Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, June 25, 2023

YEAR A 2023 pentecost 4

Pentecost 4, 2023
Genesis 21:8-21
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Remember last week how I was saying Sarah and Abraham are heroes of the faith for us?  And remember that cute story about how Sarah got caught laughing at the absurdity of God’s generosity?  And how we can all sort of identify with her?  That was really great, wasn’t it?

An amazing story of how God brings hope to those who have no reason to hope.  How God fulfills promises that are seemingly impossible.  Life comes only through promise, and promise comes only through the actual bodies of the hopeless ones.  A baby is born to a couple who are “as good as dead.”  They have no reason to hope, they have no reason to dream, which is exactly the time God steps in.  It’s an inspiring story, and a reminder that babies can often bring hope to the world.  But then today, that happy, hopeful story goes south.  It all comes undone.

Some background though:  before all this happened, Abraham and Sarah could not have children, for whatever reason.  So Sarah arranges for Abraham to have a son with her handmaiden, Hagar, and the boy is named Ishmael (which means, “God hearkens”).  Then, as we heard last week, because of God’s generosity, Sarah has a son of her own, Isaac.  An unexpected blessing in her old age.  But, as we heard today, Sarah is worried that the “illegitimate” son will usurp Isaac’s birthright, since Ishmael is older.  And so, Sarah tells Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, which he does.  Last week’s cute story of hope and laughter has given way to today’s unthinkable rejection of Abraham’s first son.

After they are sent off into the desert, Hagar runs out of water, and knows her son will die.  She can’t bear to watch this, and so she puts him under a bush and goes off a good distance to watch him die of dehydration.

We’re a long way from Sarah’s claim that “all who hear will laugh with me.”  When Ishmael was Abraham’s only son, Sarah was fine with that.  But after the birth of Isaac, after the unmerited abundance of God’s unwarranted blessing and grace, after she gets everything she ever wanted . . . she turns.

Sarah’s fears about the future lead her to treat Hagar and Ishmael as “other.”  Just look at how she says it:  “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”  You notice who doesn’t get names there?  We heard, “this slave woman,” and “her son,” versus “my son, Isaac.”  Sarah is saying, I got what I wanted, and now I have no need of these others.  Get them out of my sight.  

As we sit midway between Juneteenth and July 4th, I can’t pretend not to see the obvious connections to what goes on in our own country.  What has been going on in our country for 400 years, actually.  The parallels are glaring, and they are real.  We have used enslaved people for our own needs, to build things and harvest crops.  We have stolen people’s land and sent them away to live on reservations.  We have quietly welcomed migrants to work the land and in the meatpacking plants, while telling them they are not welcome.  And once we got what we wanted, we turned our backs on these “others.”  As a country, we have said, “Now please keep those other children out of sight and off our streets.”  And then we invented redlining, and housing agreements, and reservations in order to see that it gets done.

There was an article in the Repository this past week about neighborhoods of persistent poverty in Stark County.  Places where people are stuck in lives below the poverty line for generations.  I printed the article and a map and posted them under Outreach in the parish hall for you to take a look at.  The one neighborhood in all of Massillon that classifies as trapped in persistent poverty is five blocks south of our church.  It’s right there in front of you if you drive straight on Third Street, if you don’t veer left onto Walnut.  But who ever does that?  Not me.  Persistent poverty straight ahead, and I veer off to the side.  Just like Sarah, not my problem, once I got what I want.

And when we focus solely on our own children, when our invented fear of scarcity makes us turn inward, we say that the other children don’t matter, take them away.  Lock them up.  Let them go die in the food desert, now that I can see that I will be okay.  And if hearing me say that upsets you . . well, I don’t know what to tell you, because it upsets me too.

Sarah’s fear makes her reject the other child, the child who is suddenly not her own.  And we dare not judge her, because we are the same way.  Our own fears lead us to reject these other children, the ones who are suddenly not our own, now that we have what we want.  Don’t those kids have bootstraps?

But then . . . here comes God.  The angel calls to Hagar from heaven and asks, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.”  Heard the boy whose name literally means, “God Hearkens.”  And as we saw, now she sees there is water in the desert; Hagar gives it to Ishmael; and the boy lives.  And what’s more, God says, ”Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”

Sarah looks out at the world as a zero-sum game.  If I am going to win, somebody else has to lose.  If God blesses me, someone else must be cursed.  In order for me to succeed, I must dominate, belittle, trample, and destroy.  This is a very human way of looking at the world.  If God is going to make a great nation out of Isaac, then Ishmael must die.  So limited; so small; so pathetic.

But God says, I will make a great nation of Ishmael too.  With God, it is never either/or, it is always both/and.  God bless my children, and my neighbor’s children.  God bless America, and the other nations too.  We cannot control God’s unwarranted, unmerited grace.  God will bless whomever God chooses.  And it’s best not to get in the way of that.  God does not abandon the people we ignore, because God can make a great nation of them as well.  If that strikes us as unsettling, well . . . good.  Because God is about life, and hope, and mercy, no matter how much our fears get in the way of seeing that.  Fear changes us.  And not for the better.

And speaking of fear, Jesus said, “Whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”  That’s pretty unsettling, isn’t it?  I’ve heard plenty of speakers at youth gatherings use this text to scare kids into being complete jerks about sharing the gospel.  Militarized good news.

It’s kind of tempting to use this Gospel text in a frightening way, which might explain why so many people do.  And, the text sets a nice trap for the blissfulness of youth:  “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”  You see how they are all the younger being set against the older?  It’s almost a set-up for someone to tell kids that they need to hate their elders.  What is up with that, huh?

Well, there’s a recklessness when we’re young.  Not caring what others think of us.  A kind of rebelliousness that makes you get on a motorcycle with a drunk friend at your graduation party and end up in the hospital.  (Hypothetically.)  Over time, as we grow up, we start to see that in order to be accepted by those around us, we have to play some cards closer to the chest and play by the rules.

You know, not let you know what I’m afraid of.  Not let you know my concerns about my job, or my health, or my future.  What keeps our society civil is a certain amount of secrecy . . . or, you know, propriety.

So, now you’re asking, “Where is this going, anyway?”  Thanks for asking.  We all have our various individual fears.  Some irrational fears, some totally rational.  But, if we’re honest, we especially fear being known.  Or, being fully known.  We hide our fears, and hope no one notices.  And yet, in today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.”

But there’s something else in there that seems out of place at first.  Jesus asks, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Now, as I’ve said before, God’s hair counting gets easier each year for some of us.  But here’s an interesting thing about the hair on your head and the sparrows outside your window:  They keep on changing and replacing and regenerating and on and on.  It’s not as if you are born with 1 million hairs and that’s all you get.  Your hair is constantly falling out and getting replaced.

And the same is true for the sparrows: it’s not like the same sparrows come back to our feeder year after year.  There’s a constant turnover.  At our one little bird feeder.  In our one little town.  Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from God.  Not one sparrow will fall to the ground apart from God.

The sparrows are known.  All of them.  Each and every one of them.  The hairs on your head are counted, each and every one of them.  There is an intimacy in these images that can be comforting.  And yet they both call to mind that phrase from Jesus, there is nothing secret that will not become known.  Fully known, fully loved, never apart from God.

And this leads us back to Sarah and Isaac and Hagar and Ishmael.  And to the people living in persistent poverty five blocks south of us.  Although Sarah can send Hagar and Ishmael off into the desert, claiming never to have known them, they are still known to God, still loved by God.  Though Sarah can turn her back on the ones she no longer sees as valuable, God turns to face them instead, still loved by God.

Hagar and Ishmael are fully known, fully loved, never apart from God.  You are fully known, fully loved, never apart from God.  And the children who still cry out for justice in our country are fully known, fully loved, and never apart from God.  May God give us the will and the strength to lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring with the harmony of liberty.


No comments:

Post a Comment