Imperfect…listening

When I was a new mom I read every book and magazine article I could find on parenting. I felt a need to be the perfect parent raising perfectly healthy children. I’ve shared enough stories about my childhood that you can probably understand why I was worried about my ability to be a good parent.

Likewise when I became a priest and a Rector I had a similar drive to be the perfect priest. I have read countless books on church leadership, church growth, stewardship, conflict, vision and mission, pastoral care, you name it, if it applies to church leadership I have read it, gone to a conference on it, and applied it in my ministry. Not to mention that I am a licensed social worker trained in family systems, group facilitation and group dynamics, and individual and couple therapy. And, I am a trained Spiritual Director, educated in the ways of listening for God and helping others listen for God. 

But the one thing I have learned through thirty years of parenting and twenty years of church leadership and despite my driven type A personality, it is that I will never be perfect. 

On any given day I will let down as many people as I have helped. On any given day I will fail perhaps more than I succeed. For every thoughtful sermon I preach there will be someone who is bored, someone who criticizes what I say or don’t say or how I say it. For every pastoral care concern I meet there will be one I fail to meet. For every word of inspiration I offer there will be a time when I fail to be inspiring. For every learned opportunity I present there will be times when I fail to know what to do. There is no way that I can ever be all things to all people, not even to myself.

I remember studying psychotherapy theories when I was working on my masters in social work. One theorist named Winnicott developed a theory that has become known as the “Good Enough Mother.” It applies the principle that no parenting, no care-taking, will ever be perfect. Caretakers will always at some point in time fail to respond to those they care for. That’s as it should be, because those failures actually produce in the other the opportunity to develop a sense of self and the ability to self-soothe, to learn how to care for one’s self. Children develop the capacity to care for themselves in those in-between moments when parents fail to provide an immediate response.

Here’s the thing. Knowing this hasn’t take away my impulse to be perfect. It has however helped me learn how to be kinder to myself when I fail, and therefore also kinder to others. And its helped me accept that no matter how much I know, there is always more to learn, and that having an open spirit, willing to ask questions, wonder, and learn, is crucial to growing in my faith, into the kind of mature faith that Jesus asks of us and which Paul is forever writing about. 

So here’s another thing. Every Sunday I show up. Standing here is about as vulnerable as a person can be.  I stand here and share stories of my life and my struggles with faith, and the ways I am trying to listen to God and follow God. I do the best I can knowing that in many ways I will fail. And I’m okay with that. I’m only human, after all. The best I can do is be authentic, respectful, and true to the values I believe in, to love God, love self, and love others, as best as I am able.

I show up every Sunday with probably a similar expectation that you have. That God will show up in our worship service and there will be a holy moment of awe, of inspiration, of hope, of transformation. But most Sundays feel bumpy and imperfect: we start late, we can’t sing the hymn, the sermon was boring or someone hates the way it was communicated, the bread and wine are distributed in a clumsy way, we forget to pray for someone or the announcements are too long, the kids are restless, the service is too long, there are typos in the bulletin, and all the many ways that worship has mistakes or fails to be inspirational. 

I have to remind myself what the purpose of worship is. The purpose of worship is to teach us, form us, and equip us to go out into the world and be witnesses to God’s presence by serving others. Jesus sends the disciples out to feed, heal, and tend to others. We know this because the very end of the service sends us out into the world with a dismissal – instructions for going out as the body of Christ, to love and serve the Lord. 

In all the bumpy imperfection of being together in a worshipping community we learn how to be people of faith. Over and over our scripture readings bring us stories of people just like us, imperfect people who are wrestling with other imperfect people, striving to figure out what it means to love and forgive as God does.

So some of the work we’ve been about this year is exploring what Spirituality is. We’ve found that it’s very difficult to define and even more difficult to describe. But simply put, spirituality is an experience of God, the divine. And no doubt, hoping to experience God in worship is a reasonable hope, even though that is not the purpose of worship. It’s reasonable because worship is our primary opportunity for formation. Experiencing God in worship can be a completely spontaneous event. But its also possible to develop opportunities in worship to help increase our capacity to listen and our awareness of what we are hearing, so that we can recognize God when God speaks.

In your worship bulletin is a Spiritual Style Sorter. It has 12 questions with multiple choice responses. Each of the four choices correlate to a type of spirituality: thinking, feeling, doing, being. Some spirituality is experienced intellectually in study, reading, thinking. Some spirituality is experienced in feelings – an interior movement. Some in doing something and some in just being, like prayer and meditation. There is no right answer, no judgement.  

Please fill it out, choosing the best response you can, the one that comes closest to what you think. I will collate these and share the responses with you to give us a sense of where we are as a congregation. If you want to know where you stand individually put your name on the paper and I’ll get back to you. Take a few minutes now to answer the questions and leave your responses in this basket or put them in the collection plate. 

a reflection on the Matthew 18 for Proper 19A

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Holy Rage, Holy Action

When I was in 7th grade the middle school band, in which I was second chair clarinet, played a concert at the high school. After the concert I walked the hallways looking for my family, expecting them to be there cheering me on and, of course, take me home. But my family was no where to be found. Eventually I faced the obvious, and walked home. Arriving home I found the lights on, and my brothers,  quietly playing in their bedroom. My father was not home and my mother was in the basement, in a rage, recklessly throwing and breaking dishes and yelling. I remember thinking that my mother was furious because my father had not come home to take them to my concert. It was the 1960’s and we were a one car family. No doubt both of my parents could have made different choices that day, although afterward we always had two cars.

 

Today, everywhere I turn, there are people who are struggling with anger, with how to express their rage, their worry, their fear, their concerns. Some people insist on not expressing it, working to keep everything neutral and calm. But often this is just a surface calm, ignoring the deep well of anxiety that lives beneath the surface. Others rage on and on, blaming, name calling, treating others horribly. And some people are struggling to be focused and active, without resorting to reactivity and increased angst nor suppressing their feelings.

 

No doubt we live in challenging times. And what are we to do? 

 

Kaj Munk, a Danish pastor killed by the Gestapo in 1944 is quoted as saying this in The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne: 

“What is therefore, our task today? Shall I answer: ‘Faith, hope and love’? That sounds beautiful. But I would say–courage. No–even that is not challenging enough to be the whole truth. Our task today is recklessness. For what we Christians lack is not psychology or literature….we lack a holy rage–the recklessness which comes from the knowledge of God and humanity. The ability to rage when justice lies prostrate on the streets, and when the lie rages across the face of the earth…a holy anger about the things that are wrong in the world. To rage against the ravaging of God’s earth, and the destruction of God’s world. To rage when little children must die of hunger when the tables of the rich are sagging with food. To rage at the lie that calls the threat of death and the strategy of destruction peace. To rage against complacency. To restlessly seek to change human history until it conforms to the norms of the Kingdom of God.”

I suppose, if I had not had the childhood experience that I had, I might be more inclined to agree with Munk, that a faith-filled response to the injustices in the world, in order to bring forth the kingdom of God, requires a reckless holy rage. I do agree that reckless holy rage can be our catalyst to act, but it cannot determine how we actually act. To feel the reckless rage is to acknowledge the depth of injustice and an abiding passion to right the wrongs. That holy rage can inspire action motivated by passion and inspiration. But to recklessly act in rage is to act out of control, saying and doing things that are often not helpful in reconciling situations or bringing forth justice. Transforming the rage into inspired but more thoughtful responses is taking holy action. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the movement he inspired in the 1960’s is a perfect example of taking holy rage and transforming it into holy action for the sake of justice, bringing us closer to the kingdom of God on earth. 

Our story in Exodus launches the Jewish season of Yom Kippur, a season of atonement for sins, with the directions for preparing a holy meal. It also portrays God protecting the Hebrews and punishing the Egyptians. The only problem is, if one reads Egyptian history, there is no matching story, there is no indication that something happened that killed all the first born sons of the Egyptians, including Pharoah’s son.  There is a story about exiled Hebrews being freed, but without the severe consequences for the Egyptians we hear in this reading. What does that mean? Only that the Hebrews and the Egyptians recorded different versions of a similar story. Versions that reflect their experiences, one version was of the perpetrators of injustice and slavery, the other as the enslaved and oppressed set free. 

There is a tendency for groups of people to claim that God is on their side and use that justification to support a one-sided set of experiences, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. And in small passages of the Bible one can even justify the idea that God takes sides. But when one reads the Bible in its entirety one hears that God does not take sides, God loves all, equally. God loved Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Jonah and the Ninivites, Jesus and the tax collectors, Mary Magdalene and the woman at the well.

While loving all people means respecting their dignity, it does not mean that there are not consequences for attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. God holds people accountable for acts of injustice, cruelty, and downright evil behavior. God loves and at the same holds people accountable. That’s what we hear in Matthew, Jesus teaching us the process of holding others accountable, or being held accountable ourselves, in a loving way. 

There is no doubt that my parents could have handled their anxiety better and been higher functioning parents. On the one hand I understand that they did the best they could with what they knew. I could look back with bitterness on my childhood, but instead I choose to look back with compassion and with insight, knowing that I can be different. I can hold myself accountable for becoming a healthier person. I can be more mature and make better choices and teach my children and grandchildren to make good choices.

Our Christian responsibility in times like these, when people are recklessly raging, is to access the passion of that holy rage while responding in the least anxious way one can, aiming to respect the dignity of others by not shaming or name calling, gossiping or belittling, while also holding people responsible for acts of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and any other way that people diminish or devalue another human being or whole groups of human beings. More specific to us, as we begin our annual “Season of Creation” worship services, is to contemplate how we as a body of the faithful, and as individuals, can continue our efforts to reduce our carbon footprint, and be good and wise stewards of the environment. 

It is not easy to both respect someone’s dignity and hold them accountable. I was not taught how to do this in my family, and have had to learn the hard way as an adult. But it is the kind of maturity that Jesus asks of us. It is rooted in our ability to access our holy reckless rage and utilize it effectively to make a difference, healing and transforming the broken places of our lives and world into wholeness, with love. Christian communities, now more than any other time in recent history, are asked to do this, to recognize anger and utilize it for holy action, to stand for justice and take effective action, to hold people accountable while respecting the dignity of every human being. Ultimately to love everyone as God loves. 

a reflection on the readings for Proper 18A: Exodus 12:1-14; Matthew 18:15-20                         

Can’t “Normalize” the call of the Spirit…

It always cracks me up when I tell people where I work, at a church on the corner of Military and Cherry Hill and they have to pause, before they remember that there is a church on this corner. Humans have a tendency of adjusting to people, places, and circumstances, not really noticing what’s around us.

Who knows why the burning bush in our reading from Exodus burned all the time and was never consumed? It’s one of those questions that religious people have pondered for ages.

One midrash, suggests that the burning bush always burned and was never consumed because it was waiting for Moses to notice it. Perhaps Moses had walked past the burning bush for years. But Moses, being preoccupied with his work, his day, wasn’t looking, wasn’t paying attention, and simply missed it. Until one day when, for whatever reason, he saw it.

It reminds me of Gerald May’s description of the spiritual path in his book, “Awakened Heart.” 

 He describes the spiritual journey as a process of:

pausing,

noticing,

opening,

yielding and stretching,

and responding.

Moses finally pauses and  notices a burning bush. He’s startled, which opens him up, stretches him, and he discovers he is on holy ground. Responding to God within the fiery bush calls him to yield to the mystery of God’s presence and then to have the courage to follow God on a sacred journey.

This reading encourages us to think about the spiritual awareness God asks of us. The burning bush reminds us that God waits for us, for as long as it takes, until we turn and take notice of God.

Until our eyes are opened and our hearts awakened.

So, of course this thought begs the question:

In what ways are we walking by God, failing to see God’s presence in our lives or in the world around us?

 

With the Renaissance Strategy initiative we are looking at the ways we  are being called, to learn from others, to be stretched, to take notice, to see in a new way – reaching out beyond the walls of this church –

to meet people where they are,

to have the courage

to follow God

to reflect the image

of God in the world.

In our Gospel reading Jesus is talking to the disciples about their ministry in the world and once again he will not be stymied by Peter’s efforts to stay safe and comfortable.Instead Jesus pushes all of them outside their comfort zone, he describes it as “taking up the Cross.”

Note that Jesus doesn’t say “take up the cross”  nor does he say,“take up my cross” –  he says the disciples must “take up their cross.”

To take up “one’s Cross” is what happens when one chooses to care for the marginalized and disenfranchised members of the world.

It’s what happens when we strive to follow our baptismal covenant to follow the mission of Jesus.

The mission that Jesus calls us on is:

to feed,

to serve,

to do justice,

to respect the dignity of others.

To follow the mission of Jesus means to go out in the world and serve others.

So a man has a dream. An angel of God gives him a vision of the afterlife.

First he is shown a great hall with a long banquet table filled with the most fabulous food imaginable. Each person sitting at the table is equipped with a three foot long spoon, but no matter how much they contort their arms,

thrusting their elbows into their neighbors’ faces, their utensils are too long   to maneuver even a single morsel into their gaping mouths. They sit together in mutual misery.

“This,” says the angel, “is hell.”

The angel then takes the man into another room and he sees an identical banquet table filled with the same delicious food and the same impossible silverware. Only here the people at the table are happy and content.

“This,” says the angel, “is heaven.”

Confused the man said, “What’s the difference?”

“In heaven,” said the angel pointing to a person as they lifted the long handled spoon and fed their neighbor across the table, “In heaven, they feed each other.”

(Caryle Hirshberg and Marc Ian Barasch, “Remarkable Recovery”)

Taking up my cross, is like picking up that spoon. It can be a weight  that wears me down and starves me. Or it can be the means by which I feed

and am fed.

Taking up our cross is responding, becoming that sign,

the living body of Christ –

noticing that beacon of light

yielding to God’s call

which can not be ignored,

and stretching

outside of the walls of comfort,

responding to needs in the world.

God gives us the very sign we need, puts it right in front of us, and waits for us to notice its potential:

a building with lively ministries and beautiful land,

ministries of feeding kids with backpacks

and a pantry for hungry families:

a sacrament of  sharing holy food:

feeding people

in mind, body, and spirit.

Portions of this sermon were influenced by John Shea, “On Earth As It Is In Heaven” Volume One, Year A of the series, “The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers.”

a reflection on the readings for Proper 17A Exodus 3:1-15 and Matthew 16:21-28

Sacred Choices

Week after week, month after month, year after year, people come here looking for food. The people who come to our food pantry often come carrying paperwork and forms, prepared to justify why they are coming here seeking assistance. Some place require that justification, limiting who and what and when. Neither Erin nor I ever look at that paper work. I never make them sit down and go through their prepared litany to justify their need. I find that process to be humiliating and dehumanizing for the person. Besides their stories rarely change what we offer, or how we share, showing them the pantry and the refrigerator, and giving them bags to help themselves to food. Take what you need, and leave some for others.  A friendly conversation always surrounds the time people are here, chatting about this, that, or the other thing.

This week when I introduced myself as the parish priest, one family was at first surprised, then hugged me, then asked, “Can we come to church here?” I of course said yes and told them when our services are. Will we see them in church? Perhaps one day we will.

The Requiem or Renaissance process that Jim Gettel has developed in this diocese asks congregations one primary question: “Who is our neighbor?” Two additional questions follow that one: “How are we reaching our neighbor?” And, “Who is reaching our neighbor?”

Who is our neighbor, how are we reaching our neighbor, and who is doing the reaching?

Our mission to feed people in mind, body, and spirit, focuses our examination of and response to these questions. Even if we were to limit our examination to the food pantry alone, we could consider how our mission to feed people in mind, body, and spirit reflects who we are, who our neighbor is, how we are reaching them, and who is doing the reaching. From there we could wonder what more we are being called to do. Like what about a weekly meal that we prepare, inviting food pantry people and AA folk, and others to share a meal with us? Maybe we would include a small simple worship service with the meal?

That would be eucharistic, communion, holy.

We could apply a similar methodology, breaking down our mission to feed people in mind, body, and spirit to Blessings in a Backpack, Martial Arts, Dance and Music, AA, the community groups that use the building, the Plaza, the labyrinth, the community garden, and the Holiday Market. In all of these ways exploring who our neighbor is, and how we are meeting our neighbor,  who comes here hungry for food, companionship, or a purpose in life, nourishing people in mind, body, and spirit.

No doubt we could do more to reach our neighbors, especially those who do not yet come to us. The outdoor summer concert series is one opportunity because, among other people who don’t normally come to this church, the Dearborn Christian Singles group promotes the series and invites their members to attend. Here is an opportunity for us to get to know our neighbors without going too far outside of ourselves. There are three more concerts this year, I encourage everyone to come and to make the effort to meet and greet those who attend.

There are countless other ways this could be developed, where we could move further outside this building and grow relationships with our neighbors, including the Healthy Dearborn project and the Ford Motor Company Dearborn revitalization project. These are especially relevant to us at Christ Church, because as I said in my sermon last week, we are the living legacy of the philanthropic work that Clara Ford did the metro Detroit area, in and through this church. Her DNA resides in this church and her light shines in and through this congregation.

All of our readings this morning point us to consider the choices we have in life – choices in how we decide to follow God and how we enflesh God’s holy Spirit and enliven the world through God’s mission. We’ve heard stories of the powerful witness of Hagar, Sarah, and Rebekah. We have our own inspiring matriarch in Clara Ford and a heritage of sharing, giving, and growing community that defines who we are, how we are called to be, and what we are called to do.

Who is our neighbor? The hungry people in the world around us, yearning to be fed. Fed with real food. Fed by opportunities to be in real relationship. Fed by risk taking, seeking initiatives to make a real difference in the world.  For me, it is sacramental, God’s holy communion, offered by a community centered church, feeding people in mind, body, and spirit.

a reflection on the readings for Proper 10A: Genesis 25:19-34, Psalm 119:105-112, Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

The Wilderness of Faith

I have made many cross country driving trips in my life. One year alone I drove from Arizona to Chicago seven times. And as you all know I recently made the drive along I90 from Dearborn to Seattle, with side trips to the Badlands, Custer State Park, Mt. Rushmore, and Yellowstone. 

Every time I prepare for a cross country driving trip I wonder how it will go. Will we run into bad weather? Will we find or make it to our hotels each night? Will we find food and gas when we need it? Will we have car trouble? Will there be bad traffic? Will we get lost? Will we be safe? Will it be fun? 

Even though I have all these questions in the back of my mind, as I head off for a long drive I am excited and willing to accept that there are inherent risks to any journey.

The story in Genesis today of Rebekah meeting Abraham’s servant at the well and deciding to go with him into the wilderness to marry Isaac – a man she has never seen let alone met – leaves me awestruck with her courage, strength, vision, and faith. 

Rebekah comes from a lineage of strong, courageous women who are leaders in their communities. Her decision mirrors that of her relatives Abraham and Sarah, who also ventured off into the wilderness to follow God’s call. Sarah became the dominant character in that journey, for better or for worse, sometimes taking matters into her own hands instead of waiting for God. Of course, who wouldn’t? She did end up waiting decades for God to do what God had promised her God would do – provide her with a son from whom a great nation would be built. Who wouldn’t wonder if perhaps this or that or the other thing is what God actually intended, when the wait is so long? 

Now Sarah has died and Rebekah has moved into Sarah’s tent, married to Isaac. When Sarah lived in the tent, a light burned within it. When Sarah died, the light went out. Now that Rebekah is in the tent, the light has returned. It was thought that God resided in that light.  God’s light was shining through these women, Sarah and now Rebekah, in a particular way. 

Soon Rebekah and Isaac will become the parents of twins, Esau and Jacob – but that is our story for next week. Today we encounter courage and faith in a woman who willingly heads off into the unknown, confident that God has her back and will be with her.

This is the perfect story for us in our 150th anniversary year as we stand on the threshold between the past and the future, between what was and what could be.

Our history is deeply embedded in our own matriarch, Clara Ford, and her history of helping others. Clara and her husband Henry were members of this church. They gave us this land that the church is built on, Henry Ford himself signing the deed of sale. Clara was present at the groundbreaking ceremony. But Clara was also instrumental in helping people all around the area, helping the hungry and the poor. She was a model of courage, strength, and generosity. She wasn’t perfect, but she had a vision and a desire to make the world just a little better, and she spent her life trying to do so. The light that God bestowed upon her still shines in this place.

Clara is our matriarch, we are her legacy. We live in her tent and we are charged with keeping the light of God burning in and through this church. With her DNA in our bloodline we are feeding people in body, mind, and spirit: from our food pantry to blessings in backpack to our community garden; from the unbelievable outpouring of work this week with the effort to build the rainwater collection system to water the garden, being good stewards of the environment and of our resources; to our outdoor summer concert series supporting local musicians and offering the community a free evening of entertainment; to the Holiday Market that supports local artists and crafters; to the labyrinth and the beauty of this property; to the building and the many people and community groups that use it and from which they each have the opportunity to build their mission in the world; in these and so many other ways we offer ourselves as a beacon of light and hope, as a community centered church.

But there is more we can do. I feel it in my bones. Like Rebekah, we have watered the camels and tended to the stranger in our midst. And now, like Rebekah, we are being called to move out into the unknown. The Renaissance Task Force is listening, praying, discerning where and how God is calling us into the wilderness. Do we have the courage of Rebekah to step out? Do we have the compassion of Rebekah and Clara to be agents of transformation in our community? Do we have the ability to be creative in our response to God’s call? 

a reflection on Proper 9A: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

A Liberating Test

Proper 8 Genesis 22:1-14

Few scripture readings are as disturbing as our reading today from Genesis. You are in good company if you are wondering why would God test Abraham in this way. What does it say about God, to require this kind of a test?

The most traditional understanding of this scripture story is that it marks the end of child sacrifice in the Hebrew tradition, even though it remained common in the pagan cultures of the region.

Or maybe its just a story about sacrifice, about one’s willingness to give for God? And that sometimes what one gives or gives up for God feels difficult and leaves one conflicted?

Or maybe the ram was present all along and Abraham was so anxious and singularly focused that he missed God’s grace until God made it blatantly clear that the ram was there?

Rabbis in the Jewish tradition have an ancient process by which they explore the meaning of scripture which is called “Midrash.”

Midrash considers to the “rough” spots, the places in the text that seem incongruous, or somehow jump out.

Some rough spots in this text include: “why a test?” We aren’t told why God was testing Abraham, only that “God tested Abraham.” So the rabbis wonder, what is this about? In midrash, nothing is meaningless, every word might point to something profound.

Another midrash has Isaac and his half brother Ishmael arguing about who Abraham loves best. Before long the argument turns to God. Isaac offers to be sacrificed as proof of his love for God, regardless of who Abraham might love best.

There are also scholarly conversations on Hagar and Sarah and their potential response to this event, even though they are silent in the text. Sarah, who up until this point has been a prominent character and directed events in order to bring forth God’s desire, is suddenly silent. She has nothing to say regarding this, never speaks again, and when she dies she’s in a different area than Abraham. It’s unclear what happened to her.

And what about Hagar? Six chapters earlier, in chapter 16, Hagar has an encounter with God in the wilderness and she becomes the first person in the Bible to name God, “El Roi, the God Who Sees.” Later, in Chapter 24 Isaac travels past a well called  Beer Lahai Roi, which means, “the one who sees me lives.” One idea suggests that Isaac ran from the attempted sacrifice to Hagar and sought comfort from her, never returning to Abraham or Sarah.

Soon, Isaac will meet Rebecca, the woman who becomes his wife. Is it just a coincidence that he meets here in the same place where Hagar lives?

There seems to be a connection between Hagar and Isaac and what it means to see and hear God in one’s life, and as a result to be liberated from that which binds them.

If one believes that scripture is just ancient stories from a former time, then a flat and literal interpretation of the text works. But if one believes that the stories in the Bible reveal something about the ongoing presence of God in the lives of human beings, then the text comes alive.

Today I am pondering what it means to be liberated by God. What do I need to be liberated from in my life, and how is God trying to liberate me? What do I need to sacrifice or give up or offer up to God and how will that help bring forth liberation? What sign of God’s grace is right in front of me, and I’m not seeing it?

Perhaps these are some of your questions, too? Or maybe you have other questions that the text has surfaced?

Stories like these in Genesis invite us to delve deeper into the human condition and explore the meaning of life and what makes life meaningful. In a similar way the Renaissance Strategy Task Fore is pondering who Christ Church is now at 150 years old. What does this congregation need to be liberated of? What do we need to sacrifice, offer up, or give away so that we can live most fully as God is calling us to live?

Learning, always learning

When I was five years old my mother decided to divorce my birth father, making her a single mom with three kids in 1962. A few years later my mom married again, and that man adopted my brothers and I, making us a legal family. After that my mom cut us off from my birth father and his family, and I did not see any of them for over 20 years. Even when we reconnected we were never able to rebuild a consistent stable relationship, perhaps that was part of the problem in the first case, and why my mom got divorced?
Family relationships can be complicated. The stories in the Book of Genesis of Abraham, Sarah and their son Isaac along with the Hagar and her son Ishmael remind me that all human relationships are complicated.
The reading this morning reveals just how complicated things were for Sarah, Hagar, and Abraham. First of all, who are these people? Sarah and Abraham were called by God, who led them into the wilderness with the promise that they would build a great nation. Along the way they ended up in Egypt where Abraham convinced the beautiful Sarah to lie to the Pharaoh and tell him she was Abraham’s sister, because that lie would make Abraham’s life easier. Pharoah, took Sarah as his wife, not realizing that she was already married to Abraham. When Pharaoh started having bad dreams and realized that they were telling him the truth about Sarah he sent her back to Abraham and told them to leave the country. Somehow in all of that Hagar ends up with them. Was Hagar a slave women given to Sarah by Pharaoh? Or, was Hagar an Egyptian princess who fell in love with Sarah’s God and wanted to be with Sarah in order to worship THAT God? Was Hagar a victim? Was Sarah cruel? How complicated were things in the house when Abraham, at Sarah’s insistence, had a child with Hagar, a child named Ishmael? Why was Abraham mostly silent and bizarrely complicit in all of this? Or, another interpretation of the story suggests that Hagar and Sarah are the “faithful” ones, each keenly aware of God’s bidding and desire, collaborating with God in bringing forth two great nations, a world of diversity. How is that both Sarah and Hagar had to leave the security of home, and wander in the wilderness, in order to learn who she was and find her strength and purpose in life?
No doubt family relationships can be complicated. Cutting off relationships and families does not eliminate the complications, but only adds layers to the mess. What ever was actually going on between Sarah and Hagar, God remained in relationship with both of them, and at the end of Abraham’s life the two sons, Ishmael and Isaac reunite to bury their father. Perhaps they have stayed in touch all along? Maybe the point is that as humans we cannot always manage to build the kind of beloved family and community that God hopes for us, but regardless of our relationship challenges, God stays faithful, continues to work for wholeness, and strives to build loving relationships between all people….
This idea of building beloved communities, of building relationships is at the heart of  Paul’s letter to the Romans. As I said last week, the Roman church community is fighting over who belongs, who are the true Christians – the circumcised Jewish Christians? Or the uncircumcised Gentile Christians? Paul says, they are both true Christians and they need to stop being distracted by something that is ultimately not important. They need to work on building relationships not creating divisions.
In the reading from Matthew it sounds as if Jesus is encouraging divisiveness. But what Jesus is really encouraging in discipleship. Discipleship means “learner” and being a disciple means that one is on a journey, a process of learning about God, Jesus, and one’s self in relationship to other people. As Christians in community, Paul and Matthew are writing to encourage people to build beloved communities of faith by being in relationship with one another, learning from one another, and sharing the love of God, made manifest in Jesus, with one another. This is an act of ongoing discernment, as each person, learning and growing in faith, strives to understand anew what God is calling forth in one’s self and in one’s community. This connects to the heart of the story in Genesis, where God acts in and through the relationships of Sarah, Hagar, Abraham, and their children, to bring forth communities of faith.
As disciples, we are still learning, always learning about who we are as a people of God. In particular, for us, the Renaissance Strategy Task Force is actively listening and learning and discerning where God is calling us today, who is our neighbor and how are we being called to leave the safety of these walls, like Hagar in the wilderness, where we will find our true strength and identity?
a reflection on the readings for Proper 7A:
Genesis 21:8-21
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39