June 21, 2020
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|Genesis 21:8-21||Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17||Romans 6:1b-11||Matthew 10:24-39||Jeremiah 20:7-13||Psalm 69: 8-11, (12-17), 18-20|
by Paul Nancarrow
In the semi-continuous track of readings, Genesis 21:8-21 resumes the saga of Sarah and Abraham, picking the story up after Isaac has been born and is ready to be weaned. At the weaning feast, Sarah sees Ishmael, son of Hagar, playing with Isaac, and this triggers in her some sort of negative response. Some commentators have suggested that Ishmael’s “playing” is somehow abusive or inappropriate, and that Sarah is moved to protect her son. Others have affirmed that her motive has less to do with boundary violations than with Sarah’s concern that her son receive the entire inheritance. Whatever her reason, Sarah comes to regard Hagar and Ishmael, whose presence in the household she originally arranged, as rivals; she goes to Abraham and insists that the two be cast out. Abraham is distressed by this; but God reminds Abraham that it is through Sarah that his descendants shall be named, and God tells Abraham to do as Sarah says. God also promises to look after Ishmael, since he is still a son of Abraham and therefore shares in the promise to be made a great nation. It is distressing to us — a historically accurate depiction of priorities in a patriarchal culture, perhaps, but still distressing to present readers — that God’s concern throughout this passage is more for Ishmael than for Hagar: when Hagar is given some bread and water and sent into the desert, she abandons Ishmael under a bush so she won’t have to watch him die, and weeps; God answers “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” It is Ishmael’s voice God has heard, and Ishmael’s future God guarantees; Hagar is saved so that she can take care of Ishmael as he grows. To this end, God opens Hagar’s eyes, she sees the spring, and both of them survive.
While Hagar seems to us the most sympathetic character in the story, it is surprising how little concern the other characters have for her: not Sarah, not Abraham, not God. Delores S. Williams sees in Hagar a paradigm of womanist theology, a figure representing the intersectionality of race, gender, slavery, and surrogacy. We can read Hagar as a type of all those who have the experience of being used as a means to someone else’s end and then discarded. Yet even out of the wreckage of her rejection, God gives the potential of co-creating new good: if Ishmael is to be made a great nation, that will only be through Hagar’s care and cooperation, so God gives Hagar all she needs so that Ishmael and she can thrive. A sermon on Hagar could explore how we are given by God what we need, not so that we can aggrandize ourselves, but so that we can help others to thrive and fulfill God’s aims.
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17 is a lament in suffering and plea to God for help. In this spot in the lectionary, it could easily stand in for Hagar’s weeping in the desert. Verse 16 in particular resonates with the Genesis passage, “give your strength to your servant; and save the child of your handmaid” sounds like a plea for Hagar and for Ishmael in turn. Where Hagar wept in despair, the Psalmist cries to God in faith, confident that God will provide the new possibilities that open the way out of the current situation of suffering.
Jeremiah 20:7-13 complements the Gospel passage in a general theme of proclaiming God’s word to people who really don’t want to hear it. This is the fifth “personal lament” in Jeremiah, in which the prophet pours out to God his complaint at the resistance of the people and the difficulty of the prophetic call. Jeremiah knew from the beginning that God had set him a nearly impossible task, but here his lament is especially bitter: “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.” The Revised English Bible reads “duped”; in their most extreme senses, the verbs can be taken to indicate being seduced and raped. What makes Jeremiah so bitter is the way he is compelled to speak God’s word even when his listeners reject that word, and reject Jeremiah himself for speaking it. Jeremiah has become a “laughingstock” and “everyone mocks” him for his dire warnings of God’s impending wrath over Jerusalem’s faithless ways; his neighbors whisper against him “Terror is all around!” and even his “close friends are watching for me to stumble,” so that they can have an opportunity to “prevail against him.” Facing such rejection, Jeremiah decides “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name”; but when he attempts to keep his silence he is not able: “within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot,” and he must speak God’s word again. Under these circumstances, Jeremiah feels that God has dealt falsely with him, calling him to a vocation and then not being there to make it successful. Yet even if Jeremiah feels for the moment no guarantee of his personal success, he still has faith that God’s aims cannot be permanently blocked: “my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail,” because it is God who will “test the righteous,” God who will “see the heart and the mind” and who will ultimately vindicate the truth. It is from this vantage point of trust in God’s purpose, and not in his own safety or success, that Jeremiah can finally say “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.” Commitment to the outworking of God’s creative transformation, even when the specific success of that transformation is beyond our ability to predict or control, is the mark of genuine vocation. This commitment is what makes it possible to speak truth to power, even when power shows no sign of relenting.
As a companion to the Jeremiah passage, Psalm 69:8-11, (12-17), 18-20 is also a lament in suffering and plea to God for help. It echoes Jeremiah’s lament specifically in distress that faithfulness to God has cost the poet social rejection: “I have become a stranger to my own kindred” and “the scorn of those who scorn you has fallen upon me” and “those who sit at the gate murmur against me, and the drunkards make songs about me.” Nevertheless, the poet continues to turn to God in prayer, “In your great mercy, O God, answer me with your unfailing help” and “in your great compassion, turn to me.” The psalm does not seek the same kind of public vindication that Jeremiah’s lament envisions, only that the faithful follower of God be protected from the “distress” of rejection. Here “zeal for God’s house” and faithfulness to God’s way is seen as its own reward, apart from any persuasion or conversion of the “enemies.”
Continuing Paul’s detailed argument in Romans that we are saved not through the law but through grace by faith, this passage in Romans 6:1b-11 focuses on the role of baptism in salvation. In the preceding passage, Paul has laid out a sort of “anthropological” account of salvation, arguing that Jesus’ “act of righteousness” in “obedience” to God’s will has turned around Adam’s “trespass” in “disobedience” that had led to “condemnation for all”; Jesus has thus changed the basic terms of what it means to be human. That general condition of the possibility of salvation — that grace — must still be actualized in the particular lives and life-decisions of believers. The obedience of Jesus must be re-enacted in the life-occasions of Jesus’ followers. Key to that re-enactment is baptism. Baptism re-enacts in a symbolic drowning the death of Jesus, so that coming up out of the water again can re-enact “Christ raised from the dead by the glory of the Father.” The offering of self in symbolized death, and the receiving of new aims from God in symbolized resurrection, sets forth a pattern of receiving and offering of aims and actions in right-relationship to God that redefines and reorients the character of the baptized. The “old self,” “enslaved to sin,” acts out of patterns of distorted relationships of taking and manipulating, holding and calculating; that self is “crucified” with Jesus in the baptismal symbol of death. Rising in baptism, “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus,” the self is renewed to “walk in newness of life” by receiving aims from God and offering actions that embody those aims. Jesus’ own “obedience” to God in receiving and offering thus becomes a defining characteristic of the believer, and the general anthropological possibility of salvation is actualized in personal life. Baptism in this sense elicits into prominence that general condition of salvation that is already true; by making it prominent, baptism makes it experienceable, participative, and efficacious in ongoing practices of receiving and offering in freedom and gratitude long after the ritual itself is finished.
Matthew 10:24-39 continues Jesus’ instructions to his disciples for their first preaching mission, begun in the Gospel reading for last week. This passage presents a notably apocalyptic tone, emphasizing that the disciples’ mission is not simply an episode in the earthly ministry of Jesus, but is intended to continue Jesus’ work into the world for the duration of history, until the time of fulfillment and completion in the Parousia.
The disciples have been given authority to heal and to cast out demons; in following Jesus’ teaching themselves, they are becoming “like the teacher” and re-presenting Jesus in their own actualization of divine ideals. This exposes them to the same kind of resistance and rejection that Jesus himself has endured: “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!” But the disciples are instructed to “have no fear of them,” because their resistance and rejection is itself comprehended within a larger stream of influence, a wider nexus of occasions, that is guided by God’s aims and purposes. Although this outworking of God’s will in actual history is not obvious to the resistors, “nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known,” that even those who “fall to the ground” are still valued and acknowledged and held in life by God. Even against resistance, God’s values endure.
It is against the apocalyptic backdrop of Matthew’s understanding of the ongoing mission that we must read vss 34-36. Jesus’ ultimate mission is to empower peace, shalom, the harmony of harmonies of co-creative action between God and all creatures; to hear Jesus say “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” seems a shocking contradiction. Setting sons and against fathers and daughters against mothers and daughters-in-law against mothers-in-law is quoted from Micah 7:6, where the disintegration of families is a symptom of the larger dissolution of right-relationships leading to God’s decisive action in remaking the world. Jesus’ use of the Micah reference is not so much to say that strife in families is a desirable outcome of his mission, but that his mission requires decision, whether to acknowledge Jesus before others or not, and that decision will inevitably disrupt habitual relations and conventional comfort zones. This is certainly something the believers in Matthew’s community were experiencing themselves, and it can be a challenge for us to admit it today. The point here, as elsewhere in the passage, is that resistance to Jesus’ Way is inevitable, but faithfulness to that Way will not be overcome by resistance.
All of this is summed up in the final paradox of the passage, which is found elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel, in addition to its inclusion in these mission instructions for the Twelve: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Jesus’ Way of receiving and offering in freedom and gratitude is meant to encompass the whole of life, so that those who offer their whole selves — acknowledging Jesus publicly, shaping their conduct according to his teaching, striving for right-relationships in personal and communal and societal systems, even against the resistance of entrenched interests and systemic injustices — will receive from God the aims and value and influences that give life. That paradoxical promise continues to empower the church’s mission today.
The Rev. Dr. Paul Nancarrow is an Episcopal priest retired from full-time parish ministry. His theological work has focused on process-relational interpretations of liturgy, and especially on the co-acting of divine action and human action in sacramental work and worship. He has taught Theology for deacons’ ordination training in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia, and is currently the author of the theology blog “Transfigurations” at paulsnancarrow.wordpress.com. He can often be found contemplating the Adventure of the Universe as One from the saddle of his bicycle on back roads and rail-trails in the Upper Midwest.