The Expendables

A sermon for Proper 7: Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 86:1-10,16-17, Romans 6:1b-11, Matthew 10:24-39

Sometime in the last week, as I was driving from one unknown point to another and listening to NPR, I heard a bit of trivia about George R. R. Martin, the author of The Game of Thrones. He wrote the entire series on a 25-year-old computer, that only ran DOS, using WordStar. It is good to know something older than 25 can still be creative.

I have only seen one episode of Game of Thrones. But, according the source of sources Wikipedia the episodes follow three broad story lines. The noble families are fighting to claim the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms, or for independence. Secondly, the last descendent of the ruling dynasty is exiled and plotting a return to the throne. The Final story line is about the ancient brotherhood that is pledged to defend the realm against their ancient enemies and the fierce wild beast of the far north. Their task is complicated by the impending winter that threatens everything. It is a lurid violent story (Wikipedia).

By all accounts it is a brilliant work of fiction. But, it is also a very ancient and all too common story line. You may recall that Herod, King of Israel in Jesus day, comes from a long line of a leading Jewish family. Which, by the way, includes women rulers. The family story is full of intrigue, political scheming within Israel’s political – religious circles and Roman political – military circles. As soon as Herod gains power he executes forty-five Jewish aristocrats who supported his adversary. He ordered a High Priest, who displeased him one time, drowned. He had several members of his immediate family killed as they tried to scheme their way to the throne. It was a complex line with 10 wives, 15 children and more than twenty grandchildren. Anyone who got in Herod’s way of establishing a dynasty was expendable (Sakenfeld). There is a similar line in the story of Ishmael’s banishment.

You know the story. Isaac is weaned and Abraham throws a big party. But, there is a dark shadow across the family. Sarah see Ishmael with Isaac, what he is doing is not clear (Gaventa and Petersen). Our reading says he is playing with Isaac, but that is not in the original text (Bratt, Schifferdecker, Harrelson). There is a tradition that implies Ishmael was mean to his brother, but it has no textual basis either. What is clear is that Sarah does not want Ishmael to inherit along with her son. Ishmael is the oldest, and by tradition, has a legitimate claim (Fretheim). She tells Abraham Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac (NRSV, Genesis 21:10). Notice Sarah does not refer to either Hagar nor Ishmael by their name, dehumanizing them as much as possible. In fact, nowhere in this story is Ishmael called by name (Bratt).

Abraham is reluctant. But, God assure him that Ishmael will receive divine grace and will also become a great nation. So early the next morning he gives Hagar a bottle of water, and a loaf of bread and sends her and Ishmael into the wilderness.

There is some confusion here, because Ishmael should be about least sixteen. Just before last week’s story by the Oaks of Mamre, Ishmael is thirteen years old. In the very beginning of chapter 21 , the end of last week’s lesson, Sarah conceives. Today Isaac is 3. 13 + 3 + 9 months is a least 16 years. So, how does Abraham put a sixteen-year-old on Hagar’s shoulder? How does Hagar cast the child under a bush?

There is a second mystery here. With Ishmael under a bush, Hagar moves off, because she does not want to see her son die. The next thing we know, God, having heard the voice of the boy, who the story does not have speak, asks What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid (NRSV, genesis 21:17). This is the only time in the story that Hagar, or Ishmael is called by name. God assures Hagar Ishmael will live and prosper, and also become a great nation. Her eyes are opened, and she sees a well, she has not seen before.

Ishmael does prosper. He becomes the father in law to Esau (Schifferdecker); the father of Ishmaelites (Schifferdecker) the Bedouin tribes to the south (Ellingsen) and by tradition the father of Islam (Schifferdecker; Ellingsen). Ishmael’s story continues as part of God’s often hidden story of interaction with all humanity and all creation (Gaventa and Petersen).

Hagar and Ismael are thrown out of their family, and with God’s help they thrive as a family of their own. What has my attention this morning is the fate of expendable people. Hagar and Ishmael were expendable people. For Herod, any family member with a claim to the throne was expendable. In Game of Thrones almost anyone was an expendable person. The challenge is how to we fulfill God’s trust given us with respect to expendable people?

There are lots of expendable people in today’s world. They are most often known as “them” or “those people” or anything else except a proper name. There are racial divisions in our country, state, county, and city. But, the biggest predictor of who being underserved, or expendable is economic status; and there are a lot of underserved people. In the US 15.5% of the people live below the poverty line, in Arkansas its 19% and in Mississippi county 26.6% of our neighbors live in poverty. For children, it is much worse. 21.9% of children in the US live in poverty, in Arkansas 27.6% of children live in poverty, and in Mississippi county [pause] 40.7% of our neighbors’ children live in poverty (Community Commons.) A lesson of this morning’s story is that no one is expendable. So why are there so many expendable people in the US? After all we are a Christian nation; and we are the wealthiest nation.

In this morning’s story from Genesis there is a conflict between the value of the promise God makes to Abraham and the value of the Covenant between God and Abraham. The Covenant exclusively involves Isaac. The promise includes both Ishmael and Isaac. Sarah resolves the conflict by declaring that Hagar and Ishmael are expendable and having them thrown away. God resolves the conflict by keeping both. The difference reveals a difference between human values and divine values.

Kathryn Tanner argues that there is core conflict between capitalism (and I think most human economic systems) and Judeo-Christianity. For capitalism

money is the universal equivalent, the value that underlies that of every other commodity. For Christians, “God is the universal equivalent of all objects of value” in that their ultimate, underlying value is to enable all our pursuits to be turned toward God (Pauw).

You have heard me talk about how we have commoditized agriculture, education, and now health care. If we listen carefully to policy debates in state and federal legislatures we can hear how every policy is framed by its monetary value. From Tanner’s perspective policy’s universal value is money. From this morning’s story of Ishmael and Hagar, we hear that all policies’ universal value should be God. And as Genesis tells us God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good (NRSV Genesis 1:31).

The move away from universal monetary value back to universal divine value will be complex and difficult. For one thing, we Christians do not agree on a divine value. But, there is place that we can begin, and it is simple. We should always refer to another person by their proper name, not some degrading “them” or “those people” or any other dehumanizing phrase.

A couple of weeks ago we explored how we are God’s partners in the continuing creation. It is significant that in creation it is man who names every living thing (Genesis 2:19). Naming is part of the creative process. Naming is part of tending to and nurturing and continuing the creative process. Calling those created in the image of God by their names acknowledges their divine value. And that which has divine value cannot be expendable.

I do not believe that every person can be called to be the father or mother of a great nation. The Bible tells us that every person, is valued by God. Therefore, every policy should treat every person as beloved of God. The monetary cost to till and nurture all creation is not to be ignored; however, it is not the ultimate universal value.

To treat everybody as beloved of God, to treat all creation with God as the universal value is divisive. It is a manifestation of the sword that divides families, friends, and neighbors, that Jesus refers to. It is also the most healing manifestation of how we can live into the trust God has given us. It is shalom for all.

References

Barrington. “Preparing for Eternal Glory, Third Sunday after Pentecost.” 25 6 2017. Sermons that Work.

Bratt, Doug. “Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Genesis 21:8-21.” 25 6 2017. Working Preacher.

Community Commons. “(Community Health Needs Assessment .” 11 10 2016. Community Commons.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 25 6 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 25 6 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Fretheim, Terence E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary; The Book of Genesis. Ed. I. Vol. XII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. App Olivetree.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 25 6 2017.

Lewis, Karoline. Not Peace but a Sword. 25 6 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Pauw, Amy Plantinga. “How Kathryn Tanner’s theology bridges doctrine and social.” 5 7 2017. christiancentury.org. <christiancentury.org /article/how-kathryn-tanner%E2%80%99s-theology-bridges-doctrine-and-social-action>.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Schifferdecker, Kathryn M. Commentary on Genesis 21:821. 25 6 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Wikipedia. “Game_of_Thrones#Themes.” n.d. wikipedia.org. 23 6 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_of_Thrones#Themes&gt;.

 

 

 

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I Just Want My Life Back

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.

He continues:

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.

She writes:

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.

 


Works Cited

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.&gt;.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                 

Losing Life to Listen

This morning I read an article in the New York Times about the treatment of a patient who was not going to recover. The medical team spoke with the patient’s sibling who responded “He’s a fighter. Do everything you can to keep him alive.” The story continues:

The next day I told the social worker what the patient’s sister had said. “What about the wife?” the social worker asked.

That was the first I’d heard of a wife. A spouse is the official next of kin. No decision should ever be made without the spouse. (JESSICA NUTIK ZITTER)

 
The patient’s wife was contacted and the decision to release him to hospice care at home followed.

Dr. Zitter writes about her check list for complex medical cases to ensure she provides the best and appropriate care. She continues:

But despite my checks and balances, I had almost allowed the wrong person to make crucial decisions for this vulnerable patient. And I had nearly excluded a wife from her rightful place on her husband’s team. Missing this crucial piece of information would have caused far more suffering and damage than any miscalibration of a ventilator.

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. (JESSICA NUTIK ZITTER)

 Frist, I am draw to this week’s story from Genesis and God listening to the voice of the Ishmael and Hagar driven into the wilderness to die. I am reminded that in all decisions we are called to list for the voices of the other, especially the marginalized, and as Dr. Zitter experienced the ones we may not even be aware of.

As I scrolled through the PDF of this week lectionary the reading from Matthew’s Gospel account appeared first. The divine muse gifted me with the thought that here is another bit of life to lose. I.E. in our technology drive, profit motivated world we are called to give up their priority, placing God, and God’s listen ear first in our lives, so others may be heard and seen as God sees and hears all people.

 


 

Bibliography

JESSICA NUTIK ZITTER, M.D. “Who Can Speak for the Patient?” NewYork Times 20 June 2014. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/06/19/who-can-speak-for-the-patient/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0.