Third Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Third Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, June 25 2017, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Gen 21:8-21; Ps 86:1-10,16-17; Rom 6:1b-11; Mt 10:24-39

Some days there is entirely too much to preach about. This Sunday is, all at the same time, the day of Nina’s baptism, and the National Indigenous Day of Prayer, and Pride Sunday, and, in fact, also Eid al-Fitr for our Muslim friends. Meanwhile the gospel for today is a sort of anthology of sayings attributed to Jesus by the author of Matthew, some of them quite beautiful, and some of them, frankly, extremely problematic, and overall probably material enough for ten homilies.

But I would like to start with the reading from Genesis, because I think that today, it is a bit of a key to everything else. For the most part, in Genesis, Abraham and Sarah are the heroes of the story, and they and their son Isaac and his descendants are the focus of the narrative; for the most part, the story elicits our sympathy for them, places them at the centre. But here, we make a remarkable move to the story of Hagar, the outcast.

Hagar is, of course, Abraham’s slave, his possession. And when Sarah seems unable to have children, according to the custom of the time, Hagar is compelled to bear Abraham’s male heir in her place. Margaret Atwood has said many times that nothing in “The Handmaid’s Tale” was invented, and this is perhaps the most direct source of that story. It is made clear that the relationship between Sarah and Hagar is a tense one, as well it might be, and although Sarah, as wife rather than slave, is somewhat more free, at least relatively, it really is the story of two women whose lives are largely out of their own control, bound to patriarchal structures and the demands of male lineage, and who are driven to compete with one another for small shreds of power and autonomy. Then Sarah becomes pregnant, and bears a male child, and at this point Hagar becomes unnecessary, and unwanted, and is sent out to the desert to die.

This is something which probably happened fairly often. But this time the writer of the story does something unexpected, and follows Hagar into the wilderness, allows her story to be told, allows us to see her, desperate, parched and starving, lying her son under a bush and withdrawing so that she does not have to watch him die before she dies herself.

And then God is there. The God who has, up to this point, been described as the God of Abraham, whose attention has been, apparently, centred on this one line of inheritance, is revealed to be a God much greater, a God whose care is not limited to one chosen line, a God who is the God of Hagar too. A God of the outcast and unwanted, the unnecessary, of those used as tools by the more powerful, of those sent out to die. A God who will raise this child from death, and give him his own story, who will honour those who have been the exploited possessions of others.

Legend has it that Ishmael, the child rescued from death, would become the ancestor of Mohammed, that the line established with Hagar would ultimately become contemporary Islam, and that is worth remembering, as we struggle with Islamophobic hate in our own city; that we are told with great clarity, here at the beginning of the story, that all people are included in God’s narrative, that there is a destiny both for Sarah and for Hagar—and at least a suggestion that they may, someday, finally be reconciled.

But we can think, too, of all the others in our society who have been deemed unnecessary, who have been sent out to die. The queer and trans kids whom society, and often their own families, have driven into deserts of rejection. The people in Grenfell Tower in London, mostly poor, mostly people of colour, many of them Muslim, whose lives were judged to be not important enough to deserve a fire-resistant building, who were mainly seen as an eyesore by their wealthy neighbours, who died as the collateral damage of capitalism.

And, of course, the Indigenous people of Turtle Island, whose existence got in the way of the great colonial project of exploitation of the land, who were driven onto tiny, crowded reservations and kidnapped into residential schools, who have borne the burden of resource extraction on their lands poisoning their rivers and their bodies, who to this day often live in communities without clean drinking water or adequate food, who must over and over watch their children die. The story of Hagar tells us that God is with these communities, has always been with them, was among them when they church was participating in the genocidal project of the residential schools. That the church in that time—and not only that time—betrayed and denied the God we claim to worship, the God who was there in those tortured children, is there in the children of Attiwaspiskat today.

In the same way, when we have betrayed gay and lesbian and trans people in the name of God, we as church have betrayed and denied God. And Matthew’s uncompromising gospel has some pretty harsh words about that, which we need to hear. But the resurrection stories are, more than anything else, a series of stories of the forgiveness and reincorporation of the disciples, who had betrayed and denied Jesus in a fairly extensive way as he was handed over to be tortured and killed by state power. It is not an easy forgiveness; we see Peter on the shore being made to acknowledge what he had done, we see all of them having to struggle past fear and guilt to go out into the world and begin to do the work for which they were needed. And so must we do ourselves—know and admit our own complicity, but also know and accept the constant offer of a new chance, a turning around, an invitation into God’s work of love and justice.

Because it is only when we can give our lives into that work, in whatever way we’re called, that we can find them truly. And I think that is what Jesus is talking about in the final lines of today’s Gospel. We are not called to lose our lives in the sense of denying them, or having them taken away. Rather, we are called to lose our lives into their true fulfillment. There is always that which must be given up, but given up only for the sake of greater life. Artists know this, the life poured into the art, lost and found in the same moment. Parents can know this, the losing and the finding of life in the all-consuming work of care and love. We can lose and find our lives in the work for justice. To accept a stigmatized gender identity or orientation is in some way a loss, the loss of what might have been an easier or at least more convenient sort of life, but a loss which is the condition of being more truly alive, the death Paul speaks of as the gateway to life. To accept and to turn away from our history as a church of white privilege and complicity in genocide is a death of sorts, but a necessary death if we are to become in some way life-giving. And any and all of these commitments can bring not peace but a sword, not comfort but decision and conflict.

This is all rather grim stuff for a day which is also the celebration of Nina’s baptism. But we are, finally, talking about life. And Nina must, as she grows, find her own life, and she will be fortunate if she is able to lose it in finding a greater life. There will be decision, and difficulty, and there will be conflict, if not with her immediate family then surely with some parts of this broken world. But she will be cherished, not only by parents, grandparents, godparents, but by the divine love which values infinitely each small bird, which reaches out to the dying child in the desert of abandonment and says no to death, says that what we think is the end is not the end, that there is more story, more hope. For all of us, young or old, fragile, confused, outcast and complicit—there is water among the dry rocks.