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One Giant Dysfunctional Family

4 Pentecost, Proper 7A

25 June 2023

Genesis 21:8-21, Matthew 10:24-39



When I finished reading the texts for this week, I thought to myself the term “dysfunctional family” may be a new one, but the reality of it is not. If you are not disturbed by today’s readings and wondering why you worship in a faith that seems to support such dramatic and traumatic family dynamics, you should be.

First, a word about translations: they matter!! In this case, you might come away with the idea Ishmael is a toddler who can be placed in a snugli. He was not; he was a teen-ager and by the way nowhere in scripture does it say his laughter was directed AT Isaac, the one whose name means laughter. Sarah was being snarly and jealous, for Ishmael was a legitimate son of Abraham and Hagar a legitimate wife, albeit one with no power at all. It was Sarah’s idea that Hager become a mother, whether she wanted to or not. She was an enslaved person with no power, but as we shall see later, much agency. Enslaved Blacks, particularly Black women used for sex, in the American South saw themselves in her story. One thread in the mythology of Hager, whose very name means a foreigner, says she was the daughter of the Pharoah and given to Abraham in compensation after the disaster when Sarah becoming Pharoah’s wife. She is a woman with no say over her body; she is the face of women throughout history who have been marked as no more than someone’s property. She is the enslaved Black woman, the woman who has been trafficked, the abused spouse. She is, in fact, the stand-in for most women for most of human history. Yet she is one who speaks to God and sees God face to face when she runs away from Sarah’s brutality right after Ishmael’s birth and before that of Isaac. It is said that no one sees God and lives, but Hagar did. She even gave God a name.

It is hard to find solace in this story, yet both Hagar and Ishmael thrive after leaving the slavery in which they spent all too much time.

Jesus deals directly with family dynamics when he tells his disciples that following him is not going to be a cakewalk, but rather cause the ultimate in family dysfunction and disruption. This is not like Game of Thrones, where all is intrigue and scheming, but rather open ideological warfare. I suppose today it would be like half the house supports a Democrat and the other half a Republican. The twain is not going to meet any time soon.

I grew up in a household where being a Christian, of the sort common in the USA in the 1950’s and 60’s, was the norm. The idea of families split apart for the sake of the Gospel was a Bible story, a story of early Christians who were persecuted. It was not a story of family disruption. Even Catholic versus Protestant was more of a friendly disagreement among more or less like minded people, not a battle which would place life and limb at risk.

Ironically, I feel this passage more relevant to my life today than at ever before. When I thought the world was actually Christian, I could not fathom the idea of doing battle. The battle was against your own sins, not against those of society. There are times I wish I still thought that was the message of Jesus. Instead I now know that bringing a sword does not mean Jesus literally will come in on a horse and thrash at people who don’t do exactly as he says. It is rather that when you decide you will take up the cross, lots of people won’t be happy. When you threaten the powers that be, or those whose idea of being a Christian is to control in the name of Christ, the sword will appear and you may be on the receiving end of the blade.

Do you think Jesus literally says to go kill your parents or in-laws? Taking up your cross is taking up the difficult work, the seemingly impossible work, of being someone outside conventional expectations.

It had never hit me this way before, but when Jesus called his disciples, he did not call thousands, but rather a handful. He did not send them to recruit more disciples, but rather to do as he was doing: healing, teaching, bringing liberation and then speak of what God had done for them. That was the witness to which most people were called. After Jesus’ death, the dynamic changed, yet most Christians weren’t called to cast out demons or raise the dead. They were called to love one another. Even at that, the sword was raised, by Rome, by other empires, and even by those who practiced a false form of Christianity.

This is, I believe, one of the “swords” that hangs over our heads today. I believe I am called to speak out, to witness if you will, for marginalized people. Not all people everywhere, but those to whom I can help give a voice. Sometimes it brings fear to me.

You, too, are called and that call will be unique to you. I do believe Jesus says we must find out call, we must take up our cross, and that will look differently for you than it does for me.

But we must ask the question about what underlies anything we do in the name of Christ. Our own litmus test will not be that of asking about correct beliefs; rather will be a question of right action. Jesus sets the example: we heal and liberate people from those things, physical and spiritual, which bind them. When we act in love, justice, and mercy, we cannot go wrong. We are carrying the cross.

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