Weekly Preaching: June 25, 2017

June 21st, 2017

My, my... Genesis 21:8-21, Romans 6:1-11, Matthew 10:24-39. Whichever text you choose, you will find yourself a very long way from the simplistic, formulaic spirituality people are so fond of, and maybe yearn for you to dispense. If you believe that going to church, believing in God, saying a few prayers and doing your best to be good will make you and your family happy, you will be mortified by any one of, much less all three passages in Sunday’s lectionary.

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Genesis 21 begins so happily, with little Isaac (yitzhaq meaning “laughter”) bringing giggles of joy to his parents who had laughingly scoffed at the possibility a child might happen. But then (and the Bible always, like life, has a “but then” lurking), Hagar and Ishmael are still hanging around, of course. Sarah’s jealousy rages and she presses Abraham to get rid of them. The Lord seems to concur (raising again our constant question of whether the Bible writers heard God accurately or not…).

The poignant pace of the story is haunting: he rose early, took bread (a loaf?) and a skin of water (again, not a lot) and placed them on her shoulder, and sent her and the lad away. “And she went wandering through the wilderness of Beersheba,” a dry, parched zone. She hid her boy under a tree, hoping to predecease him. “She raised her voice and wept.” But notice what verse 17 then says: “God heard the voice of the lad.” She wasn’t the only one wailing. The cries of all children, everywhere, who are thirsty, who are abandoned — all their cries are heard by God, and must break our hearts (Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision: “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God”). They survive, a sign of God’s unconventional grace, albeit in the face of Abraham’s henpecked cruelty. He was willing to lose Ishmael; would he be willing (in chapter 22) to lose Isaac as well?

Preaching here is peculiar: we need not tie things up in a nice bow with a moral, a cute lesson. The Bible describes what life is really like. God is there, not as a fixer, and often misconstrued. People survive... or not. God’s world is darkness and light. Every time we claim some blessing (“I got the job!”) someone else was the loser (“Why can’t I get a job?”); celebrate the gift of health, and you do so within earshot of someone who was just diagnosed with something lethal.

I will try to look at broader social ills and how we regularly, even if unaware, banish today's Hagars and Ishmaels. Robert Caro, in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Power Broker, tells the story of Robert Moses, the astonishingly powerful New Yorker. The story includes why the Long Island Parkway wound up where it did. It was supposed to go in a certain direction, until some wealthy barons bought off Moses and got him to relocate the highway. So instead of running through their huge acreage, it plowed through the property of small farmers, who lost everything. Every city and state has similar stories. Caro's haunting conclusion? "Regard for power implies a disregard for lack of power."

Who’s who in this Hagar story? Israel, in Egypt, looks a lot like Ishmael, outcast and thirsty. When Jesus is born, he plays the role of Ishmael more than Isaac in some ways: fleeing to the desert, harassed, endangered, not received by his own. The Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 feels like Hagar’s descendant. Who are the outcasts today? Not whom are we to help (an important question), but who are the bearers of God’s way in the world?

I would not distract people by trying to tie Ishmael and Isaac to modern day Islam and Judaism. The “families of Abraham” model isn’t ideal to bring interfaith understanding, as Abraham’s family, as this text attests, was dysfunctional and hardly in love with one another.

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Romans 6 is one more building block in the construction of Paul’s cathedral of theology — and could we find a bleaker view of human nature? Americans feel darn sure they are fresh and able to do and be good, but Paul explains we are enslaved. As we draw a beat on July 4, the U.S. festival of freedom, pastors need to expose what freedom is, and isn’t. The freedom of the will debates were won, not by Pelagius or Erasmus, but by Augustine and Luther.
The freedom you feel is like the freedom of a prisoner: I’ll go to this side of my cell, oh, and now I’ll sit down over there in my cell. You’re still in jail, still in bondage to sin, self and death. St. Augustine famously stole some pears, and he saw in that act the way sin happens, how we are unable not to sin. It isn’t that we freely choose Christ, or that Christ endows us naturally with freedom to make choices. Christ sets us free; not to do as we wish, but for humble obedience.
This isn’t harsh counsel. This is loving, pastoral care. People try to live as if they are free, masters of their world, but are continually haunted by their inability to stop drinking, to stop being anxious, to manage their kids, to make the marriage work, to stay healthy. How liberating, this word that you’re stuck — like everybody else. Maybe it’s a relief that the Bible portrays families that are more often broken and dysfunctional than not; maybe people will hear much mercy in that.
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And the goal, evidently, isn’t the happy family. I’m unlikely to preach on the ominous Matthew 10, not because it's an uncomfortable text, but sometimes you just gotta pick a lection and go.
Clearly Jesus isn’t a family values kind of guy here. Jesus didn’t come to insure a placid life. He sows division. Christian history is populated with stories of divided families: Francis against his father Pietro, Augustine against his father Patricius... and there likely are people in front of you who understand family division, even caused by faith or the lack thereof.
Have you, the preacher, suffered family division because of Christ? I know my decision to enter ministry was greeted with intense opposition from my father; do I tell this in a sermon? Have there been marital or parenting woes that have grown from the soil of your life in ministry? I’m not sure you tell these things in the sermon. But to be in touch with it, to know the feelings is so crucial, so life-giving to those before you when you’re preaching; it's the gut sense they get that you ‘get’ them.
Regardless, there is an idolatry of the family that provides a curious shelter from the living God. And that same idolatry of the family ostracizes those who are single, widowed, divorced, abused…. and thus pushing them away from that same living God. Jesus came to create a new family, his Body. Our families then find their place, or their healing, or their replacement as we enter more fully into his Body, our true family. How to preach this gently, and in inviting ways? How do we embrace the Hagars and Ishmaels, and even the Pietros and Patriciuses?

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.
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