I think that God has a sense of humor. You know June has five Sundays, and it also started on a Sunday. Well somehow this managed to confuse me into thinking that my Sunday to preach and celebrate next would be the 29th. So as usual, a couple of weeks ago, I started some preliminary sermon preparation. The Old Testament reading for next Sunday happens to be the story of Abraham and Isaac, and that is the one that really captured me. I’ve really been thinking about it a lot, imagining what it was like for them, what each of them was thinking…I even developed a little theory about how much faith Abraham might have had that God was not really going to ask him to sacrifice his son but that He was going to provide….but….I guess I’d better not preach that sermon this morning….because much to my surprise, on Wednesday, I suddenly discovered that the fourth Sunday of the month was this Sunday!
And when I did look at the readings for this week, I have to say that I did not jump for joy. In the Old Testament, it’s the story of Hagar and Ishmael. Last week we had Sarah laughing with joy that nothing was too wonderful for the Lord, that she was going to bear a child late in her life, so late in fact that all thought of that had long been given up. But now, some fifteen years later, we are hearing the other side of that story. Ishmael and Hager being turned out into the desert with only bread and a skin of water by Abraham and Sarah because they are concerned about the birthright of their son Isaac. Hard to think this of our patriarch and matriarch, isn’t it?
And the Gospel? What are we to make of that? From paragraph to paragraph Jesus seems to keep changing….one moment comforting and soothing, as again we hear the refrain from earlier in this Gospel…”do not be afraid because you are great value to God….this God who watches the sparrows fall and counts the very hairs of your head.” And the next challenging, “I have come to bring not peace but a sword…. I have come to set a man against his father… a daughter against her mother….a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” It sounds like he could have been talking about theAbraham/Sarah/ Hagar household, doesn’t it? And the conclusion is more challenging still. So at this point, we might be asking, what is this all about, and even more, what does it have to say to us here this morning at St. James about our relationship with God and with the world and each other as followers of Jesus Christ.
Last week we left Sarah laughing in delighted wonder, and this time, apparently in belief that God was going to deliver on God’s promise to give her a son. Earlier in the story, after God promised Abraham offspring, they had been a little less than willing to wait on God’s promises and had taken matters into their own hands, and Sarah had set a plan for Abraham to father a child with her slave Hagar. Once Hagar was pregnant, Sarah became jealous of her and treated her to so badly that she ran away to the desert. While she was hiding in the desert, she had a visit from an angel, who told her she was to go back and submit to her mistress Sarah. We can imagine this was not terribly good news for this poor woman. But at the same time she was given a promise from God; the same promise incidentally that God had given Abraham. “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.” Hagar was also told that her child should be given special name, Ishmael, which in Hebrew means "God hears” because God had heard her in her misery in the desert.
And now here we are fifteen years later, and the sight of Isaac playing with by now teenaged Ishmael once again stirs Sarah’s insecurities about birthrights. Again Abraham and Sarah drive Hagar and Ishmael off into the desert with only a skin of water. Wandering in the desert Hager believes that all hope is lost and she abandons Ishmael to die. But, once again, all is not lost, because we are told, “God hears.” The voice of the angel of God says to her those wonderful words “Do not be afraid.” And she is shown a well of water in the desert, and Ishmael drinks and he lives and prospers and “God is with him.”
God sees pregnant Hagar as she wanders in the desert running away from Sarah. God hears Ishmael in his distress as they run the second time. And this I think is the perfect segue into Matthew’s Gospel and why Jesus can say to his disciples “Have no fear of them, do not be afraid, you are of value, God is paying attention.”
Jesus, son of God, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Come among to be God present among us in history as never before and also to teach us how to manifest God to one another. He knew of course that this was dangerous business. We humans don’t always get it right or do it well. I mean, even the patriarchs and the matriarchs were chasing people out into the desert ill-prepared and leaving God to save them. In Jesus’ time as well as ours the message of the kingdom is not necessarily a popular one. Following Jesus, really taking seriously his message of loving one another, turning the other cheek, practicing peace and forgiveness and nonviolence, then as now, is not necessarily a recipe for the easy life or something we are all very good at or do very gracefully. We know that sometimes it gets people ostracized, arrested, and even killed on a big scale. And on a small scale it gets us bumped and bruised and bent out of shape and gets our feelings and our hearts hurt on a regular basis. But if we are going to do these things, to have the courage of our convictions, and act as Jesus would have us act as his disciples we must have that sense we are of value before God, that God sees, God hears, that in some real and meaningful way, God is paying attention to each and every one of us.
Most of us will probably never be driven out into the desert with only a waterskin. And hopefully we will never face anything so dramatic as a threat to or safety or our lives for our faith. We need have no fear, for God sees and God hears. But God also, if Jesus is to be believed, has some expectations for us….”Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." Every single day provides opportunities to be fearless sparrows. May we fly.