We have some very difficult and disturbing texts to grapple with this week leading us to reflect on who is family, tribe, group and who belongs. This task is made the more disturbing, and yet ultimately life enhancing, because of the mind bending, heart breaking open, discipline of hearing the texts in dialogue with one another.
One way of hearing the texts is as a dialogue between conventional tribal belonging and the larger more inclusive belonging that following Jesus the Christ leads us into. The story from Genesis is a part, a very raw and distressing part, of the story of the foundations of Israel, of the chosen people, of our forebears in faith. (Fourth Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 7.Matthew 10:24-39; Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-0, 16-17; and Romans 6:1-11.) There are so many things about this story that reek of violence and injustice, of human frailty, of gendered competition, of inbuilt exclusivity and life limiting exclusion. It is a dark gift to have these issues remembered and recorded in one of our foundational stories so that we cannot look away and distance ourselves from the injustice and cruelty built into so many of our social structures including those we value and sentimentalise most – family, group, tribe and nation. It is very powerful to read this story twice – once from the perspective of Sarah and once from the perspective of Hagar (and maybe again from Abraham’s perspective). Both women are mothers, both fighting for the wellbeing and inheritance of their children, which is also about their value and contribution. And Abraham caught between the two and very much part of the problem because he and Sarah had wearied of waiting for the promise of God and turned to Hagar as the handmaid (taken slave from Egypt) by whom they would force a solution. And yet even in this human mess God provides for the needs of both sides, both women and their sons, by hearing, saving and blessing the rejected ones – Hagar and Ishmael – as well as the line of Sarah and Abraham.
And with this story of the strength and vulnerability, the hope and inbuilt treachery and violence of family, tribe and nation, still ringing in our ears we turn to the gospel story. The account by Matthew of Jesus forewarning his disciples that if they follow him their faith will cut across their most treasured relationships and assumptions about who is in and who is other.
There is a great deal going on in this text that we do not have time or space to explore all of it but there are a few things worth noting. Firstly that Jesus is speaking in the prophetic tradition and most likely referencing Micah chapter seven. The prophet Micah is describing a time of confusion and disruption that is the consequence of wrong living as a nation, a people, which precedes the day or age of salvation. Like many prophets he describes the woes that are the fruit of wrongdoing and then describes with hope the compassion of God for the people of God. In chapter 7 Micah says: “ ...The day of their sentinels, of their punishment, has come; now their confusion is at hand. Put no trust in a friend, have no confidence in a loved one ... for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law ... but as for me, I will look to the Lord, I will wait for the God of my salvation.” The chapter then ends with a description of God “... pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession ... He will again have compassion upon us ...” (Do read the whole chapter for yourself). So from within the prophetic tradition the time or age of salvation comes after a time of confusion and division. It’s a necessary part of the process.
You may like to read what I wrote three years ago
where I focused on this aspect of the text.
Secondly I believe that Jesus was “loosening” the hold that conventional belonging to family, tribe or group, and nation had over the disciples (and all of us) so that they would be free to follow him and to go out into the world. Remember that last week I noted that initially Jesus was clear that they were only to go to the house of Israel but at the great commissioning at the Ascension the risen Christ will send them into all the world. I suspect that Jesus was also preparing them, toughening them up, for the rigors of discipleship and the pushback they would experience when they carried his message in word and deed into a world resistant to change and transformation.
And thirdly all of this was so that the gospel invitation could be taken to all, to a much broader inclusive “family” than the ones biology and culture gave the disciples and therefore us too! Jesus has already broken many conventional rules about who is important, who is clean, who is religiously worthy. And this trajectory towards greater and greater inclusion will continue as the gospel is taken beyond the confines of the house of Israel to the Gentile nations.
So what are we to take from all these disturbing texts? Firstly I think that we can be grateful that Scripture has held onto such disturbing stories so that we can see and hear our own stories of violence and confusion, exclusivity and exclusion, in the text and the tradition. When our story is that of having been violated or left out, when we have been part of the excluding of others, benefiting from being on the “winning” side, we are all part of the story and we are all called into the greater belonging of the post-tribal family of God.
Related to this I think we should read a trajectory from division and exclusivity toward inclusion and universal valuing in our religious and spiritual lives. This, in many ways, is where we find ourselves and many of our issues as church at the moment. Our very human instinct is to gather with those we share most with and to relax and enjoy fellowship with those like us. And yet we are constantly being called into communion with others, to a belonging so wide and so deep that we are often uncomfortable and challenged. This ongoing invitation and challenge has sociological, political and theological implications.
And this trajectory from division and exclusion and judgement toward inclusion, growth and expansion is at work on the inside of each of us as well. So much of the early stages of faith development are often about judging ourselves by the standards of God, as we understand them, and finding ourselves terribly short. We try to grow by harsh judgements and moral demands. (Or others do that to us and for us!) And yet, as St Paul reminds us, the hold of sin and death is over because of grace. Does that mean we give up growing? Of course not but we do not need to beat ourselves or others up in order to grow and develop.
So if this is the trajectory of faith – from violence, exclusion and power over others towards compassion, inclusion and justice - then why do things seem to be getting worse? It is good to note the warning that Jesus gives that what has been spoken in a whisper, in the dark, shall be revealed. Maybe it is not getting worse so much as uncovered and revealed as it is as part of the process of redemption and reconciliation. This uncovering of painful aspects of our way of being community, our terrible history of violence and exclusion as well as survival, the hearing of alternate voices and versions of history and hoped for futures, is all part of our long overdue growth into being the family or kin-dom people of God. The process of things being uncovered and moving from the dark into the light, from whispers into truths shouted from rooftops is demanding. Growth is not all about peace and calm but the disturbance of the sword or the plough and pruning hook!
So let us take heart and be encouraged that we are still being called into belonging and welcoming others so that all may know themselves loved, forgiven and healed by the love of God. Even so, come Lord Jesus the Christ, come call us dancing and staggering into your embrace and may we rejoice in who we find in the circle of your love.