Proper 7, Year A, 2014

Welcome to the latest installment of Real Housewives of the Old Testament!

Okay, so this piece of Genesis does not come out of Bravo’s studios, but it is quite dramatic. The lectionary—our Sunday readings—are going to stay in Genesis most of the summer. Because of when Pentecost fell this year, we have dropped smack dab in the middle of Abraham and Sarah’s story, so let me catch you up. Abraham and Sarah were called by God to follow him. He did not say where, he did not give them a road map or leave them GPS. And they did it! They picked up their household, all their stuff, and began a life of following God. God promised to make a nation out of them—that Sarah and Abraham would have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky.

There was one problem. Sarah and Abraham could not conceive a child. For years they followed God and God kept reiterating the promise, but it seemed totally laughable, especially since they were already in their 70s when God made his promises to them. So, Sarah hatched a plan. Deciding that clearly God had not thought everything through, she gave her handmaiden to her husband as an additional wife so they could conceive a child together. (What an anniversary present!) Abraham and Hagar had a little boy named Ishmael. Great, right? Well, no. As soon as Hagar conceived, she and Sarah began to fight. Eventually Hagar fled, but God told her to go back!

Years later, Sarah actually conceived and bore a child named Isaac. You would think that would solve everything, right? But no, Sarah sees Ishmael playing and laughing and cannot stand it. Ishmael represents a threat to Isaac’s inheritance, not to mention a reminder of her own poor decision making. Sarah asks Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael out. When Abraham checks with God, God reassures Abraham they will be cared for. God has gone through a lot with Abraham and Sarah. His goal is to be in relationship with a people and to see the promises he’s made come to pass. The narrative should have been Sarah and Abraham waited patiently, finally had Isaac, boom! promise delivered. Instead Sarah disrupts the plan and Hagar and Ishmael become victims of her regret. And so, they disappear off stage, bread and water in hand.

In another story, that would be the last we heard from Hagar and Ishmael. They don’t fit in with the covenant God has promised Abraham. Why do we need to hear the rest of their story? God may have had a plan for Abraham and Sarah, but our God is a God of love. Hagar and Ishmael may not be part of the covenant, but God’s attachments flow beyond his initial promises. We get a heartbreaking scene where the pair are out of water, so Hagar leaves Ishmael under a tree and walks away so she doesn’t have to watch him die. She weeps and weeps to God and the text says, “And God heard the voice of the boy.” This may seems strange, since it is Hagar who is crying. But the name Ishmael actually means “God hears”. I’m sure when Abraham decided to name him God hears he was thinking of the glory of God’s promise to him, but it turns out that God hears suffering, too. God hears the cries of those who have been shut out, manipulated, abused. God hears the cries of people who are shoved to the sidelines God didn’t just offer comfort, God made a nation out of Ishmael. God saved their lives and lifted them back into society.

God hasn’t stopped hearing the cries of those who suffer. He knows what grieves your heart. He knows the ways you fear for those you love. He knows the ways you have been betrayed. He hears your cries. Too often, we think we have to bear our suffering alone. We come to church, dressed to the nines. We greet our friends with a smile and a platitude, even when our hearts are breaking. One of the gifts we can give to each other as the Body of Christ, is to listen to each other’s cries. But that means someone has to cry first!

One of my favorite books about the power of crying out to God is Frederick Buechner’s Telling Secrets. In it, he tells the grueling story of his father’s alcoholism and suicide and the family’s subsequent silence on the matter. It is only when he begins telling the story of his father’s death, that he experiences true healing. As he reflects on his experience he writes,

I have come to believe that by and large the human family all has the same secrets, which are both very telling and very important to tell. They are telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition—that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are—even if we tell it only to ourselves—because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier that way to see where we have been in our lives and where we are going. It also makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own, and exchanges like that have a lot to do with what being a family is all about and what being human is all about.

 

We become more human, and more connected to ourselves and each other, when we tell the truth about our lives. But telling the truth can be very counter cultural. I can’t stop thinking this week about that picture of Richard Martinez and Peter Rodger that was released last week. Richard Martinez was the father of a young man killed by Elliot Rodger in Isla Vista a few weeks ago. Very soon after the shooting, he gave a very angry speech in which he held politicians responsible for policies that led to the shooting. For a few days his speech was admired as a remarkable outburst of articulate rage. Of course, since media cycles don’t like to admire anyone for too long, soon Martinez began getting criticized for not grieving appropriately, for seeking the limelight in a time where he should have been tucked away somewhere being appropriately sad. Instead of retreating and behaving in a way the world would think is appropriate, Richard Martinez had a private meeting with Peter Rodger, the father of the shooter. The two came out of the meeting vowing to fight for policies that help the mentally ill and stop the kind of gun violence we’ve seen too much of lately.

There is one picture taken of them at this event where their arms are wrapped each other’s shoulders and they stare at the camera with a gaze that captures all their grief and all their defiance. They are letting their cries ring out, and why shouldn’t they? What happened to them was the most excruciating event that can happen to a parent. In telling each other their stories, in crying out to each other, I hope the slow road to healing began. And I hope God hears their cries, and begins to heal them, and our country.

I don’t know all of you, but I know many of you, and I promise you no one in this room lives a life without suffering. We’re pretty lucky, I know. Many of us have income and a roof over our heads and people who love us. But suffering comes in many forms—conflict with a loved one, illness or mental illness of a loved one, loneliness, financial strain, being a survivor of abuse, physical impairment. My dream is that one day instead of dressing all perfectly for church, we would just walk in the room wearing T-shirts that named our suffering. How freeing would it be to realize we were all in this together, broken and crying out to God? Because God does still hear our prayers, but since we are the body of Christ, he may be calling us to be part of his answer. In listening to one another with love and care, we can embody God’s love and care for us.

May we be Christ to one another, bearing one another’s sorrows as we do our best to continue the journey of faith Abraham and Sarah and Hagar began for us. Amen.

Proper 19, Year A, 2005

Four years ago today, as I sat in my living room with a few good friends, watching the footage of two planes flying into the twin towers over and over again in what seemed like an infinite loop of media coverage, I could not have known the degree to which that event would exacerbate divisions between America and the Middle East or even exacerbate divisions within our own country. 

Western nations and Middle Eastern nations have lived in an uncomfortable tension for over one thousand years as each have vied for the same wealth, power and land.  Our latest conflict is rooted in a business deal struck fifty years ago between American oil companies and Saudi Arabia’s Saud family.  Western style capitalism and conservative Islamic social norms expanded side by side for fifty years until the inevitable explosion of violence we have experienced the last few years. 

Knowing how to respond to the Middle East can be confusing for us, since the violence is the work of a few terrorists, rather than entire nations.  A neighbor of mine is a high school counselor in a nearby county.  Her co counselor enthusiastically decorates the high school for Christmas every year-Christmas trees, Santas, baby Jesuses, you name it.  When her new principal informed her that she would also have to decorate for holidays such as Hannukah, Kwanzaa and Ramadan, she exclaimed, “I can’t decorate for Ramadan, we’re at war with Muslims!” 

Now, we’re not at war with Muslims. But for many Americans, 9-11 has shaped the way they view all Muslims, not just terrorists.  Christians are suspicious of Muslims because of 9-11 and Muslims are suspicious of Christians because of how they were treated after 9-11.  While not much overt violence happened, nearly every American Muslim I know received threatening phone calls, found people blanching in fear when they approached, or watched Christians cross the street in order to avoid them.  The conflict in the Middle East is a complicated one and won’t be solved in a ten minute sermon, but I think looking back at the earliest roots of the conflict will lend insight into all the conflicts our country is facing today.

As I did research on the history of this Western-Eastern conflict the last few weeks, I discovered that the Muslim people trace their heritage back to Ishmael-Abraham’s “other” son.  Let me refresh your memory of Ishmael’s story.  His story appears in the middle of Genesis and is a juicy one-not unlike something you might find on Montel. 

God called Abraham out of his native land and told Abraham that he would be the father of a nation.  Abraham was married to Sarah, who, as a practical woman, thought that God was off. . . his. . . rocker.  After all, Sarah and Abraham were elderly and childless and not about to make babies.  In order to help God with his plan, Sarah arranged for Abraham to sleep with Hagar, her maid, who would then be the surrogate mother for their child.  Well, eventually both Hagar and Sarah got pregnant and had their babies, and as you might imagine, Sarah soon started to think her life would be a lot better if she could get rid of Hagar and Hagar’s son, Ishmael.  She wanted to restore her place of power as Abraham’s wife and ensure her son Isaac, would be the head of this new nation. Accordingly, Sarah forced Abraham to kick Hagar out of the house and Hagar ended up stranded in the desert, where God promised to be faithful to her and create a nation from Ishmael as well as a nation from Isaac.

According to the Quran, this nation that descended from Ishmael later became the Muslim people. 

So, metaphorically at least, the very roots of the conflict between East and West spring out of a very individual, very personal conflict between two women who did not know how to forgive.

In our Gospel passage this morning Jesus tells the parable of the king who generously forgives the debt of a slave.  The slave then goes out and throttles a man who owes him money.

That’s so like us, isn’t it?  We have a hard time internalizing the fact that God loves us, forgives us, and blesses us.  Sarah certainly acted like this slave.  God blessed her with a reality beyond anything she could have dreamed-she a barren, elderly woman was not only forgiven for laughing at God, but she was also blessed with a son, ensuring her family line would last forever.  Instead of extending the graciousness she had been given by God towards Hagar, she becomes afraid that Hagar could threaten her blessing so she banishes her.

What if Sarah had been able to forgive herself for not trusting in God?  What if she had been able to forgive Hagar for her capitulation in Sarah’s scheme?  What if she had been able to forgive Ishmael for being born?   Would Jewish and Muslim people have been able to stay united in one religion?  Would the Crusades never have happened? Could 9/11 been avoided?

Obviously we cannot go back into time and change the course of our history.  What this story illustrates is the degree to which we each control our own lives and thereby the destinies of countless others. 

Now we humans love to have an enemy.  Remember the first Olympics after the fall of the Soviet empire?  It was kind of sad, right?  We didn’t know what teams to hate!  No East Germans, no Soviets. . .and those teeny Chinese gymnasts are just too cute to hate. . .

This enemy-making happens on the smallest scale.  Even in my own small development in Crozet, factions have developed.  As a renter, I catch up on all the latest Home owners association gossip when I run with some of the neighborhood women. There is constantly someone trying to make an enemy out of someone else.  Whether the conflict is between single family homeowners versus townhouse owners or the townhouse owners versus the builders. . .where there is not natural hostility, someone will manufacture hostility. 

We see this kind of enemy-making in our nation and even in the Episcopal Church.  Hurricane Katrina has unmasked hostility between whites and blacks in America.  The Iraq War has unmasked hostility between conservative and liberal Americans.  Bishop Robinson’s election unmasked hostility between conservative and liberal Episcopalians.

The good news is that this enemy-making is not inevitable.  The catch to this good news-is that any reconciliation between Muslims and Christians, blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives, single family home owners and townhouse owners is up to us.

Why?

This reconciliation is up to us because we are forgiven.  As Christians, we understand that though we owed God a huge debt, he not only forgives us, but he blesses us beyond our wildest imagination.  This positions us to relate to others in a unique way.  

People make enemies because they are anxious.  Sarah was anxious about Ishmael’s threat to Isaac.  We were anxious about the Soviets using nuclear weapons to obliterate us.  Single family homeowners in my development are anxious about the townhouses bringing down their property value.  Anxiety.  Anxiety.  Anxiety!

As people secure in the knowledge of God’s love for us, anxiety does not need to cause us to be threatened by other people.  As Christians, we know that we do not need power to be powerful.  We do not need money to be rich.  We do not need prestige to be important to God or to those in our church family. 

Like any psychological or spiritual truth, we can’t just say to ourselves, “Well, God loves me!  No more anxiety for me!”  To gain a deep knowledge of our loved-ness, we need to spend time in reflection, prayer and in reading Scripture. When we read Scripture, we realize that God loved a murderer (Moses), adulterer (David), a betrayer (Peter), prostitutes, tax collectors, and on and on.  The beauty of God’s forgiveness is that it enables a holy God to love profoundly un-holy people.  And when we know God loves us, we are enabled to love others.

Without anxiety, we can deeply listen to those who have different opinions from us.  Without anxiety, we can dream ways of sharing power that anxious people could never invent.  Without anxiety, we can be the bridge makers that help differing groups see the humanity in each other. 

And if we don’t act as the bridge makers, who will?