Sermon for June 22, 1014, Pentecost +2 A, on Genesis 21:8-21 and 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 unperceived by 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.”
“You may feel a slight pinch”
I’ve never preached from either of these two texts. I have felt about both of them the way Barbara Brown Taylor did who says (about the Matthew text) that this is:
“one of those passages I wish he had never written down.” – “Learning to Hate Your Family,” God in Pain: Teaching Sermons on Suffering.
Jesus seems to not be himself here. The “prince of peace” speaks of his purpose of bringing a sword of division – even splitting apart families. Why would he say such a thing?
And the same can be said of my discomfort with our lectionary text from Genesis. Sarah comes off looking almost evil, and Abraham is passive at best; but the truth is that he is actually complicit. But like them or not, these texts are here, and must be here for a reason. Maybe even an important one. So, let’s start with Genesis and then finish up with Matthew.
Let’s be clear: if you allow yourself to mentally inhabit the story world of Genesis 21, you will see that Abraham and Sarah send Hagar out, with little Ishmael, into certain death. Ethically, it would be the same as driving your car across the desert in Arizona with a mother and child in the back, stopping in the middle of nowhere and kicking them out. Everyone knows what would happen. You could probably be prosecuted for murder for that.
Worse, God himself tells Abraham to listen to Sarah and do as she wanted, which makes God complicit in the double-murder plot as well. Except that God has the power to intervene, which he does, just in time. Anyway, it’s very upsetting.
Upsetting on Purpose
What do we make of texts like this? My conclusion is that these texts are meant to upset us. They get our attention. In fact, they sting – just like the nurse’s needle does, in flat contradiction to what she always says before she pokes you with it: “You may feel a slight pinch.” – A pinch indeed! There is a reason she comes prepared with a bandaid: she knows that it will hurt, and that there will be blood. Can we let the bible be that needle-wielding nurse for us here?
Our Jewish ancestors had to wrestle with complex issues. Who are we, as “God’s chosen people,” people of the Abrahamic promise, living in the context of neighbors who are born of foreign mothers? The question this story wrestles with is: Do we have obligations as well as rights vis a vis our neighbors?
Rights and Obligations Together: Deal with it
It is fascinating to notice in the story, that the God of the promise – a promise which is beginning to be kept when Sarah gives birth to Isaac – affirms both the rights and the obligations of that chosen family. The God who intervened in the lives of old Abraham and barren Sarah to bring new life and fruitfulness also intervenes on the side of of the foreigners with mercy. God will not let the murder-plot stand.
In this story, God hears the cry of the suffering – even the suffering foreigner, and her son, and saves them. He goes beyond saving them. He provides for their future as well. God’s purpose to bless the whole earth is, as it turns out, not exclusive to the “chosen.” Ishmaelites are included. Is there a lesson in this?
This story may be a painful pin-prick, like the nurse’s needle, if it is allowed to speak. Perhaps it should inform Israel’s ethical thinking about their Palestinian neighbors today. Rights and obligations go together, this story says. And, God is watching, and God hears the cries of the suffering foreigners. Right now, what Israel is doing to Palestinians, demolishing vineyards, orchards, and family homes (with bulldozers they buy from us) so that they can seize land that they have no justified claim to, is causing great suffering.
The Orthodox, in Israel, who have such a public commitment to the study of Torah, might well turn to this passage about God’s intervention on behalf of foreign Hagar and Ishmael, and be ready to feel the sting of the needle and have bandaids ready.
Our Neighbors’ Children
But perhaps we Americans should also be rolling up a sleeve and letting the nurse approach us with the same syringe. We have our own issues with foreign neighbors. Does it sting to believe that we have not only our rights to consider, as legal citizens, but also obligations to fellow humans as well? It might.
Right now, news reports tell us:
“more than 47,000 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended at the southernmost border of the U.S. this year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The agency estimates that number will grow to 90,000 by the end of September.”
(source – Hannah Fraser-Chanpong, 3 CBS NEWS, June 6, 2014 online)
As a parent, I cannot imagine living in conditions so horrible that I would have sent my young sons away to risk what these children risk to get here. But conditions really are that bad, that dangerous, that hopeless in places like El Salvador and Honduras. Horrific drug-gang violence, on top of the normal endlessly crushing poverty, push the parents to this kind of desperation.
What is our response? It will not do, to simply to reply with conversations about constitutions and laws where human suffering is at stake. Let’s let this sink in: so far, this year there are already over 47,000 little Ishmael’s at our doorstep, without so much as a Hagar to help them, and they are crying out to, and being heard by the God of Abraham. Ouch.
For people of faith in the God of Abraham, immigration and border control issues are not simply issue of law and order. They involve real humans, and so include moral demands on us. I am fully aware that there are powerful people who want to turn this humanitarian crisis into a political football. Let’s be clear; we are talking about children.
So what about the other painful text we read, from Matthew? The one about Jesus breaking up families, bringing swords, and calling us to denial and crosses? Again, I think this upsetting text is meant as a wake-up call.
Of course there is exaggeration for effect here, but there is also a reason to use it. The issues are serious. I think that Richard Swanson got it right, saying:
“Just for the moment, imagine that the Bible is more substantial and interesting than a greeting card.”
He argues that this text is meant to provoke us.
Why would Jesus say such things? This text is set in the context of Jesus’ ministry of proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom, and sending out his disciples to conduct the mission of kingdom-announcement in his name. His entire mission has a motive: it is compassion-based. At the start of it, Jesus noticed that the people were suffering: like “sheep without a shepherd.” His mission and the mission he sends the disciples on is a response of compassion.
But Jesus is not embarrassed about the fact that the call of the kingdom will make trouble. It always has made trouble, where the kingdom has been taken seriously, and it always will – even in families. It is simply what happens when the message of the kingdom bumps up against vested interests.
Yes, we know
It is still true. We Americans have experienced this. In our country, families were split apart during the Civil War over the issue of the abolition of slavery. Families were split in the Civil Rights movement too. The kingdom of God does not come without costs. The costs are often far more painful than the slight pinch of the nurse’s needle; and the quantity of blood that gets spilled is beyond bandaid-level management.
Try to stand with minorities or oppressed communities, or oppressive policies today and watch what happens. Jesus, in Matthew’s telling of it, makes the point that his followers who take the Kingdom seriously should not expect to fare any better than their master, Jesus himself did. There was a lot of blood on the floor before it was over. Standing with the little people against the powers of empire entails crucifixions.
Not Greeting Card Faith
So let us draw back from the immediate verses and put them in a broader context. A life of faith, the kind of faith that Jesus practiced, did not mean a life without enemies; it meant an alternative response to enemies, namely, forgiveness. The enemies of kingdom values are real and can do damage up to and including spilling blood. The idea that forgiveness can be announced in this context is astounding. There is nothing greeting-card-ish about it.
The cycle of victimization, scapegoating and retaliation only stops when kingdom people do what Jesus did: absorb the impact and choose not to respond in kind.
It is true that retaliation feels good – it feels powerful, it feels self-righteous. It almost feels necessary. But is it right?
I recently spoke with a person who was in a traffic accident, caused by another, who sped off afterwards. The man said that it was a good thing he was not in a position to go catch the person who caused it, or else he would have “done something for which he might be in jail for today.”
In other words, revenge. I think he expected me to agree with him.
Well, I agree that the harm he suffered was real, and that the one who caused it should be held accountable. That would be justice. But his quest went way beyond justice. He wanted vengeance.
Of course he did. This is how our primitive brains are wired: to bite back, to have the last sharp word, to return blow for blow, pain for pain.
It may not fell instinctive for us to do anything besides striking back. In fact, it can feel as painful as taking up a cross to deny ourselves the vengeance we feel so entitled to, but to such a mission of forgiveness of enemies we are called.
Forgiveness is at the heart of Jesus’ message. Take that away, and perhaps you have a Hallmark card faith, but it has no power to transform us or the world.
This can be personal. Consider how many families that have been split apart could be healed if we were the first to lay down the sword and absorb the pain, and offer forgiveness? Is not this what it means to lose your life in order to find it?
What have we learned? These difficult and painful texts compel us to make complex decisions. On the one had, there are times which call for us to stand up for the Kingdom’s values even at the expense of divisions – even family divisions.
On the other hand, we do not relish conflict. When our enemies come after us, we do not play their game; we do not fight evil with evil. We do not believe the self-serving lie that “two wrongs make a right.” We, followers of Jesus, forgive wrongs done to us, has he taught us, and we keep pressing the case for justice and mercy.
We do this is because we have hope. We believe in the God of both Abraham and Sarah and the God of Hagar and Ishmael. We believe in the God who sees and the God who hears. We believe in the God Jesus believed in, and we trust him because we have been transformed by the message of the kingdom he proclaimed.
Ultimately having faith means understanding that it is not about me. It is about something much bigger. It is about living into God’s dream for the world. I can be a part of it if I am willing to answer the kingdom’s call.
And when I do, I will understand what is behind it, driving it, and motivating all of it: simply real love. The Love of a Father in Heaven who hears, and cares, and calls us to love with his kind of love – the love strong enough to deny oneself, to bleed, even on a cross.
The God who loved Abraham and Sarah and promised them a son, and who also loved the foreigner Hagar and her little son is the God who loves me and us also loves all the children of the world. How we work that out in practice is complex, but in the end, we understand that God is on the side of the suffering ones, and we accept the price it may require to stand with them.