A Sermon for 2nd Sunday after Pentecost Proper 7,
Track 1: Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17, Romans 6:1b-11, Matthew 10:24-39
I want to think I’ve heard it hundreds of times, some character in a maleficent mess says: All I want is to get my life back. I went looking for a good story setting within which to put the quote. My initial Google search produced 1.3 million hits, from movies, to AA teen, to self-help books, but not one good story. Oh well.
We are all familiar with Jesus hard saying
Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
There is no question that Jesus is speaking literally, he knows his teaching are revolutionary, and that is life threatening under Roman rule; he knows his teachings are counter cultural and that it will disrupt tradition and cause descent within tribes and clans, between friends, among families, between parents and children. Today we are rather lucky in that following Jesus is not revolutionary engendering death sentences from authorities. (Harrelson Matthew 21:20) However, truly following Jesus can disrupt what we believe to be the closest most intimate relationships. Following Jesus can lead folks in to circumstances where they’d just may say: All I want is to get my life back.
The story of Hagar and Ishmael is the intertwined stories of Hagar and Sarah both of whom want their life back. It all goes back to impatience. God has promised Abraham an heir, it’s been decades, no heir. At Sarah’s urging he conceives a son with a surrogate mother Hagar. All is well, for a few months, until Sarah notices the attention Hagar is getting, and has Abraham drive her from the camp. God tells Hagar to go back and humble herself toward Sarah. She does. Some years later Sarah conceives and bears Isaac. Three years after that, at Isaac’s weaning ceremony, Sarah sees Isaac and Ishmael playing together, and for an unstated reason she determines Ishmael is a threat to her son, and once again has Abraham throw Hagar and Ishmael out of the camp, driving them into the wilderness to die. Again God hears the cry of the distressed, he shows Hagar where water is to be found, and promises her that Ishmael will also grow into a great nation. She believes him, gets the water, raises her son in the wilderness, gets him a wife from her native Egypt, and he becomes the father of Ishmaelites, the forbearers of Islam. (Schifferdecker)
Sarah, wants her life, and the life of her son, Abraham’s second son back. Actually she wants the life she imagines they should have, but don’t because she and Abraham got anxious about God’s sense of timing. She takes action. She persuades Abraham to drive them into the wilderness, and certain death. He is not thrilled about the idea, none the less is unable to stand up to Sarah’s rage and acquiesces. It appears as if Sarah gets her life and Isaac’s life back. At least she thinks she does, it’s just two stories later, the beginning of the very next chapter when Abraham takes Isaac into the wilderness for a sacrifice with no animal.
Hagar’s and Ishmael’s journey back to life is very different. Their lives are lost, Hagar is so sure they will die, and she distances herself from Ishmael so she won’t have to witness it. The text reads as if he is a child, though the timing of the story indicates he is a teenager, perhaps 16 or so. (Petersen and Beverly Roberts Gaventa Genesis 21:10) Either way, their lives are over. We hear how God hears “the boy” speaks to Hagar, Do not be afraid. leads her to water, and assures her Ishmael will live; which assures her of life also.
What I find so intriguing is that it is the foreigner, the Egyptian salve, who seems to hear and obey God while the chosen family, Abraham and Sarah, follow the devices and desires of their own creation. A twist that bears some additional reflection, perhaps another time.
There is no doubt about the real threat of losing life, of death, especially for Hagar and Ishmael. However, there is also a secondary thread about the threat of loss of life style, to both Hagar and Ishmael, and to Sarah and Isaac. Ishmael is Abraham’s legitimate oldest son, remember he is born to surrogate mother, he is not the results of an illicit relationship. Sarah’s ferocious desire to ensure Isaac’s divinely proclaimed place threatens Hagar and Ishmael. Conversely, Ishmael’s very existence is a threat to Isaac’s life style, as the chosen son, Sarah’s fear is not missed placed. (Harrelson Genesis 21:8)
Both those threads are in woven into the background of Matthew’s gospel account of Jesus’ sending the disciples into the mission field. I believe it is the threat to life style that is the greatest threat to Christian life here and now.
Stanley Saunders writes:
From the moment we are born, we learn to fear the world around us. … Jesus recognizes that fear will also cause the failure of discipleship.
The threat of death may be the most powerful form of fear. …
just before getting to
… the call to discipleship renders secondary all other claims upon one’s identity … (Saunders)
In short our life and life style are secondary to following Jesus. It’s a bothersome realization, because so much of our life style is deserved, we’ve all worked hard for what we have, for the most part we love our families. It’s bothersome because we are deeply committed to our life style choices, ever been in political debate? It’s bothersome because it puts the Gospel imperatives ahead of the Constitution, our political allegiance our economic ideology, our sports loyalties our school allegiances every aspect of every relationship or value we hold, even those we hold unawares.
In Friday New York Times Jessica Zitter blogs of an encounter with a patient who is dying. In spite of following the carefully crafted medical protocols the medical team almost made the wrong decision. It was not a medical error, it was not knowing all the family circumstances.
I realized then that I needed another checklist, one that puts patients, and not just their organs, in the center. It would account for the human needs that we weren’t always taught to prioritize, ones that didn’t seem fatal if overlooked — clearly identifying the patient’s next of kin, communicating with the family and identifying the goals of care, asking about symptoms like pain, delirium, shortness of breath. My critical oversight would not have happened had I sought out the social worker on the first day to confirm the true next of kin. He thought I knew. I thought I knew. We both were wrong. (Zitter)
What gabbed me was the realization that technology, science, and medicine are all life style choices that are secondary to the Gospel, secondary to our relationship with God, with Jesus, with the Spirit. It a reminder that everything should begin in our relationship with God. It’s hard to do when we are aware. It’s harder to do when we are unaware. But, it does not mean we are stuck.
Hagar believed her life, her son’s life were lost. She discovered God listens. When we learn our lives are lost, when we choose to give up life style choices we too will discover God listens. The journey to change is never easy, but we never go it alone.
I believe Dr. Zitter believes she will practice better medicine with a second protocol, that’s perhaps the primary protocol, that pays attention to patients’ family relationships. I believe we will find better life styles choices we will live better lives with a another life style choice that’s perhaps the primary life style choice that pays attention to our divine relationships.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Petersen, David and Beverly Roberts Gaventa. New Interpreters’ Bible, One Volume Commentary. Nashville TN: Abbingdon Press, 2010. ebook.
Saunders, Stanley. Working Preacher Commentary on Matthew 10:24-39. 16 June 2014. web. 16 June 2014.
Schifferdecker, Kathryn. Working Preacher Commentary on Genesis 21:8-21. 16 June 2014. PDF. 18 june 2014.
Zitter, Jessia Nutik. “Who Can Speak for the Patient?” New York Time (2014). <http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/06/19/who-can-speak-for-the-patient/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0.>.