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Second Sunday after Pentecost Proper 7A RCL June 22, 2014

Genesis 21:8-21

Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17

Romans 6:1b-11

Matthew 10:24-39

In our first reading this morning, Abraham and Sarah have received a great gift—the birth of their son, Isaac. On the day that Isaac is weaned, there is a feast of celebration.

But then jealousy creeps into the picture. Sarah sees the son of Hagar, her maid, playing with Isaac. Years ago, when she thought she would never have a child, Sarah told Abraham to have sex with Hagar so that Hagar might give birth to an heir. Now Sarah sees Hagar’s son Ishmael as a threat, so she tells Abraham that he must send Hagar and Ishmael away.

Abraham is upset. This seems extremely harsh. God tells Abraham to follow Sarah’s orders and God will not only save Hagar and Ishmael, God will make a nation of them. Abraham gives them bread and a skin of water and sends them away. Hagar is devastated. She wanders around until the water is gone, then puts Ishmael under a bush so that he might have some shade, walks off the distance of a bowshot, meaning that she can still keep an eye on Ishmael, and sits down to wait for her child to die. She is so desolate that she cries. Ishmael cries, too, and God hears his voice. God opens Hagar’s eyes so that she can see a well of water right in front of her. Their lives are saved. Ishmael grows up and marries a woman from Egypt.

To us, this story may seem cruel. But back in those days, your heir was your future. Sarah is trying to protect the rights of her son and the future of Abraham and her family. Hagar is a slave. She has no power in the culture. She must obey the orders of her mistress and master.

The key theme in this story is God’s mercy to Hagar and Ishmael. God protects them and gives them a future. God saves their lives.

Biblical scholar James Newsome writes, “The saving of Ishmael’s life and his subsequent marriage to an Egyptian woman fulfill God’s promise [that God would make a nation of Ishmael]. And so, Abraham is on the way to being the father of not one, but two nations, an understanding reflected in the modern Arab view that Abraham is the father of both Jews and Arabs.” (Newsome, Texts for Preaching, Year A, pp. 372-73.) This story, written by the Elohist writer about 750 B. C. reminds us that, in the family of God, there are no outcasts. Also, God’s blessing can be given to more than one person or group.

In our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul is dealing with people who think that, since Christ has set us free from sin, this gives us a license to keep on sinning over and over again. Paul is reminding them and us that baptism is a death to sin, death to the old life and rebirth into a new life. In the early Church, baptism was done by immersion. The imagery of drowning, dying to sin, was very clear. Paul closes with that wonderful sentence, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Through our baptisms, we have been changed. We have been made new. We are new people. The course of our lives has been changed forever.

In our gospel for today, Jesus is preparing to send the disciples out to do their ministry. He is giving them the most powerful guidance that he can offer. He is letting them know that their ministry is not going to be easy. He has already been facing pressures and threats from various authorities. He knows that his followers will face challenges.

One of his most profound messages is not to be afraid. How fear can paralyze us! Someone said that ninety-nine percent of the things we worry about never happen.

Nothing that Jesus teaches is secret. Scholars tell us that the Essenes had secret teachings. We know that other groups do that as well. With Jesus, everything is right out in the open. “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light,” Jesus says. Don’t be afraid of what people can do to you or say about you. Don’t be afraid. God is holding you in the palm of God’s hand. God knows you and God loves you.

And then he says that thing that is so difficult for us to understand, that he has come to bring not peace but a sword. Sometimes when we answer the call to follow him, it cuts to the core of the most important things in our lives, even our families. A young man feels deeply called to be a medical missionary in Africa, and this means he will not carry on the family business. This hurts his father. The mother tries to see both sides.

A young woman is brought up in a family that does not practice any faith tradition. They do not go to church, synagogue, or mosque.  In fact, they identify themselves as atheists. They feel that all religion, all faith, any kind of belief in God or in a Higher Power, is illogical foolishness. The young woman goes off to college and enters a time of spiritual exploration. She discovers the beauty and depth of the Episcopal Church. She wants to be baptized. Her parents are shocked. They think she has lost her mind.

In the early Church, as folks answered the call to follow Jesus, they were moving into uncharted territory. Their families had no idea what they were getting into. Often, entire families adopted the new faith. But if only one or two family members decided to follow Jesus, there was often great tension over this decision. All of this took place against the backdrop of Roman persecution and hostility from those who looked askance at the new faith. All of these factors put pressures on families.

Is Jesus saying that families are not important? Absolutely not.  Scholars tell us that, when Jesus talks about members of families being set against each other, his premise is that families are one of the highest values in life.  (Fred Craddock, Preaching through the Christian Year A, p. 338.) The family is precious, and following Christ is even more so.

To entrust our lives to our Lord, to give our lives to him, to allow him to live in us and to live in him, that is the goal.  Our Lord ends with this paradox: ”Those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Sometimes we humans think we know what life is all about. Sometimes we tend to think only in human terms. There is something much bigger than the human level. God loves us beyond our power to fathom. God cannot protect us from every adversity because we live in a fallen creation, but God can help us find wells of new life where we did not see them before, and God can lead us to paths of compassion and service we are not able to discover or travel on our own. Amen.

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