest churches, we do face rejection by others who see no need for forgiveness in their lives, by others who believe grace is for the weak, by others who insist salvation is earned, by others who would not welcome a sinner at their table. Like our sisters and brothers so long ago, we face rejection by others within the household of God, the church, by those who believe they walk the way, understand the truth, and live the life more faithfully than we do. The gospel continues to divide families, not because it embraces only some, but because it embraces all. I know. I hear. I see. Do not be afraid.

We have an identity deeper than our deepest shared memories, deeper than our DNA, more defining than our people or our hometowns or even where we go to church, deeper than any rift that might ever divide us. Our true identity lies not in any of those things but rather in God’s love for us, a love so deep that it finds us in the wilderness, that it knows the number of hairs on our heads. We are, all of us, first and foremost, members of God’s household. In God’s family, all of our lines converge and God is the thread that binds us, weaves us, pulls us together.

The Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor writes about this family, and urges us to acknowledge something like this: I am a daughter, a wife, a sister, an aunt, a mother. These define and shape my life, but not one of them contains me. I am Jennifer. I am a Christian. I am a child of God, a member of God’s household. This is my true identity, and all the others grow out of it, are informed by it, and strengthened by it. Being a child of God is not a role we play. It is who we most truly are. I know you, God says to each one of us, mother or father, daughter or son, rich or poor, old or young, Egyptian maidservant or star-gazing patriarch. I know you. I hear you. I see you. I will not abandon you in the wilderness. Do not be afraid.

Who are our people? Our people are right here in this place, where we are reminded of our long history as the household of God, where we are given food for our journey into the wilderness out there. Out there, with Jesus’ disciples in all times and places, we are called to hear and see know those whom the world has rejected, but whom God calls children. Do not be afraid, we will be able to tell them as we reach across the rift and welcome them home. Amen.

Artwork: "Hagar and Ishmael", by Jakob Steinhardt.

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