Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sermon; Proper 7A; Genesis 21:8-21

We have now officially entered the long green Season after Pentecost, or Ordinary Time.  The liturgical seasons that began on 1 Advent ended last week with Trinity Sunday.  Now it's nothing but green until the end of November.  And over the course of this green season, I plan to play a bit with the scriptures and sermons.

Before I get started, I want to give you some background.  The Episcopal Church authorized the use of the Revised Common Lectionary beginning on 1 Advent 2007, and mandated its use beginning on 1 Advent 2010.  The RCL is used in most mainline denominations, and some others, and it connects us to each other through its readings.  During the liturgical seasons (Advent through Easter), what we hear on Sundays will most likely be what is heard at Bethany, Newman, Calvary Lutheran and, often, St. Anne.  There's more flexibility in Ordinary Time, however.

Ordinary Time in the RCL uses a two-track system.  Track 1 arranges the first Lesson in a semi-continuous story arc.  Year A, which we are in, focuses mainly on Genesis and Exodus.  Year B focuses on David and Wisdom.  Year C focuses on the Prophets.  Track 2 tries to find a common theme between the first Lesson and the Gospel, regardless of where the Lesson is pulled from.

When I arrived in 2010, I made the choice to utilize Track 2.  For the past three years during Ordinary Time you have heard Lessons pulled from a variety of locations.  Beginning this year we will be utilizing Track 1.  So while not hearing the variety you've heard before, you will hear semi-continuous readings from single sources.  I can't say for sure, but, with how I'm planning on preaching through this season, this might be the first time this congregation has been intentional in hearing the first Lesson.

I say all this because I want you to know where the readings are coming from; to let you know that they aren't random, but that, for the next three years, there will be an overall story arc in the first readings that you can follow from week to week through the season.  I also want you to know that I plan to play a little bit with the sermon and the lectionary.  Basically I am asking you to journey with me as we get into material and places you may not have been before.

For the next nine weeks I will delve into the readings from Genesis.  Most of them will be familiar, some will not be.  Most of them, I think, are difficult as they address jealousy, infanticide, sibling rivalry and sibling reconciliation.  For my part, I need to work with readings I’ve never preached on to come up with something that holds a message of the good news.  For your part, I am asking you to come to church ready to listen to stories, remember where you've been and think about where you might be going.

After all that . . . let's get started.

First – we need to get caught up.  The cycle for Year A began with the story of creation, which we heard last week.  It then moves through the Flood, the call of Abram and God's promise of children to him and Sarah.  That brings us up to today with the conflict between Sarah and Hagar and the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael from the presence of Abraham.

There has been a lot written on this story.  Over in Galatians, Paul uses it as an allegorical tale comparing Hagar and Sarah to slave and free.  He says they represent two covenants and he ultimately concludes that Christians are children of the promise (Sarah), born of the Spirit, and not subject to the enslavement of the Law (Hagar).

In a historical and political sense, this is an origins story about Jews and Arabs.  The Jews were the chosen people of God through promises made.  The Arabs were people outside of that promise.  A lot of the conflict we see today between Jews and Muslims goes all the way back to this story.

We can allegorize it and spiritualize it all we want.  We can see it as the beginning and the reason for why two groups of people are in perpetual conflict.  But none of that opens up this story to the good news.  That doesn't mean that we look to insert Jesus into every biblical story we read, but it does mean that we look for the presence of God and where good news might be in every biblical story we read.

The story itself is harsh.  Abraham, at Sarah's request, has a child with Hagar, their slave girl.  Eighteen years later, Sarah has a child of her own.  Becoming jealous and fearful of Hagar and Ishmael, she demands that the two of them be banished from the family.  What we have, on the surface anyway, is a story where the privileged (Sarah/Isaac) forcibly remove the underprivileged Other (Hagar/Ishmael) from their presence.

Where is the good news in this story?  In this story of jealousy and marginalization, to what can we point and say, “God loves you?”

God's promise to Abraham was to pass through Sarah.  Abraham, not trusting that promise, acted on his own and used Hagar to conceive children (or, a child, as the case may be).  Ishmael and Hagar are eventually forced out of the presence of Abraham and left out on their own in the wilderness.

But in that story, it's important to note that Hagar and Ishmael are never forsaken by God.  God comes to Hagar and says, “Be not afraid.”  God promises Hagar that Ishmael will become a great nation and then opens her eyes to life-giving water.  Ishmael eventually has twelve sons, beating the twelve sons of Jacob by a generation, and showing that God can and will work through outcasts and Others.

In this story we are reminded that God's chosen people will come through Abraham and Sarah.  It will be through this line that all the families of the earth will be blessed.  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their line are God's chosen people to perform this very special task of spreading the good news of the kingdom to all the world.

Ishmael and his line are not God's chosen people; but they are God's people, loved, protected and cared for just the same.  Ishmael and his line are not us, they are them.  But those people, Them, the Other, have the same ancestor as us, and God loves them equally.

Christianity, through Paul, often asserts that we are heirs of the kingdom through adoption.  Some strands of Christianity have taken this to mean that Christians are the new chosen people of God.  If so, then we have an obligation to treat our relatives, the people around us, the people of Ishmael, with love and respect.

If we are heirs of the kingdom, if we do claim Abraham as our forefather through adoption, if we do see ourselves as God's chosen people, then let us walk before God as Abraham did, announcing God's blessing to all those we meet; including those whom we thought to be cast out and those whom we think are outcasts.



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