June 21, 2020 The Third Sunday after Pentecost

The Third Sunday after Pentecost
June 21, 2020
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

(Note: I appreciate very much the reflections and input of Rev. Linda Fabian and Rev. Dan Clendenin whose exegetical and cultural insight helped shape this sermon.)

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

From the Book of Genesis, “Then God opened her (Hagar’s) eyes and she saw a well.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     Today is one of those of occasions when preachers fret over the scripture lessons for the day. I mean let’s be honest here. Our reading from Genesis tells of not only Abraham’s abandonment of Ishmael, his firstborn son, and Hagar, the mother of his son, but also his sending them out into the desert where they face an uncertain future. Then there’s St. Paul’s letter to the Romans where he basically scolds his hearers urging that they get over themselves and start living like the redeemed people they claim to be. And then there’s our gospel reading where Jesus says, “I have come to set a man against his father” – now there’s a great theme for Father’s Day - , and a daughter against her mother.”  Oh yeah, great scripture lessons. And what really amazed me is that the more and more I studied these lessons, prayed, and tried to get a sense of what they are saying to us in these days of unrest in our churches, homes, communities, and nation, the Spirit kept drawing me not to our Gospel or Epistle lessons, but to the story of Hagar and Ishmael. And so my prayer this morning is that as God opened the eyes of Hagar, our eyes will be open to what it is that the Spirit of God desires to say to us.

     Like many of you, I was raised in a Christian home where, very early in life, I was taught to obey the Ten Commandments. Those commandments given by God who said in Deuteronomy 5:1 “… you shall learn them and observe them diligently.”  And growing up it seemed that my Dad’s favorite was the 5th Commandment: “Honor your father and your mother”… (Deut. 5.16). It had to be his favorite because he reminded me of it all the time. I recalled that 5th commandment when I read Jesus’ words in today’s gospel lesson. It sounds like Jesus is preaching disobedience but, in reality, he is speaking about a higher relationship than one’s parent.

     See, in Jesus’ day traditional families were made up of generations living together. And each household was ruled by the oldest male. By tradition, the oldest male was the spiritual head and patriarch of the household.  And his authority was absolute. He made sure that everyone in the household had clearly defined roles and responsibilities based upon their direct relationship to him. Patriarchs assigned everyone a place in the household and society. And that place defined who you were.

     Now, the downside of such patriarchies is that they pushed women to the edges of social significance so that they rarely had voice in the life of the greater community. In addition, the life memories of that oldest male meant that past enmities and feuding was passed on from generation to generation. So, this system, a system that defines who a person is, was often sexist and filled with distrust and hatred for others. It is to this family system that Jesus addresses his comments in our gospel lesson. He says, “No.” In God’s kingdom, who one’s parent is does not determine who you are. What determines who you are in life and how you choose to live is based upon a higher relationship: your relationship with God. The God who loves so deeply that he will never abandon you and has counted the hairs on every head. The God, who through our baptism in Christ, St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, has “raised us from the dead so that we might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). A new life determined not through biological, social, or economic relationships, but rather, solely upon our relationship with God who urges us to love, to show mercy, to forgive, to heal, to strive for justice, and cling to hope.

     And that brings us to our reading from Genesis. Now, to fully understand the story of Hagar and Ishmael we have to back up to the 16th Chapter. Don’t worry, I am not going read all 5 chapters to you. Instead, I am going to offer the “Fr. Allan” version of this story. And here it is: God promises Abraham that he will father a great nation. But after time passes by without an heir, his wife Sarah decides to take matters into her own hands. She suggests that her young Egyptian servant, Hagar, bear Abraham’s child and get this great nation promise moving along. She tells Abraham to go for it, he does, and Hagar gets pregnant. And that’s when the trouble starts.

     See, in ancient culture, while status for women came through marriage, a higher status came through childbearing. So, while Hagar started out being lower in status than Sarah, upon becoming pregnant, those roles were reversed. And Hagar was all too happy to remind Sarah of that cultural reality. She looked down on her. And, in turn, Sarah became abusive. So much so, Hagar ran away. Well, God finds Hagar and tells her to go back and then promises that her son will also father a great nation. Hagar comes home, and gives birth to a son who is then named Ishmael – a name that means “God hears.” And life for Abraham settles down again. About 10 years pass by and lo and behold, Sarah gives birth to Isaac. And according to Hebrew teaching, while the mothers didn’t get along, Isaac and Ishmael did. They were brothers.

     That brings us to today’s lesson. Isaac is now old enough to be weaned and Abraham throws a party. Everyone is happy. But then, Sarah sees Ishmael teasing Isaac as brothers do, and all sorts of cultural norms come suddenly into mind. She remembers that birthright laws are very clear: Regardless of what one’s parents desire, the oldest son inherits everything. The oldest son becomes the Patriarch, the spiritual head of the family, and decides who will do what in life and who they will be. Sarah is determined that kid will not be in charge of my son Isaac. She demands that Abraham get rid of them both. He agrees. He gets up early, gives Hagar a skin – a jug - of water, a chunk of bread, and sends her and Ishmael into the desert. Soon they run out of food and water, and the sun is beating down on them. Their situation has become hopeless. Hagar places Ishmael under a bush, walks way off, sits down and begins to weep. But remember Ishmael’s name: God hears. God hears Hagar’s cry and Ishmael’s cry, and intervenes. God hears, God speaks and tells Hagar to lift up and cling to her child. Then God touches Hagar’s eyes and suddenly, a well appears out of nowhere and they are saved.

    And that’s where I find this story timely for us as Christians, as people of God, living in these days of pandemic, utter social upheaval, and increasing violence and political discord and distrust. It tells us that no matter how we are treated by others, no matter how uncertain our future may look, when things have become so dry and parched and bleak that we are close to death - God hears! God hears and then speaks and tells us to hold on and hold on tightly to hope. Just as God tells Hagar to lift up Ishmael, we are to lift up those things that we think are beyond hope to the one who is our hope and allow that hope to touch our eyes so that we see differently.

     I have a favorite quote from the children’s book, The Little Prince. “What makes the desert beautiful … is that somewhere it hides a well … But eyes are blind.” (To see it, to find it, to drink from it) “One must look from/with the heart”. Hagar allowed God to touch her eyes, and she was able to look with her heart, she found and embraced hope, and saw the well. And Ishmael’s offspring became a great nation, just as God promised.

     Being willing to look with heart, to see the wells in our deserts, is a challenge because all too often, being in the desert feels like being deserted. As my colleague, the Rev. Linda Fabian, reflecting on this story and what it is like to be in a desert writes, “How can we believe in living water when our souls are dry as dust? How can we believe in resurrection when all around there is death and destruction?” (Reflections on Genesis 21.)

     My beloved, today’s scripture lessons tell us that the God who hears is also the God who speaks and sees. And the God who speaks and sees is also the God who loves. The God who every day points us to a well in the midst of our own deserts. But in order to see it, we have to look with our hearts: hearts immersed in God’s love; hearts committed to walking in newness of life; a life no longer influenced by who knows whom, or who is related to whom, or the color of one’s skin, or country of origin, or gender, or anything else society uses to divide humankind, but rather, a life that by our very words and actions proclaims hope in the midst of the desert: “God hears and God sees.”

     “Then God opened her (Hagar’s) eyes and she saw a well.” May God open our eyes and by God’s grace help us to not only see the well in today’s deserts – in the midst of everything happening in our world now, - but to be that well, the well of God’s welcoming and uplifting love, and help others to see it, find it, embrace it, and be that well, too. Amen.