Saturday, June 24, 2017

Year A, Proper 7, Genesis 21.8-21, Father Abraham

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
Family feuds are by far the worst feuds.
We’ve all seen or heard of them, even if we’ve been lucky enough to have personally avoided them.  There seems to be no limit to what families can fight about, nor any limit to the intensity of those fights.
Those feuds can quickly escalate into conflicts that can turn violent, and if not violent, virulent, that is venomous, vindictive, and vicious.
Often these feuds, which  may simmer for a lifetime, boil over during times of grief, and especially when dealing with the estate and inheritance.
Jealousy can fuel the fire.
So can matters of control.
Money and inheritance often stoke the flames,
As does any sense of a favored status.
And there is no family that is immune from such conflicts.  It seems to be part of our DNA.  Or to put it differently, theologically, this is evidence of our bondage to sin.
The Bible doesn’t shy away from this issue.
It was jealousy that caused Cain to murder his brother Able. 
Jacob and Essau, twins, spent much of their lives in conflict that steamed from their birth order and the implications for that with regards to the inheritance, and also because of a sense of favoritism, with their mother Rebekah favoring Jacob, and Isaac favoring Essau.  Trickery and deceit were also part of the mix as Jacob and Rebekah teamed up to trick Isaac into giving his blessing and the birthright to Jacob, instead of Essau.
Today’s first reading from Genesis tells the story of yet another family feud, that between Sarah and Hagar and their sons, Isaac and Ishmael.
4,000 years have passed and that feud still rages all about us in the world today.
It began because of a very simple problem.
Abraham and Sarah were unable to conceive a child.
God had promised Abraham that he would be the Father of a great nation, but he was now advancing in years, and Sarah as well.  They were well beyond child bearing age.
Sarah, desperately wanting a child for Abraham, and aware that she was unable to conceive, sent her handmaiden Hagar into Abraham, as was often the custom of that day.  Immediately, Hagar conceived and bore a son to Abraham, Ishmael.
But, as the story unfolds, God’s promise was to Abraham AND Sarah.  It was that Sarah herself would bear a son for Abraham.
And in time she did.
When Isaac was born there was such great joy that Abraham and Sarah named him Isaac, which means laughter.
But there were more emotions than just laughter.
In spite of the fact that sending Hagar into Abraham was Sarah’s idea in the first place, she was resentful that Hagar had so easily conceived a son for Abraham.
Today, having a child with someone other than your wife is considered adulterous, but that wasn’t the issue in Abraham’s time.  In that patriarchal society men often had children with not only their wives (and yes there were often more than one wife), but with their servants as well.
Jacob would have children with two wives, and two servants.
That wasn’t the biggest problem for Sarah.
Underlying her resentment was that Ishmael was Abraham’s first born son, and that as such, he normally would have been the recipient of the greater share of the inheritance. 
Add that together with all the other emotions Sarah was feeling, and it finally became too much to deal with.
Sarah demanded that Abraham banish Hagar and Ishmael, sending them off into the wilderness, likely to die.
This distressed Abraham.
Then in an interesting turn of events a couple of things happened.
God told Abraham to do as Sarah demanded.
But God also promised Abraham that Ishmael would also become the father of a great nation.
Today, Muslims claim Abraham as the Father of their faith as do the Jews and we Christians. 
The difference is that Muslims understand themselves to be the heirs of Ishmael, not Isaac.
What is remarkable is that 4,000 years have passed but the feud that started between Sarah and Hagar, has not.  It continues to this day.
Family feuds are the worst feuds, and they continue the longest.
Jews, Christians, and Muslims all revere Abraham as the father of their faith. 
And yet history is full of the conflicts between these three great faiths.
As Christians, we are well aware of the continuity between Judaism and Christianity.  Jesus, after all, was born a Jew.  And we cherish the Hebrew Bible as part of our scripture.
Though it should be noted that this did not prevent Christians and  Jews from being in conflict over the years.  Jews persecuted Christians from the start, and Christians were responsible in part for the holocaust, and the death of millions of Jews at the hands of the Nazis.
We often don’t want to claim responsibility for the holocaust, but we do bear some responsibility.
Martin Luther, you see, not only had a great impact on our understanding of the Gospel.  In his later years, though, he also wrote some scathing words about the Jews that sowed the seeds of anti-Semitism in Germany.
Family feuds are the worst.
We are less familiar with our relationship with Muslims.
We worship the same God.
The Hebrews referred to God as Elohim, Yahweh, and Adonai.
In Greek, the word for God is Theos, or in Latin, Deus.
And in Arabic, the word for God is Allah.
But these are not different Gods.  They are merely the words used in different languages.
Arabic Christians, for example, refer to God as Allah.  That’s how you say “God” in Arabic. 
But it is the one God of Abraham that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship.
A couple more things you might not be aware of with respect to our Muslim brothers and sisters.
Did you know that within the Koran, both Christians and Jews are referred to as the people of the Book?
That the Koran references the scriptures of the Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospels?
That Jesus is considered a prophet of Islam, and that there are numerous passages about Jesus in the Koran?
And did you know that the Koran speaks of the virgin birth of Jesus?
Surprising, isn’t it?
Now having said that, there are very profound differences.  In the Koran, it very specifically affirms that Jesus is a messenger of Allah, but vehemently denies that he is in anyway Divine.
Like Judaism, Islam is strictly a monotheistic religion and any notion that Jesus is God’s son, and divine, is denied outright.
Let it suffice to say that though we all worship the God of Abraham, we believe some very different things about that God.
And we have fought over those differing beliefs.
Family feuds are the worst.

But there is something that the Bible makes clear that we should also be aware of.
First, as is evident from today’s lesson, Abraham loved both of his sons, Isaac and Ishmael.
And so also, God loves all of his children.
God’s capacity to love all of his children far exceeds our capacity to love our brothers and sisters.
I repeat:  God’s capacity to love all of his children far exceeds our capacity to love our brothers and sisters.
One example of this:
My daughter related to me a comment that took place during a youth group meeting one day.
The husband of our youth director said, like so many others: “The only good Muslim, is a dead Muslim.”
This was particularly hard for Brita to stomach, because at the time one of her close friends was a Pakistani foreign exchange student, and yes, a Muslim.
We have a struggle dealing with Muslims.
We allow the actions of terrorists, a radicalized political group, that, oh by the way, happen to be Muslim to shape our attitude toward all of the Muslims in the world, most of whom are as peace loving as we are.
If Muslims really were all that violent, with 1.6 Billion of them in the world there would be a hell of a lot more conflict than there is.
It is simply wrong to judge all the Muslims in the world on the basis of a few extremists, just as it’s wrong to judge all Christians, or Jews, on the basis of the worst examples.
Should Jews be labeled “Jesus killers” for all time?
Should Christians all be blamed for the holocaust?
One other thing to  note.  Muslim terrorists have killed far more Muslims than anybody else.  They are not “Muslim” terrorists, they are simply terrorists.
And God abhors all such hatred.
God’s capacity to love all his children far exceeds our capacity to love our brothers and sisters.
Not only do we find it difficult to love Muslims and Jews, we even find it difficult to love other Christians.
But the point is, God doesn’t.  God loves us all.
And that’s what matters the most.


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