Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 21, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Genesis 21:8-21+Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17+Romans 6:1b-11+Matthew 10:24-39

Her name was Hagar. All we know of her is that she was an Egyptian and enslaved to Sarah. Early in the Abraham narrative, the patriarch and matriarch go down to Egypt to escape a famine, so we might assume that Hagar came back with them, but we don’t really know.

The first we hear of Hagar comes five chapters before the one we read today, when Sarah, old in age and despairing of having a son, suggests to Abraham that in order to fulfill God’s promise that he would be the father of nations, he, Abraham, should take the slave girl Hagar as his wife and to his bed. (I’ll preach a sermon on “biblical marriage” another day.) And no sooner does Abraham do as Sarah has asked than Hagar is pregnant. Our text tells us that Hagar despised her mistress. One can hardly blame her.

Sarah goes and complains to Abraham who tells Sarah, “She’s your slave. Do with her whatever you want” (16:6). So Sarah mistreats Hagar who then runs away into the desert. An angel met her near a spring of water, asked her why she was there, and upon hearing her story, tells her to go back to Sarah and submit to her (16:9). And then the angel makes a promise to Hagar that sounds a lot like the promise to Abraham: ‘I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude’ (16:10). The angel also promised that the son born to her will be in conflict with his family.

And then Hagar does the most extraordinary thing. She names God. El-roi – the God who sees. This is the first time in scripture that God is given a name, and it comes from an enslaved woman.

So, Hagar returns to Sarah and gives birth to a son, just as the angel promised, and she names him Ishmael, God hears.

Fast forward to today’s reading, and Ishmael is about 14 and the child Isaac – the son of Sarah and Abraham, the one we heard about last week when Sarah laughed at being told she would bear a son – is newly weaned, anywhere from 2 – 5 years old. There is a great celebration, but Sarah is not happy when she sees Isaac and Ishmael playing together. A weaned child is more likely to survive than one still nursing, so this weaning gives hope that Isaac will grow to adulthood and inherit the promise given to Abraham by God. And Sarah wants to make sure Ishmael has no share in it.

If Ishmael is 14 or so, he and Abraham are close. This is the only son Abraham had for many years up to the birth of Isaac, so they undoubtedly spent a lot of time together. When Sarah tells him to send them away, he is distressed. Not, however, distressed enough not to do it. But God speaks to Abraham again and tells him to do what Sarah wants, because Ishmael is also part of the covenant and will be a father of nations. So Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael into the desert with a skin of water which runs out, of course, and Hagar sets herself at a distance from Ishmael because she does not want to watch him die. And once again, God comes to Hagar and reassures her, telling her that a great nation will come from her son. God provides water and they move on, settling in the wilderness of Paran which is on the Sinai Peninsula. Muslim tradition tells us that Ishmael settled on the Arabian Peninsula and is buried in the Ka’bah in Mecca. When we call Christianity, Judaism, and Islam the three Abrahamic faiths, this is where that comes from.

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Turning for a moment to our gospel, Jesus is instructing the disciples before they are sent out into the towns and villages to proclaim the good news that God’s reign is here. He warns them that they will face opposition, that they will be brought before authorities to give answer for themselves, so when Jesus says in our reading this morning, “Have no fear of them,” it is these people to whom he refers. It is those who resist the message, those who can cause harm to his followers.

And when Matthew wrote these words, that is exactly what was happening. Families were in conflict, disciples were thrown out of the synagogue, people were being forced to choose – follow Jesus or not. This is the “sword.” This is the division between families.

The words “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (10:34) are some of the most-misused words in all of scripture, justifying violence against non-Christians and people who don’t believe the same things even among Christians. Jesus was stating a reality. From the time of Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, human beings are at war with each other over all kinds of things.

These days families and friends are being set against each other over racism and white supremacy, police violence, dismantling of Confederate and slave-trader monuments, immigration, abortion – you name it.

But here’s the Good News. In the end, Jesus does bring peace. Jesus does bring reconciliation, and a ministry of reconciliation that is ours. The work of peace-building and peace-making is ours. Paul wrote to the Romans

Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4)

What is the point of newness of life if we can’t share that new life, bridging divides and creating a just world for everyone?

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In the 25th chapter of Genesis, Abraham the patriarch dies. And there is a small, often-overlooked phrase right there:

His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah.

We don’t know how that happened. Hagar and Ishmael had been sent away, and yet here are these two sons, coming together to bury their father.

No matter how much conflict, how much disagreement, how much hate flourishes in our world, our scriptures give us story after story of hope. Of reconciliation. And the best story of all is that God never gives up on us. No matter how many times we try and fail and try again and fail again.

But for some members of this human family, our failure is no longer an option. Lives are at stake, whether from guns or COVID or the plague of poverty. Like those disciples, we are being sent out with the power to work wonders with the encouragement “do not be afraid” (Matthew 10:31). Now is the time to bring reconciliation and hope, not just for you and for me, but for all who hunger and thirst for a place at the table.

ASEPSermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 21, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas