- Parish House
Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 7C, Genesis 21.8-21
The Rev. Scott Walters
Surely one of a pilgrimage’s most indelible miracles is the cast of characters it manages to include. Three weeks ago sixteen of us from Christ Church began our five day walk of the last 70 miles of the Camino, The Way of St James, in Northern Spain. Our group actually provided a sample set large enough and quirky enough to illustrate the miracle. But we were a very thin slice of the larger peregrino pie. What a wild assortment of humanity walks the path to Santiago de Compostela.
Take Shabir. He and Terry Jefferson were sitting outside one of the old cafes along the Camino. This one was made of stacked up stones and roofed with large, irregular slates, all of which seemed to have been gathered up from nearby fields and added to over the centuries as new need arose. I joined them with my coffee, which I purchased for one euro partly on its own merits and partly to gain access to the Hobbit-scale bathroom, which featured a pair of laceless hiking boots sprouting wildflowers on a tilted shelf behind the toilet.
Anyway, Terry wanted me to meet Shabir. It won’t surprise anyone who knows Terry to hear that he’d extracted most of the guy’s life story during the 15 minutes of their friendship. Shabir is an Indian biophysicist, presently living in London and out of work. He said he was a Muslim who decided to be Christian this Ramadan and walk his third and final section of the Camino. I’m not exactly sure what that means except that Shabir certainly didn’t keep any of the traditional Ramadan fasts and possibly neglected other forms of abstinence as well. It seemed a little like giving up self discipline for Lent. I think it’s fair to call Shabir a “character.”
Before we left Little Rock, our group obsessed together about gear for months. We exchanged sources for clothing made of the latest sun blocking and moisture wicking materials and high tech footwear that would make the further obsessing over what blister treatments to carry less necessary. But Shabir walked in a long sleeved t-shirt, baggy jeans, and, I kid you not, a pair of scuffed brown wing tip shoes. He insisted that part of his Camino was to make no preparations. To walk in clothing he’d wear on any other Wednesday, carrying the little backpack he’d carried and repaired and carried some more wherever he went through life.
Believe it or not, I was actually interesting to Shabir. Because in all his miles he’d only met one other clergy person, and he’d met her that very morning, a tiny Presbyterian pastor from Indonesia named Novita. Later that day he found us at lunch and rushed Novita over to me, “Scott, here she is! Another pastor just like I told you!” As soon as he did, Michael, the Catholic from Arizona with the man bun, who would greet me on the path simply as “Arkansas,” saw Shabir, shouted his name, and embraced him in a big bear hug as if they were long lost brothers. The mischievous and backslidden Indian Muslim and the devout Roman Catholic with a theology degree from Notre Dame hadn’t seen each other for a few days.
I could go on. Most of our fellow travelers, of course, remained nameless. Like the German I found playing with a beetle the size of a child’s fist or the tall, dignified looking Spanish man who walked with the help of two metal hospital canes. This pilgrim must have started very early each day because I wouldn’t pass him until late morning. But every late morning, I passed him. He made his way to Santiago too, I trust, his ultimate pace not so different from mine.
This, for me was the wonder of the Camino. It’s not some rarified sporting event where likeminded clans of insiders and aficionados train and dress and understand their race in essentially the same way. Demanding as it is, the Camino draws what seems like a random cross section of human bodies and personalities and stories. What’s most astonishing about the Camino is not the few who manage to finish. It’s the many who the Camino manages to include.
Before we left America, I pulled up the lectionary readings for today to see what my last sermon at Christ Church would be about. I hope one or two of you felt my pain when the edifying story of the abandonment of Hagar and Ishmael was being read. But it actually could be worse. I looked at the wrong lections initially and for a couple of weeks I thought I was going to be preaching on the near sacrifice of Isaac. We’re not in a part of Genesis that lends itself to heartwarming goodbyes.
But you know by now that I have great affection for these old stories, the stranger and more gruesome the better. And I’ve come to believe that part of their power in our lives comes from the breadth of characters they include. The breadth of human personalities God includes in the story of our redemption.
The story of Hagar and Ishmael is heartbreaking, of course. If only its moving parts weren’t so familiar.
We should remember that when childless Abraham and Sarah got old they began to think God wasn’t ever going to get around to making the nation from their offspring promised to be as numerous as the stars of the sky. And it was Sarah’s idea that Abraham have a child by Hagar, their slave. Sarah was barren and aging. It was past time to get creative.
Well, surprise, surprise. Guess who feels a little resentful as soon as Ishmael is born? And, honestly, it doesn’t take so much imagination to understand how Sarah felt. Her insecurities and jealousies and even the cruelties that arose from them are not so foreign to us are they? They’re not to me. I’m at my sinful and damaging worst when I feel marginalized, unneeded, uncertain of my place in the story.
By the time the miracle child Isaac is born, 16 years or so have passed since Ishmael’s birth. So in the scene we just read, it’s a teenaged Ishmael playing with his baby half brother at the great feast thrown for Isaac’s weaning.
There’s actually some interesting ambiguity in translation of “playing.” The verb metsaheq can mean playing or mocking or laughing. Robert Altar translates it, “Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing. “Isaac,” remember, means “son of laughter, because Sarah laughed her own mocking laughter at God when told she would bear a child in her old age.
Maybe all the meanings are in there. Ishmael playing, mocking, laughing with her own son of laughter, and Sarah’s old wounds are suddenly fresh as ever. Can you relate?
Sarah’s actions spring from those wounds. And so she first diminishes Hagar and Ishmael by reducing them to categories. “Cast out this slave woman with her son,” she says. No names. No relationship. No humanity. Just their rank at the bottom of the social order is sufficient.
Abraham was distressed. I suppose that’s to his credit. Again, Robert Alter’s translation is stronger. It says the situation “seemed evil in [Abraham’s] sight.” And God replied, “Let it not seem evil in your eyes…for through Isaac shall your seed be acclaimed. But the slavegirl’s son, too, I will make a nation, for he is your seed.”
It seems that God isn’t saying there’s no evil in this terrible story. God just tells Abraham not to reduce this story to only evil in his eyes. God can bring goodness and beauty from the worst in us. This is a relentless theme in scripture, is it not? The story includes us all, and it includes all of ourselves, does it not?
So Hagar and Ishmael are sent away with a little water and a little bread. When the provisions run out, Hagar somehow “casts” her 16 year old son under a bush so she won’t have to watch him die. But the cries of the cast off son of a slave are heard. Heard by God. These two, deemed threatening and worthless by humans, will be the source of another great nation.
Maybe we should be explicit. Hebrews told of the origin of Arabs in their own sacred texts. Deep in the sacred story of Jews is the unambiguous statement that the Arab people are God’s people as well. The ones who would be dismissed and diminished are included. Hagar sees the well. She lifts up the boy and holds him fast with her hand. They are saved because God has insisted that they be included. It’s astonishing that a book so old could remain so relevant and so revolutionary, isn’t it?
But today, I find myself in this story in a related but more personal way. Today, I suddenly see, that this story isn’t about exclusion and sin. Not most essentially. It’s about the healing and transforming power of being embraced and included. After all, not only was Ishmael’s life saved by God back then; his story is still being told, even now. Even here, by us, with lives that seem so different. But lives that know perfectly well what damage our insecurities and jealousies and angers can do. Our need for a divine embrace is no less.
Almost exactly twelve years ago I knelt on these steps to be ordained. My seminary mentor, Roger Ferlo, preached that day and said if we did it right, I would disappear. Clergy colleagues would gather around, laying hands on me with the bishop, and the congregation would surround them even more completely, surround them and me physically and with their prayers. We did it right. I didn’t get left alone and abandoned on the steps. I disappeared in your embrace. As the bishop prayed that I be made a priest in the Church, the liturgy was shouting that such prayers only make sense at all as an individual feels himself physically held by the people of God, included in their life in the most basic and bodily way.
That was a powerful moment. But there was more transforming power in the years that followed. They were even more powerful because you lived out in real time and in real life what the liturgy was teaching. Which is that each of us, no matter how small or alienated or strange or excluded, each of us is included in the story of God’s loving redemption. Arabs and Hebrews and Americans. Indians and Spaniards. Protestants and Catholics and Muslims and Jews.
We are included when we are at our best and when we are at our worst. When we feel embraced and when we feel abandoned, we are somehow still included in the larger purposes of God. And when we see this…when we see this and not just the evil in the world, we are changed.
When we see that we are some of the ones to whom God says, “I have heard your voice,” we don’t live so much as Sarah did in her worst moments. We don’t build barriers or cast out or diminish other children of God because of our own fears and insecurities. When we rest in the miracle of our inclusion, we can extend it effortlessly and joyfully even to the most desperate and depraved people we meet. Even to our enemies, one wise son of Abraham taught. Even to our enemies.
For twelve years you’ve been teaching me this. For twelve years you’ve been showing me this. For twelve years you’ve embraced Ardelle as she risked going back to school, finding a new vocation. For twelve years you’ve absolutely buried Alden and Kate in affection and affirmation as they grew from two small elementary school children into young people in college who we love and admire. It’s impossible to overstate how transforming it has been for our family to be included and held and seen by God, but with your hands and in your eyes, through your prayers and most certainly in the raucous laughter we’ve shared.
And, strange as it sounds, the power of your embrace might be most visible in our having the freedom to move away. I’ll be the first to admit that it seems absurd to leave this beautiful, thriving place. But perfect love, we’re told in scripture, casts out fear. Don’t get me wrong. We’re still afraid sometimes, a little uncertain about what lies ahead, insecure about whether I can do this priest thing anywhere else besides right here with you. But deeper down there is a rest and a trust that you have helped form. A peace that passes understanding whose source is God, but that’s come to us in our inclusion in your lives, your prayers.
I would normally turn this sermon back to our friend Shabir right about now. Maybe to how we turned down one of the labyrinthine streets of Santiago a few days after we’d finished only to find him there smiling, laughing, embracing us, and then stumbling off in the direction he thought his most recent collection of friends might have gone.
But today I will end right here. I will end by simply giving thanks to God for you. Thank you for the beautiful leg of the pilgrimage we’ve traveled together. Thank you for difference you’ve made in our family’s life, in our community, in our city, in our world. But most of all today, I give thanks that your embrace has been so expansive and unconditional, that it’s become for me a glimpse of a divine embrace so perfect and so broad that none of us, none of us, could ever be cast out beyond its perfect reach. Thank you for that vision, that hope, that witness to the good news of Jesus. And Godspeed to you, friends, on the next stretch of Christ Church’s remarkable journey into Grace.