Sunday, June 21, 2020
Lectionary 12, Year A

Prayer of the Day
Teach us, good Lord God, to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labor and not to ask for reward, except that of knowing that we do your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Readings and Psalm
Genesis 21:8-21 The rescue of Hagar and Ishmael
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
Romans 6:1b-11 Buried and raised with Christ by baptism
Matthew 10:24-39 The cost of discipleship

Title:  Hagar’s Life Matters

Last week we began reading what is called the semi-continuous first reading.  Throughout the summer and early fall, we will work our way through those first two books of the Bible:  Genesis and Exodus, and hear the stories of our early forebears of the faith.  And just like so many series on Netflix and Amazon Prime with which we are filling our hours and days of lockdown and isolation; I feel like we should always do a little catch up reminder, a “Previously on” to make sure everyone is caught up with this semi-continuous saga of faith and folly.  So, with that in mind, I offer you – Last week, we saw Abraham and Sarah hosting a visit from God.  Sarah laughed when God promised that Sarah would yet have a child, regardless of her old age.  However, God had the last laugh when Sarah did indeed give birth to Isaac, whose name derives from the Hebrew for laughter.

Today we rejoice with Sarah. We can share in Sarah’s laughter and joy as she coos over that newborn after so many years of disappointment.  As we heard read, Abraham is certainly rejoicing as he throws a big party for his young son having reached the great milestone of being weaned.  (Of course, in days of high infant mortality, this would be an occasion worthy of celebration.)

But oh, how our story takes a dark turn as we look deeper into today’s reading.  Sarah, who we are happy to rejoice with, who we want to see love and cherish her long-longed-for son, sees only scarcity and threat rather than the abundance of God whose promise was fulfilled in that baby she is loving.  She seeks to hoard the blessings and expel anyone seen as competition.  And suddenly we are not rejoicing for Sarah but rather weeping with Hagar.  A brief flashback story – Hagar was Sarah’s Egyptian slave who, when Sarah was not able to conceive, was given to Abraham by her mistress so that he might father a child for an heir.  (Strange as it may seem to us, this was an accepted practice in the local cultures of the time.)  But now that Sarah has conceived, Hagar and her child are seen as a threat.  And Sarah demands that this loyal slave be put out, dispelled from the household, no longer a recipient of the blessings of the household that she helped to build up.

Now before we sharpen the nail on our condemning finger in preparation of pointing it at Sarah, let us step back and look at ourselves, our country, our church.  It is a perfect time for such self-examination as we not only hear the protesters in our street calling for justice, speaking truth to power that Black Lives Matter; we have also just marked the fifth year anniversary of the Massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church where nine members were ruthlessly gunned down in the name of racism, and Friday there was renewed energy and emphasis given to Juneteenth and the celebration of the end of slavery in our land.

With all this in mind, I ask:  Are we who participate and who benefit from the systemic racism, who continue to watch the oppression and destruction this evil causes, are we any different from Sarah who we are about to judge and condemn?  When I say we, I am speaking of white America and descendants of Europeans around the world who live in the wake of those explorers who – during the age of discovery – traveled the world laying claim to lands that were already home to a rich variety of indigenous people, who laid claim to peoples themselves and enslaved them for their own benefit, who saw themselves and their culture as superior in every way.  That is the we of whom I speak.  So now, consider the parallels that we have with Sarah and her treatment of Hagar that we are ready to condemn:

Hagar is a slave who is forced to do what her owners are not able to do for themselves. In early America, black bodies were forced to do the work that plantation owners and others were not able to do for themselves. Today, work that is looked down on, unwanted by others, work that is dangerous in the midst of pandemic, this work is forced on black and brown people and they are being payed offensively low wages.

Now that Hagar’s purpose in the household is diminished, Sarah has determined she and her son are no longer needed, she is turned out, with barely any compensation for the role that she has played in the hour of need, and she is left to die with no concern from those who benefited from her work.

Again, the parallels are clear with our own land and its sin-filled history.  Slavery ended, and without any regard for contributions made, or for hardships, or for lives uprooted, people were set free with no compensation, no means to build a life, set free into a wilderness of racially-based hatred, discrimination, Jim Crow laws, and lynchings.   Ishmael was set under a bush to die.  How many sons and daughters were left hanging under a tree to die?

How like Sarah we are.  We doubt God’s promise and God’s abundance, and in fear, we use and abuse others to fill our perceived needs.  We see the threat in others, even though we are surrounded by benefits and blessings, and so we needlessly and viciously attack, oppress, and suppress.  We are fearful of those who are different from ourselves.  We push them away rather than building relationships and healthy communities where all are provided for. We fail to see Christ in the other who is different from us.  Sure, we offer welcome in Jesus name, but then expect the other to become like us.

Perhaps there are more parallels.  There is certainly much to confess.  There is much to examine and reorder in ourselves -in our minds and hearts, much to change in our country, much to reform in our church. This work is not easy – not easy to hear, to admit to, to change.  But as we hear in today’s Gospel, Jesus knows that following in his way, being his disciple, bringing God’s reign and God’s justice to the world is not easy.  It causes division before it brings the rich peace that is promised. But by losing this life of sin (that which Paul teaches is not for us to passively continue to live in), by dying to sin, we gain new life in Christ, the life that I spoke of last week the deserves all our nurturing.

This morning, rather than just a passing call to leave this evil behind, I invite you to join me in taking time to look at ourselves, with eyes opened by scripture and Spirit, and to lament whole-heartedly, with a desire to truly die to this sin of racism, so that we might nurture a new life in Christ that we are called to live for the sake of the world.  Join me in praying this confessional litany developed by our national church.  Please respond to my “And so we cry out” with the response:  Have mercy, O God, have mercy on us.  So, let us pray…

God of mercy and love, remembering the Martyrs of Mother Emanuel, those killed and wrongly incarcerated by our law enforcement, those living under the burden of slavery’s legacy, we are grieved again.  Hearing our role, we are in pain and anguished, lamenting the horror of evil unleashed. And so we cry out…Have mercy, O God, have mercy on us.

Evil besets us in our land.  We acknowledge that our nation is socialized in ways that promote and normalize colonization.  We cry out against the horrors and agonies of racism.  And so we cry out…

The privileged of our nation have benefited from practices that dehumanize indigenous peoples.  We have claimed as “discovery” lands that were not ours.  These lands have been stolen and the nations, that were the original occupants of these lands, slain. And so we cry out…

Tribalism has led to the denial of your presence, O God. Present generations, the children whose ancestors were kidnapped and sold into slavery, those forced to labor not on their own behalf, still suffer and struggle to live in freedom while the children of colonizers, live out of white privilege, denying the fullness of your presence in all people. And so we cry out…

Assaults born of greed and murder continue propping up white privilege that is institutionalized in our church and nation, preventing us from recognizing the twin evils of racism and nationalism still perpetuated among us.  And so we cry out…

Open our eyes, O God, open our hearts. Open our ears, O God, open our minds. Help us to behold one another as you behold us.  Help us to be more firmly rooted in the practices of the gospel – so that, when we pray, the way we live will make real the dream of your beloved community within and among us. And so we cry out…

With the help of your mercy and grace, lead us to think, believe, and change. May your gospel’s transforming power by the working of the Holy Spirit be present in us, in our churches, in our nation and all the nations of the earth.  May it be so.  And let the people say “Amen.”

The God who brought water of refreshment and sustenance to Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness, this God, through Jesus Christ, brings water of new life to us through baptism, and through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, we are sustained for all the journeys – pleasurable and difficult – that we are called to undertake.  And know that God keeps his promise to Sarah, not based on her behavior, but because of his steadfast mercy and most amazing grace.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, answer the call to follow Jesus, answer the call so that each one of us, and together as a diverse community of faith, we might truly share the love of Jesus with all creation.

The Rev. Mark Erson,

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