The Third Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 7
June 25, 2017
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
I can see the heat rising from the parched and cracked earth… the furrowed brow and deep set eyes fighting off the sun and a fresh round of tears.
The old man had no more energy to argue, and though he felt as if part of his soul was being amputated, he sent his firstborn son, and the woman who bore him, away into the distance.
He was sending them off to die… there was no other way to spin it… and while he squinted to witness their ever-diminishing figures receding from view, he thought back to that night where the stars had seemed to go on forever…the night when God had promised to make a nation of him.
How could such a thing come to be now?… when half his chance for descendants was blurring like a mirage upon the horizon, hours from falling victim to the relentless sun and the terrors of the surrounding wilderness?
Of course, there was still the other boy, the one that made his wife laugh before making her cry out in pain and joy as he came into the world.
Just the previous evening the two boys had been so close to each other, playing on the same carpet with Ishmael’s mother, the music of their innocent voices meshing with sounds from the party emanating from the gathering of tents sitting beneath a starless sky.
Clouds had rolled in hours after sundown, and the only lights came from the scores of oil lamps illuminating the faces of joy-filled revelers.
Smiling, Abraham glanced over at Sarah, expecting to share, across the distance, that kind of knowing look which only mature couples who have been through trials together can share.
They had made it. God was truly faithful. Abraham’s joy was complete.
But instead his eyes fell upon a simmering rage… a festering jealousy… daggers instead of a dreamscape.
Her eyes were askance, fixed on Hagar, burning with a fire he had never seen in her before, and he could tell by the way Sarah looked at the boy and his mother that there would be no compromise this time—no way that his boys would be able to share moments of joy like this again.
Suddenly the tent seemed so small, as if it were closing in upon him, and he felt to need to step outside quickly and breathe some fresh desert air.
Where were the stars? He could count none of them behind the thick veil of clouds.
Abraham wasn’t surprised when Sarah came out to him later, after all the guests had gone to bed, and made her request.
His shoulders had slumped in protest, but he dared not resist her.
Yes, he assured her, he would go through with it… (even if his heart was not in it).
In the morning, Abraham could barely summon the strength to rise from their bed.
He went to Hagar with the grim news, the pouch of bread, and little bit of water that would soon be gone as they journeyed further away from the safety of his encampment.
Hagar had always been tough, and she bore her sealed fate with the dignity with which she had carried Ishmael into the world.
After a lingering final embrace, she turned away from camp and headed toward the horizon.
After just a few torturous paces, the boy she carried looked back over her shoulder and pointed in his father’s direction.
“N’ Da-da? N’ Da-da?” he inquired of his mother, shifting his gaze between his mother’s downcast eyes and the shrinking form of his father behind them.
She gave no answer, only the single tear that filled her right eye.
Years later Ishmael would wonder, was the tear shed for the impending doom that awaited them in the unfettered wilderness?
Or was it welling up for the man she loved, or the unwinnable situation in which all slaves are placed, or for the loss of that brief paradise they had enjoyed while the party was humming and they were all playing?
It was a miracle the two survived, and Hagar spent the rest of her life reminding Ishmael of how God had heard his voice and her cries, and how the Almighty never abandoned them, even in their darkest hour.
God was with them, generation after generation, and that was the only story that truly mattered anymore.
This week I have been wrestling with the story of Abraham, Hagar, Sarah, Isaac and Ismael.
I chose to present it in story form today, because I think it is extremely important to personalize the characters, and to engage the fundamental issues that arise from the narrative.
It is a story that lays bare several of our human frailties from jealousy to weakness, and serves as a reminder of how so often the social categories and considerations we devise as human beings fall short of the glory of God.
Slaves are sent to their death by masters, scarcity thinking so often trumps our understanding of abundance, and the truth regularly falls victim to expedience and the desire to hold dear to our most fundamentally tribal relationships.
It can be hard to advocate a better way based on a deeper truth.
That is one of the reasons Jesus says in the Gospel today that he has not come to bring peace, but rather a sword…speaking the truth and acting upon it puts us at risk, especially when it threatens the desires and ideas of those closest to us.
Had Abraham told Sarah that he was not willing to send his firstborn son and his mother to certain death, there would have been consequences, and dire ones at that.
But the consequence of ignoring the truth and sending Hagar and Ishmael away has been exponentially greater.
Instead of an unbroken and shared past, the children of Ishmael and the children of Isaac have often seen themselves as separate, and unequal bloodlines.
Thousands of years have passed since “The Great Divide” and over time, differences have slowly outweighed similarities, while scars and wounds have accumulated and driven a wedge into hopes of reconciliation.
Jesus—son of God and son of Man, child of Abraham— may have come to bring a sword instead of peace, but his weapon is the sword of truth rather than a blade employed as an instrument of war.
His cutting message is meant to bring the truth into stark relief, which forces people to a decision, and can draw the ire of those unwilling to let go of their self-made limitations.
But the heart of that truth is that God’s kingdom is about more union and more communion based on a radical love that transcends the false categories we often use to divide each other.
Even though God was with Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, and with Hagar and Ishmael as they went their separate ways, I believe that God’s dream proclaimed by Jesus looks a lot more like a newly created Garden than a tearful desert farewell.
God’s dream looks a lot more like a peaceable, diverse city whose purpose is to heal the nations rather than a proliferation of divided kingdoms striving for supremacy.
While God loves us in our beautiful diversity, our diversity is not something to be exploited for divisiveness’ sake.
God’s promises are not just for Christians, or Jews, or Muslims or any other faith, but are intended for all creation and are made real to all who abide by the law of love.
That is why the story of the separation of Abraham’s children is such a painful one.
We know that there is a better way, and for us Christians, we are called to follow that way by following where Jesus has led.
At times, it can feel as if division is inevitable, and that the violence that ensues from it will go on interminably.
But there are moments, glimpses of the fulfillment, where the sword of truth cuts cleanly through the lesser and fading world.
This Thursday was one of those moments.
That evening, a group of Muslims from the refugee community, joined by Christians and people of other faiths, broke bread together and offered evening prayers during an iftar celebration in the JNRC.
Imam Pallavicini and I spoke some months ago about this possibility taking place during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and as we pulled our chairs closer to the table, sharing stories and lasagna, pizza and sweets, we looked out over a room full of God’s people sharing a meal, rather than waging war, and we agreed that we need to do a lot more of this.
Because our common lineage is more powerful and holy than our separateness.
It made me think of the feast, the party, that had gone on that night when Ishmael and Isaac were babies, and how promising their laughter might have sounded.
We cannot go back to a time before our separation occurred, but we can move forward with an eye toward our common genesis and destiny as children of God.
Be witnesses of that my brothers and sisters…follow the way and example that Jesus has shown us, and let your only law be the law of love just as it was our master’s.
Because THAT way leads not to a sorrowful separation, with tears and mutual anguish, but to a resurrected experience where moments of shared joy can be as numerous, and as brilliant, as all the stars in the sky.