Genesis 21:8-21; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39
Ordinary 12A; Proper 7
I do not like biblical door number one or biblical door number two this week.
Perhaps the epistle lesson from Romans is the way to go, although dying and rising with Christ presents its own set of preaching challenges. The Old Testament reading from Genesis is one of my least favorite stories in Genesis. Sarah appears petty and jealous and cruel. Abraham comes across as unwilling to stand up for the vulnerable, I don’t care if God tells him to listen to Sarah. Then there’s God in this narrative. God’s instruction to Abraham to listen to Sarah and send Hagar and Ishmael away does not inspire me to praise and worship, either. The pericope overflows with character traits one would not admonish anyone to emulate. But, alleluia, one can preach the Gospel text, right?
Disciples should be like their teachers. So far so good. Don’t be afraid. Standard biblical fare and sound advice even if difficult to follow. Disciples are more valuable than sparrows. Every hair on your head is counted. Now we’re talking. I like reminding church-folk of that. Don’t think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. Wait. What? Maybe I misread that, I’ll keep going. I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother. Well, at least this text didn’t fall on Father’s Day, but still, not exactly greeting card material. Maybe it gets better. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me and whoever doesn’t take up the cross and follow is not worthy of me and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. The word of the Lord?
Is it too late to get someone to fill the pulpit? Maybe time to kick off a mid-summer sermon series.
Or perhaps the time is right to jump in with both feet and say: God demands my soul, my life, my all. We are called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbors like ourselves. What does the Lord require of us? To do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God, all the way to the cross. The only way to rise with Christ is to first die with him.
We may well know these things, so the question becomes: Do we do these things? Or have phrases like “take up the cross and follow” and “dying and rising with Christ” become empty Christian platitudes?
Was Abraham’s sending away of Hagar and Ishmael cruel or faithful or both? Was it, like the binding of Isaac that will come in the very next chapter of Genesis, an example of putting no loyalty above loyalty to God? Do we look to Abraham to interpret Jesus’ admonition to love him above all others? Even our closest kin?
Keep in mind this text from Matthew is a continuation of Jesus’ instructions to the 12 disciples who are about to be sent out into a world that will be none too welcoming of them. Jesus isn’t pulling any punches about the daunting task ahead. They will be afraid. They will be persecuted. Their physical lives will be in danger. Turning back will be a tempting option again and again and again. I think we find this reading from Matthew and the one from Genesis so hard to stomach because we’ve taken our discipleship too lightly and our context hasn’t pushed us to question our cushy Christianity.
Perhaps these readings resonated more with German Christians in the 1930s and 40s or those congregations in the Southern United States of the 1950s or 60s who fought segregation and stood up for civil rights. I wonder how these Bible passages sound right now today in the ears of Egyptian Christians. NPR recently reported on the dangers of building churches in parts of Egypt, interviewing Christians whose homes were burned down when it was suspected they were doing so. There are times and places when Jesus’ words of persecution for his name’s sake are far from hypothetical. In those times and to those people, hearing the words “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” would be comforting, not challenging.
But what about for us, in this place and time? How do we preach the good news of taking up the cross and setting a man against his father? How do we remind those of us whose discipleship has cost them little that being like the teacher demands something, everything, from the students?
It begins with confession. Those of us who’ve not proclaimed Jesus’ words from the housetops out of fear or merely complacency, need to admit our failure. Lent is not the only time we should commit to a disciple of self-examination. I have found John Wesley’s self-examination questions useful and sobering. Or, if you’d rather borrow from our Catholic brothers and sisters, Ignatius’ Examen is a helpful daily practice that keeps before us both God’s presence and God’s call. What are my priorities? Where do I place my ultimate loyalty? What am I willing to sacrifice for the sake of the gospel? When we begin to earnestly ask ourselves these questions, we open ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit within us.
While God may not be telling us to send Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness, God is still asking us to trust in ways we’d rather not. While we may not be living in a place where building a Christian church threatens our livelihood or our lives, we are living in a season where being the church through speaking truth to power could. While it may not be the case that we must decide to endanger our own children by hiding those of our Jewish neighbors, we are still commanded to love all God’s children as if they are our own.
If these verses do not sound like good news to us, then it may well be that we’ve cheapened God’s grace and failed to emulate our Master.
We have no idea what the cost of discipleship will be once we commit to following Jesus Christ. We are not to seek out suffering or persecution or martyrdom. We are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves. We are to be like our Teacher, the one who ate with sinners, welcomed children, washed the disciples’ feet, healed and forgave, fed the hungry and restored to community those who had been cast out and forgotten. Being like our Master and Teacher will inevitably compel some to bring out their swords. That’s when we will need to know that every hair on our heads has been counted and that in giving our lives to God, we will find them. That’s when these challenging verses will be our greatest comfort.
- Covenant with someone to practice Examen this week and then share with one another what the experience was like.
- Answer Wesley’s self-examination questions. Write down your answers and pick several to focus on this week and then ask yourself the questions again next week.
- Use lectio divina with the Genesis reading and attempt to put yourself in the place of each character of the story. Do you have empathy for them? Anger towards them?
- When has your discipleship been costly? What did it cost you?
- If you aren’t being called upon to send your child into the wilderness, what is God calling you to do that is difficult?
- Can we ever be worthy of Jesus? If not, what do we do with Matthew 10:37-38?
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