Preached at First Church of Westfield on June 25, 2017
Scriptures: Genesis 21:8-21 and Matthew 10:16-39
Lord, bless the words of my heart, the words of my mouth, and let them be not my words but yours. Give me the wisdom to listen to you, the courage to speak to you, and the strength to argue with you, and with myself.
I wanted to start by thanking Pastor Elva and all of you for welcoming me into your congregation. I am honored to be here, in the church that is home to many of my family members—but I have to warn you: I don't think you know what you've done.
I am a queer, disabled, opinionated feminist with six inches of blue hair and a degree from hippie school. It's practically a requirement that I upset at least one person everywhere I go. So I'm going to guess that the next few minutes aren't necessarily going to be comfortable for all of you. And that's okay, because I'm not going to be comfortable either. I don't mind telling you, some parts of these scriptures make me distinctly uncomfortable.
Take this line from Matthew, for instance: "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." That verse has never sat well with me. As a Christian, peace is something I desperately want for the world, and if you'd asked me about four years ago, I probably would have told you that was the goal of Christianity, and many other world religions: to bring peace.
But if you read this verse in its context, Jesus isn't saying that we shouldn't strive for peace. He's just saying it's not going to be an immediate result of his ministry. He's saying that when we, his disciples, truly follow his teachings, conflict will arise. The kind of conflict that tears families apart.
And looking at our country today, I have to say this scripture feels profoundly true to me. We have millions of people, living into their religious and political beliefs, many of them Christian, and what do we have? Conflict. Division. Parents against children. Whether the arguments are screamed over dinner tables, or held silently in our hearts, I think we all know them. When we all listen to different news, believe different truths—how are we supposed to know what to believe? Whose authority are we supposed to trust?
Now, because this is church, and not a political rally, I'm going to guess that most of you in this room can predict my answer to that question. But before we get to that answer, I'm going to admit to you that part of my problem with these scriptures is one of authority. I do not like the way these scriptures talk about authority. Like these first verses from Matthew: "A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master." M'hm. So a disciple can never surpass the teacher? A slave will always be subservient to the master? I realize this isn't necessarily meant to be talking about social relationships between humans, but I don't really care. Strict hierarchies, like the ones laid out in those verses, don't sit well with me, and never have. As my family can tell you, I have a lot of opinions, particularly about power structures and how power is used, and I don't mind sharing those opinions with the authority figures in question. Over the years, I have argued with my parents, doctors, teachers, elected officials, pastors, and God.
Which leads me to the story of Hagar and Ishmael. Now, this story is very important to me because it demonstrates the familial relationships between the Abrahamic faiths. Jews and Christians trace their lineage back to Abraham through Isaac, and Muslims trace theirs through Ishmael. This is the story in which God promises that legacy to Ishmael, the story in which we can see clearly that Muslims are our cousins.
However, it's also the story in which we see the first instance of some pretty familiar words and behaviors. We see Sarah decide that there just isn't room enough in her house for her son and Hagar's. We see Abraham worry about it for a minute, then send his child and the mother of his child out into the wilderness with little more than the clothes on their backs. And we see God tell Abraham to do as Sarah says, without even bothering to add, "Oh by the way, maybe they might need more than one waterskin."
If you haven't figured it out, I'm pretty ticked off with everyone in this story except Hagar and Ishmael. Sarah, who showed no mercy, who forced them to become refugees. Abraham, the world's first bystander—I mean, come on, buddy, you debated with God about Sodom and Gomorrah like three chapters ago, but you can't stand up for your son? And God, who didn't even argue with them. Didn't raise any objection. Didn't say, this is not how we do family, or, this is not how we treat people who are dependant upon us, or even, this is wrong.
This is why I sometimes have trouble giving the answer I know I should to the question I asked you earlier. Whose authority are we supposed to trust, above all others? God's, of course. But what if we don't like what God says? What if, as so often happens to me, we don't know what God is saying?
It's exactly that question that has lead us to where we are today. We're all so certain we know what God is saying, but that Word leads us in many different directions. And this happens because we're human. We do not know with the mind of God, and we experience God's Word through what we know already: through our understanding of scripture, the things we fear, the things that give us comfort, and yes, our political views. What I'm saying is, we're biased, and I happily include myself in that category. I can name for you several of the factors that have shaped my relationship with and understanding of God, from the ministers and lay people who spoke to me about God growing up, to the secular religion classes in which I read the Bible, to the interfaith youth groups I joined in high school and college. These are filters through which I know God, but they do not mean that my experience of God isn't real—far from it. The experience of God is a personal one, and only the person experiencing it can say whether it happened and what it meant. But being aware of my filters helps me to ground myself in my context, or to gain some distance from it, whichever I need at the time. I don't think we need to try to remove all our filters, but we do need to be aware of them, and one that I think requires special attention is fear.
I have been afraid since November, and many people I know have been afraid much longer than that. I'm afraid that I will lose my health care, or be unable to get it in the future. I'm afraid that my trans siblings will not be given the protections they need to live their lives. I'm afraid that my friends of color will be murdered and receive no justice. I'm afraid that the environment will deteriorate around us while we argue about who's responsible. I'm afraid because much of this is already happening. And yes, some days, I'm afraid of saying all this to people I'm not sure will agree with me. But I have made a conscious decision that I don't want to act out of fear, and I don't want to experience God through fear. Sarah and Abraham acted out of fear. Sarah feared that Ishmael would displace Isaac as heir of the house, and receiver of God's blessing. Abraham was caught between fears: fear of strife within his family, and fear for Hagar and Ishmael. This fear immobilized him, until God spoke to him.
And God, whether I agree with their actions or not, did not act out of fear. If it were anyone but God, I would say they acted out of hope. Hope that Hagar and Ishmael could find a better life away from Sarah's jealousy. Hope that they could have something and be something entirely different from the line of Isaac.
Hope is the filter through which I try to listen to God, and the motive I want to drive my actions. Instead of fearing the world that could be, or even the world that is, I hope for the world I want to live in, a world where the marginalized are lifted up and empowered, all are valued for their humanity, and no swords divide us, but peace and justice reign over all. And as I dream of this world, I wonder. What are the people on the other side of the isle from me dreaming about? Are they acting from fear or hope? Are they afraid of change, or afraid of what-ifs? What worlds do they dream of when they hope, and are they like mine? And if they are, what would happen if we both acted through hope, spoke to each other through hope, listened to God through hope?
"So have no fear of them," says Jesus, "for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows."
Well, this passage breaks my rule of not experiencing God through fear, but more importantly, it tells us not to fear each other, and it tells us what to do about it. What God has spoken to us, we are called to speak aloud. We are not called to speak what we feel or want. We are called to speak what God says to us. So for me, this passage is a call to speak, but also one to listen, and to question. How much of what we're feeling and experiencing is our filters? Not a day goes by that I don't ask myself, do the things I believe come from God, or do they come from the world? I struggled in putting together this sermon, trying to discern whether this was really what God wanted me to say today. And while, on one level, I don't think I'll ever have the certainty I would like on those questions, the fact that I am here, speaking to you today, tells you what I determined today.
Discerning and speaking is not always comfortable. I warned you at the beginning of this that you might not be comfortable, and that I wouldn't be either. I'm nearly done with this sermon and I'm still not comfortable with it. But that's the point. If the Word of God were easy, would it descend upon the world like a sword? If the Word of God rested comfortably upon us, wouldn't we be closer to the world we hope for by now? No, discerning and speaking are not comfortable, but they open up new possibilities.
God did not argue with Abraham and Sarah. Instead, she saw a way forward that they did not, that even Hagar did not. God thought deeply, and then proclaimed, "I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring." And maybe Abraham acted with more hope than I give him credit for, because he listened to that unlikely Word.
It is the unlikely Word that is hardest to hear. But that is the Word that we all need to listen for if we want to find the way forward, through our divided world. The unlikely, uncomfortable Word, heard through hope, spoken into the chaos of our world. Friends, for just a moment, let's not argue with each other, but with ourselves. Let's pray, and study, and think deeply, and then come back together and speak what we are called to say.
Lord, bless the words of my heart, the words of my mouth, and let them be not my words but yours. Give me the wisdom to listen to you, the courage to speak to you, and the strength to argue with you, and with myself. Amen.