Ecce, quam bonum!

The opening verse of Psalm 133, as we have heard it this morning is, “Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!”

Sometimes it may actually feel as if we are living this way – in unity with our sisters and brothers. At other times it may feel more like an aspirational statement – something to be longed for.

How we see it – as reality or aspiration – may reveal a lot about the state of our personal and communal relationships. For example, today we’ve heard the story of Joseph’s reunification with his brothers. In isolation this story seems to reveal a tearful and long-sought reunion among brothers, but if we recall last week’s story of threatened murder and ultimately enslavement, we know this story had a beginning filled with resentment and hate.

Frankly, Joseph was a spoiled and pesky little brother, the only son of Rachel – Jacob’s favorite wife. Thus there was probably some jealousy on the part of his older half-brothers, and there was certainly hate on the part of those half-brothers whom he had ratted out to Jacob because Joseph didn’t approve of how they handled the flock.

What may seem to be minor insults or annoyances escalated in his half-brothers’ un-brotherly imaginations into resentments that cried out for violent retribution. Acts of violence were only narrowly averted by the intervention of the two oldest brothers; the result was Joseph’s enslavement first to his second cousins the Ishmaelites and then to the Egyptians.

Yes, Joseph was able to transcend the circumstance of his slavery, and ascend to power by his God-given wits and ability to interpret dreams; but he also seems to have retained his natural and nettlesome inclination to mess with his brothers in their distress during the famine. It’s a wonder that his brothers weren’t ready to throw him in the pit all over again once he revealed his identity. Perhaps their restraint speaks to their own maturity and growth over the intervening years as they wrestled with the nagging guilt of their behavior. Or perhaps it speaks to the potential for healing and restoration over time, which in this case it may have been about ten years. Whatever the case, a loss that seemed unrecoverable and unforgivable is redeemed and made whole again through the aspirational desire for God’s love in human affairs.

There is similar story of insult and injury that with time and aspirational persistence also resulted in reunification and reconciliation. It is the story of an institution, whose motto is the name of the 133rd Psalm, Ecce, quam bonum! In 1857, the same year that the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Dred Scott decision, which in essence sought to legitimize the institution of slavery, Sewanee: The University of the South was founded by clergy and lay delegates from Episcopal dioceses across the south as the fabric of brotherly unity within the United States was being torn asunder over the issue of slavery. Thus, it seems ironic that the university’s motto invokes the ideal of brothers living together in unity.

Perhaps, in the founders’ narrow thinking, they thought of their union in small and select terms, as is often the case when human beings come together. We are too often exclusive rather than inclusive. Yet when, at the end of the Civil War, Sewanee lay in ruins with little prospect of realizing its once imagined glory, the seed of reconciliation came from an unexpected place when it was planted by their brothers from the north. The Episcopal Church extended the hand of peace to its southern brethren reunifying the Church, and through the quiet philanthropy of northern Episcopalians Sewanee survived. But this isn’t the end of the story.

For the next 150 years, Sewanee – like much of the south – struggled to reconcile its reality with the aspiration of, “Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!” For much of that history it was only realized as a rather isolated and incomplete reality; for the most part it remained aspirational. Yet with time and periodic acts of intentional courage by determined followers of Christ, Sewanee began to transcend the bonds of culture and began to reveal its potential for healing and reconciliation. It is not yet fully realized, but it has moved forward from entrenched resistance to intentional aspiration seeking reconciliation.

Both Joseph’s story and Sewanee’s story reveal that healing and reconciliation don’t come naturally or easily but take time and intentionality in pursuing the way of the cross. To the extent that unity is opposed by any party it is very difficult to achieve, and opposition must be met with non-violent pursuit of the way of the cross if we are, with God’s help, to affect a change in the opponent that makes room for naming the hurt and listening to each others’ stories.

This just happens to be the story of Jesus’ journey to the district of Tyre and Sidon, a region and people traditionally hostile to Israelites; a place where an abundance of mistrust and the demons of prejudice abide. What a wonderful place to teach his disciples the expansiveness and inclusivity of God’s mercy for all people.

It is in this place of mistrust and prejudice, that a woman recognizes Jesus’ ability to heal, to drive out demons, and restore her daughter to wholeness. It is the other – someone unlike us – who recognizes the possibility for something new and different. Courageously, in the face of mistrust, this woman calls out to Jesus. Unfortunately it is the disciples, Jesus’ followers who, like us, think too narrowly – who can’t imagine something new and different. The disciples would have her go away. Then, as if mimicking the disciples’ disdain, Jesus seems to rebuke the woman, but I like to think he is delivering a slow pitch that he knows she will hit out of the park. And boy does she!

The Canaanite woman, in her need and desire for compassion is able to see across the divide of mistrust and prejudice and recognize the possibility of mercy and healing on the other side of the divide. For a moment, aspiration yields to reality and this woman has the courage to ask for what she wants and is not disappointed. The divide between the other and the disciples is not healed, but in its breach – in this act of faith – they begin to see each other in a different light and room is made for other non-violent breaches.

For us, as disciples – the followers of the cross – the challenge of these stories is for us to name our biases, our presumptions, and prejudices; to be open to seeing in them something about ourselves we haven’t noticed before. This may be hard to do, but we must try because the present reality of hostility and hate will not begin to change unless we risk breaching the barricades that divide us by pursuing the love of Christ and trusting in God’s mercy.

What demons hold us back from taking such risks? Be they fear, be they harm or hurt that we have suffered in the past, offer them in sacrifice as you come to this altar to be fed and healed by Jesus Christ, and recall that your baptismal covenant calls you, with God’s help, to “… strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

Expanding the circle of our unity is not an aspiration, it is part of our baptismal call.

Troubled Waters

It’s been a hell of a few weeks! In addition to the “normal” and recurring barrage of fearful, violent and hateful acts perpetrated by individuals against one another, which according to our local media outlets are normal; these past few weeks, it seems, we have been treated to an escalation of fearful, violent and hateful acts beyond individual acts to community, national, and even international levels.

To name just a few: the President of United States and North Korea are escalating threats of nuclear warfare. The government of Venezuela is usurping the democratic authority of its own citizens to preserve the power of its President. And the sleepy college town of Charlottesville, Virginia has erupted in violence and death over the removal of a statue of a man, who for some represents another period of hate and violence over 150 years ago.

The latter incident reminds us that hate and violence are nothing new. They have always been with us, and always will be with us on this side of the kingdom of heaven. But when we are surrounded by such fearful events we are prone to slip deeper into fearfulness and isolation. It is understandable that in our fatigue that we want to get away from it – to stick our heads into the sand, if you will.

“As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.”

The story of Jesus walking on the water is set in a similar circumstance of fearfulness and violence, yet there is no overt expression of hate, only demonstrations of compassion for those who are foundering.

The back-story for Jesus’ walk on the lake is his hearing the horrific news that Herod has beheaded his cousin John in a foolish and fearful act of violence. Foolish because Herod puts himself in an embarrassing situation by trying to simultaneously impress his cunning stepdaughter and his dinner guests. Rather than admit his folly – his mistake – Herod kills the man who both fascinates him and threatens his political power. Rather than living with the tension of his relationship with John, Herod chooses violence.

Upset by this news, Jesus attempts to withdraw – to go into isolation to pray, but he is thwarted by the fearful who are hungry for the peace and healing he has to offer. Jesus knows he needs time away with his father, but his compassion for the crowd outweighs his personal need – at least for now.

Jesus meets the crowd’s need for healing, but more than that, he demonstrates for his disciples and the crowd the ability of compassion to provide abundance and to trump fear. When the disciples are exhausted, hungry and in need of rest themselves they ask Jesus to send the crowd away. But Jesus responds, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” In essence Jesus is telling the disciples, I know you are exhausted, but I also know that you have not yet explored the depths and power of compassion to satisfy an abundance of need.

It is after this astounding lesson of compassion that Jesus finally sends the disciples to the other side of the lake, dismisses the crowd, and gets his time away with his Father.

The disciples’ journey across the lake would not normally be challenging, after all a number of them are watermen – accomplished fishermen – for whom this lake is their own back yard. Being battered by the waves is not normally of consequence, but today has been a long and exhausting day, their reserves are spent and their fatigue is playing tricks with their imagination in the dark – and besides, how often do you see someone walking across the water? So, it is understandable that their bewildered minds get the better of them and they see a bogeyman rather than a friend and loved-one.

It is our impulsive and unguarded friend Peter who is not satisfied with Jesus’ assurance; nonetheless, Jesus is only too happy to offer Peter another demonstration of compassion in the face of denial, but it is Peter who can’t handle it. Stepping out of the boat, Peter steps out of his comfort zone and into the real world where he, like us, quickly loses sight of the compassion offered him and founders in fear. Yet even in the face of fear, Jesus is there with outstretched hand to catch us in the midst of turbulent times to steady us and remind us that as his disciples he is always present to us so that in turn we can be fully present as bearers of compassion to others in the midst of the turbulence of fear, violence and hate. This is what you and I are called to do in this nave – in this boat. Week in and week out we are fed here by the presence of Christ and sent out on the water and into the world as faithful witnesses of Christ’s compassion for those who are suffering and to satisfy an abundance of need.

Tomorrow, August 14th, we observe a lesser feast of the Episcopal Church. This feast commemorates the murder 52 years ago of an Episcopal Seminarian named Jonathan Myrick Daniels.

Jonathan, after hearing a speech given by the Rev. Martin Luther King, joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the Civil Rights movement. In 1965 Jonathan travelled to Alabama to join the work of SNCC alongside his peers. On August 14, while picketing in Fort Deposit, Alabama, Jonathan and his fellow picketers were arrested and transported to the jail in Hayneville, Alabama. I have visited this old jail in August and experienced the squalid conditions which are terribly hot, and afford no privacy for personal hygiene. They were incarcerated in this miserable jail for six days before they were released.

Upon their release, Jonathan and a small group that included a 17-year old college student named Ruby Sales walked a few blocks to a general store to buy something to drink and eat. As they prepared to enter the store led by Ruby Sales, they were met at the door by a shotgun wielding part-time sheriff’s deputy, who barred their entry and threatened them. Jonathan was killed instantly as he pushed Ruby aside and took the full blast of the shotgun in his chest.

Jonathan was murdered because as a follower of Jesus Christ he chose to confront hate and violence with compassion and nonviolent resistance. He was not alone, throughout the Civil Rights Movement there were many others, too many to enumerate here, who were wounded and killed because they too chose the path of nonviolent resistance to hatred and violent confrontation.

In the intervening 52 years too many of us have forgotten the lessons of the martyrs and saints of the Civil Rights Movement. We are too quick to react to demonstrations of violence and hatred with our own intolerance and vitriol. In doing so we throw fuel on the fire of hatred rather than extinguishing it with the compassion and presence of Christ.

As followers of Jesus Christ we are called to leave this safe place and to take a stand upon the turbulent and fearful waters that roil with hate, extending the life-saving hand of compassion and presence of Christ to those foundering amid waves of hate.

We are called to explore the depths and power of compassion to meet the abundant need of those who are hungry. We are called to see not a bogeyman but to seek the face of Jesus Christ in the other. Where Christ is not, there we are called to stand in the void.

Go in peace into a world that is starving for the compassion and presence of Christ.

This is not done …

Laban said, “This is not done in our country …”[1]

In his explanation for giving Leah to Jacob before he gives Rachel, Laban offers cultural custom as his excuse – it’s just not done. The custom becomes the excuse for not honoring his agreement with Jacob.

Regardless of how we may interpret Laban’s act, at some level, many of us can appreciate the instinct to honor customs. Some of us may be very active in institutions or even families that understand their role as guardians or safe keepers of cherished customs and traditions.

Thus we can probably relate when custom or tradition is invoked in opposition to something new when the new thing is disturbing the way things are. I suspect we can all think of some occasion when we’ve heard custom used as the argument against a new idea. There is certainly no shortage of these disturbances within the Episcopal Church.

In fact one such disturbance occurred forty-three years ago – almost to the day – on July 29th in Philadelphia. Three retired bishops broke with custom and ordained eleven women as priests. There was no precedent for this audacious act. Yet here it was – in our midst – creating both furor and rejoicing throughout the church for years to come.

This act was not a violation of any law but it went against the custom of the time – the ordination of only men as priests. Because it violated no law it was not illegal; however, because it did not conform to custom it was considered “irregular”.

With time the Episcopal Church adapted to this irregularity, first by amending its rules to approve of the ordination of women to the priesthood. But it still took time for the irregular to become regular – that is a part of our custom.

The Episcopal Church has had an entire generation of women priests serve faithfully during that time, and an entire generation of Episcopalians has been raised up that has never known a time when there were not female priests.

Nonetheless, the change of customs takes time. It took another twenty-three years before the Church of England – our cultural cousins – ordained women to the priesthood. It took twenty-six years before Epiphany called Mother Barbara to be its first female priest. And it took forty-three years for the Church of England to finally approve the ordination of women as bishops.

But the matter is still not settled within much of the Anglican Communion where our sisters and brothers in Christ are bound by cultural customs that say “this is not done.” I don’t point this out as a criticism but to observe that we are both constrained by our respective customs, which are different because we live in cultural realities that are vastly different. Therefore, we should respect and honor their faithful discipleship within the constraints of their customs.

However, things do change with time but at different paces and depending upon one’s perspective. Shifts in customs or even in the kingdom of heaven come slowly or with terrifying rapidity depending upon which side of the shift you are on. It can’t be fast enough if you are the firebrand that’s agitating for change, but it’s all too fast if you see your cherished tradition or way of life in the path of change.

As I am saying this, I am struck with a new appreciation of how the scribes, the Pharisees, the chief priests and others must have felt as Jesus began to preach and teach against their customs and practices.

Jesus too seems to appreciate these very same dynamics as he describes the kingdom of heaven in the parables we have heard this morning. The first two parables are shared publicly with a large crowd and they seem to be safe enough so as not to offend. But Jesus is not yet ready to begin his direct confrontation of the customs of the powers that be and their entrenched interests.

In the first parable the kingdom of heaven is compared to the harmless and tiny mustard seed; safe enough but for the improbable outcome – something apparently insignificant becomes something far vaster.

The yeast parable is likewise not shocking on its surface – people understand that yeast leavens bread – no big deal. But the reason that a little yeast is so effective is because it is so pervasive – it spreads throughout – all the dough is affected.

These are seemingly harmless parables, unless one listens closely and realizes the potential of the kingdom of heaven to bring about a shift in customs.

The last three parables are told in private – only to his disciples. These parables are more direct and speak directly to the kingdom of heaven in the context the of disciples’ Jewish heritage and customs. Thus the disciples readily understand them.

But it is the last verse that really invites our attention, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”[2]

To paraphrase, Jesus is telling the disciples that they are now experts in Jewish Law as well as being authorities on the kingdom of heaven. As such they are, ironically, now keepers or guardians of the customs of the kingdom of heaven, which will cherish its roots in the old – the Jewish Law or Torah even as it brings about the new – Jesus’ kingdom of heaven.

We are the heirs of this tradition – these customs – and we respect and honor the best of what has been handed down to us but we must also be prepared to test and challenge customs when and where error may be revealed.

As the masters of the household we dare not say, “It’s not done!” Rather we listen, we test the spirit of revelation, and we imagine what it may look like a generation from now.

[1] Genesis 29:26a

[2] Matthew 13:52

You’re a mess!

Some of you will recall my fondness for the expression, “You’re a mess!” I think of it as a Southern thing because that is the context I grew up in; and it is a common expression in my family of origin. Unlike “Bless your heart,” “You’re a mess” is simultaneously a term of endearment or affection, and a statement of fact.

In today’s lessons God is telling us, “You are a mess!” We should take this as both an endearment and as a statement of fact. We are a mess in that we are a tangled mix of motives and emotions – we are complicated, and so are our attachments or entanglements.

All the same, God, the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier is present among our messiness making promises and covenant with some messy characters – God’s people.

By the time we encounter Jacob in our reading from Genesis he has already established himself as a deceiver and manipulator – in more polite circles he is referred to as a trickster. Nonetheless this complicated mess of a patriarch finds himself sleeping with his head upon a stone in one of the “thin places.” “Thin places” is a term used in the mystic tradition of Celtic Christianity to describe those places where heaven and earth are so near to one another as to be entangled – a place where one can sense the presence and nearness of God.

As Jacob – this trickster – sleeps, he finds himself in the presence of God in just such a thin place as angels ascend and descend between and heaven and earth. Despite his messiness – or perhaps because he is a mess, God loves him and makes a covenant with Jacob.

This covenant resonates with the same quality as those covenants God made with Jacob’s father and grandfather, “… your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, …; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and your offspring.”[1]

“All shall be blessed in you?” When it comes to Jacob I don’t get the loveliness that God sees. Clearly God has the ability to look beyond what irks me about Jacob the trickster. Perhaps it’s not my place to focus on the trickster, the quality I dislike. Perhaps it is only my place to see God’s love demonstrated for someone I don’t get, and to recognize that place of revelation as a thin place – a holy place – an awesome place – “none other than the House of God, … the gate of heaven.”[2]

Nonetheless, we – as God’s own messes – do from time to time lose sight of God’s love for us and all his creation because we are a complicated tangle of spirit and humanity. The entanglements that accompany this existence may weary us. And sometimes this weariness finds expression in impatience.

I often hear two refrains that are in fact opposite sides of the same coin. One goes something like this, “Do you believe we’re in the end times?” In this question you can almost hear the fatigue and anticipation that seems to say, “I can’t take much more. Let me go home now so I can claim my rest.”

The other sounds like, “There is so much wickedness in the world, surely things can’t continue like this.” In these I hear impatience and fatigue with the presence of wickedness and messiness; I hear a desire to tidy up the kingdom now; and I hear, most clearly, a desire to withdraw from entanglement to a tidier – less messy – order that just does not exist this side of the kingdom of heaven.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks directly to the issues of entanglement, impatience, and the desire to withdraw. And it is not necessarily what we all want to hear. The field of the parable is the world in which we live with our roots – and sometimes even our DNA – entangled with those about us that we love and those that we don’t care for.

The slaves to tidiness, orderliness, and withdrawal among us want to get rid of the weeds now for the sake of the wheat. But Jesus tells us “No!” for in getting rid of the weeds we will destroy the wheat as well. Jesus tells us to leave it to the end times, leave it to those he has charged with the harvest so that none will be lost before their time. In our humanness, we have a different assessment than Jesus as to what is wheat and what is weed; thus we are to leave judgment to him.

When I arrived in Sedan as a newcomer I was overwhelmed by the weeds – both literal and figurative. The unkempt and overgrown lots; the decaying houses, buildings, and infrastructure; and the widespread poverty.

As a slave to tidiness, I so badly wanted to pull the weeds; restore or remove the decay; and fix the systemic poverty. But in my fixation on the weeds I was distracted from the wheat – the loveliness amid the mess, and I was not aware enough of the presence and nearness of God in our midst.

But your loveliness prevailed, and as I began to focus on the wheat my vision was changed. I began to recognize Sedan as a thin place, and I began to see the possibility and potential among the weeds, not as something to be eradicated, but like myself, something that wanted to be loved and in loving could be redeemed, and in redemption transformed.

Thus Jesus’ charge to us, to make covenant with messy people – God’s people. In telling us to love our neighbor as ourselves, Jesus charges us to declare to our neighbor – especially the weeds, you and I are a mess! God’s own mess! And in loving one another we can be redeemed.

[1] Genesis 28:14

[2] Genesis 28:17

“Come to me …”

Will you marry me? Will you spend your life with me? Will you come to me?

Such proposals are leaps of faith, hope, and love. They are risky propositions, not only for the one asking the question, but for the one being asked as well. They may well be one of the most vulnerable points of our lives, as they invite us to lower our guard and invite another in. In this moment of vulnerability, while there is the prospect of requited love, there is also the possibility of the pain of unrequited love.

But beyond the moment of proposal there is the optimistic but uncertain and expectant reality of what our life together will be like. With this in mind, our story of Rebekah’s betrothal to Isaac is remarkable.

While we may accept that such arranged marriages are a cultural norm in many places, what is particularly noteworthy in this story is the question Rebekah’s family puts to her, “Will you go with this man?”[1]

Rebekah has yet to lay eyes on the man she is being asked to marry, all she has before her is the story of a strange man. It is as if the psalmist has told her, “Hear, O daughter; consider and listen closely; forget your people and your father’s house.”[2]

Yes, Rebekah has the evidence of gifts of jewelry, but ultimately her choice is based upon another person’s story, his proposition. She takes a leap of faith and hope based upon this story, and her risk is requited with love.

Can we imagine such a thing? Have we encountered such as thing? Well, if we are baptized, if we spend time with Scripture, if we are confirmed, and if we pray the Eucharistic Prayer we are propositioned and accept this proposal over and over again.

Perhaps we have become so use to it that we aren’t conscious of what a radical thing it is we agreed to week in and week out. Perhaps we have become complacent in our familiarity with our faith and with one another.

This is precisely what Jesus is speaking to this morning as he poses the question, “But to what will I compare this generation?”[3]

In complacency we become self-centered; like the children in the market place, we want others to play the game by our rules, and when they don’t we complain.

In complacency, we become like the adults who find fault with John the Baptist and Jesus because their messages challenge our self-interests and ask us to take risks – to become vulnerable – to turn outward rather than inward.

This morning, and every day, Jesus proposes to us, “Come to me.”[4] Jesus asks us to turn outward, to turn and return to him in love as he loves us. He asks us to lay down the burden of our complacency, which gnaws away corrosively at our relationships with him and one another. Jesus promises us a yoke that will not only make the challenges of this life bearable, but that will open the door to eternal life if we, like Rebekah say, “I will.”

Like Rebekah, all we have before us is the story of promise. Will we respond like the self-centered children or self-interested adults of the generation Jesus speaks of? When asked, “Will you go with this [strange] man?” Will you respond like Rebekah and say “I will” to Jesus’ radical proposition?

In yesterday’s meditation from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, Brother Curtis Almquist reminds us to:

Be caught by the love God has for you… and for everyone else. It’s real, and it’s forever, and it’s for now. Who you are, what you are, however it is that you’ve gotten to be the way you are, God knows, God desires, God loves. God does love you.

It is in the name of God that Jesus is asking you to “Come to me.” In this moment of vulnerability take the leap, lay down your heavy burdens, and say, Yes!

[1] Genesis 24:58

[2] Psalm 45:11, BCP, p. 648

[3] Matthew 11:16

[4] Ibid., v.28

Household Divided

We’ve all experienced changes in our circumstances. Perhaps the first you were aware of was your first crush. Maybe that led to other changes, such as marriage and children. Perhaps there have even been changes in jobs, relocations, empty nests, new relationships, retirements, and even deaths. Whatever your change in circumstance, as it changes your life it can also change your perspective and relationships. Some of these changes in circumstance are unforeseen and others are calculated; some are joyful and others are pain-filled.

Our lessons today speak to the impact of such changes in circumstance on our relationships and lives.

Our first story is about the dramatic change in relationship between Sarah and her handmaid Hagar. As you no doubt recall, for the longest time Sarah is unable to have children. Concerned that Abraham will have no heir of his own, Sarah asks Abraham to sleep with Hagar so that he can have a child of his own. Sarah’s plan works and Hagar bears Abraham a son named Ishmael.

Then Sarah’s circumstance changes. As we heard last week, God tells Abraham and the eavesdropping Sarah that they will have a child of their own. They name this child Isaac, which means laughter, to remind them that Sarah laughed at God’s promise. But laughter only masks Sarah’s change in attitude. When Sarah’s circumstance changes, her attitude toward Hagar and Ishmael changes. No longer are they a blessing on Abraham’s household, now they are a threat to Sarah’s desire for Isaac to be Abraham’s only heir. So Sarah insists that Hagar and Ishmael be cast out of the household – mother against mother, son against son – a household divided. We do not know if Sarah is mindful of the peril she is exposing Hagar and Ishmael to, we only know that she is bent on severing the relationship by sending them away.

This story is often thought of as the root of the differentiation between the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael, one that places them in inevitable conflict with one another. But I see a different story – not so much one of calculation and repudiation – but a story of embrace and blessing.

I could choose to emphasize God’s repudiation of Sarah’s calculated judgment upon Hagar and Ishmael by sending them away, or I could choose to dwell on God’s promise to Hagar to bless Ishmael, “I will make a great nation of him.”[1]

I choose to focus on blessing because I know God’s inclination for us is one of love and redemption. Yes, there will be judgment, but it will be based upon our inclination toward others, not God’s inclination toward us.

In the face of Sarah’s desire to control circumstances to her and Isaac’s advantage, God chooses another outcome. God chooses not either – or, one or the other, but both – and. God chooses the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac. This suggestion may stick in the judgmental craw of some Christians and others, but this notion does clearly differentiate between our own judgments and God’s own judgments.

In the light of this story, even Psalm 86, which we sang this morning, and which was written by a descendant of Isaac could have been written by a descendant of Ishmael as it seems to speak to his and Hagar’s circumstance in the wilderness. In this Psalm there is the telling verse, “All the nations you have made will come and worship you, O Lord.”[2] It’s not up to you and I to differentiate or chose among who can worship, the invitation is open to all of God’s beloved children.

Even Paul, in his letter to the Romans, reminds us where our attention is to be focused. Paul emphasizes our need to remain upon focused on our individual relationship with Christ by reminding us of our death to sin and our resurrection to new life in Christ. If we are attentive to this relationship there is no room for us to slip into judgment or differentiation.

Indeed, as Jesus reminds us, we as disciples are not to presume we are above our teacher, it is sufficient for us only to strive to be like him. There is peril enough in being disciples of Jesus when it leads to opposition from those who oppose him, but the reward is his claim upon us before God. Nonetheless, as there is division between Sarah and Hagar in Abraham’s household, and indeed even judgment on Sarah’s part, so we will encounter division and judgment among our own. Such division and judgment will challenge us as described in Jesus’ quotation from the prophet Micah, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”[3]

But we need to understand this passage as Jesus understands its setting in Micah [7:6], which describes the unreliability of friends and loved ones, who may judge us as Sarah fecklessly judges her handmaid Hagar, and cautions us instead to look to the Lord God for our salvation, whose judgment is just, and who will hear out our plea just as she heard Hagar’s and Ishmael’s pleas in the face of their peril and division within the household of Abraham.

Where do we turn in our peril? Are we swayed by the judgments of feckless friends, family, and media who are distracted by their own agenda? Or do we turn to the only one who is always prepared to embrace us and prepared to forgive and bless us: our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. In our peril, let us like Hagar, Ishmael, and Jesus choose to cry out to God, who will embrace us, bless us, and redeem our circumstance.

[1] Genesis 21:18

[2] Psalm 86:9a

[3] Matthew 10:35-36

Can I have this to go?

We human beings like convenience. We want what we want when we want it. When we can’t have it on our terms we tend to get a little testy. At least it appears that way, as we seem to hear more messages about tantrums than we hear stories about grace.

Today we have heard two stories of convenience: one of home delivery and one of carryout. Each of these stories reveals something about us, but more importantly they reveal something about God that we may have forgotten in our tantrums or desire for convenience.

These stories remind us that the Lord makes house calls. The Lord is not remote and detached as we may sometimes imagine from our own experience. Quite the contrary, the Lord is on walkabout among us and creation.

We may have forgotten this because we are distracted by our own desires or cares. Like Peter walking upon the waters of Galilee, we may have started out on the right foot but we soon founder and sink because we are distracted by the busyness, the cares, and the fear that surrounds us. Yet the whole time, Jesus is standing on the water before us with his hands outstretched ready to steady us. Talk about convenience!

Some of us are more aware and open to the presence of the Lord among us. Consider Abraham and Sarah. While it’s possible that Abraham did not recognize his divine guests at first, nonetheless he reveals his openness in his radical hospitality of welcome and provision for his guests. And Sarah does her part in extending this hospitality too, but she also reveals the limits of her openness. Convinced of her circumstance, that “it had ceased to be with [her] after the manor of women,”[1] Sarah laughs when she hears that she and Abraham are to have a son. Like Sarah, where does our conviction or skepticism come between us and God’s abiding presence and grace?

And then there are the disciples that Jesus calls to be Apostles. Like Abraham, these disciples know their Lord to be in their midst on a walkabout through the cities, villages, and countryside bringing good news and defying pragmatic assumptions by healing what is broken. These twelve become Apostles because they, like Abraham, are open to what they are hearing and seeing and willing to accept it. But even in this, because we know their names and the rest of the story, they like Sarah, they have their doubts, their faults, and their failures. They too will lose sight of the Lord at times; each will founder at some point, and one will even perish. But not because Jesus abandons them, but because they fail to reach out to him in their need as they are sinking.

You and I are the Abraham, Sarah, Apostles, and crowds of these stories. And these stories reveal the kingdom of heaven freely available in our very midst. But it is the state of our mind, our heart, and our spirit that determines how open we are to hearing the good news and reaching out to claim what is right before and all around us.

When we reach out, whether it is in faith or desperation, then like Abraham, Sarah, the Apostles, and the crowds we can set aside our doubts and tantrums and embrace the love and compassion that is right before us, sharing it with others, continuing the good work set in motion by our Creator from the beginning.

Therefore take this feast to go, carryout this good news of the kingdom of heaven, and join our Redeemer, and Sanctifier in delivering it in our community and wherever you go. Share the story of the grace you have freely received so others can know the convenience and presence of the kingdom of heaven in their midst.

[1] Genesis 18:11