When I was five years old my mother decided to divorce my birth father, making her a single mom with three kids in 1962. A few years later my mom married again, and that man adopted my brothers and I, making us a legal family. After that my mom cut us off from my birth father and his family, and I did not see any of them for over 20 years. Even when we reconnected we were never able to rebuild a consistent stable relationship, perhaps that was part of the problem in the first case, and why my mom got divorced?
Family relationships can be complicated. The stories in the Book of Genesis of Abraham, Sarah and their son Isaac along with the Hagar and her son Ishmael remind me that all human relationships are complicated.
The reading this morning reveals just how complicated things were for Sarah, Hagar, and Abraham. First of all, who are these people? Sarah and Abraham were called by God, who led them into the wilderness with the promise that they would build a great nation. Along the way they ended up in Egypt where Abraham convinced the beautiful Sarah to lie to the Pharaoh and tell him she was Abraham’s sister, because that lie would make Abraham’s life easier. Pharoah, took Sarah as his wife, not realizing that she was already married to Abraham. When Pharaoh started having bad dreams and realized that they were telling him the truth about Sarah he sent her back to Abraham and told them to leave the country. Somehow in all of that Hagar ends up with them. Was Hagar a slave women given to Sarah by Pharaoh? Or, was Hagar an Egyptian princess who fell in love with Sarah's God and wanted to be with Sarah in order to worship THAT God? Was Hagar a victim? Was Sarah cruel? How complicated were things in the house when Abraham, at Sarah’s insistence, had a child with Hagar, a child named Ishmael? Why was Abraham mostly silent and bizarrely complicit in all of this? Or, another interpretation of the story suggests that Hagar and Sarah are the "faithful" ones, each keenly aware of God's bidding and desire, collaborating with God in bringing forth two great nations, a world of diversity. How is that both Sarah and Hagar had to leave the security of home, and wander in the wilderness, in order to learn who she was and find her strength and purpose in life?
No doubt family relationships can be complicated. Cutting off relationships and families does not eliminate the complications, but only adds layers to the mess. What ever was actually going on between Sarah and Hagar, God remained in relationship with both of them, and at the end of Abraham's life the two sons, Ishmael and Isaac reunite to bury their father. Perhaps they have stayed in touch all along? Maybe the point is that as humans we cannot always manage to build the kind of beloved family and community that God hopes for us, but regardless of our relationship challenges, God stays faithful, continues to work for wholeness, and strives to build loving relationships between all people….
This idea of building beloved communities, of building relationships is at the heart of Paul’s letter to the Romans. As I said last week, the Roman church community is fighting over who belongs, who are the true Christians - the circumcised Jewish Christians? Or the uncircumcised Gentile Christians? Paul says, they are both true Christians and they need to stop being distracted by something that is ultimately not important. They need to work on building relationships not creating divisions.
In the reading from Matthew it sounds as if Jesus is encouraging divisiveness. But what Jesus is really encouraging in discipleship. Discipleship means “learner” and being a disciple means that one is on a journey, a process of learning about God, Jesus, and one’s self in relationship to other people. As Christians in community, Paul and Matthew are writing to encourage people to build beloved communities of faith by being in relationship with one another, learning from one another, and sharing the love of God, made manifest in Jesus, with one another. This is an act of ongoing discernment, as each person, learning and growing in faith, strives to understand anew what God is calling forth in one’s self and in one’s community. This connects to the heart of the story in Genesis, where God acts in and through the relationships of Sarah, Hagar, Abraham, and their children, to bring forth communities of faith.
As disciples, we are still learning, always learning about who we are as a people of God. In particular, for us, the Renaissance Strategy Task Force is actively listening and learning and discerning where God is calling us today, who is our neighbor and how are we being called to leave the safety of these walls, like Hagar in the wilderness, where we will find our true strength and identity?
a reflection on the readings for Proper 7A: