Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Sermon for Proper 7

"God Will Hear"

So...who wants a 45 minute sermon?

Some Sundays, especially near the end of the year before Advent, even with three lectionary readings and a Psalm, whoever is preaching is sometimes scrambling to find something for a sermon topic. Today is not one of those days. In fact, today there were too many potential sermon topics given three very good readings from Genesis, Romans, and Matthew.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately depending on how you look at it), the Episcopal Church is typically not a denomination that looks favorably on 45-minute-plus sermons because we do not think either of the two parts of the Eucharist (the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Sacrament) should overshadow the other. Only with a 45 minute sermon could you hope to cover to any degree the scope of the readings today, what with a great talk from Romans about the meaning of baptism from St. Paul that is read at the Easter vigil to the rather disturbing reading of Jesus saying, “I come not to bring peace, but a sword.”

As tempting as it is to chase those readings down the proverbial white rabbit hole, I leave those two readings for your own personal reflection this week. I really felt lead to preach on perhaps the most disturbing of the three readings, the Old Testament story about Abraham and family.
If you were not quite awake yet for the first reading, take a look at it again. This story about Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and Ismael is troubling on numerous levels. If you are unfamiliar with this story, prior to this Abraham has been lead by God away from his homeland and is finally promised by God that he and his wife Sarah will have a son. All this on the faith of a god who has no physical form and has no name.

Of course, as the story this morning alludes to, before Isaac was born, Sarah, having given up hope of having a child on her own but still having enough faith that Abraham will be “the father of many nations,” convinces Abraham to have a child with his slave, Hagar. That son is Ismael. Only after Ismael is born does Sarah herself have a son named Isaac.

As the story this morning states, Sarah again convinces Abraham to (this time) get rid of Hagar and Ismael altogether so that Isaac will be the true and only rightful heir to Abraham. What is perhaps most disturbing appears to happen in the first column of the reading in that God seems to go along with the heinous scheme by telling Abraham that “whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you...”

Or, perhaps more humorously, as our organist, Kurt, pointed out to me earlier in the week, God is ordering Abraham to do what his wife tells him to do. There's one for you, ladies.
In all seriousness, aside from all the dirty little secrets that are being alluded to in this story, there are two issues with this story that are very crucial but I am willing to guess that you probably completely overlooked.

The first I will get to by posing a question for you to ponder. What is missing from this story that we read today? Its very subtle but very interesting if you catch it. I will give you a hint: this is a story primarily about Ismael. (hint, hint).

In a long story (almost 15 verses) about Ismael, not once is the name 'Ismael' ever actually uttered. He's referred to indirectly in various ways: “the son of Hagar the Egyptian,” “the son of the slave woman,” “the boy,” or “the child.” but never is he actually referred to by name.
Why do you think that would be? I will let you ponder that question and come back to it momentarily.

This text is very challenging because it turns upside down a basic theological foundation that both Christians and Jews like to take for granted. We've all grown up hearing the stories about God's “chosen people” of Israel. We've heard the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob's 12 sons which made up the 12 tribes of Israel from whose descendants God would make a covenant on Mount Sinai after the Exodus from Egypt.

And as Christians we believe that through those chosen people God would eventually make his covenant with us who were not part of the chosen people of Israel, namely through Jesus Christ who was himself a descendant of Abraham and was the word made flesh, as John says in his gospel.

We would also prefer not to deal with the fact that people, even Father Abraham, the great patriarch of the faith, make mistakes in their lives like having illegitimate children with slaves. We would prefer to sweep inconvenient little truths like that under the proverbial rug and move on to happier stories in the bible.

This story, if we care to engage it, is not going to let us off that easily, however. As is often typical of stories in the Old Testament, there are subtle plays on words that are often lost in English translations of the bible.

Ismael is not called by name to illustrate a very intentional irony. Ismael is not called by name because the name Ismael more literally translated means “God will Hear.”

Do you catch the irony? Neither Abraham nor Sarah nor even his very own mother gives Ismael the respect of calling him by his name. He is simply an object of derision.

Ismael is the object of Sarah's deceitful scheming to ensure her own biological son gets all the glory and blessing as Abraham's heir, even though it was Sarah's idea to have a surrogate son in the first place.

Ismael is the object of Abraham's shame and distress.
Ismael is the object of his mother, Hagar's, desperation as she leaves him to die under a bush because she can't bear to watch her son die.
By human standards, Ismael is the lowliest of the low: the illegitimate son of a slave who has been driven out to die in the desert by his own father and owner.

And yet as the story proclaims quite loudly, but not in so many words, 'God will Hear.' As it says in the middle of the second column: “Do not be afraid, for God has heard the voice of the boy...” God will hear his name and his cry of distress, even if no one else would care enough to even call his name.

But that is not the only ironic twist to this story. There is another facet that we need to consider.
A few months ago, the rabbi of the South Street Temple was gracious enough to come to St. Mark's and lead a Seder dinner, the Jewish meal that commemorates the Passover and the escape from slavery in Egypt. It was a lovely event, as many of you who came will attest to.
As I learned from the rabbi, there is not a uniform “seder meal.” Many families depending on where they were historically from, have differing traditions. What is said and prayed, and what is not.

We were a little pressed for time near the end of the meal, so the rabbi was largely skimming some of the optional readings and prayers that can be done near the end of the Seder. I remember he specifically pointed out a passage near the end that has stuck in my head.
The short little passage is a rabbinic reflection on the Israelites' escape from slavery under the Egyptians. The Red Sea parts and the Israelites cross on dry land. But when the Egyptians came rushing across in hot pursuit to kill them or to drag them back into slavery, the waters closed upon them and they drowned. This is the commentary on their drowning from the Talmud which is quoted in some Seder meals in various forms:

"When Israelites saw the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians... the Israelites sang a song of praise to the Lord for their redemption. At that moment, the angelic choirs of heaven wanted to likewise sing praises to God.

“But God silenced them, saying: 'Why are you are singing for my own children are drowning?'"1

In that commentary, God is referring not to the Hebrews but to the Egyptians, the very people he has just liberated his chosen people from. And yet he refers to them as 'my own children.'
Why do I bring up that discussion of the Jewish Seder meal? This reading about Ismael and Hagar should clue you in. Hagar was an Egyptian and in the very last sentence of the readings, we learn that Ismael (who is half-Egyptian himself) likewise ends up marrying an Egyptian. Ismael is thus not only the object of shame and derision by Abraham and Sarah, he is the son of an Egyptian, and not just any Egyptian, an Egyptian slave.

Just as it is ironic that Ismael, whose name literally means “God will hear” is never actually named in this story for his name is know and heard only to God in this story, it is also ironic that the Hebrew people who would later become slaves in Egypt have a founding patriarch who himself owns an Egyptian slave.

So what can we learn from this story?

There are many things really, not the least of which is about the abuse of power. That anyone, even if they are the lowliest of the low and have been abused in the past, can, if they are not very careful, continue a cycle of oppression and violence if they come into a position of power themselves.

I believe the good news this morning is about living with the fear of the future that often comes from our own bad decisions. Most of the people in this story (the adults at least) have made some terrible mistakes in their lives which have created a great deal of fear and anxiety about the future because of this decisions.

Sarah is fearful of Ismael, Hagar is fearful of dying in the desert, Abraham was originally fearful of not having an heir. When things were not turning out as planned, the adults in the story (just like all of us) all tried to force the Hand of God to act in ways that God did not intend.

And yet God will hear.

God will hear and call you by name, even if no one else will.

God will hear your prayers, even if you believe you are as lowly as Ismael and Hagar.

God will hear...and will take even our worst decisions and provide new possibilities for the future.

God will hear.

Amen.

Footnote:
1From the public domain Seder meal texts as well as the discussion found at http://web.israelinsider.com/Views/3500.htm

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