June 22, 2014

Pentecost – Proper 7

Genesis 21: 8 -21; Psalm 86: 1-10, 16-17; Romans 6: 1b - 11; Matthew 10: 24 - 39


In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.

Early on most Monday mornings (if I am disciplined) I exercise at the YMCA sometimes doing the elliptical trainer, or the exercise bicycle. That time early in the morning is my designated time in which I read as much of the Sunday New York Times (I am usually too lazy to read it on Sunday). I am one of those hold outs who still likes to read a newspaper – the Times on Sunday and the Wall Street Journal the rest of the week.

In reading the Times week I was deeply saddened to learn of the recent terrorist activity in Iraq and Syria. I read, with a heavy heart, about the tide of violent religious fundamentalism spreading across those battle torn countries at the hand of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or ISIS for short). ISIS is a rival of the Taliban. My first response was cynical: “Here we go again. More violence in the Middle East. What else is new?”

And then I remember my own travels to the Middle East pre-9/11, and the wonderful conversations I had with proud Turks, Jordanians, and Egyptians. On a subsequent trip to Turkey, I worshipped alongside Muslims in mosques as we listened to the imam’s call to prayer. 

I engaged in thoughtful theological conversation with devout Muslims, the kind of conversation where one doesn’t try to convince the other that their beliefs are right, but rather we listened to learn, rather than to judge.

How ashamed I am of my initial, cynical response to the unfortunate situation in Iraq and Syria. This was made all the more apparent to me as I read again the story from Genesis we all heard a few moments ago. Perhaps it is a familiar story to you? If not, I will briefly summarize, as I believe this ancient story has much to teach us about our modern world. Long ago, God promised Abraham a son. But when Abraham’s wife, Sarah, did not bear a child, she gave Abraham her Egyptian slave girl, Hagar, who gave birth to their son they named Ishmael, which means, “God hears.” In the ancient near east, this surrogate motherhood was an accepted practice, and Hagar’s son, Ishmael, would have been considered Sarah’s son. 

But when Sarah finally gave birth to her son, named Isaac (Hebrew Yitzhak, which means laughter), she demanded that Hagar and Ishmael be cast out to insure that only Isaac would be Abraham’s sole heir. Abraham did as Sarah asked, and sent Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness. This abrupt dismissal was like a divorce, without any child support. Alone in the desert, with their food and water running low, Hagar prays to God, and an angel answers her with the most peculiar response, saying to her that Ishmael, like Abraham, would become the father of a great nation.

As Jews and Christians look to Abraham as the patriarch of their faith, so too, do Muslims, because Ishmael (“God hears”) is considered the patriarch or great father of the Islamic world. Through Ishmael and Abraham, the religions of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are part of one family, though, it is safe to say, our family is quite dysfunctional. One part of the family –Ishmael’s – was cast out. The story of Hagar and Ishmael reminds us of a problem central to all families, and all societies, for that matter – who is accepted, and who, like Ishmael and Hagar, are cast out?

As a culture, we decide who is cast out because of gender, sexuality, color, religion, wealth (or lack of it), and like Ishmael, we cast them out because they are not like us. And that’s the problem. If we think we have the power to cast out, to judge, then we are wrong, because only God really has that kind of power. Our feeble attempts at judging others, in my mind, are mostly illusions. When we cast out others, we are pretending to be God.

So if it is true that the power to judge, the power to cast out, belongs to God, then why do we so often do it? Perhaps because the person we cast out, our Ishmael, is like a mirror reflecting our image back to us, revealing something about ourselves that we are ashamed of. It seems universal in human history, that when we cast a person out for whatever reason (they are a liberal democrat, conservative republican, a Bible in hand judgmental Christian – or a terrorist) – if we cast these people out, and label them enemy, we have to realize individually, or culturally, we are casting out a part of ourselves, a part of our history, that we are ashamed of. 

Violence in every situation is a tragedy. And when religion is used to justify killing, it is especially so. We see this in Iraq now, but we also have witnessed it in the history of the Christian church. To those ready to judge another person, Jesus reminds us “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” I do not pretend to know the answer to averting more conflict in Iraq or Syria. I wish I did. But I do know that more violence or judgment is rarely the most appropriate resolutions to conflict. Whether it is in Iraq, or Syria, in our family, or in ourselves, we must consider; what are we to do with our Ishmaels? AMEN.