I am very grateful to have colleagues with whom to share the sometimes daunting privilege of preaching. When I looked at this morning’s readings, I wished that one of them had offered to preach today!
These are tough readings.
Our Old Testament readings this summer follow the saga of Abraham and Sarah, the great ancestors of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Today we heard the disturbing story of Hagar and Ishmael. Although God had promised her a child, as time went by, Sarah became more and more anxious about her inability to get pregnant and so she suggested that Abraham have a child with her maid, Hagar. That child, Ishmael, was almost a teenager by the time Sarah’s son Isaac was born. Tensions grew in the household and Sarah didn’t want the servant’s child around. So Hagar and Ishmael were thrown out into the wilderness with only a skin full of water. Fortunately for them, God heard the boy’s tears and provided a well of water.
Ishmael went on, according to legend, to be the forefather of the Arabic nations. At least that story of family tension and cruelty has a happy ending.
In contrast, the Gospel reading seems to go from bad to worse. I think it’s helpful to remember that this is still part of the lengthy talk that Jesus gave to the twelve disciples when he sent them out to the towns of Israel. First he gives them authority to cast out demons and heal the sick. Then he tells them that they will be persecuted but not to worry about what they are to say. In today’s reading Jesus points out that they will be treated as badly as him, encourages them not to be afraid, declares that he brings division not peace and finally says enigmatically, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Many people think that if they are walking closely with God everything will be easy and when things get really tough, as they sometimes do, they think they must have done something wrong, that God is punishing them in some way. These two readings point show that that simply isn’t true. Division and hurt in families has been going on since the time of Abraham and before; being a follower of Jesus certainly isn’t going to stop you being in some very difficult and painful situations.
It’s part of life. We would certainly prefer it not to happen, but when it does it is helpful to put it within the bigger story. It is not a personal punishment from God, even when it’s the result of poor decisions we have made; it is a natural part of living on this planet in mortal bodies among fallible people. Jesus suffered and as his disciples, we can expect to as well.
We cannot avoid the bad things that happen, we cannot control other people’s behavior. All we can do is change our own attitudes.
Jesus emphasizes that we need not be afraid. I’m sure that Hagar was very afraid as the water supply got lower and lower. We often get afraid of change, of loss, of pain. But the good news is that we are infinitely loved. Even when the worst thing we can imagine happens, we are still loved by God, completely.
How would it be to live every day as if God really loved us?
We could let go of all the posturing, the trying to seem important and the feeling that we should be doing more or different. We could be comfortable in our own skins, instead of feeling defensive, scared or nervous.
Don’t be afraid, says Jesus because some of the bad things that happen actually tie you closer to me – if the sin matrix tried to harm me, it will certainly try to harm you, my disciples.
And this is where we turn to that wonderful reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans. We have been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection. And we know that in Jesus’ death and resurrection he broke the power of the sin matrix, showing it up for the empty charade it really is. So we too can be free, not from the suffering that comes as part of living in this world, but from the grips of the sin matrix which would keep us confused, scared and the victims of violence.
There’s a teaching story about a monk whose monastery has been taken by armed soldiers. He continues to meditate until a soldier stands in front of him, sword raised and says, “Do you know that I can cut your hand off with one blow?” The monk replies. “Do you know that I can let you?”
Jesus took the power away from the sin matrix by refusing to respond to violence with violence and now we too can do the same. We can refuse to respond to the pain and suffering in our lives by giving in to violence in our minds or in our speech or in our actions.
Paul writes, “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin.” I know it often doesn’t feel that way. When I am struggling with my pet sins of gluttony and pride, I don’t feel free from sin. And of course, sin is our natural human environment. But because we have died in Christ, we are free from our enslavement to sin. Some people experience sudden and miraculous healing from sin and its effects, but for most of us the realization that we are free comes more slowly as we work to let go of our fear and violence.
When we are centered in Christ, knowing and trusting that we are already dead to sin but alive to God, we can be like the monk who kept his own power not by responding with anger or violence but by allowing his own death.
The trick is all in our inner attitude. If God loves us completely and unconditionally, then we can imitate Jesus. We can live out the beatitudes, we can be humble and powerful at the same time.
And that change in inner attitude comes through prayer and hard work. It is not enough to pray for God to make us patient; we also get to practice being patient. We get to notice when we are impatient and find new ways to talk to ourselves, not with anger and impatience but with the loving yet firm voice that the Holy Spirit gives us.
It is not only the outer persecutors who we confront, but the inner ones too. The Holy Spirit will teach us what to say to the inner voices of self-accusation. as much as the voices of those who hate us for Jesus’ sake. Perhaps the most important response to those inner accusers is that God loves us completely and fully. God sees the sparrows, God also sees us. God saw Hagar’s distress, God also sees ours.
We are not alone.
When we can stop hanging on to our lives, trying to keep our little egos satisfied, when we can live as though God really loves us, just as we are, then we will find our lives. There will be times of pain and times of joy, but when we choose to walk with Christ, knowing that we have died and been raised in him, we can allow life to live in us and through us and bring new life to all those around.
Whereas Hagar looked up and saw the well, we can be the well.