Here is a recording of our StoryChurch story from July 5. The story is adapted from “Diddy Disciples,” by Sharon Moughtin-Mumby.
Here is a recording of our StoryChurch story from July 5. The story is adapted from “Diddy Disciples,” by Sharon Moughtin-Mumby.
Here is Rev. Miranda’s sermon from July 5. It is based on chapter 24 of the Book of Genesis – you’ll want to go read that first!
Here is the bulletin for this Sunday’s online gatherings for the people of St. Dunstan’s. It is the same for the 9am gathering and the 6:30pm gathering. It will print on three sheets of paper, front and back. NOTE: We use slides during worship that contain most of this information, but some prefer to follow along on paper.
2. Open the bulletin on one device (smartphone or tablet) while joining Zoom worship on another device (tablet or computer).
3. On a computer, open the bulletin in a separate browser window or download and open separately, and view it next to your Zoom window.
This sermon is based on Genesis chapter 24. Read it here!
What a lively little story and cast of characters! Abraham appears here as the slightly bigoted old dad. Isaac barely appears – showing up just in time to fall in love with the ingenue. Laban is Big Brother from Central Casting. (We’ll hear more about Laban in a few weeks!) Rebekah is a lively young woman who is more than ready to get the heck off the family farm. And then there’s the unnamed servant.
The scene at the well was really popular with artists for a while. A significant meeting, a lovely young woman, a romantic setting, jewels, camels – how could they resist? If you look at some of those paintings, they really look like courtship images. That’s an interesting, kind of strange aspect of this story. The servant is sent as a proxy to find a wife for Isaac – who is a grown man; the verse that follows today’s passage says that he is forty when all this happens!
Why didn’t Abraham send Isaac himself? Maybe it’s because Isaac is overwhelmed with grief for his mother; maybe it’s because Abraham perceives that Isaac would not get the job done. Throughout his chapters in Genesis, Isaac is a fairly passive character. Things mostly happen to him and around him. So Abraham sends a servant instead.
Now, the text doesn’t name the servant, though he’s a tremendously important character for this one chapter. But Jewish tradition names him Eliezar – God is my help. I’ll use that name to make it easier to talk about him, and to give him the dignity he deserves.
So, these images look like courtship. But Eliezar’s interest in Rebekah is not based in romance. It’s based in faith.
When we’re dwelling with stories from the Hebrew Bible, one gift is that there’s also a rich interpretive tradition in Judaism that we can look to. And I found a wonderful reflection, part of the Aleph Beta project to create videos offering meaningful study of Jewish holy texts. I want to show you part of what it helped me notice.
First, I need to introduce a really important word and idea: Chesed. It’s a Hebrew word that may be translated as kindness, mercy, steadfast love, goodness, grace, compassion. An early English Bible translated it as “lovingkindness,” a wonderful word. Chesed is not just being a nice person. It is active, zealous, determined kindness. Chesed is an attribute of God – it is how God feels towards Israel, refusing to abandon them no matter what they do. And Chesed towards other humans is what God demands from God’s people. Love of neighbor manifest as generosity and justice – a foundation for both Jewish and Christian ethics.
The word chesed shows up three times in this passage. Twice in Eliezar’s prayer – he asks God to fulfill his mission in order to show Chesed to his master Abraham. He doesn’t say it in so many words but it’s almost as if he’s reminding God of the covenant – Look, you promised my master descendants as numerous as the stars; that means his son needs a wife. And Eliezar uses the words again when Rebekah fulfills all his hopes – “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness towards my master!”
In addition to the word chesed, the attribute of chesed appears in this story as well. Rebekah shows some signs of being a person of chesed. She is generous in sharing her water, even drawing more water for the camels – a significant effort. We don’t know whether her readiness to leave her father and brothers’ household is because she honors God’s intentions or is just really ready for a change of scenery. Why not both? Regardless, she opts in to God’s plan here, to the covenanted people God is building – and she does so partly by showing concern for some thirsty camels.
And Eliezar is unmistakably a person of chesed. He goes above and beyond in his loyalty to both Abraham his master and to God. He puts his task in God’s hands, and blesses God for God’s chesed when God comes through.
But – here’s the thing I didn’t notice until I watched the Aleph Beta video: Eliezar DOESN’T use the word chesed when he’s telling Laban and the rest of Rebekah’s family what happened. We cut that out of the reading to shorten it, but let’s look at it now.
Here’s Eliezar’s prayer: “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. Let the girl to whom I shall say, “Please offer your jar that I may drink”, and who shall say, “Drink, and I will water your camels”- let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”
Here’s how Eliezar tells about his prayer: “I came today to the spring, and said, “O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, ‘Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,’ and who will say to me, ‘Drink, and I will draw for your camels also’—let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.”
Eliezar shifts his language. And the Aleph Beta video suggests Eliezar did that because he noticed some things about Laban, Rebekah’s brother, who seems to be the head of household here. First, he noticed Laban noticing Rebekah’s new jewelry. The text says, “As soon [Laban] he had seen the nose-ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s arms, and when he heard the words of his sister Rebekah…, he went to the man.”
Second, he might nave noticed something about Laban’s hospitality. Here’s what the NRSV, our Bible translation, does with verses 31 and 32, Eliezar’s arrival:
“Laban said, ‘Come in, O blessed of the Lord. Why do you stand outside when I have prepared the house and a place for the camels? So the man came into the house; and Laban unloaded the camels, and gave him straw and fodder for the camels, and water to wash his feet and the feet of the men who were with him.”
In the NRSV, Laban offers hospitality & then actually extends hospitality. But the rabbis behind the Aleph Beta video aren’t so sure.
Here’s how Robert Alter renders this text, a more faithful rendition of the Hebrew:
“And the man came into the house and unharnessed the camels; and he gave bran and feed to the camels and water to bathe his feet and the feet of the men who were wit him. And food was set before him.”
“The man” here is Eliezar – that’s how the Biblical text refers to him.
So Laban offers hospitality – but does he actually follow through and treat Eliezar as an honored guest, or does he leave Eliezar to tend to his own camels and traveling party? Making an assessment that Eliezar is, after all, just the help?
Now, this is ambiguous in the Scriptural text – you can read it either way, but there’s certainly room to wonder. If Laban made a point of his household’s capacity for hospitality, but then didn’t actually act out that hospitality because he assessed that Eliezar wasn’t a person he needed to bother to impress – well, that would be consistent with the bit about the jewelry; and with how Laban acts when Rebekah’s son Jacob comes to him for refuge, many years later. Across those texts, Laban appears as someone who’s primarily motivated by wealth and status.
And – today’s text suggests that Eliezar himself makes exactly that assessment.
Remember how he begins his speech to Laban: “I am Abraham’s servant. The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys.”
Eliezar has sized up Laban and decided that what’s going to persuade him to let Rebekah go is the idea that this might be a really beneficial alliance. So he drops the chesed language, and replaces it with talk about wealth and success. Laban isn’t interested in whether Rebekah is the wife God’s lovingkindness has intended for Isaac. Laban is interested in whether his prospective son-in-law is rich.
So what is the Spirit saying to the churches in this story? Well, she might be saying something else to you, and I’d be interested to hear about that. What I notice is that I feel both tickled and inspired by Eliezar.
Eliezar reminds me of something Jesus said to his disciples, a couple of chapters ago in Matthew’s Gospel: Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Eliezar’s innocence, his goodness and integrity, lie in the fact that he’s person of chesed. A person who lives by lovingkindness, in response to God’s lovingkindness. But he’s savvy like a serpent in the way he susses out Laban and figures out the best way to close this deal. He frames the situation in a way that will help this stakeholder get on board – a core principal for any kind of coalition-building. And, listen, this matters: He doesn’t lie to Laban. There’s nothing fundamentally false about the way he adapts his message. He’s just strategic – and effective – in using Laban’s values to get Laban on board.
Today’s Gospel contains a favorite verse of mine: Jesus says, “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” It’s a little cryptic, but for me it speaks – maybe especially this year – to the numbness and overwhelm of our times. There’s so much coming at us that we don’t know how to respond to good news or bad – to dance tunes or dirges. It rings especially poignantly for me on the weekend of our biggest national holiday, in a year that features a brutal pandemic, economic recession and widespread civic unrest. So far.
I think we could do worse, living in these times, than take Eliezar for inspiration. May we share his savvy in strategic communication across differences of values and goals – while striving always to live as people of courageous lovingkindness, in response to God’s chesed and as co-conspirators in God’s great and ongoing work of redeeming the world.
The video that got me thinking:
Here is the list of readings for our gathering Saturday at 9am. We’ll use the regular Sunday Zoom gathering link. Let Rev. Miranda know if you’d like to do one!
Excerpts from the Declaration of Independence
Reading from Chief Seattle
Poem: America, I Sing Back
Reading from Sojourner Truth (short)
Reading from Frederick Douglass
Poem: I, Too
Reading from Amelia Bloomer
Reading from Jose Marti (short)
Reading from FDR (short)
Reading from Dr. King
Thanks to all who participated in our recent survey about online and in-person worship! Click below to access a report that covers some of what you had to say, as well as updates about guidelines for beginning to re-gather in person.
This speech by Matthew’s Jesus is a tough text. I looked back in my sermon files and I seem to have avoided preaching on it, like, EVER. …. Better late than never?
Before we even listen to the text, I want to start by placing it in the narrative of Matthew’s Gospel. It’s part of a long speech – the whole of chapter 10 – which begins with Jesus calling the twelve disciples and sending them out to heal the sick, cast out demons, and preach the good news that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
We have the story of Jesus in four Gospels, which tell the same story (more or less) through different lenses. It’s often informative to look at them side by side. Mark is the oldest and shortest; Luke and Matthew both use Mark as a source, in addition to other sources and to what seem to be their own distinctive understandings. (John has fewer overlaps and does not have a parallel to this story.) But Mark and Luke do.
In Mark, Jesus sends out the Twelve, tells them to take nothing for their journey but rely on the hospitality of those they meet, and don’t waste their time in places that don’t receive them. The Twelve go out, and heal and preach and cast out demons. Then they return to Jesus and tell him all about it. In Luke, Jesus sends out seventy appointed disciples, not just twelve, and his instructions to them are a bit more of a speech – he speaks about the doom that awaits the towns who reject the good news. Then the disciples go out and return with joy, having had great success with casting out demons.
In Matthew, this chapter begins the same way: the Twelve are named and sent out, advised to take nothing with them and to rely on hospitality, and when a town doesn’t welcome them, to shake the dust from their feet and move on. But then we get this passage. I’ve tweaked the lectionary to give us what seems to me to be a complete thought. Listen now….
Gospel Reading: Matthew 10:16-39 (NRSV)
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of people, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!
‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’
Now, parts of that speech are also in Luke, and some fragments in Mark as well; it’s not all unique to Matthew. But big chunks of it are unique to Matthew – and even the bits he shares with other texts, he’s put into a particular context here. And the context is a warning to his followers about what is going to happen to them AFTER he’s gone. In Mark and Luke, Jesus’ advice to his disciples is for their work in this moment, though it may guide them in the future. Matthew’s Jesus looks ahead to the persecution, dissension, violence and loss that the first couple of generations of Christians will have to live through, and tells them, It’s going to be really rough, in ways you can’t begin to imagine. Stick with it anyway. Unlike Mark and Luke, Matthew never describes the disciples’ return – another clue that he’s speaking beyond the present moment within the text.
Let’s hear the speech again in the Message Bible paraphrase – abbreviated somewhat, but I think this version may help us hear the text. Would someone like to read this aloud? …
Matthew 10, selected verses, The Message, alt.
“Stay alert. This is hazardous work I’m assigning you. You’re going to be like sheep running through a wolf pack, so don’t call attention to yourselves. Be as cunning as a snake, and inoffensive as a dove.
Don’t be upset when they haul you before the civil authorities. They’ve given you a platform for preaching the kingdom! And don’t worry about what you’ll say or how you’ll say it. The Spirit of your Father will supply the words.
People are going to turn on you, even people in your own family. But don’t cave in. Focus on survival. And remember: a student doesn’t get a better desk than her teacher. A laborer doesn’t make more money than his boss. Be content to get the same treatment I get. If they call me, the Master, a demon, then what do you think they’ll call you, my servants? …
Don’t be intimidated. Eventually everything is going to be out in the open, so don’t hesitate to go public now. Even if the worst happens to your body, there’s nothing anyone can do to your soul. God cares about what happens to a sparrow – so don’t you think God is paying attention to what happens to you? So don’t be afraid of those who threaten you. You’re worth more than a million sparrows.
Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut through your family ties and free you for God. Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies. If you choose father or mother over me, you don’t deserve me. If you choose son or daughter over me, you don’t deserve me. If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me…
If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.”
Last fall I preached about the book of the prophet Jeremiah as a text of trauma – a text that reflects a community’s experience of terrible, violent overwhelming events. For Jeremiah, that event was the conquest of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, the violent deaths of thousands of his people.
Matthew experienced the same thing, six hundred years later. In the year 66, some Jews in Judea began to revolt against Roman rule and taxation. Repression by the Romans drew more Judeans to the cause and things escalated into a full-on rebellion. The rebels had some early successes – but they never had a chance against Rome’s machinery of war. In the year 70, Roman armies breached the walls of Jerusalem, having already re-conquered the countryside. The city was reclaimed, and the second Great Temple was torn down.
The violent quashing of the Jewish revolt marks many early Christian texts, but it seems likely that the voice we know as Matthew was a first-hand witness. We see it in the distinctive violence of some of the stories and imagery in this Gospel. We see it in the urgent yearning for revenge upon enemies, and those who fell away from the truth. If you read a Gospel text that talks about someone being cast into outermost darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, it’s from Matthew.
And we see it in this speech, in which Matthew’s Jesus tells his followers, Terrible times are coming. You may lose EVERYTHING. Everyone you love. Even your life. But if you stay true to me through all of it, at least you will not lose your soul.
You will have noticed the focus on family division, in this text. Matthew’s Jesus speaks about straining – breaking – family ties TWICE in these 23 verses. This is shocking for us, and would have been MORE shocking to the original audience. Family loyalty is a central value in Jewish faith and law. Richard Swanson writes, “Torah observance means many things, but one thing it surely means is that there is a dance done by parents and children that acts out the stable and orderly love of God so that people grow up knowing in their DNA that God is good and loving. This holds the world together.” (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew, p. 156) Jesus’ insistence that people must choose him over parent, spouse, child, is incredibly jarring. Why would he say that? …
I don’t think we know much about what was going on inside of families, in those difficult first-century decades, beyond hints like this. But it’s not that hard to project. People joining the Way would have caused tensions within families right from the start. The autobiography of the apostle Paul is informative on that front. Paul was a fiercely faithful Jew who thought that Christianity was an affront to his religion, and eagerly worked to identify and round up Christians, to have them arrested and even killed. Paul didn’t have a family of his own. But imagine if he had. Imagine if his son or wife had become a Christian before he did.
So the new faith itself created strains within families. Then you add the layer of rising political unrest. The revolt in 66 did not come out of the blue. The census of Judea under Quirinius around the time of Jesus’ birth was widely resented; people had to be forced to comply. Other episodes over the decades increased resentment and mistrust. When things started to break open, thirty years or so after Jesus’ death and resurrection, it probably started with the young men (and a few of the young women) – feeling helpless and hopeless, furious at the forces that held them down and made a mockery of their lives and dreams.
Some of their elders would say, You are absolutely not going out to a protest; you’re going to get yourself killed. Some would say, Violence in the streets won’t help anything; let’s start a letter-writing campaign instead. Some would say, This is foolishness; Rome keeps order in the streets. We’d have chaos if they weren’t in charge. And some elders, of course, would join the young folks in the streets.
All of those rising tension and fears would only increase the strains within families. How those new factors intersected with existing tensions between Jews and Christians isn’t very clear, historically – but we know that new stressors tend to exacerbate old ones. So, says Matthew’s Jesus: You expect your family to be your anchor, the thing that defines you and protects you, no matter what. Stop expecting that. Now.
I’ve been using the phrase “Matthew’s Jesus.” What do I mean by that?
The Jesus of the four Gospels is discernibly the same guy. But those four texts do remember him differently. They give him somewhat different tones and agendas. That’s not surprising, given what we know about human beings and historical texts. If the Gospels were more alike, I’d be more suspicious that someone made the whole thing up. But it does leave us as faithful readers sometimes wondering what to make of the differences.
When Matthew’s Jesus has something to say – as he does here – that is somewhat different from anything in the other Gospels, we can wonder about that. We can wonder whether Matthew had a source that remembered some things Jesus said that the other Gospels don’t reflect.
Or – we can wonder whether Matthew received the same words of Jesus that are reflected in the other gospels – and reads them through the lens of the trauma he has witnessed. In that case, this speech of Jesus’ might be a mix of Jesus’ voice and Matthew’s voice – which doesn’t make it less gospel. There are lots of hints in all the gospels that Jesus anticipated violence and chaos in the coming decades. One way to read Matthew is as the gospel that leans into that aspect of Jesus’ message – just as Luke is the gospel that leans into Jesus’ outreach to the marginalized, as Mark is the gospel that leans into the urgency of the call to transformation of life, as John is the gospel that leans into the cosmic nature of Jesus’ redemptive work.
All right. Enough context. What do we make of these words of Jesus?
Richard Swanson writes about this passage, “If the raw demands of this scene are reduced to bland encouragements to love God a lot, then we might as well stop trying to read, interpret, and honor the Bible and the old strange stories that peek out of it. We ought to admit publicly that we really intend only to interpret the messages written in uplifting greeting cards. Of course, you might be stuck with a commitment to the Bible that is stronger than your commitment to greeting cards. How inconvenient…. Just for a moment, imagine that the Bible is more substantial and interesting than a greeting card. Imagine that biblical stories are more challenging than uplifting, that they give life by provoking their audiences out of their dogmatic slumbers.”
Then, Swanson challenges us, imagine this scene with people who “feel the sharp edge of the sword” when Jesus speaks of coming to bring division. It’s too easy to set the stage with people of courage who choose Jesus, and people of cowardice who don’t. Imagine people of integrity and honor who choose their families, no matter what. Imagine people who abandon their families all too readily – who were, perhaps, just waiting for an excuse. This is not an easy word to receive, then or now, and we should not pretend otherwise.
One thing I often wonder about, when I’m struggling with difficult words of Jesus, is how he said them. The Biblical text only rarely gives us hints about mood or tone. Let’s listen to a few verses of this text again, read in three different ways. And as we listen, ask yourself: What do you hear? What do you notice? Is Jesus speaking to you? …
The first reading will be in the voice of the Historian. Perhaps this is Matthew’s voice: Matthew using Jesus to talk about what actually happened, what Matthew experienced and witnessed in those tumultuous years. I need someone who can read this without much emotion. You’re just telling us what happened. (This is also how we usually read stuff in church!…)
Mt 10: 21-22, 34-36
“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved… Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”
The second reading is in the voice of Angry Jesus. This is the Jesus who yells at someone for wanting to bury his father before he becomes a disciple. This Jesus thinks his followers are a bunch of fair-weather Christians who don’t understand what the Way will really cost you.This Jesus says, You think it’s all sweetness and light! You think Nice is the same as Good! You have NO idea of the real stakes!! Who feels like they could read that Jesus? ….
Mt 10: 21-22, 34-36 again
The third reading is in the voice of Compassionate Jesus. This is the Jesus who weeps over stubborn Jerusalem, who sees struggle and cataclysm on the horizon and knows there is nothing he can do except try to prepare the few who will listen. He knows the same simmering resentments that will drive his execution will soon flare up into consuming violence. And he knows that following the Way will lead his followers into persecution by authorities and divisions within their families. He is warning them, with an open and aching heart, how it’s going to go. Who feels like they could read that Jesus? …
Mt 10: 21-22, 34-36 again
What did you notice? ….
So, God has a deal for Abraham. God comes to Abraham – then named Abram – when he is 75 years old. God says, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great. In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And Abram went, as the Lord had told him. Even though Abram doesn’t know God. There is no religion, no people committed to the God who will become Israel’s God at this point. It’s been generations since God spoke directly to a human – Noah.
But Abram and his wife Sarai are childless, and God’s plan to give them descendants is an offer Abram can’t resist. He gathers up his household and sets out towards an unknown destiny. God keeps showing up and reiterating the promise: Let me set you apart as the father of My people, and you will have descendants – more than you can count.
But ten years go by and: still no descendants. That’s where today’s story begins.
This text is expanded well beyond what the Sunday lectionary suggests. The assigned text is the story of the three visitors, Sarah’s laughter, and Isaac’s birth. But this year I’m not willing to join in Hagar’s erasure.
It’s easy to join Sarah’s joyful laughter at the birth of her son. She’s been through a lot. Uprooted from a settled home, late in life; dragged all over the Ancient Near East; TWICE nearly being taken as a concubine by foreign kings because Abraham insists on this bizarre lie that she is his sister and not his wife… and, one assumes, ten years of Abram looking at her askance, because God said he would have descendants, and he STILL doesn’t, and maybe Sarah is the problem. Sarah is burdened by what she has suffered, and marked by internalized sexism that measures her value in her fertility. But people are complicated, and Sarah also acts as an oppressor here.
Let me tell, briefly, the next chapter of Hagar’s story, which is assigned as a reading for next Sunday: Isaac is a young child, doted on by his parents. One day Sarah sees Isaac and Ishmael playing together, and flies into a rage. She tells Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” Abraham is distressed; he’s fond of Ishmael. But God says, Fear not; Ishmael too will become a great nation; but it is through Isaac that I will make you a people. So Abraham gives Hagar bread and water, and sends her away with her son.
Note that Ishmael’s age is a jumble in the text. This story makes him sound young – not much older than Isaac. But by Abraham’s age given elsewhere, he’d be in his late teens. Not too old to play with his little half-brother – but certainly too old for Hagar to leave him under a bush to die when their water runs out, after wandering in the wilderness for some time.
Hagar walks away, because she cannot bear to watch her son’s death. But God hears Ishmael’s wails, and the angel of God appears to Hagar a second time, telling her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Don’t be afraid; go pick up your child. He will live and I will make him a great nation.” Then God shows her a spring of water, and she and the child are saved. Ishmael grows up in the wilderness, and becomes a great hunter.
In all of this: Neither Sarah nor Abraham ever use Hagar’s name. Neither Sarah or Abraham ask Hagar’s consent before making her body the tool of their faithless plan to arrange descendants for themselves instead of waiting on God’s fulfillment. Neither Sarah or Abraham care enough about Hagar or Ishmael’s lives to deal with their complicated family situation and struggle through to a new way of being together. (I don’t give Abraham a lot of credit for the bread and water he gave Hagar, considering how quickly it ran out.) Sarah and Abraham treat Hagar and Ishmael as less fully human than themselves and Isaac.
Let me be clear that the black-and-white racialized order of American society and economy emerged over 400 years or so of quite specific historical events and patterns. Abraham and Sarah were not white, and Hagar was not black.
And yet. The fact that Hagar is used to bear a child for her master without her consent may rightly remind us of the situation of many enslaved women before the Civil War. The fact that Abraham can turn on a dime from fathering a child with Hagar, to telling Sarah, “She’s your property, do whatever you want with her,” may rightly remind us of police in Buffalo, New York, who one day knelt in symbolic solidarity with protesters and the next day, in the same place, pushed over a 75-year-old protester and then kept walking as he lay on the ground bleeding. The fact that Hagar flees into the wilderness in the desperate hope for a better life may rightly remind us of the Central American migrants who undertake the dangerous trek across the desert at our southern border, fleeing violence and starvation in their home countries. The fact of Hagar’s agony in the face of her son’s likely death may rightly remind us of the fierce and bitter grief of the mothers of sons murdered by police and by racist vigilantes in our nation in recent years.
There are deep threads here that we recognize all too easily about our capacity to dehumanize and harm one another. To identify other human beings as members of a group that matters less than our group – whether that group be slaves, Egyptians, African-Americans, illegal aliens, or protesters. It’s one of the strongest threads of the HPtFtU – the Human Propensity to Eff things Up, the vocabulary Francis Spufford offers us for sin.
Yet when people occasionally ask me how I can love the Bible so deeply when it contains such terrible stories, the story of Hagar is one of the stories I often mention. Because here – so early in our great sacred story, at the very beginning of Israel’s covenant relationship with God – we can already see light between God’s perspective and human perspectives. We can already see that God’s vision of human wholeness and holiness is much bigger than anything Abraham can imagine.
It is true that in repeatedly promising a son to Abraham and Sarah, God seems to be buying in to the way they reckon identity and status. The eldest son of the first (or favorite) wife is the child who matters. Neither the adoptive son Abraham names as his heir early on, nor Ishmael, properly “count” as the REAL SON God has promised.
But does God perform the miracle of Isaac’s birth because God endorses that thinking, or to prove God’s power to Abraham and Sarah? Without human biases and resentments, could another kind of story have been possible? Remember that glimpse of Isaac and Ishmael playing together. Genesis contains many stories of non-favored sons who matter.
What really draws me to this story is God’s relationship with Hagar. Neither Sarah nor Abraham ever use Hagar’s name … but God does. Both times, when the angel of God’s presence seeks out Hagar in the wilderness, they address her by name. The first time, the angel calls her “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai,” and sends her back to subjugation and abuse. I don’t love that… but apparently Ishmael needs to be part of the story; Hagar can’t disappear from the narrative yet.
And as counterweight to the the story’s acceptance of Hagar’s enslavement, we need to understand how big a deal it is that Hagar has a direct encounter with the Divine. Keen listeners may nave noticed that the text says an angel spoke to Hagar, but she speaks of having seen God. The nature of angels in these ancient stories is a fascinating topic. Sometimes they seem to be autonomous beings who work for God.Sometimes they seem to be something much closer to a local, limited manifestation of Godself. The voice that stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac? – “The angel of the Lord.” The burning bush that speaks to Moses? – “The angel of the Lord.” And let’s not forget the Angel of the Lord who stops Balaam’s donkey. The Genesis text does not use the word “angel” in describing the three mysterious men who were somehow God, who visited Abraham’s tent, but they have been read and depicted as angels for a long time.
So Hagar’s meeting with the angel of the Lord – TWICE – is understood by the text itself as a theophany, a direct encounter with the Holy. And that’s a big deal. That does not happen to very many people, in the whole Bible. God’s visits with Abraham set him apart as the ancestor of God’s people. God’s direct communication is a privilege and a burden for Moses. The prophet Elijah begs God for the chance to actually see God. Various people are struck dead on the spot for coming too close to the presence of God, unworthy or unprepared. Hagar’s reaction – have I actually seen God and lived? – is appropriate.
God appears to Hagar to tell her that her child will be special. Sound familiar at all? This is an annunciation scene – one of many Biblical scenes in which a woman receives a divine message about her future child. Note that God never addresses Sarah this directly! God makes promises to Hagar that sound a lot like God’s promises to Abraham: You will have more descendants than you can possibly count.
And in response to this divine message – I love this – Hagar is the first person in the Bible to name God. In fact, I haven’t had time to verify this, but some claim that she is the only person in the whole Hebrew Bible to give God a name.The Biblical text names God; Moses asks God’s name; there are many texts describing God in poetic language… But what Hagar does here is different: she invents a name for God, based on her experience of God’s saving power. You are El-Roi, she says, the One who sees – the one who sees me, the unseen, disregarded, and abused.
In the second story of Hagar in the wilderness, the one we’ll hear next week, the angel no longer calls her “slave-girl,” but simply “Hagar.” Abraham’s casting out of woman and boy is also their liberation. She is a free woman now, and will not return to bondage.
I read this narrative, Hagar and Sarah’s pregnancies and the births of Abraham’s sons, as reflecting the tug between human understandings and the divine purpose. The story hangs suspended between Abraham’s desire to become the ancestor of many nations, and God’s desire to found a people who belong to God in covenanted love. God is working with human understandings and limitations, and so God through Abraham founds a lineage, because lineages are how people organized themselves in that time and place.
But God SEEING Hagar, saving Hagar, is only one of many hints that God’s ultimate plan is much broader. Both Jews and Christians, as covenanted peoples of God, blessed to be a blessing for the world, will become peoples not defined by descent or bounded by blood kinship. Hagar’s story is a distant foreshadowing of Isaiah’s vision of the redeemed Jerusalem as a light to enlighten ALL nations and peoples.
Suspended between human understandings and the divine purpose is also where we find ourselves – often, and particularly with respect to matters of racism and human dignity and wellbeing. We live in a world that normalizes black poverty; that takes “good” and “bad” neighborhoods as natural features of the landscape; that assumes the vastly disproportionate numbers of people of color in our prisons reflects a disparity in criminality rather than a biased system;
that insists that systems that work for some kinds of people would work for EVERYBODY if folks would just put in a little effort; that struggles to maintain a moral differentiation between property damage and violence against human beings; that, as Ibram Kendi writes, finds it much easier to place blame on people rather than to examine the impact of policies.
In tension with those and other human understandings, which shape our lives and judgments and actions at levels deeper than conscious thought, Are God’s desires and intentions for humanity – as we understand them: Revealed in the witness of the prophets who held the privileged and powerful accountable for the wellbeing of the poorest and most marginalized. Revealed in the witness of the apostles who called us into holy community in which Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female are all one in Christ Jesus. Revealed in the witness of Jesus Christ himself, who taught and lived and died that God is a god of the dispossessed, forgotten, wounded, unseen. Hagar speaks the truth: God is the One who Sees.
Friday of this week is Juneteenth, a day commemorating the end of slavery.
It’s not a national holiday, which speaks volumes, though it’s observed by many states and cities. There are lots of things I could say about what this day means, But let me say simply that it’s a day to dwell with, and repent of, the HPtFTU – and specifically our longstanding and well-attested propensity to create in-groups and out-groups, and to use, disregard, harm and tolerate harm against, those whom we see as outside our group. That may rightly weigh on us more heavily this year.
I am listening and reading and praying about what repentance looks like for me, and for us. This week, writer and church planter Emily Scott wrote about how she and her congregation are moving forward. She and others researched organizations in Baltimore, where she lives, that are working toward racial justice – and looked at the kind of support they were looking for: some ask for money, some need volunteers, and so on. The congregation weighed in on the organizations they felt called to support. Scott writes, “Rooting the work in our call and our gifts means we’re drawing from a deep well.” A small core group of members have committed to attending meetings of two local groups, as a next step.
Scott concludes, “This [work] takes time and intention. It may take setting other priorities aside, because this is important…There will be the slow, steady work of learning stories, building relationships, supporting with our money and our time, and showing up as we’re asked to. This is what it takes. Movements are built on excel sheets and reminder phone calls, monthly meetings and one-to-ones. Let’s get working.” It helped me to be reminded that big change is slow and stepwise and collaborative; and that our best work will flow from the gifts and capacities we’ve already developed.
In the meantime, while we listen and wonder and pray, I invite you to join me Friday at noon for a liturgy of repentance. I’ll try to do it on both Zoom and Facebook Live. I don’t have it all figured out yet but I know I need to do it.
And today we begin our summer Prayer of the Week Project – we’ll share a prayer every week, from different sources and for different occasions. The idea is that over the course of the summer you may discover some new prayers to plant in your heart and use as part of your ongoing conversation with God. This week’s prayer is one from our Book of Common Prayer; you may have heard it used in our diocesan worship last Sunday.
I invite you to pray it with me.
When Bishop Miller invited me to preach on Trinity Sunday, I was both honored and alarmed. It was and is a daunting assignment! Every year, in Episcopal circles on Twitter and Facebook, there’s a little flutter before and after this feast over which preachers commit heresy in the course of explaining the Trinity. I hope to avoid that pitfall because I am under no illusion that I understand the Trinity.
When I can’t avoid talking about it, I like to turn to the fourth-century theologians who thought and wrote about the Trinity back when that was the central theological debate of the age. The Nicene Creed which we say every Sunday, and the Church’s formal doctrinal language, can make the idea of the Trinity feel rigid and dry. But those long-ago thinkers were keenly aware that they were fumbling to put words to a mystery that is, as Gregory of Nyssa writes, “beyond a certain point ineffable and inconceivable.”
One of my favorite ideas from these fourth-century writers comes from Gregory’s brother Basil, on the math of the Trinity. He wrote, “The Unapproachable One is beyond numbers, wisest sirs … Count if you must, but do not malign the truth…There is one God and Father, one Only-Begotten Son, and one Holy Spirit. We declare each Person to be unique, and if we must use numbers, we will not let a stupid arithmetic lead us astray to the idea of many gods.” (On the Holy Spirit) Basil goes on to explain that because of this distinctiveness, yet unity, of the Persons of the Trinity, the proper way to count the Trinity is not one plus one plus one makes Three, but but One, One, One… makes One.
One idea that was important in thinking and writing about the Trinity during this formative time and the following centuries is perichoresis – a wonderful Greek word that means something like, Moving around in a circle. Scholars have tried to render the concept into English in many ways: relational co-inherence, co-indwelling, dynamic reciprocity, interpenetration, fellowship, intimacy, sharing, mutual belonging…. No one term or phrase captures it, but I think you get the idea!
Gregory of Nyssa wrote that because of this profound interconnectedness of the Persons of the Trinity, it’s impossible, for example, to think or talk about just the Holy Spirit. He writes, “Since the Spirit is of Christ (Rom 8.9) and from God (1 Cor 2.12)…, then just as anyone who catches hold of one end of a chain pulls also on the other end, so one who draws the Spirit (Ps 118.131) as the prophet says, also draws through him the Son and the Father.” (Epistle to Peter)
What these great-grandparents of our faith are telling us is: Within Godself, there is multiplicity – the Persons named as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and there is relationship. Relationship is not something secondary to the Divine, something added on to a fundamental completeness; but is in the very being and heart of the Holy, from the beginning. C.S. Lewis writes, “‘God is love’ is a way of saying that the living, dynamic activity of love has always been going on within God, and has created everything else.”
And we, humans, made in the image and likeness of God, we too are relational, in our very being. Made to belong to one another – and to the ecology in which we are placed, though that’s a sermon for another day! We were made for connection, for fellowship, for sharing, for love. That’s not just throw-pillow philosophy. It’s also the conclusion of quite a number of scientific fields.
That connectedness is fundamental to God’s nature, and ours, is a challenge of sorts to Western thought – to the idea that the fundamental unit of humanity is the autonomous individual. We are prone to think of ourselves as much more separate from those around us, much more self-determined in our opinions and choices, than we actually are. Despite being reminded otherwise regularly over the millennia!
St. Paul wrote, “All the members of the body, though many, are one body… The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” (1 Cor 12)
John Donne, in the 1620s, another time of plague, wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less… Any [person]’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in [hu]mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
In the late 20th century, Archbishop Desmond Tutu introduced us in the American church to the idea of ubuntu, explaining: “We believe that a person is a person through another person, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours.” Ubuntu means, “We belong in a bundle of life.”
(from his memoir No Future Without Forgiveness)
Writer and human rights activist Glennon Doyle calls us to look at the crises of our times through the lens of knowing that there is no such thing as other people’s children.
We need each other. No person is an island. We belong in a bundle of life. There is no such thing as other people’s children. We know all this – but we forget, so easily. We fall back into the illusion that I am an independent Self. That my skin and my skull bound my being. That what makes me and matters about me are my own, singular tastes, choices, possessions, experiences and moods – and not my connections and my context.
Except that there’s this pandemic going on.
A few weeks ago, in a piece about life during coronavirus, I read a line that said something like this: We are thinking more socially than ever before. I didn’t make note of the source at the time; I should have, because I’ve thought about that idea, again and again.
It started with those diagrams or animations that were circulating in the early days, when social distancing was a new idea: Remember – you’d be invited to visualize yourself as a dot. And lo and behold, that dot is connected to other dots. Not just the people you’d readily name as being in your network – family members, co-workers, friends – but people you didn’t think much about before: Your grocery store clerk, your postal worker. The receptionist at your hair salon. Your child’s teacher. Your child’s teacher’s child’s teacher.
No man is an island.
Our fresh recognition of the degree to which interaction and connection are part of our daily lives came at first with a lot of fear. Trips to the grocery store became fraught because we were newly mindful of touching what someone else has touched; of inhaling air that someone else just exhaled.
But as our new awareness settled in, many of us started to think about our fundamental interconnectedness in more measured and altruistic ways. The people who deliver my mail and my packages: Are they OK? Are they staying healthy? Are they afraid? Does their employer provide masks? Do they have paid sick leave if they need it? Perhaps we start wondering because we’re estimating the risk of virus on our Amazon boxes – but then we keep wondering because those people too are part of my network. Their wellbeing should matter to me. Does matter to me.
In a recent essay, Anne Helen Peterson writes about the nationwide drop in consumption – partially because of job losses and fears of even worse economic times ahead, but also, she argues, because of “a newfound awareness (and attention to) the human cost of each purchase: For everything you buy online, there are people in factories packaging it, others in warehouses distributing it, and still more in trucks delivering it.” Some of those people have some protections provided by employers; others do not. One person told Peterson, “The calculus for every decision is: Do I need to put an essential worker in harm’s way to get this? [Or] can I do without it?”
Likewise, we’re slowly getting used to the idea that masking is primarily to protect OTHERS from us. As the Bishop says so well, the mask is a sign of love of neighbor. Putting on a mask is a physical act that acknowledges our mutual vulnerability and responsibility. We belong in a bundle of life – and we mask to preserve life.
As protests continue against our nation’s long and entrenched history of excessive use of force against black and brown bodies, I’m seeing more of my white friends and colleagues than ever before saying, I see. I hear. I’m going to start this work. We are realizing that systems that make us feel comfortable and safe, often have the exact opposite impact for our neighbors of color. We’re coming to understand more deeply, more urgently, that our lives are embedded in a shared fabric that lifts some kinds of people and presses down on others.
May we hold onto that newfound knowledge, even though it hurts – and not be like the person described by the apostle James who looks in the mirror, then walks away and immediately forgets what they look like.
This newfound, deeper awareness of our mutual interconnectedness that I think I see is certainly not universal. For every person considering afresh the wellbeing of those touched by their choices and actions, there is a person angry that their hair salon isn’t open yet… a person who has not understood, or does not care, that the risk is MUCH higher for the staff, who come into contact with many customers, than for the client.
But I think more of us are carrying those dot and line diagrams in our heads these days, one way or another. We are aware in fresh and vivid ways of the human networks that lead to us, and out from us.
Where do we go from here? Will it stick? Does it matter? The podcast 99 Percent Invisible had an episode recently about the strange opportunities the pandemic has offered – like, ecologists are able to listen to how whales communicate when they’re not competing with the noise of commercial shipping. The hosts observed, “We don’t want to talk about silver linings when so much bad is happening. But… I don’t think it diminishes the moment to treat [it] as having lessons for us… It would be a double tragedy if we went through this and learned nothing.” [Emmett Fitzgerald, Roman Mars]
It would be a double tragedy if we went through this, and learned nothing.
What could it look like to carry forward our new social – or epidemiological – patterns of thinking? Disease is not the only thing that is contagious – that spreads through social contact. Information is contagious – and so is misinformation and disinformation, lies spread deliberately to sow confusion and mistrust. Just as it’s incumbent on us as children of a God of wholeness to strive to avoid spreading disease, so it is incumbent on us as children of a God of truth to strive to avoid becoming vectors of falsehood. Take responsibility for what you pass along, in real life and especially on social media, and remember that we’re most likely to be fooled by lies that lean into our existing biases.
Ideologies spread socially. In recent years white supremacist ideologies have spread rapidly in online spaces and beyond. When we find ourselves in the presence of racist or hateful speech, it’s on us to break that chain of transmission. All you have to say is, “I don’t like that kind of joke,” or, “Talking about people that way makes me uncomfortable.” That can feel hard – but it’s a lot easier than not leaving your home for two months!
There are things we don’t want to spread – and there are things we DO. We are social animals; we are shaped by the attitudes and behaviors of the people around us, and we shape others in turn. Rightly deployed, that’s a powerful force.
Faith is contagious, of course – and like the coronavirus, it’s unlikely to be caught by casual contact; it’s much more likely to make the jump from one person to another when you spend time in close proximity, breathing the same air.
Kindness is contagious. Again: That sounds like a throw pillow, but there is science behind it. When people witness someone else doing a kind act, they’re more likely to do something kind for others. One study suggested that a person who sees an act of altruism may go on to do as many as four kind acts in response.
Moral courage is contagious – the courage to do or stand up for what is right, even when there are significant risks. Both social norms – the spoken and unspoken messages we get from the people and culture around us – AND particular people who model costly courage, make us more likely to do what is right even when it scares us. Having others in our network who are standing up and speaking up for justice and mercy literally encourages us – puts courage into us – to stand up too.
My skin is not the boundary of my self. My humanity is inextricably bound up with others – in tiny everyday ways and in big, world-changing ways too. The mutual belonging and interdependence within the very heart of God, the Holy and undivided Trinity, is at the heart of my being as well – and yours. May a fresh, fierce, hopeful knowledge that no one is an island, that we belong in a bundle of life, that every death diminishes me and there is no such thing as other people’s children – may that knowledge shape our choices and our lives, from this day forward. May it be the blessing we carry away from this season of bitter and costly wrestling with disease and injustice.
Basil and bad Trinity math:
Gregory of Nyssa:
99 Percent Invisible, Episode 401: The Natural Experiment –
A starting point on the contagion of altruism –
A wonderful piece that didn’t make the cut but that you should read – “The Pandemic is a portal”
Rev. Miranda’s sermon about the Ascension, in video form. It’s about 28 minutes long (a good bit longer than usual!) and includes shared reflection on art and poetry.