A Sermon preached at St. Andrew’s-by-the-lake (Turkey Point), June 22, 2014
Families are a blessing; but sometimes they can seem like a curse.
And I’m not saying that just because I am the father of young children.
Every family has its issues and tensions.
Siblings that refuse to speak to each other.
Estranged parents and children.
Extended family members who cannot be around each other for one reason or another.
In many ways, the family stress we see in our reading from Genesis is familiar.
Rivalry is the root of the stress in Abraham’s family.
Indeed, rivalry is the root in the family stress in most of Genesis: rivalry between Cain and Abel, between Jacob and Esau, between Joseph and his brothers.
And rivalry is at the root of much of the stress we experience in our families as well; rivalry rooted in unfriendly competition, antagonism, or even hatred between family members.
Rivalry feeds resentment, it builds walls between people, and when it comes full-force, it seeks retribution.
Rivalry is destructive of all parties involved.
Rivalry is the root issue between Sarah and Hagar.
God promised to give Abraham a male heir. Convinced that she was too old to have a child, Sarah gave Abraham her Egyptian slave-girl, Hagar, as a wife. Sarah attempted to force God’s promises to come to fruition on her own terms; she assumed she could force God’s hand.
Her plan worked because Hagar became pregnant. However, as Genesis chapter 16 tells us, after becoming pregnant, Hagar looked upon Sarah “with contempt” (16:5). Hagar assumed that she was now wife number 1 since she bore Abraham’s heir when Sarah could not.
Sarah’s reaction? She treated Hagar so poorly that Hagar ran away into the wilderness.
However, God met her in the wilderness and made this promise to Hagar: “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for the multitude” (16:10). Sounds quite similar to the promise God made to Abraham, doesn’t it?
Following God’s instructions, Hagar rejoined Abraham’s family and gave birth to Ishmael.
When Sarah became pregnant and gave birth to Isaac, the old rivalry was rekindled.
In Sarah’s eyes, Ishmael is a threat to Isaac. Since Ishmael is Abraham’s firstborn son, he has a legitimate claim on the inheritance.
Sarah decides to once again take matters into her own hands, to end the rivalry once and for all by ensuring that Hagar and Ishmael are cast out of the family once and for all.
Cut-off and rejected by her family, Hagar is once again driven into the wilderness.
And yet, in spite of all this, God is good to Hagar and Ishmael.
Although Abraham sent Hagar away with next to no provisions, essentially sending her and Ishmael to their deaths, God provides for and protects Hagar and Ishmael. He tells her to not be afraid for he will be with them.
Moreover, God promises once again to make a “great nation of [Ishmael]” (21:18).
Ishmael receives God’s blessing despite the fact that he is not the promised son; he is the son of a foreigner and slave-girl; he is an outsider. For this reason, Abraham and Sarah feel they are completely justified in sending him and his mother into the wilderness to their deaths.
We humans have a remarkable capacity for self-justification, especially when it comes to treating others, particularly our rivals, less than charitably. We will even go so far as to claim divine inspiration in order to justify our acts of exclusion.
Regardless of what we might think about Abraham and Sarah’s actions, the primary character of this story is God.
Who is this God?
This is the God who, despite the best efforts of humans to take matters into their own hands, remains faithful to his promises. This is the God who protects and provides.
However, how does this fit with our Gospel reading for today where Jesus appears to condone rivalry and family dysfunction?
Is Jesus saying what we think he’s saying?
Is he advocating for broken homes?
And what about the sword Jesus refers to? Is the Prince of Peace justifying violence?
Jesus’ direct language makes us uncomfortable because it directly challenges our concept of him as meek and mild.
Jesus’ refusal to mince words makes us uncomfortable because not only are they addressed to his disciples then; they are also addressed to his disciples now.
Our Gospel reading for today is part of a speech called ‘The Missionary Discourse’ that begins at verse 16 where Jesus says: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves”.
Jesus direct words are meant to prepare his disciples for their mission to go out and proclaim the gospel.
Jesus is telling his disciples that they will face ridicule, rejection, and even persecution.
And yet in the midst of the suffering they will face, Jesus promises them God’s protection and provision.
For this reason, Jesus tells his disciples to fearlessly go forth on their mission.
Jesus charges the disciples to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom.
The good news that God is restoring all things.
The good news that God welcomes outcasts, rejects, and losers with open arms.
The good news that God will forgive sins when we confess and repent.
Because this is a message for all people, it must be proclaimed publicly.
However, as Jesus’ makes it clear, there are only two possible answers to the invitation to participate in God’s kingdom: yes or no.
Some will say ‘yes’; many will say ‘no’. Moreover, some of those who say ‘no’ may do so with hostility.
However, there is no middle ground; either we are united with Jesus through his death and resurrection or we remain enslaved to sin, caught in the web of rivalry, hatred, and destruction, imprisoned in a hell of our own making.
There is also no middle ground for those who claim to be Jesus’ disciples; we either fully participate in the mission Jesus sends us on or we don’t; there is no such thing as a Sunday Christian. If we do not practice what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called ‘costly discipleship’, we cannot call ourselves followers of Jesus.
A disciple is what Psalm 86 calls a devoted servant who fully trusts God alone.
A disciple is someone who gives total allegiance to Jesus Christ by picking up their cross and following him.
The cross is the sword to which Jesus is referring.
The cross is, in the words of St. Paul, a “stumbling block” and utter “foolishness” to those who reject the kingdom (1 Cor. 1:23).
The cross is the sword that divides those who confess that Jesus is Lord and those who do not, those who accept God’s forgiveness and those who refuse it.
We know those in our own lives and families that there are those who follow Jesus and those who do not.
This is why Jesus quotes the words of the prophet Micah in describing the division between those family members who trust in a God alone and those who trust in their own plans and devices.
The cross of Christ is a sword that divides.
Because of this division, Jesus redefines what constitutes ‘family’; he is hardly an advocate of what we know as ‘family values’. Listen to these words from Matthew 12:50: “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother”. Jesus is defining family through the lens of the Kingdom.
Jesus is calling his disciples to put their complete and total trust in him alone, to bring everything they love and value, particularly their families, under his lordship.
In so doing, Jesus is creating a new family, a family that we know as the Church. As disciples, we belong first and foremost to this covenant family of God.
This family is not defined by blood relationships, ethnicity, gender, political affiliation or any other human categories that are so often used to divide us.
Rather, this family is united in Christ through the sacraments, prayer, and worship.
And this family is united to each other through as we worship, fellowship, and participate in Christ’s mission to the world.
This is a family of disciples that is learning to accept and extend the gift of God’s grace and forgiveness.
This is a family that is both constituted by and practices the forgiveness and reconciliation made possible in and through Jesus Christ.
The Church is the family of the covenant, the family promised to Abraham. We are people who worship and serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
We are also the people who worship and serve the God of Ishmael, the God of the outcast and the marginalized.
Therefore, we worship and serve a God who calls all people to himself, who promises to bless them.
Because God’s love knows no bounds, the Church is called to be a blessing unto all nations, to all people.
We do this by proclaiming the gospel, the good news of God’s grace, forgiveness, and love for all people.
Yes, there will be some who reject the gospel and there will be some who ridicule the gospel.
And yet, our task remains the same, to proclaim and show Christ’s love to all people.
Belonging to God’s family is not a matter of privilege or superior status that we can lord over others.
We are disciples; therefore, we are not greater than the master, the one who calls and sends us into the wilderness to proclaim the gospel.
We are sent into the wilderness, knowing that we will face opposition as we proclaim the gospel.
However, as we go, we go with the promise that God will go with us.
We go into the wilderness carrying the cross of Christ.
All too often, Christians have wielded the cross as a weapon, using it to divide and destroy.
Rather, we are to carry it in such a way so that all we do and say points to Christ, that by our very lives we demonstrate that we are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
We can do this because sin and its fruits – rivalry, division, hatred, etc. – no longer have dominion in our lives because God has stripped sin of its power, defeating it “finally and utterly at the death and resurrection of Jesus” (John Webster, “Dead to Sin”, The Grace of Truth p. 49).
We live under grace, under the authority and lordship of Jesus Christ, the one who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps. 86:15).
Come, let us take up our cross and go into the wilderness, with the promise that God is with us as we proclaim the Good News of God’s liberation to all people!