We are called to die in our baptism to all that keeps us from hearing Ishmael’s cries, to all that leads us to disregard others in the family, and in Christ’s resurrection we are given the life to do this.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 12 A
Texts: Genesis 21:8-21; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
That was his “crime.” He laughed, exactly like Sarah. He laughed, the same word as his brother Isaac’s name. Ishmael laughed. And Sarah, now finally able to laugh with a promised son, and Abraham, the father of both boys, drove Ishmael and his mother into the wilderness.
Both Jewish and Christian tradition often claim Ishmael’s laughter mocked Isaac. But the text doesn’t support that. The verb with the “mocking” sense is similar, but not the same, to the word used here that’s always translated “laughing.”
Ishmael’s crime was his existence. Now that Isaac was born, Ishmael was a threat to his inheritance. Maybe he wouldn’t challenge Isaac inheriting all. Maybe he would. But this child of a slave is thrown out of the only family he’d ever known, sent to die in the wilderness.
That’s the important truth in this story.
Yes, God blesses Ishmael, saves him and his mother. Makes him a great nation in his own right. But that doesn’t change that he was thrown away from his family.
Maybe Sarah was worried about Ishmael’s influence on Isaac; she admits she was worried about the inheritance. But that doesn’t change that she cut off her son from his life.
Sure, Abraham sent water and bread with Hagar. But that doesn’t change that he rejected his first-born son, and justified it by saying God was OK with it.
When George Floyd’s life was being choked out in those eight minutes and 46 seconds of horror, near the end he cried out for his mother. It’s unbearable. In the wilderness, when the water and bread ran out, Hagar put Ishmael under a bush and walked away to sit. She couldn’t bear to watch the death of her child.
That’s the true story here: one child is loved and favored, and one child is trash to be thrown away, where only his mother cares whether he lives or he dies. And God.
We can’t judge Sarah and Abraham. But we must learn from this for our own lives.
That the tradition justifies throwing Ishmael and Hagar away should be a warning to us how easily we justify our beliefs and our actions, even when they harm another. Seeing the actual, horrible truth of Ishmael’s story as the Bible reveals it, is the only honest way to see this story.
And the same is true today. We need to clearly see the truth of our world and our part in it. That in the United States nearly 1,000 people are killed by police every year, compared to ten or fewer a year in other Western countries. That unarmed people who are black are killed by police in the United States at a rate four times that of unarmed people who are white. That the voices of Ishmael in our society cry out in anger and frustration and grief at yet another death, day after day, week after week. Parents of children, sons of mothers, brothers, husbands, are killed with impunity, cast out from the family into the wilderness to die.
We need to see this. We need to hear this. But it will take the death of some things in us.
This is what Paul needs the Romans to understand.
He tells them that in baptism they were buried with Christ, that their baptism is into Christ’s death. There is something in them that needs to die for them to live as Christ, to walk in “newness of life.”
The Roman churches had Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians at odds with each other, not eating together, breaking fellowship. Both sides knew they were right and the other side wrong. But Paul says, you are one in Christ, the only identity that matters.
So go ahead, Gentile Christians, Paul says, don’t keep kosher, and freely eat meat that might have been offered to idols. But your belief that you’re right and your siblings are wrong, your looking down on them for what you see as ignorance, your willingness to break this community: that needs to die in Christ.
And go ahead, Jewish Christians, Paul says, follow the laws of Moses and keep kosher. But your belief that you’re right and your siblings are wrong, your looking down on them for what you see as unfaithfulness, your willingness to break this community: that needs to die in Christ.
Your baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, Paul says, means the death of all that keeps you from seeing and treating others as family – even in your diverse differences.
Now you also see why Jesus says what he does today.
Jesus knows that following him, taking up your cross, being willing to die to what in you is not of Christ will mean dying to important things. It might separate you from others, even close relationships. Matthew’s community lived this, experienced the rupture of families over following Christ, and needed these words of encouragement by Jesus in their Gospel.
And that’s our hard discernment ahead. What does God need to die in us so that we can walk in newness of life and see and treat all God’s children as family? Today it’s more than just the body of Christ at stake. We can’t break family ties with any of God’s children. Will we take up our cross even if that dying costs us whatever it costs us? Loss of being right, loss of having the answers, loss of a comfortable existence? Loss of income? What are we willing to let die to ensure all in the family are kept alive and well?
What this will mean for Mount Olive is hard to fully know right now.
But we can’t just go on letting our siblings of color die week after week with no answer or no commitment to change. We can’t turn away as Ishmael grieves every day in the wilderness, dying while we laugh with our families.
We’ll have to be willing to let go of our need to make ourselves feel better – even our need to help in ways that might not be what our siblings need. We’ll have to take hard looks at how we use language, how we live as a community, to see the pieces of white supremacy that exist in our life together. That sounds harsh, but as we listen to our neighbors, that’s what we hear. That this society is built to endorse and support white people at the expense of others, and that this is even in our community of faith.
There is much we need to learn together. But many in our midst can help.
For those of us who are like me, white, identifying as male, and straight, we must be silent and listen. Every door has opened for us all our lives, and most of us haven’t been thrown out into the wilderness. But many of our community have, and can help. Those of us who are women, you know what it is to be discriminated against, to be objectified and threatened, to be paid less for the same work, to be mansplained by someone less smart than you. You can help us all hear and see Ishmael now, too.
Those of us who are LGBTQ, you know what it is to be marginalized, thrown out of families, even have your life threatened or treated as trash. The Pulse nightclub shooting was only four years ago this week, and even though you can now be married and the Supreme Court made an important ruling this week, you know the pain of the wilderness. You can help us all hear and see Ishmael now, too.
And those of us of our community whose skin isn’t white, you know firsthand what it is to fear and to grieve, you, most of all, can help us all hear and see Ishmael’s cries in the wilderness right now.
Because that’s what’s missing in the story from Genesis today, Ishmael’s voice. We hear Sarah and Abraham, Hagar, even God. But we don’t hear Ishmael as he’s thrown out of his family and left to die.
We need to hear him, and together we will.
Ishmael laughed. And God heard.
Ishmael means “God hears,” so God heard the one named “God hears” and saved him. God still hears Ishmael’s voice. God doesn’t throw anybody out of the family.
And following Christ, taking up our cross, means we learn to hear what God hears, see as God sees. We see and hear the Ishmaels who cry out as brothers, sisters, family. We listen together for what needs to die in us so that all might remain in the family, loved and safe.
And the good news is that this is all possible because of Christ’s resurrection. Resurrection life is poured into us in baptism, so as the old dies, the new is able to come. Paul says Christ is raised so that we all might walk in newness of life right now. For the sake of Ishmael. For the sake of the world.
In the name of Jesus. Amen