A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation on June 22, 2014 by Christopher L. Webber.
In the Diocese of Connecticut we elected a new bishop about five years ago and for the first time we chose a priest from outside the diocese, a newcomer, who didn’t know how it’s always been done. The first question a newcomer should always ask in the Episcopal Church – it’s certainly the first question I always ask – is: “How has it always been done?”
The Diocese of CT is the oldest diocese in the Episcopal Church and every bishop they ever elected came from inside the diocese and knew how it had always been done. But then five years ago we elected a priest from Massachusetts: not that far away geographically but different just the same and we chose a priest who was also a seminary professor and a member of an international Anglican committee with broad exposure to the wider church – and new ideas. And this new bishop, Ian Douglas, did something unprecedented, you might almost say, unAnglican: he asked not “What have you always been doing?” But “What is God doing now?” And even though no one had any good answers, he kept asking. After all, there used to be over 200 parishes in CT and now there are only about 170 So maybe it’s time to ask whether the way we’ve always done it is the way we ought to keep on doing it – whether it’s still effective – and maybe it’s time to ask what we ought to be doing or better yet, what God is doing.
What is God doing in the Diocese of Connecticut is part of a larger question that includes what is God doing in the Church of the Incarnation and goes back to such questions as what was God doing in the story we read this morning of Hagar and Ishmael. The background of that story is the story of Abraham and Sarah, that they were childless, that Sarah suggested that Abraham take her maid, Hagar, and have a child with her. So Abraham did and that was fine until Hagar began sneering at Sarah – “I have a child and you don’t” – which naturally annoyed Sarah to the point that she complained to Abraham who said, “Look, she’s your servant; Do what you want.” So Sarah began being nasty to Hagar and Hagar ran away. But God sent an angel after Hagar who said, “Look, you will have a child and you will have descendants beyond number, so get over it and go back and put up with it.” So Hagar went back and had a child named Ishmael and things went along pretty well until Sarah also conceived at last and had a son. But now, of course, Sarah was unhappy again because she saw the two boys playing together and her son was the smaller one and she worried that Ishmael, who was the first-born after all, might be the one to inherit the property.
That brings us to the reading this morning. In this morning’s episode, Sarah tells Abraham that she wants Ishmael and Hagar out of there and Abraham reluctantly sends them off. (They will tell you that this was a patriarchal society but it seems to be Sarah who’s running things!) So Hagar gets sent away and we heard how Hagar was about to give up any hope of surviving in the desert when God sent an angel to reassure her and show her some water and – fast forward – we hear that Ishmael grew up and married an Egyptian and presumably they all lived happily ever after.
But actually they didn’t live happily ever after because the Jews, the descendants of Isaac, and the Ishmaelites, the descendants of Ishmael, were hereditary enemies. When Joseph’s brothers sold him into Egypt it was Ishmaelites who carried him off. But what they don’t tell you because whoever wrote down this story didn’t know it, couldn’t have known it, was that Ishmael would become known as the ancestor of the Arabs and the ancestor of Mohammed and the ancestor of Islam so that this story becomes the story of the origin of the very contemporary struggle between Muslims and Jews at the heart of so many of today’s headlines. According to Muslim tradition, Abraham took Hagar and Ishmael to Mecca where he built the kaaba, the sacred shrine which is the center of Islamic pilgrimage, and left them there while he went back to the future state of Israel. And so the descendants of Ishmael wound up with the oil and the descendants of Isaac Israel wound up surrounded by Ishmael’s descendants. And you know how that story goes.
So you could read today’s story as the story of the birth of Islam and the origins of Middle Eastern crises. Today’s headlines began well over 3000 years ago in the story of Hagar and Ishmael. And the amazing thing – the thing I want you to notice – is that we find God protecting Hagar and Ishmael as they go off to become the traditional enemy of the Jewish people. Or, to put it as starkly as possible, here we see God deliberately creating the conflict that still racks the Middle East. Look at it this way: if you were God and you had set out to create a chosen people to grow in knowledge of you and make known your love and care for your people would you then deliberately enable their worst enemy? Would you deliberately go out of your way to make things more difficult for your people? Here are Hagar and Ishmael lost in the wilderness and dying of thirst – and if you rescue them, you are making life much more difficult for your people. So, why would you rescue them, show them the nearest spring, help them out? Well, no, maybe you can’t just let them die but couldn’t you arrange something, couldn’t you maybe have some traders come by who would take them far far away? I mean, couldn’t God have arranged things better?
I think what the story of Hagar and Ishmael does is present us with a vivid portrayal of what seems to me to be pretty much the way God is and the way God acts. Isn’t this, in fact, your experience of God as well? Doesn’t God sometimes seem to go out of the way to make things hard for us? Wasn’t it Saint Teresa who said, “Dear Lord, if this is how You treat Your friends, it is no wonder You have so few!” What kind of God are we dealing with? What is God really like?
One way to answer that question is to remember that we are made in the image of God and I think that means that we always need to look for some deep seated relationship between what it means to be human and what it means to be divine. Let’s go back to basics: what is our mental picture of God? I don’t mean in terms of an old man with a white beard on a cloud; I mean in terms of the job description. Wouldn’t you expect that being God would be pretty much of an easy job? I mean, how hard could it be if you are almighty? Theoretically you would have complete control of every situation: no worries about paying bills or growing old or whether it might rain or any of that because it is all in your control. But the fact is that insofar as we have gotten close to God at all, insofar as we have any first-hand information what we have seen is suffering beyond what any of us have known. If, indeed, we have seen God in Jesus Christ we need to take that image very seriously and forget the white robes on a Galilean hillside and fishing in the lake and all that Cecille B De Mille stuff and pay attention to the one thing the Creed affirms about the human life of Jesus. “We believe . . .” what? We believe: that he taught, that he healed, that he sat down to eat with friendly disciples, that he took up children in his arms? No, none of that is in the Creed; only that he suffered for us under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. And yes, he rose again, but the only part of his life we affirm – is his suffering. This is Jesus, God incarnate, God visible to us here where we can form a first-hand impression and what we see is the suffering and the death.
If we are made in the image of God, he suffered as we do and quite logically, therefore, we suffer as God does. So here is the story of Hagar and Ishmael. All that we know about them is this tale of a slave who is asked to give Abraham a child and does so and is thrown out, and nearly dies, and is rescued at the last minute and goes on to become the proverbial ancestor of a tribe, a nation, a people, who to this day are locked in a constant struggle with the other descendants of Abraham and Sarah, the descendants of Isaac, who are called to belong to God in a special way and have suffered though persecution and holocaust beyond what most other people can ever imagine. If this is how God treats his friends, it’s no wonder there are so few!
I’ve been talking about suffering and there’s a lot to be said on the subject. It was the artist Vincent Van Gogh who said, ”It always strikes me, and it is very peculiar, that whenever we see the image of indescribable and unutterable desolation – of loneliness, poverty, and misery, the end and extreme of things – the thought of God comes into one’s mind.” There is a resonance, a resonance somehow between suffering and the divine. There’s enormous joy in faith—more every year in my experience—but there’s a burden of suffering not to be escaped and suffering, too, has value.
I remember a wonderful line in the film years ago called The Third Man with Orson Welles. Welles is involved in some sort of skullduggery in central Europe in the dark days of the Cold War and he says: “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Why is suffering productive? Think about the role of suffering in life. How many poets and artists have a happy life? How many poets and artists live in a nice suburb and commute to work? What does it take to bring out our best? I remembering hearing about someone who couldn’t get his mule to do the job and consulted an old farmer who took a two by four and hit the mule over the head and explained “Sometimes you need to do that to get their attention.” What does God need to do to get our attention? One way certainly is by conflict and suffering. People tell me that the last time the churches were full was on 9/11. Is that what it takes to get our attention?
But suffering isn’t the whole story. What I want to focus on here is the larger context: the conflict that produces suffering. It’s not so much that Abraham’s descendants are condemned to suffer; but that they are condemned – or perhaps we could say – offered – a life that includes, always includes, conflict. There’s no Abel without Cain, no Isaac without Ishmael, no Democrats without Republicans and no Republicans without the Tea Party. But it’s the democracies that have learned, if I can put it this way, to institutionalize conflict, to accept it and live with it, that have become the world leaders in innovation and prosperity, not the monarchies and dictatorships where conflict is not allowed. Somehow we seem to need conflict to bring out our best and yes, it means some win and some lose but perhaps on balance everyone wins when we are challenged, when there is conflict, when we can’t just relax on a deep foam bed but have to get up and look around and see what needs doing.
This is, you know, the first “nothing Sunday” of the church year no more red or white until November, only green. We followed the life of Jesus from Advent and Christmas to Easter and Pentecost: now we apply it. What does it mean for us to live as followers of Jesus? Right away the readings face us with suffering and death. You know, they talk about a new generation of Americans who are “spiritual” but not Christian and maybe they want to relax after Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan and hope the world will go away. I’m amused when I see a baseball player on television – or at the park – hit a home run or get a big strike out – or a football player catch a touchdown pass and they point at the sky as it to say, “God enabled me.” But when they strike out or drop the ball where do they point then? Is God no longer present for them or a reality in their lives? The God I understand is not a special moments God only but a 24/7 kind of God and here for us most often in the ordinary days and the hard times. It’s nice If you hit the home run or pick the winning lottery number but is God there for us on Monday morning? Isn’t that what matters?
The readings this morning are realistic. In the second reading Paul asks, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” In the gospel reading, Jesus tells us,”Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” So what is God doing today? What’s the bottom line? When I first looked up the readings for today several weeks ago I suggested to Matthew that we ought to sing the old hymn (No. 677) that says “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.” It’s not an easy hymn to sing and that’s appropriate because what it’s saying is not easy either. What it’s saying is that Christianity is a faith for grownups; that Christianity is a faith that faces life as it is and doesn’t pretend its simple or candy coat it or offer you cheap explanations. If you want that, it’s available lots of places. But if you want the Biblical faith, it faces life squarely with all its challenges and says, “It won’t always be easy and you won’t always understand but the real God, the true God is wiser far than we and may need for us now to go through a time of trimming down of getting back to essentials and forcing us to ask: do we need this, is this essential?” And that won’t always be easy but God will be with us through whatever we face, will be with us to guide and strengthen and support and accomplish a purpose greater far and more wonderful than we can now understand.
Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison and emerged to lead his nation through the most amazing transition from apartheid to democracy. Mitt Romney’s father was a wealthy businessman and successful politician; he earned degrees at the Harvard business school and quickly became chief executive of a consulting firm where he made millions and lost two campaigns for the presidency. American Christians have prospered through two centuries of unprecedented growth but some forty years now of shrinkage while the church in Africa and China and Russia has grown by leaps and bounds. What is God telling us? How shall we respond?
© 2014 by Christopher Webber. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
The readings can be found here: http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearA_RCL/Pentecost/AProp7_RCL.html (Track 1).