June 22, 2014
- Second Sunday After Pentecost
- The Rev. Canon Mary Holmen
- Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1B-11; Matthew 10:24-39
Today feels kind of strange. It is the first Sunday after the Lent-Easter-Pentecost-Trinity cycle, which shapes and forms and informs the liturgical year. Now we are back in what some churches call “Ordinary Time”, a phrase I find quite useful. We move from the mystery of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and sending of the Holy Spirit, the mystery in which we participate by our baptism, as Paul says to the Romans in today’s Epistle reading, to reflect on how that mystery is lived out in our day to day lives. From now until Advent, with just a few exceptions, our readings will follow three different books of the bible more or less in course, that is, in a somewhat continuous narrative. Each reading is connected, not necessarily to the other readings of the day, but more to what comes before and after in each book of the bible from which we are reading. It feels to me as though we have been dropped into the middle of things, into the middle of a longer account that has been going on behind the scenes for quite some time. Just look at the chapters from which our readings for today are drawn – Genesis 21, Romans 6, and Matthew 10. It feels as though we have entered in the middle of the action. What has come before these readings? What is their context?
Today’s readings are not very comforting – at least I don’t find them all that comforting at first glance. They run counter to the belief held by some Christians that if you live your life in accordance with God’s word and keep all the rules, then everything will be all right. You will live in peace and quiet, and nothing bad will happen to you because you are being good. Today’s readings provide a faith answer to that naive way of thinking. There is conflict and suffering and more than a hint of death running through all of them.
First, we have Hagar and Ishmael. When Sarah was unable to bear Abraham a son, he exercised the legal option that was available to him of producing an heir through a slave woman, and fathered a son Ishmael by Sarah’s slave Hagar. But then, as we know, Sarah did become pregnant in her old age and gave birth to Isaac. Now, at the age of three, Isaac is being weaned. It’s an occasion for feasting. It is a time of celebration because the child has survived the vagaries of the uncertain existence of infants who were always among the first victims of any outbreak of disease, just as very young children are still among the first victims of an outbreak of illness in many parts of the world today.
Sarah sees Ishmael and Isaac playing together, and she perceives a threat both to her son’s inheritance and to her own security. She demands that Abraham cast out Hagar and her child. Abraham hesitates. Ishmael is also his son, a well-grown child several years older than Isaac, in other words not a toddler. Abraham loves his son, and ancient law prohibits such an action.
This is one of those stories that feminist biblical scholar Phyllis Tribble calls “texts of terror”. God reassures Abraham that Ishmael also will become the ancestor of a nation. The Arab people trace their ancestry back to Ishmael. What is happening in the Middle East today is fratricide. But this reassurance sounds suspiciously like rationalization to me. Remember the saying, “History is written by the winners?” This story is told from the point of view of the people of Israel, the descendents of Abraham through Isaac. It is the product of a culture in which slavery is the norm, in which women have power only through their husbands and sons, a culture in which a slave woman is doubly vulnerable, a culture in which unwanted or unfit children are left to die of exposure. Hagar and Ishmael are sent out into the wilderness with one skin of water, the harsh and unforgiving wilderness where death by dehydration can occur within hours. We hear the terror in this tale as Ishmael cries for a drink and Hagar weeps in anguish, unable to watch her child die. In her despair, it requires divine action for her to see the possibility of life in a desperate situation.
This story is a reminder to us that God’s plan is carried out in and through, and sometimes in spite of very human agents. It is a reminder that faithfulness is costly. Abraham’s faith was tested many times. Earlier in Romans, Paul remarks that Abraham’s faith never wavered, which always makes me smile. If you read the Genesis accounts, you can see that Abraham did sometimes doubt, did try to take matters into his own hands. Abraham was called to leave the security of home for an unknown country. Later he was called to sacrifice his son Isaac, the one on whom the promises of God depended for fulfillment. Along the way, others suffered so that Abraham could prosper. Abraham’s faith was costly both to himself and to others.
In the gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus says much the same thing to the disciples. While he is addressing the Twelve in this text, he is also addressing you and me.
Jesus sends the disciples out. He sends them out to speak. They are to speak of everything he has told them. What they have heard in the whispered intimacy of night time conversations, they are to proclaim from the housetops in the bright light of day. Nothing of what he has told them is to remain secret or covered up.
But it will not be easy. There will be a cost, a high and painful cost. They will be handed over for trial. They will be punished. Their families will reject them and side with their enemies. The world will treat them as it has treated Jesus. “If they call the master of the house Beelzebul – i.e. Satan – how much more will they malign those of his household!” Can we hear echoes of the lived experience of Matthew’s community, those first century Christians for whom Matthew is writing his gospel?
Nevertheless, Jesus assures them that they need not be afraid. For their willingness to acknowledge Jesus to the world, Jesus will acknowledge them before God who knows them intimately, right down to the hairs on their heads.
The answer of faith, then, to the naive, Pollyanna view of Christianity, the view that holds that being a Christian will ensure a life of peace and security and all good things – the answer is “Not so!”
Following God has always involved a high cost. It was true for Abraham 1800 years before Jesus. It was true for Jesus and the disciples 2000 years ago. The truth of the cost of discipleship gave Dietrich Bonhoeffer the title of the book for which he is perhaps best known. How could it be any different for us today?
Following Christ involves a cost because it cannot be done in secret. Following Christ involves public action; it involves all aspects of ourselves and our lives, the private and the public. Above all, it involves speaking publicly about the One who loves us and gives us life. And this is where the cost begins to make itself known.
We Canadians do not live in a society which uses the power of the state to persecute Christian proclamation. There are many places where Christians face arrest and punishment for proclaiming the Good News and the demands of faith. Yet the Good News is still proclaimed. In our society, the cost of going public with the Good News looks different. In most parts of this country, it has been a long time since Sunday morning was the time to gather and offer praise to God. Instead, it is regarded as the ideal time for brunch or hockey practice or running errands, or even for doing good works such as the many walks and runs for medical and other charities – like the Manitoba Marathon that was run last weekend! Imagine the impact for Christian witness if members of the faith communities were to arrive at one of these events fresh from worship, perhaps with banners or posters, and take part as Christians in these very worthy causes. Or imagine if some kind of interfaith worship were to be made available to those participants who wished to make a public witness of their motivation for taking part.
But, to this point at least, such options are not made available. And if you decline the brunch invitation or say your child is not available for the hockey practice or tournament, the cost might begin to become apparent. Your child would be off the team, isolated from his or her peers. Your erstwhile brunch partners might look at you with utter incomprehension. In our society, the cost of discipleship may take the form of exclusion, ridicule, or outright indifference.
And yet, to be a disciple means going public about one’s faith. We go public for three reasons:
- Because Jesus told us to. He does not allow us to keep our faith a private, secret matter.
- We go public because what we have insists on being proclaimed aloud. Knowledge and experience of God’s love cannot be kept silent. The world is sorely in need of peace, love, and reconciliation, and we have it to share. Even if we try to keep it quiet, it burns within us, yearning to be spoken aloud. The next time someone ridicules or misrepresents something about Christian faith and practice in your presence, try keeping silent. How do you feel? What happens within your conscience because of your silence? If you feel uneasy, perhaps even a little ashamed, that is God’s word burning to be spoken.
- Thirdly and chiefly, we go public because we want others to know and share what Jesus gave his life to share with us. Paul reminds us in today’s reading from Romans that Christ has won the final victory over death; death no longer has dominion over him. By our baptism, we share that victory because we also share in Christ’s death. And so we go public – in the face of ridicule, in the face of exclusion, possibly even in the face of punishment – we go public so that others may join us in the Good News of new life won for us in Jesus Christ. Amen.