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.
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/>.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 25 6 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
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/>.
Wikipedia. “Game_of_Thrones#Themes.” n.d. wikipedia.org. 23 6 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_of_Thrones#Themes>.