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Pentecost 3 Proper 7 RCL June 25, 2017

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

As Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann observes, our first reading can sound harsh to modern people, but to people of that time, the story is about God’s mercy. Scholars tell us that this passage is from the person we call the Elohist writer, because he refers to God as Elohim, Lord. This author was working around 750 B.C.E. The events he is describing go back hundreds of years before that.

Sarah has given birth to Isaac, a happy event, and Isaac is growing. Back in those times, polygamy was the custom, and Hagar, Abraham’s other wife, has a son called Ishmael. Sarah does not want Ishmael to have the same rights of inheritance as Isaac, so she asks Abraham to send Hagar away. In a nomadic desert environment, this is an especially cruel thing to do.

God tells Abraham to grant Sarah’s wish and assures Abraham that God will take care of Hagar and Ishmael. In a heart-wrenching scene, Abraham tenderly gives Hagar some bread and water, puts little Ishmael on her shoulder, and sends her away. She wanders in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the bread and water are gone, Hagar puts Ishmael under a bush so that he can at least have some shade, and she prays to God that she will not have to watch her child die.

God answers her prayer. She looks and sees a well nearby and gives Ishmael some water. God promises to make a great nation of Ishmael.

Thus Abraham becomes the father of both Jews and Arabs.

It is important to note that, at this very moment,  children are dying of hunger and thirst in many places around the world because of war and famine. This reading calls us to join with God in offering mercy and help to these people. Episcopal Relief and Development and other groups are doing just that every day.

Our gospel for today is filled with many profound thoughts. Our Lord is letting us know that his light will reveal everything. He is also preparing his followers to face persecution. He says, “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” He assures us of God’s love. God cares about one sparrow. God knows us and loves us. Jesus tells us God knows the number of hairs on our heads. As one wag put it, “God counts the hairs on our heads—and on our wigs, too!”

But then our Lord says something that shakes us to our foundations: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace  to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” And then he describes all the divisions that will happen because of him. Son against father; daughter against mother; daughter-in-law against her mother- in-law.

It is important for us to realize that Jesus is not saying that he likes this division. In his wisdom, he says that, when we are sincerely trying to discern what he is calling us to do, when we are trying with his grace, to figure out what we are called to do in order to build his kingdom, there are going to be divisions.

One of the most tragic examples of this division, in my opinion, is our own Civil War. People on both sides could find justifications for their opinions in the Bible. Clergy preached on behalf of both sides of this issue. Good people took both sides of this issue. We can picture a family on a plantation torn apart by this question.

Other relatively recent examples come to mind. Families were divided by the Vietnam War. A young man, after much prayer and guidance, becomes a conscientious objector. His father, a career military man, cannot understand this.

We continue to be divided by issues of race.

In Ireland, the home country of half my family, Protestants and Roman Catholics have been mortal enemies. Hopefully, things are changing.

In the Church itself, we have had all kinds of divisions. Scholars discovered very early liturgies, and we had the Green Book, the Zebra Book, and finally the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Some people loved the peace; some did not.  Then we revised the hymnal. That was a bit easier. Some people left the Church over the ordination of women. Some left over the ordination of LGBT people. God’s mercy and love have carried us through many times of trial and tribulation, and, thanks be to God, we are still here.

The unfailing love and inclusiveness of God challenge our longstanding notions and traditions of tribe and class and race and religion and privilege. It is so difficult for us to realize that God loves everyone. It is so easy for us to exclude one group or another, one person or another.

Our opening reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, which dates back over 2,700 years, is telling us that God loves both Jews and Arabs. Abraham is the father of Jews, Arabs, and Christians. And our Lord is calling us to take up the cross, and, as our Unitarian-Universalist brothers and sisters would say, “stand on the side of love.” God has a big family. It includes everyone.   Amen.

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