Sermon, June 25

Preached by the Rev. Thomas McAlpine, a priest associate at St. Dunstan’s. 

Sam Kamaleson, a pastor from the Indian subcontinent with whom I worked at World Vision, used to talk about God’s story (one hand) and my story (the other hand) becoming one story (fingers interlaced). Much easier said than done; today’s lessons give us an opportunity to think about it.

God’s story. Two weeks ago (Trinity Sunday) our first lesson was the creation story, seven days of God declaring this is good, that is good, the whole thing very good. It’s a very different perspective than the Babylonian (creation itself and humans in particular formed from the corpses of defeated gods of chaos) or the Greek (only a second-rate deity would be fool enough to deal with matter). No: creation is good, the material world is good.

We can pick up the story in Eucharistic Prayer C (BCP 370): “From the primal elements you brought forth the human race, and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill. You made us the rulers of creation. But we turned against you, and betrayed your trust; and we turned against one another.”

We should be, I think, surprised that the prayer doesn’t continue with “And so You pulled the plug on the whole thing” or “And so You decided to hang out with the dolphins for the next few thousand years.” Surprisingly, God calls Abraham and Sarah to be the beginning of a pilot project aimed at what the Jews call tikkun olam, repairing the world. God comes to Abraham and Sarah: what might we do together? God’s story + their story becoming one story. That’s the story contained in the Old Testament, the story rebooted when God takes on human flesh in Jesus, the story we enter with our baptism.

It’s probably fair to say that from Sarah’s perspective the project didn’t start out well. She had not borne Abraham an heir, to the point that, bowing to custom, she presented Abraham with her Egyptian slave Hagar so that she might produce an heir by proxy. Hagar conceived, and, understandably, passed up no chance to remind everyone that she was the birth mother of Abraham’s heir. So Sarah had an enemy, and there wasn’t a lot she could do about it. (I’m not sure ‘enemy’ is quite the right word. I’m using it broadly, to include, for example, the people whose posts we hide—or unfriend—on Facebook.) Until, finally, God promised her a son (last week’s reading), and delivered on that promise (just before this week’s reading). Now Sarah can do something about her enemy. Foreshadowing the treatment her people will receive from the Egyptians some generations later, she demands that Abraham expel Hagar and Ishmael. And Abraham does so—only after receiving God’s promise to look after Hagar and Ishmael.

And in the story we’ve just heard God keeps that promise to Hagar, preserving Ishmael’s imperiled life as God will preserve Isaac’s imperiled life in the next story. “Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him fast with your hand; for I will make him a great nation.”

The Jews, descended from Isaac, and the Arabs, descended from Ishmael, already in the OT are often at odds. And here Sarah’s God is providing a well for Ishmael. The Jews have a legend about that: “the angels appeared against Ishmael before God. They said, ‘Wilt Thou cause a well of water to spring up for him whose descendants will let Thy children of Israel perish with thirst?’ And God: “well, yes.”

God’s story + my story = one story. For Sarah in this episode, not so much, because she’s hit one of the really difficult bits: that someone is my enemy doesn’t mean they’re God’s enemy, that God listens to me when I pray Ps 86 (today’s psalm) and listens to my enemy when they pray Ps 86.

This is a difficult enough bit that the OT keeps coming back to it. Here are a couple more stories.

Some generations later Moses has led Israel out of Egypt, and Joshua has just brought the people across the Jordan to take possession of the promised land. Reading from the fifth chapter of Joshua:

Once when Joshua was by Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” He replied, “Neither; but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” (Jos 5:13-14 NRS)

“Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” “Neither.”

Some centuries later the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Aram (modern Syria) are at war. In a legend from that period, the king of Aram learns that his recent raids have been unsuccessful because the prophet Elisha has been warning the Israelite king about them. He sends out a large force to surround Elisha’s city and capture Elisha. Elisha sees the force, and asks God to blind the soldiers. God does so, and Elisha leads them to the Israelite capital. At this point the Israelite king enters. Reading from the sixth chapter of 2 Kings:

When the king of Israel saw them he said to Elisha, “Father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?” He answered, “No! Did you capture with your sword and your bow those whom you want to kill? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.” So he prepared for them a great feast; after they ate and drank, he sent them on their way, and they went to their master. And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel. (2Ki 6:21-23 NRS)

So when Jesus talks about loving one’s enemies as an integral part of what God’s kingdom is about, this isn’t new. Jesus is simply reporting how he’s observed the Father acting “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous”—not to mention Hagar, the reply to Joshua, Elisha’s treatment of the Aramean raiders.

So when Jesus sends his disciples out to announce this kingdom, he understandably anticipates opposition, because everyone knows that right-thinking people try to help their friends and hurt their enemies. Right-thinking people will take Barabbas over Jesus any day.

“But this love of enemies business can’t be that important to God. If it were, God would impose it.” But that takes us back to the creation story. God thinks that human freedom is good. God thinks that the church’s freedom is good. So God does what God can do, like the woman in one of Jesus’ parables, putting leaven in the dough in the hope of the whole thing rising. God continues to stretch out the now nail-pierced hand to us: how can we make My story and your story one story?

God’s story; my story; one story. There are many ways that invitation will come to us in the coming week. Some of them may have to do with how we choose to respond to our enemies. May our choices bring God joy.