Prepared for Redland City Uniting Church Trinity Wellington Point 25.06.2023
Readings: Matthew 10:24-39, Genesis 21:8-21
It would have been easy for me to choose the readings associated with the anniversary of the Uniting Church this weekend. The anniversary took place on the 22nd of June. We are now 46 years old. However, the familiar words of Jesus’ prayer about unity found in John 17, whilst challenging, could also be used to continue the domestication of our faith. You see, what we often do with the scriptures and our faith is that we make them comfortable, we keep them certain, we like to keep things predictable and so make ourselves feel good about who we already are.
But the Basis of Union itself drives us beyond our comfort zone and any sense of self-righteousness. Thus, we should always remember, with humility, that the union in 1977 also caused a further schism in the church, as many within the Congregational Union of Australia and the Presbyterian Church of Australia chose not to join us in our witness. The discomfort we might feel at this is recognised within the very first paragraph of the Basis by the Uniting Churches. It declared of those coming into union that “they acknowledge that none of them has responded to God's love with a full obedience” and later that the church is “a pilgrim people” that will need to express our faith in “fresh words and deeds” and finally that “God will constantly correct that which is erroneous in its life”. In this the Basis echoed the great dictum of the reformation, ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (the church reformed, always reforming).
This tension, of the church always needing reform, places us soundly in the Reformed tradition which leans on Paul’s comments about us all being sinners who fall short of the glory of God. However, this view of humans before God also sits in tension with the Methodist tradition which reflected something of the natural theology that understands human beings as made in the image of God and the concept of the work of the Holy Spirit through which, as Charles Wesley put it, we are changed from glory into glory. I have often been somewhat amazed that the contrasting and even conflicting theologies of the three churches was able to come together into this Uniting Church. But maybe in bringing these disparate ideas together the church reflects the true messiness and limitations of our relationship with God as fallible and flawed human beings. It is the kind of messiness that we encountered in the readings today.
In particular, the story of Hagar and Ishmael drew me in, and it struck me just how difficult the stories of the Old Testament can be. This story should disturb us deeply in our faith. Graham J. Adams in his essay “Ephphatha! DARE to be Opened!” declares “The Bible is both a butterfly and a hurricane!” (Cited in Scripture and Resistance: Theology in an Age of Empire ed. Jione Havea, p.17) He goes on to say, that as a butterfly “the Bible is always signalling to us that the apparently ‘dead’ appearance of words on a page, like a chrysalis, is not the end of the interpretive story, but instead, because “the spirit blows where she wills”, it comes to life, in ever new ways, surprising us, enlivening us, enthralling us, but also disturbing or unsettling us.” (Adams, p.17) And like a hurricane, the Bible is disruptive, “The newness disrupts our preconceptions, causes problems for us in our desire to superimpose order onto a disordered world.” (Adams, p.17) This imagery reminds us to not get too comfortable in our pews and not too comfortable in thinking that we have arrived in our faith.
I recall a congregation in which I ministered that the wooden pews were decidedly uncomfortable and maybe that is a metaphor for how we should encounter preaching. If you walk from the church this morning and say to me nice sermon I sometimes wonder if my preaching has failed because when Jesus preached to the converted, they tried to throw him off the nearest cliff. The gospel is a two-edge sword which I think means we are meant to find and encounter hope and God’s love on the one hand but on the other to be confronted by deep and difficulty realities of our human existence.
Hymn Love Divine
This has been a long introduction to explain my choice to use the common lectionary readings set down for today. The story of the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael takes us into disturbing and unsettled waters to confront our assumptions and reset our faith journeys. It is a story that reflects the messiness of human existence and the messiness of our human relationships with God. The temptation could be to make the story simple. To simply say that God is faithful to Hagar and Ishmael so the behaviour and disruption to family and community caused by Sarah’s influence over Abraham is O.K.. It’s O.K. to cast out Hagar and Ishmael. But is it really?
I need to acknowledge that I read this piece of scripture through the lens of a person who is a part of a dominant culture which has conquered and colonised, a culture that has invaded and instituted, a culture which has disrupted and displaced others. My Anglo background aligns my history with an imperial past which should be challenged and questioned. But if I were to read this through the lens through the oppressed not the oppressor, I wonder how the story may be transformed. Maybe in reading it through such a lens I would begin to ask whether European Christianity has acted more like Sarah and Abraham, casting aside those who might challenge our position and place in the world. I might begin to ask who has Christianity cast aside.
Or maybe a bit more confrontingly, who have we said are not welcome in our midst as congregations and then justified it with “it’s OK” because God allows Sarah and Abraham to cast aside Hagar as somehow a threat or even worse as worthless.
The messiness of the whole incident with Sarah and Hagar is made more disturbing when we remember Sarah encouraged Abraham to conceive a child through her servant girl Hagar to create an heir. This was because Sarah thought she was barren. When Hagar becomes pregnant Hagar is portrayed as looking down on Sarah. Nonetheless, both Hagar and her son, Ishmael effectively became part of Abraham’s family. In the ancient world Ishmael would have been seen as Abraham’s heir by the community and by the family.
The story that we heard today takes place quite a few years later, after Sarah herself miraculously becomes pregnant and bears her son Isaac. This story takes place when Isaac is weaned which, in the ancient world, was probably around 3 years of age. By this time his older half-brother Ishmael is predicted to have been in his late teens, maybe even as old as 17. We are told that Sarah observes Ishmael playing with her son Isaac, except here the translation is kind. In other translations the word used is laughing, although some commentators suggest that it is harsher than this – Ishmael is laughing at or mocking Isaac. Maybe this was an assertion of Ishmael’s authority and status over Isaac, an authority that Abraham could still confer to Ishmael over and above Isaac. Sarah is, we might think, naturally concerned.
As the Biblical scholar Westermann points out, Sarah is jealous for her son’s future – she is being loyal to family. In his words, she has a “ruthless maternal concern for her son’s future.” (Word v.2 p.82) Often, when I have asked people what the most important thing in life is, the answer has come back as family. Sarah’s commitment to family and her group has consequences because it excludes others. Adams, in the article I mentioned earlier says this, “religious communities are often defined more obviously by loyalties to family, class, ethnicity, nation, or like mindedness, or by common addictions to the harm we do (to the earth power to those whom we exploit, to our own human dignity).” (Abrams in Havea, p.20) whilst we often like to use the word community in a positive and inclusive sense there is another darker side of community which is often defined by who we exclude. I would argue, despite the justifications given, the example of Sarah should not be an example we would follow.
Nonetheless, Abraham does cast out Hagar and Ishmael. He gives them bread and water and sends them into the desert, possibly knowing that their chance of survival was slim at best. Just as imagining Ishmael as a 17-year-old playing with the 3-year-old Isaac shifts the story in my mind so too does it shift at this point too. Ishmael is on the cusp of being a man when his mother puts him under a bush and walks off unwilling to watch him die. Like many other aspects of the story this one is unsettling – she abandons him to die alone because she cannot watch it. She settles down a bowshot away looking up to heaven cries out.
At this point, I think the story takes a most interesting turn. Throughout the whole story Ishmael has had no voice and no control over what is occurring but here in this moment we're told that God hears him. God heard the voice of the boy! Ironically, it is not the boy that God then speaks to, rather it is to his mother and God guides her through an Angel to a well of water which saves their life. Moreover, God promises to make a great nation of Ishmael, a promise that is no different than the promise made to Isaac.
Regardless of everything else that has happened, God's faithfulness to Abraham through Ishmael will be realised. God is faithful to those whom others would have cast out. God is faithful to the one that the community rejects. God is faithful to all humanity even when we do not see it. A colleague recently challenged me with the idea that at Pentecost the Holy Spirit was only poured out on the believers and that it is only Christian people that receive the Holy Spirit. After contemplating this idea for a while, I returned to the Acts reading in which we are reminded that the words of the prophet is that the spirit will be poured out on all flesh. God's concern is for all people whom God has made.
In his essay Adams says this, “the God of the Bible is, in fact, the God who hears the cries of the oppressed and outsiders, the God of empathetic solidarity - with Hebrew slaves, midwives, widows, orphans, and aliens; Moabite refugees, foreign commanders, and widows; Assyrian Messiahs and Roman centurions; lepers, tax collectors, and prostitutes; children and all kinds of ‘little ones’; the poor, bereaved, and meek; the doubters, deniers, and crucified.” (Adams in Havea, p.18)
God hears the voice of those who do not have one. God hears the voice of those whom we would cast out. God hears the voice of the voiceless. And God pours out God spirit on all flesh. The imagery of the story and the promise of unity found within the scripture discombobulate us, it shakes us out of our reverie, and it challenges us with what it means to be God's people. The good news is the just as the Old Testament reconfigures our understanding of family and community, of religions and its institutions, so too does Jesus.
Jesus’ words that we heard today are just as unsettling: “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.” Whilst I cannot take the time to preach a whole other sermon on this passage, I would share a precis from a previous sermon I preached on this passage. Earlier in Matthew when Jesus was told his mother and brothers were outside, he responds, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Jesus’ view of the idea of family here is not to diminish it but to augment it. Family is not defined by biological ties but is defined by the growing relationship he had with those outside his own family – his disciples.
The restriction of who could be part of the family changed. The goal post was shifted. The fact that he defines the disciples as mother and brothers reminds us of how important Jesus views family to be, yet at the same through his words Jesus elevates others into his family. Whereas Sarah sought to exclude Jesus seeks to include and as we know to include others who society and community often rejected.
To reimagine Adams words, possibly a little controversially, “the God of the Bible is, in fact, the God who hears the cries of the oppressed and outsiders, the God of empathetic solidarity” – with First Nations peoples, Yugambeh and Quandamooka, and all of with First Nations peoples across the globe who experience European invasion; with modern slaves who work in sweat shops and mines, and child labourers who produce the things which we consume; with the poor, the unemployed, the lonely, and the forgotten; with those whose journey to find their own identity in their gender and sexuality is more complex than we can begin to imagine; with refugees from climate and from wars who find themselves in inhospitable countries; and from any who would be sent out like Hagar and Ishmael into the desert.” These are the people whom God hears and sends Jesus into the world to bring the peace of God which surpasses all our understanding.
So, as we celebrate 46 years of the Uniting Church, 46 years of being fallible and frail humans before a gracious God I am led to ask. What does it mean for us to be the Uniting Church when we know God as a God who includes the outcasts and the dispossessed? How does this transform our understanding of what it means to be Redland City Uniting Church? How does this transform our understanding about what it means to be the South Moreton Presbytery or the Queensland Synod or the Uniting Church in Australia? How does it challenge what it means to be faithful to following the way of Jesus who invites us and challenges us not to elevate those who are like us above others and in so doing be like Sarah, who put her family first? What does it mean for us to elevate others who are not us, who are not like us into our family and into our midst?
The words of the Statement to the Nation made in 1977 ring in my ears:
We affirm our eagerness to uphold basic Christian values and principles, such as the importance of every human being, the need for integrity in public life, the proclamation of truth and justice, the rights for each citizen to participate in decision-making in the community, religious liberty and personal dignity, and a concern for the welfare of the whole human race.
We will challenge values which emphasise acquisitiveness and greed in disregard of the needs of others and which encourage a higher standard of living for the privileged in the face of the daily widening gap between the rich and poor.
We are concerned with the basic human rights of future generations and will urge the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources for their use and enjoyment. (UCA Statement to the Nation 1977)