The Rev. Hannah Hooker’s Year A, Proper 7 sermon
I just spent a week with 6th, 7th and 8th graders at Camp Mitchell. Our theme for the week was the Bible. All of it. The whole thing. We learned about how while the Bible contains lots of stories, it also tells one big story. The story of God and God’s people trying to get back into union with one another. We talked about God’s plan to choose one man, Abraham, and his family, to bring the light of God to the rest of the world. But as Abraham’s family grew, it got more and more difficult to live and work together and figure out who God was calling them to be in the world. And this is the part of the story that our lectionary plops us down in this morning. The theme of our readings today is: families are weird and difficult, and I doubt that there is a Biblical theme more relatable.
In our Old Testament readings this summer, we’re hearing the saga of Abraham and his family. And the driving force behind much of the action in these stories is a promise that God has made. God has told Abraham that he will receive land, blessings, and descendants, in exchange for faithfulness to God, by living the life God calls him to. And the promise isn’t just for Abraham and his immediate offspring. This promise is meant to be passed down through generations so that more and more people can be faithful to God. So while it certainly seems harsh to us that Hagar and her son, who are vulnerable and disenfranchised, to be kicked out of the tribe, we have to keep in mind that the promise is to be passed on through Isaac. That’s the deal. That’s the covenant God made with Abraham. That’s the line through which the light of God will be brought to the world. Isaac is the elected, so to speak, and Ishmael is not.
I’ve always imagined that this story is hard for some people to read. My own youngest brother for example. He’s the baby of the family, the only blond one, the only one with a math and science mind. He hates to read and loves to be the life of the party, while the rest of us would rather sit near each other but not talk to each other just read our books. I suspect that a story about the unloved son is not his favorite portion of the Bible. Similarly, I’m sure I’m not alone in always having been nervous about Jesus telling us that mother will be set against daughter, father against son, and so on in our Gospel passage this morning. We know of course that God’s Kingdom will overturn the status quo of our society, that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, but this feels too far. Why do we have to destroy families to follow Christ?
I think we have to look at these two stories next to each other. In Genesis, indeed in most of the Old Testament, being part of the right family, obeying the patriarch, and falling tightly in line was the way to uphold your end of the covenant with God. No matter what. No matter who got hurt. But in the New Testament, Christ changes the covenant. Instead of being part of the right family or obeying the letter of the Law, capital L, to uphold our end of the covenant now, we only have to have faith in and follow Christ, and when we fail, Christ will always be there, waiting for us to try again. So what does this do the institution of the family that was so important in the Old Testament? I think it breaks it open. The word family no longer applies solely to people who are genetically connected. The whole body of christ is our family. And while families are sacred and important, our salvation is no longer determined by who we’re biologically related to. Before Christ, it seemed like only the bloodline mattered. But now, we know that every hair on all of our heads is counted and treasured by God.
There are hints throughout the Old Testament that something bigger than the first covenant is in store for God’s people. Some of you might be thinking of some of the prophets who proclaimed that a messiah was coming. But even in our Genesis reading this morning we find a clue. Hagar and her son are exiled, cast out and not welcome in the family of the covenant, and even so, God reaches out to Hagar, and it says that “God was with the boy.” This is a recurring theme in the Old Testament, people who are cast out never seem to stay out. They continue to matter, to make a difference in the narrative. Even before God sent the Christ, when God was still trying to reconcile the world through a single family, being “the elect” never seemed to mean having an exclusive claim on God. God has been leaving the 99 sheep to rescue the single lost one from the beginning of time. I hope that this brings a little comfort to baby brothers like mine throughout the world.
Sometimes in our lives, being true to who we are and true to our relationship with Christ will cause division. This is what Christ is warning us about in the gospel this morning. But no longer is there an inner circle vs outsiders when it comes to being God’s people. There is only living for Christ or living for the institutions of the world. For many of us, we may never need to cling to this particular good news, because our families support our devotion to God’s work in the world. But for many people, the news that division within families does not doom one to hell is sweet relief. The truth is: families are weird and difficult, but the blessing is that God is always with the boy, the girl, the mother, the father, the outcast. That is what the new covenant of Christ assures us of.