The Third Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39
The Third Sunday after Pentecost highlights God’s presence in conflict and threat, both internal and external. Fear and violence are not denied, but God is faithful, whether we are wandering in the wilderness, facing our own sin, or trying to live, despite our imperfections, by our highest values. In the course of the challenges we face, we may need to take a stand, and God is standing with us.
Still, to preach these passages rightly, we must remember that not everyone is delivered from danger. The pandemic has reached nearly 120,000 deaths, people are out of work and restive, and others are frightened to go out, while others including national leaders live in denial, privileging economics and pleasure over the wellbeing of others. Children like Ishmael perish from malnutrition and disease on a daily basis, and parents mourn in their helplessness to protect them. There are times in which God seems absent even in the midst of our prayers, and often we are overcome by inner turmoil, addiction, and sin. Faith may lead to conflict – following Jesus may lead to scorn. We are asked in this time of protest and pandemic, “are we following the way of Jesus or do we live by our own political and cultural biases and then baptizing them as Christ’s way?” To be faithful to scripture, we must look at our lives in their concreteness and not from a place of economic, emotional, relational, racial, or spiritual privilege. We must challenge our assumptions, constantly measuring our ethics and politics by God’s vision of Shalom “on earth as it is in heaven.”
The story of Ishmael and Hagar begins two weeks of lectionary studies on family dysfunctionality. Jealous Sarah banishes Hagar and her son to the wilderness, and God apparently approves of it. God has a larger plan, the founding of a nation through Ishmael, but neither Hagar or her child are aware of it as they go into wilderness exile and the likelihood of death. In this family, Hagar becomes the vulnerable one, the one who has lost everything, the refugee, the mother desperate to save her child.
Her story is repeated in Syria and Africa but also in the United States. The pandemic has exacerbated the plight of the poor, including the working poor described as “essential” workers despite low wages and little ability to negotiate the terms of their employment. Our own racial and economic alienation has created an underclass and our national policies have created groups of expendable people, many of them children and single parents, whose well-being is of little concern when policy makers, representing us, make their decisions. Many of whom are described as “essential,” but must face dangers the privilege classes, working at home, can avoid.
God experiences Hagar’s despair for herself and her son, and responds, “Don’t be afraid. Your son will be the parent of a great nation.” God hears the cries of the vulnerable. God provides water in the desert and a way where there is no way. God hears us in our pain and we are delivered from the forces that threaten us. But, realistically, this is not always the case. Millions die in despair. Does God not listen to their pain? Do divine purposes involve the death of their children? The passage can victimize victims unless we who are privileged see ourselves as those who must also listen and do all that we can to deliver the vulnerable through acts of justice-making as well as compassionate care. We may be God’s ears and God’s response. While the pain of others can be overwhelming and enormity of pain beyond our ability to solve, we can listen and respond, seeking healing in whatever way we can promote it and encouraging our leaders to place the pain of the vulnerable ahead of tax breaks and bailouts for wealthy persons and corporations. We need to look at the “big picture,” but God calls us to render aid in the immediacy of suffering, even if it is only food for the local pantry or a check to a relief organization, or a call demanding action from our political leaders.
Ishmael, the child God delivers, is revered in Islam and according to legend buried alongside Hagar in Mecca. This passage reminds us that God cares for Muslims as well as us and that God’s story of grace extends beyond our own tradition.
Psalm 86 tells the story of a desperate person, perhaps a woman and her son, that may be recapitulating the story of Hagar and Ishmael. The poor and needy cry out hoping for divine response. God’s moral nature is reflected in God’s care for the lonely, lost, and forgotten. The wealthy and strong are mute; they see themselves (for the moment) as self-sufficient, but the poor and needy know they need a power greater than themselves and pray that God will listen and respond.
Paul speaks of death to the old and the birth of a new self. While Paul recognizes that followers of Jesus still sin, he equally asserts that new creation involves a new ethical perspective. Salvation is as much an outer as inner journey. We need to give up the old ways of life, as comfortable as they might have been to embrace a new vision of ourselves and the world. Surely this applies to individual behavior – to our embodiment of spiritual and ethical virtues – but it also compels us to create larger circles of ethics, possibly involving us in responding to the institutional sins of our nation and communities. This time of protest and pandemic calls us to let go of old securities to embrace God’s security of just and life-affirming interdependence.
False individualistic readings of this passage take us off the hook from relational evils, evils of which we are complicit even if we intend no ill: alienation, denial of pandemic, injustice, misogyny, racism, incivility, preferential option for the wealthy, preference of profits over earth care. The new creation must inspire creative activity to transform our communities and social structures to nurture persons we will never meet. The world is saved in one to one relationships, and it is also saved by creating healthy and life-supporting structures of equality and affirmation. New life must be social and relational as well as individual and private.
The passage from Matthew appears to be a catalogue of Jesus’ sayings. While we cannot exegete each saying, certain stand sayings stand out. Jesus’ words express the conflicts that may occur when we follow God’s way. The paths of denial and witness are placed before us, and we are asked, “Where do we deny Christ?” and “What is the nature of our witness?” Denial and witness are relational; they involve whether we let our light shine in our personal and communal lives or turn away from God’s vision in our personal and political lives. We can affirm Christ doctrinally but deny Christ relationally and politically. Following Jesus’ counsel means “letting our lives speak” in our families, employment, lifestyle, and politics, and this may lead to conflict, to a sword and not peace. Yet, the way of Jesus calls us to seek healing with civility in our relationships – to promote justice, to support the vulnerable, to sacrifice for the greater good, to encourage morality among our leaders and in our nation’s policies. Far from individualistic, this challenges us to create structures of hope and safety for the “Hagars” and “Ishmaels” of our communities and the world. This may mean an overhaul of our personal and political priorities to reflect the values of God who cares for sparrows and also little children, refugee families, marginalized communities, and the lost child in ourselves. In recognizing God’s care for us, we can let go of our privilege and sacrifice for the greater good. We can “lose” the life of self-interest and individualistic isolation to “find” the life of community and planet loyalty, in which all are pilgrims and non are strangers.
God’s care inspires our care. God’s intimate concern inspires our concern. God’s quest for safety and wholeness inspires our quest for safety and wholeness for the vulnerable. We can no longer let personal or corporate sin be “business as usual.” We cannot place patriotism, presidential ego, or economics ahead of morality and compassion or cry out “America first!” without uplifting vulnerable Americans and joining our national affirmation with an equally ardent “Planet first!” God delivers, and much of God’s deliverance comes through our listening to God’s call for us to hear the cries of the poor and needy.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books including FAITH IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC, GOD ONLINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET, and the upcoming HOPE BEYOND PANDEMIC and PROPHETIC HEALING: THE CONTEPLATIVE ACTIVISM OF HOWARD THURMAN.