Sermon Seeds: Daring Discipleship/God Hears, God Cares
Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Second Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 7
Genesis 21:8-21 with Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17 or
Jeremiah 20:7-13 with Psalm 69:7-10, (11-15), 16-18
Sermon on Genesis 21:8-21
For more reflection material, see our Facebook page.
Daring Discipleship/God Hears, God Cares
by Kathryn Matthews Huey
It’s really too much for one sermon, isn’t it? This long passage brings together a number of sayings of Jesus to create a set of instructions for “the twelve,” his apostles, the ones we’re familiar with (Peter, James, John) and the ones we don’t know very well (Bartholomew, Thaddaeus, Simon the Canaanite), before he sends them out on a mission that is not without its risks.
Matthew writes for a community that claims a relationship – a kind of kinship – with these apostles, who gave up everything to follow Jesus. This little community of early Christians listens for how God is sending them in their own turn, a generation or so later, and they’re undoubtedly wrestling with how much they may have to give up, too, and what the risks are that they will run. Perhaps they’ve already paid a price for being disciples of this Jesus, especially if their family ties are strained or broken by their new faith commitment. Family ties were even more important in that time and culture than they are today, if we can imagine such a thing. And broken relationships meant more than hard feelings and spoiled family functions and fights over inheritances: they could be a matter of life and death in a culture where family identity and connections protect you from the many dangers in life.
Matthew makes Jesus sound as if he’s sending his apostles out on a dangerous mission. “Indeed,” Holly Hearon writes, “the references to words told in secret, bodies killed, and oaths of loyalty sound like they belong in an espionage film.” But Hearon ties such ominous talk to the apocalyptic hopes of the beleaguered communities, living under the thumb of the Roman Empire (or any empire that crushes the “little ones”), who yearn for, and count on, a day of vindication. Of course, the day of vindication promised by Jesus in these verses has to do with the truth, with light, with full knowledge and openness (New Proclamation Year A 2008).
In the meantime, following Jesus was a costly thing to do in that time and place, a world broken and pressing down upon them, a world desperately in need of good news. It was indeed a risky thing to do, too, as David Bartlett writes: “Matthew’s Gospel was written in part to encourage synagogue members to risk separation from family and friends in order to follow Jesus. Christianity was not just counter-cultural; it was dangerous” (New Proclamation Commentary on the Gospels). We accept the idea that there were early Christian martyrs who gave up their lives – literally – for the gospel. But there were also those lesser-known Christians, the everyday, ordinary ones like most of us, who suffered loss of family, place, security, “respectability,” because they embraced a faith that challenged social structures, including even the stability of the family itself.
We often hear about “family values” in our own culture, and family is of course a good thing. Most of us would agree with Richard Swanson that family is “what must be honored for the world to hold together…there is a dance done by parents and children that acts out the stable and orderly love of God so that people grow up knowing in their DNA that God is good and loving. This holds the world together” (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew). Even more then than now, family also provided security and safety because people knew that they had to stick together and face every challenge as a “household,” not as vulnerable individuals. It’s understandable that the fragility of life reinforced the value put upon family ties, and fraying those ties endangered not just the individual but the strength of the whole group. If you were an early Christian and found yourself expelled from your family, however, you would have also found yourself with a new family, with the loyalty and support of that new family surrounding you, and God at the head of your new household. Jesus knows how frightening all of this would be, and so does Matthew, so these words of the Gospel reassure them repeatedly not to be afraid.
Marcus Borg adds another layer to the “conventional wisdom” of security and identity that family provided in that culture. Yes, the Bible and the tradition of the community may reinforce and “justify the means” we use to establish and maintain our security, but, he says, “Jesus taught another way.” The counter-cultural teaching of Jesus challenged those “primary allegiances cultivated by conventional wisdom” that protect us and make us less anxious. Is it any wonder that the Bible keeps telling us not to be afraid? Anxiety sinks us deep into the “the quest for security,” Borg says, and, lamentably, “anxiety, self-concern, and blindness go together” (Jesus: A New Vision). This would be an interesting question to explore: what does this teaching of Jesus say about the canonization of the family that “good Christians” consider a core value of their faith? It’s not a comfortable question!
Fred Craddock offers a slightly different take on this passage in Preaching through the Christian Year A: He observes that “Jesus gave his call for loyalty over against the strongest, not the weakest, claim a person otherwise knew, the claim of family love. Jesus never offered himself as an alternative to the worst but to the best in society.” Perhaps Jesus wanted to touch on the most basic, most heart-connected part of human life, and then to teach us that even deeper, even more important, even more powerful than that, are the love of God and the demands of faith.
Charles Cousar, however, does not seem to think that Jesus put the family up on a pedestal or “provide an unequivocal reinforcement of family cohesiveness.” On the contrary, “Jesus calls into question an idolatry of the family and warns that the gospel may divide rather than unite the home.” In this showdown, the good news of the gospel sounds a bit like bad news, because “there is no encounter between the new order and the old that will not at some level be fraught with conflict, division, and pain…” (Texts for Preaching Year A). As usual, Jesus’ word makes us uncomfortable, just like the faithful, religious people long ago who were offended by so much of what he said and did. It may be that we need to remember that we have more in common with them than we’d like to think.
So how do we make sense of this somewhat distressing passage? Barbara Brown Taylor calls it a “burr from Matthew’s Gospel…one of those passages I wish he had never written down.” As always, she wrestles with the text and comes out with an elegant understanding of its claim on us: “I am a daughter,” she writes, “a wife, a sister, an aunt, and each of those identities has shaped my life, but none of them contains me. I am Barbara. I am Christian. I am a child of God. That is my true identity, and all the others grow out of it…you are God’s child first. That is no role. That is who you most truly are…” (“Learning to Hate Your Family,” God in Pain: Teaching Sermons on Suffering). But claiming that identity, and living faithfully into it, can have consequences in a world of empire and fear, in the first century and the twenty-first as well. As much as we all long for family, in whatever shape or form that takes (one thinks of “families of choice,” especially in the GLBT community, where so many have been rejected by the families they were born into), Taylor says that “Jesus’ demand remains the same. We are to love him above all other loves, and if that means losing those we love, we are not to fear, because buried in the demand is a promise: that what we lose for his sake we shall find again, returned to us more alive than ever before.”
By the way, Taylor is even more thought-provoking in her sermon on Luke’s version of this message from Jesus, about families being broken apart, and swords cutting our world in two. It’s hard for us to connect this unpleasantness to being “good Christians,” and we certainly don’t want our lives, and the world we inhabit most of the week, to be too upset by the things we hear on Sunday morning or read each evening before we go to sleep, if we’re in the habit of ending our day with the Bible. Reading her sermon reminds me of that phrase, domesticating the gospel, which seems like another way of saying that we conflate it with good behavior, good citizenship, and maybe simply not causing trouble…and just following orders…it’s not too hard to see where this can lead. As Taylor says, “Sure, it is the gospel, but there is no reason to get all upset about it….There is absolutely no reason to go make a spectacle of yourself….” Perhaps the part about a sword is the most difficult part, but Taylor helps again: “The gospel is not a table knife but a sword. It can set free and it can divide. The gospel is not pablum. It is powerful stuff, powerful enough to challenge the most sacred human ties, but as frightening as it is, it is not finally to be feared…” (“Family Values” in Gospel Medicine).
I’m reminded of the 1990 film, “The Long Walk Home,” about the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, Bus Boycott and the struggles, even divisions, within families, churches, and communities when some people were willing to go all the way for the sake of what was right and just, and others were not. Not just unwilling, but unable to see the difference – and able to see themselves as “good Christians” in either case. Still, we know that God hears what we say, and sees what we do, and God cares about it all. It matters to God.
And so it comes down to what sort of Christians we’re going to be. Thomas G. Long challenges us on exactly that question, for “the gospel shakes up values, rearranges priorities, reorients goals. The gospel is not a salve; it is a sword that pares away all that is not aligned to the kingdom (Matt. 10:34), and this often causes strain and strife in family relationships” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). Who wouldn’t want to avoid strain and strife and swords? No wonder that we try to keep our faith “private,” even when confronted with injustice and suffering, but David Holwerda claims boldly that “being silent lacks compassion for the crowds and constitutes a denial of Jesus” (The Lectionary Commentary on the Gospels). Most of us will not face martyrdom in any dramatic way, but we still make a hard choice in deciding to claim the name of Christian. Richard Swanson brings all of this together: “Just for the moment, imagine that the Bible is more substantial and interesting than a greeting card. Imagine that biblical stories are more challenging than uplifting, that they give life by provoking their audiences out of their dogmatic slumbers…” This passage, he claims, means much more than simply, “Love God a lot” (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew).
How does this passage sound to you here, in the beginning of the 21st century, in a country and conditions far different from those Matthew experienced as he provided instructions from Jesus to his disciples? Do they sound as if they don’t apply to you and your congregation, to all of us here in the church, when our nation is perceived as “mostly” Christian, or Christian in some cultural, but not too specific or uncomfortable ways? Did the martyrs and heroes of the early church have a different call from ours? Does discipleship have to be costly? How has it been costly for you, and for your congregation, and for the “heroes” in your own life? Thomas Long notes that the expression, “the cross,” appears here for the first time in Matthew (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). What do we Christians mean by that phrase today? In what ways have the people of your church experienced “the cross”?
Much of the dissension and division and even persecution experienced by Christians today, including within families (“man against father, daughter against mother”), is actually from other Christians who do not agree. How do we most faithfully respond to that situation? What is your greatest loyalty? In the first century, the family had primary importance, so the words of Jesus lift the call to love him above the greatest good, not the lowest good. That’s how it is with “great” discipleship. In what ways has the call to follow Jesus changed (or not changed) the decision-making in your personal life? In the life of your church? What things had to give way, and what relationships had to be seen in a different light? What was the cost of that decision?
Fear may disable us at times, but Jesus reassures us of the ultimate importance and value of all that he offers, and the ever-present care and concern of the One who watches over and guides us on our path. No power compares to God’s power, which extends far deeper and far beyond any power on earth. We may face persecution, rejection, criticism, and even hatred, even violence, for the sake of Jesus, but it will be nothing that he did not face himself, he says. In a “mainline” church and an affluent nation, how and when have we experienced ourselves as persecuted, rejected, criticized, or even hated? How is God still speaking to us today, centuries later and far away from the situation of the earliest Christians, calling us to faithful witness and persistent discipleship? In what ways do you experience God’s love as tender and watchful, even in the face of hardship and deprivation, uncertainty and division?
Eugene Peterson’s beautiful translation of this passage ends with an exquisite summary of Jesus’ most encouraging and comforting words, words that encompass both the great issues of life and death, and the smallest moments of compassion and care: “Don’t be bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies. There’s nothing they can do to your soul, your core being. Save your fear for God, who holds your entire life – body and soul – in his hands…This is a large work I’ve called you into, but don’t be overwhelmed by it. It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing” (The Message). What is the “large work” you are doing for the sake of the gospel today?
(It really is too much for one sermon, isn’t it?)
For further reflection:
Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out, 21st century
“[Jesus] had no romantic notion of the cost of discipleship. He knew that following Him was as unsentimental as duty, as demanding as love.”
Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, 21st century
“The trouble with deep belief is that it costs something. And there is something inside me, some selfish beast of a subtle thing that doesn’t like the truth at all because it carries responsibility, and if I actually believe these things I have to do something about them. It is so, so cumbersome to believe anything. And it isn’t cool.”
John Howard Yoder, Radical Christian Discipleship, 20th century
“Jesus’ cross was the price to pay for being the kind of person he was in the kind of world he was in; the cross that he chose was the price of his representing a new way of life in a world that did not want a new way of life. That is what he called his followers to do.”
Martin Luther King Jr., 20th century
“Our only hope lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”
John Piper, John Calvin: And His Passion for the Majesty of God, 21st century
“We would do our theology better if more was at stake in what we said.”
Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity, 21st century
“In every historical period, the religious groups that grow most rapidly are those that set believers at odds with the surrounding culture.”
Sermon on Genesis 21:8-21
“Three Hundred Feet: A Message for General Synod 28”
by the Rev. Dr. Laurinda Hafner, Senior Pastor, Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ, Coral Gables, Florida
A favorite story of mine is about a woman and her husband who, while traveling, interrupt their vacation to go to a dentist. Explaining to the dentist, the woman said, “I want a tooth pulled and I do not want any Novocain and I do not want any pain killers because I am in a hurry. Just extract the tooth as quickly as possible and we will be on our way.”
The dentist was most impressed and said, “You are certainly a very brave woman. Which tooth is it?” The woman turned to her husband and said, “Honey, show him your tooth!”
When I think of that poor husband, I can’t help but think of Hagar, the central character in our Genesis text this afternoon. All around her people are making decisions for her life – painful, excruciating decisions. Bill Moyers, as usual, is right when he says of this particular biblical story, “It’s the stuff of a cheap novel and a fast read.” After all, it’s all there – two women sharing a bed with the same man, betrayal, moral indifference, desertion, class differences. I daresay not even Nora Roberts could come up with such a saucy, intriguing, page-turner of a story: the kind that’s read on a leisurely day at one of our beautiful Florida beaches.
On the one hand, we have 91-year-old Sarah, who has been with her husband Abraham a long time…and as we all know…familiarity can breed contempt. Then there is Hagar, the younger, more exotic woman. And even though she is nothing more than a slave, an “object” that belongs to Sarah, she probably has good muscle tone and the ability to put a spring in the step of old, old Abraham.
This melodrama begins when Abraham and Sarah are unable to conceive a child, which is a problem if you’re going to be the parents of a great nation. So in keeping with ancient Near Eastern tradition, Sarah gives her favorite slave, Hagar, to Abraham, to procreate by proxy. Sure enough Hagar gets pregnant and bears a child named Ishmael…but even more, she bears for Sarah, insecurity, egoism, and bitterness. Things soon erupt out of control and what once seemed like a good idea suddenly becomes a hotbed of jealousy. As soon as Hagar is able to give Abraham what Sarah is not able to, intense emotions pit one woman against the other. They become the Mean Girls of ancient times.
And then, as if the story isn’t complex or intriguing enough, Sarah gives birth to the miracle child, Isaac, and begins to treat Hagar even more harshly. Now that Sarah has her own son she doesn’t want her family to include these foreigners. While the camel has been strolling around this story for a while, it’s hard to pinpoint the actual straw that breaks its back. I am sure each of us can remember a family gathering when a lifetime of family politics hits the fan. For Sarah, it was at the weaning ceremony of Isaac. That was it. Her jealousy and fear that her husband’s first-born, Hagar’s child, would take something away from her and her son, drives her to guerilla warfare.
What a hostile home! Two women scorned and no one to run interference. But of course, Sarah is going to win this one…she and Abraham are established, rich and powerful. They have flocks of sheep and goats; they have tents and slaves. And she’s got the years on her side – she knows how to push Abraham’s buttons. So Abraham simply shrugs his shoulders and leaves Sarah to resolve the dispute. In the midst of her jealousy Sarah loses her moral compass, becoming physically and psychologically abusive. She distances herself from her favorite slave and from her surrogate son. She dehumanizes them, and then concludes that there is no room for Hagar and Ishmael in her life with Abraham, and she tells him to turn them out to die in the desert.
Abraham doesn’t exactly shine as father of the year in this chapter of his life. Stephen Sondheim reminds us musically that our children learn from us by watching us, by what they see us do rather than the things we say to them. So with a pathetic gesture, Abraham gives Hagar a little bread and water and throws her out into the desert with her son. In that wilderness the inevitable happens. The bread and the water run out. The young boy Ishmael starts to die of dehydration. Hagar will eventually die too, but Ishmael is going to die first, in her arms. As the crisis approaches, Hagar cannot bear it. Are there more tragically poignant words than hers: “Do not let me look upon the death of my child….Let me not see or hear his dying.”
Hagar’s suffering, her desolation, pierces my heart. I am a mother – in fact, I’m the mother of a 13-year-old who is probably just about the age of Ishmael. I simply cannot bear the suffering of Hagar. Hagar cannot bear it, either: so the scriptures tell us she carefully lays her child under a bush and sits down about a bowshot away, so she doesn’t have to hear her boy cry or see him die.
A bowshot away. As I was preparing for this message, I became interested in what would constitute the distance of a bowshot – it would have to be some distance, for a mother’s ears are pretty keenly tuned to her child’s cry. Before I had my own child I used to marvel at how mothers could hear their children crying in the soundproof nursery in the basement of the church while they were on the second floor singing hymns in the sanctuary. Hagar’s going to have to go some distance to not hear through a mother’s ears the cry of her dying son.
Now I don’t know much about using a bow and arrow – my last encounter with one was in my 8th grade gym class. I don’t remember the distance of a bowshot, but The New Living Translation says it’s about 100 yards, or three hundred feet – about the distance of a football field. I checked it out at the local high school, much to the amusement of the joggers nearby. Sure enough – you can faintly see the person at the goal post of the other end but you can’t hear them, especially, I imagine, if they are weak from thirst and hunger.
Which got me thinking about the distance we put between ourselves and those we don’t want to hear or see. What is the distance that we put between ourselves and others so we don’t have to hear their pain, their hurt, or see their differences, their needs? What is it? Three hundred feet? Five miles? Across the railroad tracks? Lots of doctrine – rules – religion – stereotypes – assumptions – politics – nationalism?
And what is the distance that we too often put between those who seek living water and those of us well-established and well-settled into the pews and fabric of our churches? Is it clinging to old familiar ways; hanging on for dear life to what has always been; keeping the lid on the pot by not boiling up the subversive nature of the gospel; or boiling everything down to a mush that will keep everyone full but far from fed? These people just don’t fit in, we say. They don’t respect our traditions, they don’t know how to act, they are even sitting in my pew! Maybe we just need a little distance from them; a bowshot; three hundred feet; that should be far enough; just so they’re out the door.
Hagar is cast out, abandoned by the very ones she had trusted, the ones she had put her faith in. Left waterless in a desert where her little boy Ishmael lies dying, she weeps bitter tears of hopelessness. Sometimes, tears are the only prayer we have left. Hagar’s last drop of hope has evaporated in the desert heat. And yet….and yet…just then, we are told, God hears the cry of the child Ishmael. God tells Hagar to cross that distance, that three hundred feet, that she has put between her and the suffering of her child, the suffering she felt she could not bear. God tells Hagar to lift up her boy, to hold him tenderly close to her heart. God then opens Hagar’s eyes to the spring of water that was right there before her, the whole time, the water that will save her own life and the life of her child. She gathers the boy to her, and gently coaxes the water through his lips. She drinks the water herself. Her suffering is over; her hope is restored.
This is God’s doing. God comes to console Hagar and shows the far reach of God’s compassion. There is no distance, no three hundred feet, no bowshot to God’s love. God’s love is not restricted by location, by ethnicity, by gender, by sexual orientation, by age or by class. Here is Hagar, a slave, unmarried, a foreign woman – she could not have been more marginalized in those ancient times – and Yahweh speaks to her! Is nothing too wonderful for God? As Bill Moyers once again has said, “The very God who saw the burdens and heard the cries of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, the very God who came down to save them with a mighty hand, is the same God who sees the outcast child under the bush in the desert, hears his mother weeping, and tenderly brings them to water and promises that they too are highly regarded by God.”
“Highly regarded by God.” God not only opens Hagar’s eyes to the life-giving water she needs at that moment, but also makes an extravagant promise to her and her child: God will make of them a great nation. In the story of Hagar and Ishmael we hear that God’s covenant blesses all the people of the earth; regardless of Sarah’s conniving, Abraham’s wimpiness or Hagar’s status, they were all included in the covenant. Regardless of who we are or where we are on life’s journey, we too are included in the promises of God. God doesn’t marginalize, and Jesus doesn’t reject.
In her book, Traveling Mercies, Annie Lamott writes of her own second chance that came through the church. It came at a time when she was deep in the wilderness, in fact, she had slipped so low that she was convinced that even God couldn’t love her. That is, until she received living water through the promise of a local priest, “Annie,” he said, “God has to love you. That’s God’s job.”
And isn’t that the church’s “job” as well? To offer living water to those in the wilderness – to the Hagars of this world – those living at a distance, on the fringes – at the margins? In his book, In the Company of Strangers, Parker Palmer puts it this simply: “In my view, the mission of the church is not to enlarge its membership, not to bring outsiders to accept its terms, but simply to love the world in every possible way–to love the world as God did and does.”
My friends, we have all been in the wilderness at one time or another. We have all thirsted for that water that will sustain us, nourish us, and quench our aching thirst, that living water that will save our very lives. Like Hagar, we have found ourselves face to face with hopelessness, unable to see the life-giving, life-restoring water right before our eyes.
I am a child of the United Church of Christ. In fact, I am a daughter of this Florida Conference. I was nourished, nurtured, and loved into the faith at Trinity United Church of Christ in St. Petersburg, just a bowshot from here. It was there, on a sunny Palm Sunday, that I was confirmed, in my white robe and my first pair of heels – it was there, that I was ordained into Christian ministry, 32 years ago, next month. Today, that church is for sale. The pain of such a precious place dying is enormous for me. I want to sit under a tree and weep – far enough away so I don’t have to hear or see the dismantling of those precious symbols that sustained the faith of my youth. And yes, this is happening around our denomination – churches are closing – churches are leaving – churches are dying. And yet…and yet…
A year ago, Bishop John Shelby Spong, the former Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, spent a month with us at the church as part of our Theologian in Residence Program. One evening he was speaking about the United Church of Christ and said, “The vocation of the United Church of Christ is to walk the theological frontier and to confront and eradicate those prejudices based on stereotypical definitions of the past and frequently undergirded by words of sacred scripture. To fulfill this vocation, your denomination has to be free of the theological answers of yesterday. But there is a price to be paid for this kind of leadership, and faithfulness to this vocation requires that you are willing to pay it.”
And here’s the part I love: “No church that forces engagement with new thinking will ever appeal to the masses. No church committed to social justice will ever be a majority denomination. You should not aspire to serve those idols. Your call is to be a faithful church, a witnessing church. The entire Christian world benefits from your fulfilling this vocation and I for one admire you greatly.”
I have to tell you, my friends, Bishop Spong’s words are like living water – they tell us that this person outside our church family sees this denomination as willing to pay the price to be faithful to the gospel and as a witness to our still-speaking God.
And so we see all around us signs of new life and hope…in spirited, energetic, and vital new churches coming into our denomination…and in old, once-tired churches being transformed. The church alumni and those who have had to choose life in the wilderness to be free from religious judgment and doctrine that comes from God-knows-where are finding a home here, in the United Church of Christ, not a bowshot from God’s love, not three hundred feet from grace, but close, drawn into a loving community of justice and faith.
The living water found in the deep wells of our history, ministry, and vision as a denomination is at the very core of our call to wipe away the distance between who is in and who is out; who is saved and who is condemned; who lives and who dies.
The wilderness is no more for us, for God has provided us and our children with the living water of a church…
…that is alive to an ever-growing and ever-changing faith; that welcomes good science and the arts as touchstones for theological discovery; that doesn’t pick and choose a few out-of-context lines from the Bible on which to base i