Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – Genesis 21:8-21; Matthew 10:40-42; Sent by Jesus: Seeing the Reward – Our two Bible stories seem opposite in Spirit. Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael alone into the desert wilderness where jackals and bandits prowl. He offers a bottle of water more for his own thirsty conscience than their parched need. In that harsh inhospitable landscape one rarely survives alone without community. Certainly not without a source of refreshment. Some reward for Hagar’s service as slave and surrogate! It’s the antithesis of sanctuary. It’s a death sentence.
By contrast, Jesus sends his disciples to spread a message of Holy Love for all people; to proclaim the reign of Divine Peace come near. Here as a kind of blessing he envisions being welcomed in that same Holy Love. It’s the essence of sanctuary, a promise of hospitality awaiting. A cup of cold water and more, so much beyond Hagar’s paltry plastic bottle – a reward will be shared, the reward of prophets and of the righteous. What is this reward exactly? Jesus isn’t clear. The disciples who remember Hebrew scripture likely know the prize for prophets wasn’t exactly an all-expenses paid get away to Disneyworld! More like cast out in the desert, likely the same terrain as Hagar, getting away from royal soldiers trying to shut them up. A death sentence. Just moments ago, in his little chat about going out to serve, Jesus warns about mortal dangers, threats, conflicts that may well await them, too. It may feel to them as though they are alone, wandering in a wilderness. Taking nothing with you, Jesus said—no food, clothing, or even a staff for defense. Unsure where their next meal or bed will be, amid insecurity, even persecution, could it be hard to see the prospect of abundant life they’re sent to proclaim?
At first the stories seem opposite in spirit, yet … maybe that clouded vision begins a connection; a tension felt in our own lives. Dear Alice Mae gave a pretty good wailing impression of distress a few moments ago! Hagar abandons Ishmael under a bush, runs away, far enough to not hear his questions, his crying. She can’t even lift up her eyes to look at her beloved son. She can envision no future. She has no strength to see, to hold, to feel in her own core the depth of his suffering, compounding hers. Maybe not how we’d want to respond? Still, might we understand the sadness, powerlessness, hopelessness? Can it seem hard for us to look at the news another day or a diagnosis we receive? To see suffering in the face of a beloved? To foresee life beyond limits we feel? To envision hope and imagine possibilities beyond apparent threats and negativity? Friends, as we look at our journey ahead in life, in our families, in our community and nation … how do we perceive dangers and difficulties in a harsh wilderness? How can our emotional sights get fixed on fears and impossibilities?
In two days, on July 4th, I’ll drive out to the St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota. I’ll begin some time away among Benedictine brothers for the rest of next week. I don’t know what awaits me. What kind of welcome will I receive? Isn’t it natural to feel a bit of uncertainty about hospitality in a foreign place? I went online, of course, to check it out. Their sanctuary looks nothing like the beauty of ours. Still, surely it’ll be fine. Probably simple. Not Disney! Yet nothing like Hagar and Ishmael sent out into a desert wilderness, either. And this journey, longing and uncertainty I feel is about more than physical place. I don’t know what awaits me in mental, emotional, spiritual space, on my journey. I hope to simply decompress a bit; center my spirit after recent months and years. Life with you, friends, in our ministry together looks nothing like an experience of persecution, oppression, life-threatening. Still isn’t it hard at times—to find a way through losses and personality conflicts, unexpected challenges and ethical concerns of our day, loving each other all the way? I know I’m not alone. I know you feel something similar in events of our lives, our church, our world, because my calling, in part, begins in your heart. So when I go, I won’t be alone, because you see, I won’t leave you behind entirely. I expect the first disciples felt a similar bond as they began their journey.
A daily devotional I use begins this way:
God says: I will woo you and lead you into the wilderness, and speak to your heart.
Blessed be God, forever.
The world belongs to God, the earth and all people.
How good and lovely it is to live together in unity.
Love and faith come together, justice and peace will kiss.
Grace will spring from the ground and hope lean down from heaven.
Friends, I believe that’s an expression of the reward God has awaiting us; a vision of blessed life and faith in community as God intends for us and all creation. Time after time, in story after story the Bible gives us the basic good news: God is with us to bring new life in love beyond limits we perceive.
I may not continue with that devotional exactly as I worship at the Abbey. Still, I trust that wherever we go, God will be like a mother who will not forsake a nursing child and a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home. If only we have eyes of the heart to see and ears to hear. Our Loving God raised Jesus from death, breaks the power of all that takes life, comes again to you and me, as to Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness long ago. You see, friends, this troubling tale in Genesis is a resurrection story. Let’s be clear. Sarah’s intent, harsh realities they faced … they’re as good as dead. Except not to God. God sees that Ishmael will be the ancestor of millions, a great nation, as well. Whatever Sarah’s aim and Abraham’s ambivalence, God doesn’t buy it. God doesn’t affirm conflict as inherent. God doesn’t consent to a competitive win at all costs paradigm. God doesn’t see the imperative to make a fatal decision for one against another. God does not accept circumstances of death as final. And though it can be hard to see an alternative, (as hard as it was to hear my words through Alice’s wail!) we don’t have to accept and to act in life with that conflict, competition, fatal circumstance, either. The Sacred Source of All Being loves and provides for all people, bringing life beyond apparent death. And so can we. So Jesus sends us in our living faith.
Friends, see the reward for faithful discipleship, and seek that life together in the unity of Divine Love. That’s what baptism is about. We come to the font like Hagar with Ishmael. The Holy One heard Ishmael’s cries just as he was, where we was. That’s what his name literally means – “God hears.” Another angelic messenger comes to Hagar, as to shepherds at Jesus’ birth and so many other times in the Bible saying: Do not be afraid! Then God opens her eyes, lifts up her sagging spirit, and she sees a well of water. A well – a source of strength, a promise of life in a barren land. And though scripture doesn’t say it explicitly here, usually in the ancient world, where there’s a well, there develops a community. Friends, lift up our eyes to see: here’s our well, our promise of life in community! It’s more than a magic spell to get us into heaven. Or as one elder joked when signing the baptism certificate with a playful gleam in the eye: “I didn’t realize I had the power to get her beyond the pearly gates!” More real than those expectations, here’s confirmation of Sacred Grace for us, with us in all wilderness places. Here’s an invitation to live as Jesus sends the disciples and we pray: to help God’s kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. Here we’re made one in Christ Jesus beyond all distinctions—male, female, Jew, Greek, Benedictine and Presbyterian, Democrat and Republican, however much money in our pockets or bank accounts … here we all belong in God’s covenant of new life. Here we’re offered the reward of living faith in community before we ever earn it. Here we begin to receive it and claim it as we keep looking for life together beyond limits as we know it. Here God calls us to seek peace beyond all prejudice and division, all conflicts among races, religions and nations, even some of the most vitriolic in our time rooted in this very story—Jews claiming Isaac, while Arab Muslims claim Ishmael was the blessed son of their common ancestor Abraham.
Friends, I believe hope for our personal and communal lives rises from the promise of relationships as a sanctuary where all are welcome as children of God. Truth is, we all have the power to bring fullness of life in heavenly peace a little closer here on earth. For Jesus, the formula of faithfulness is quite simple, really. To extend hospitality to others, even strangers, is to welcome him and the Holy One who sent him. All who go through life in this Spirit embody the presence of the One who sends.
One member among us gave me hope that I’d be received in that way this week. He came in to church a few days ago, fairly excited, because he grew up just miles from the St. John’s Abbey. His grandfather walked with a sack of wheat to the Abbey, where monks ground it into flour. Then he carried it back home. I think our member told me he thought of being a brother there. The food, the bread, he said, is really good stuff! And that sanctuary, too … it doesn’t look like much, compared to ours, but it’s moving in its way.
Friends, here in this sanctuary in the city, we share really good stuff too! We have challenges, but we’re not lost in a wilderness, thanks be to God’s Spirit moving among us. Like at Session this week, on two different tricky and potentially divisive issues, individuals with differing perspectives and visions on some things in life and faith reached détente (as one of them joked) and came together with a joint proposal. How can every task and interaction extend this gracious compassionate welcome of Christ to another? As deacons, ushering, greeting, singing, and every one of us on Sunday morning? Teaching our kids, tutoring, serving meals, sewing, making cards …… as all our ministry continues through this period of transition, it’s an exciting time of hope and possibility for our congregation. Any success in our witness will flow out of this hospitable spirit of sacrificial love.
And for our nation on this July 4th weekend, we might ask: what could this compassionate hospitality look like in systemic realities of our society? More than battlefield victories, discoveries of science or exploration of space, for 241 years, the spirit of our nation is best when we care for the vulnerable, destitute, refugees—from when our nation was more like a wilderness under the envious gaze of King George, through millions of our ancestors flowing past Lady Liberty and on Ellis Island, through the Great Depression to great ethical questions about a blessed life in our day. A foundation of caring community grounded in hospitality and welcome of others different than us, empowers us to work together for the good of all. Helps us to raise the eyes of our hearts to see a wellspring of possibility beyond the issues of race, equity, security, health care, religion and all else we face as a nation.
As look for hope through our personal trials and fears, dear friends; as we celebrate July Fourth, and continue to serve in all our faithful ways, as we journey near or far in body, heart and mind remember our baptism – see our promised reward of living faith in community. As our rejoicing rises, may we also hear cries of Hagars and Ishmaels among us. May every voice be lifted to sing together the harmonies of liberty. And as a first step, in this place, let us build a house where love dwells, prophets speak, hands reach out, and each person is named and claimed in grace as we proclaim from floor to rafter: All are welcome! All are welcome, in this place!
Thanks be to God. Amen.