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

My Way….The Highway…or, God’s Way?

The slightly longer version for 8 and 10am

 

The book of Genesis is one of the most important books of the Bible. In it we hear the ancient stories of our Judeo-Christian ancestors. These stories resonate with human experience through the ages. Tales of how the world began, of God invested in all creation, of human beings growing in self-awareness and wisdom, struggling through suffering, pain, and joy. These are family stories of husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and brothers. They are ripe with emotions of jealousy, greed, love, anger, hope, faithfulness, risk, and what it means to be a people of God.

The stories in Genesis reflect the rich, mythic culture of Mesopotamia in the 6th Century BCE. An oral tradition of stories was shared and passed down through the centuries until they settled in written form about three thousand years ago. Ancient Israel emerged out of this culture of wise courtiers, wisdom traditions, collections of proverbs, and manuals for reading omens and interpreting dreams. Unique to the Hebrew people was their emphasis on a single God. Gone were the many gods of other belief systems in the region. The regional myths were recast through the perspective of a single God in relationship with God’s people.

Today’s reading jumps from the creation story we heard last week deep into the story of Abraham and Sarah, the first family of God’s people. We have skipped much of the Abraham and Sarah story. Now at the age of 90 they are facing a dilemma. Sarah, despite God’s promise was unable to have children. So Sarah encouraged Abraham to have a child with Hagar, Sarah’s slave, resulting in the birth of Ismael. One legend says that Hagar was an Egyptian princess. When Sarah and Abraham were in Egypt, Hagar witnessed Sarah’s faith in God, which inspired Hagar to leave Egypt and become Sarah’s servant.

Thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael, the son of Hagar and Abraham, Sarah suddenly conceives and gives birth to a son. Thus, Isaac is born and God’s promise to Sarah and Abraham is fulfilled. However, Ishmael, as the oldest son, is supposed to be the one who inherits his father’s estate, but Isaac is the child promised by God to be the inheritor. So Sarah insists that Hagar and Ishmael be sent off on their own. Although Ismael is not the son God chooses to build the Hebrew family,  God does not abandon Ishmael and Hagar. Instead, God builds another great nation through Ishmael – Bedouins and followers of Muhammed claim Ishmael as their founding father. Another legend claims that Ishmael’s daughter marries Isaac’s son, Esau. Esau is the twin brother of Jacob. Genesis has several stories of their sibling rivalry. In other words, this is a very complicated family dynamic.

The Hagar and Sarah story highlights the tension between human beings taking matters into their own hands with discerning and living into God’s desires for our lives.

Hagar and Ismael represent what can happen when human beings doubt God and take matters into their own hands. Doubting God’s promise Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar arrange for Hagar to become the birth mother of Abraham’s long awaited child heir.  Isaac represents the surprise of God intervening in unexpected ways, exemplifying what happens when we open ourselves up to God’s spirit.

This story invites us to reflect on a couple of points: God is with us and in God’s time we can rest assured that all will be well; doubting God and taking matters into our own hands is part of human nature; even when we our decisions are contrary to what God may desire for our lives, God remains with us and works to bring forth good in all ways.

As people of faith we have a responsibility to do our best to discern what God desires. Sometimes we will be off the mark, and misunderstand.  Other times we are too anxious to discern God’s desire. Discernment requires a willingness to take risks, to explore options, to pray, to listen, and to have patience.

The moral of the story: Trusting that God will work with us and our decisions enables us to live with less anxiety. Having less anxiety enables us to listen to God more closely. Listening to God more closely helps us follow God’s desires more intentionally. So let us remember that when we are getting anxious about something, the best response may be to consider all our options, take them to prayer, and  listen for the pull of the Holy Spirit.

Spend some time this week reflecting on the role you played in creating the Ishmael’s in your life, those times when you may have insisted on having your way instead of listening to what God was calling you to do.

The shorter version for the 9am outdoor service

The book of Genesis contains stories that resonate with human experience through the ages. Tales of how the world began, of God invested in all creation, of human beings growing in self-awareness and wisdom, struggling through suffering, pain, and joy. These are family stories of husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and brothers. They are ripe with emotions of jealousy, greed, love, anger, hope, faithfulness, risk, and what it means to be a people of God.

Today’s reading jumps from the creation story we heard last week deep into the story of Abraham and Sarah, the first family of God’s people. We have skipped much of the Abraham and Sarah story. Now at the age of 90 they are facing a dilemma. Sarah, despite God’s promise, was unable to have children. So Sarah encouraged Abraham to have a child with Hagar, Sarah’s slave, resulting in the birth of Ishmael.

One legend says that Hagar was an Egyptian princess. When Sarah and Abraham were in Egypt, Hagar witnessed Sarah’s faith in God, which inspired Hagar to leave Egypt and become Sarah’s servant.

Hagar and Ishmael represent what can happen when human beings doubt God and take matters into their own hands. Doubting God’s promise Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar arrange for Hagar to become the birth mother of Abraham’s long awaited child heir.  Isaac unexpected birth represents the surprise of God intervening in unexpected ways, exemplifying what happens when we open ourselves up to God’s spirit.

 

The moral of the story: Sometimes our impatience and anxiety cause us to take matters into our own hands and we end up with Ishmael’s, something that was not part of God’s desire for us. Trusting that God works with us and our decisions enables us to live with less anxiety. Having less anxiety enables us to listen to God more closely. Listening to God more closely helps us follow God’s desires more intentionally.

 

Spend some time this week pondering the Ishamel’s in your life.