The Rev. Casey dunsworth

serves as Associate Campus Pastor to the Belfry, the Lutheran-Episcopal Campus Ministry to UC Davis

and as Program Director for LEVN, the Lutheran Episcopal Volunteer Network.

Father Abraham -- Matthew 10:24-39

Genesis 21:8-21
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always. Amen.

When I first read through today’s scripture, I was like, “whoa.” Some really seminal stories from our tradition, for sure, full of meaning. I don’t know how much you all know about sermon preparation, but I was thinking, immediately upon reading these foundational words that it’s a good thing I get to consult thinkers besides myself for this sermon this morning. It’s a good thing that the only resource available to me is not just these words on these pages and the thoughts in my head, but rather the words that surround these words in this whole book, and the thoughts in the heads of all those who have come before me in faith. That extreme is also overwhelming, but it’s a huge relief. This is probably not the first sermon you’ve heard on these texts, and it probably won’t be the last—which is also great, because now there’s no need for me to rattle off everything you ought to know about Abraham and Isaac and Ishmael and Sarah and Hagar and Paul and Jesus and…the gang’s all here. 

So, where to begin?

Let’s begin in the Family Center, just across the way. It was there, nearly 20 years ago that I first learned the Sunday School song “Father Abraham” during Learning Circles one morning. “Father Abraham, had many sons. Many sons had Father Abraham…” If you know it, you’re welcome that it will be in your head now, forever. The next line is “I am one of them, and so are you,” but this ancient story also produced my first experience of feminism, as my friend Elizabeth Limbach sang, instead, “I’m not one of them, cuz I’m a girl.” The song ends, “So let’s all praise the Lord.” Let’s. 

Praise the Lord that we are here together this morning!
Praise the Lord that the sun is shining!
Praise the Lord that we are mostly happy and mostly healthy!
Praise the Lord that when we are mostly unhappy and mostly unhealthy, we are not alone!
Praise the Lord for old friends and for new ones!
Praise the Lord for ends and for beginnings!
Praise the Lord for adventures and for homecomings!
Praise the Lord for struggles and for reconciliation!

I know this is a Lutheran church, but can I get an amen? A hallelujah? Praise God. Okay, awesome. But now let’s take a look at those texts. 

We know these characters well. We’ve heard their stories and we vaguely remember their names and what lessons God taught them and what lessons that teaches us. But what, really, do we do with this part of being one of Abraham’s “many sons”? 

Just to recap, this story is the end/beginning of the struggle between Sara, Abraham, Isaac, Hagar, and Ishmael. Sara and Abraham had no children and were very old—like a few hundred, because that’s how ancient storytelling works—but God had promised that they would have descendants as plentiful as the stars. So Sara agreed that Abraham should father a child with Hagar, their slave, so that he’d have offspring. God promised to make of that son, Ishmael, a great nation, too. And then Sara got miraculously pregnant and had Isaac. Two heirs to the lineage of Abraham, two promises from God. Uh oh. 

So, in the portion we heard this morning, Sara demanded that Abraham banish Hagar and Ishmael, because there was no way that the two boys could share in the promise of God. That had never happened before and it wasn’t about to happen now, apparently. 

This story is an easy allegory for the ongoing struggle between the Abrahamic traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—that have followed. Though separated, Isaac and Ishmael—and we—must live together in the extended family of God. A Rabbi named Arthur Waskow writes that Isaac and Ishmael—and we, descended of Abraham, too—are a “cloudy mirror to each other.” The problem is not that we are so different, but that we are so similar. 

For the Israeli/Palestinian crisis, it is impossible for both groups to reconcile that they “love the same land.” God has promised this land twice—to Isaac and to Ishmael, to Jews and to Arabs—because God wants all of God’s people to “live out their particular pattern of holiness” in an embodied, planted, rooted, earthy, place

Rabbi Waskow does an incredible job of giving Christians the lay of the land in this millennia-old war—and then offering us a specific place at the table. [If you want to know more about this, specifically, I can point you toward Rabbi Waskow’s essay. If you want to know more about this, in general, I can point you toward Pastor Daren and his PhD research.] 

The great thing that Rabbi Waskow gives to us is this deep wisdom: As Christians, we’ve weaseled our way into weird positions—some us are Christian Zionists, more zealous even than most Jews about their right to inhabit the land we call holy, condemning Palestinians as aggressors and terrorists; some of us are aggressively Pro-Palestinian, claiming that the land was unlawfully given to the Jews as a sovereign state, with no regard for anyone’s holiness. We insert ourselves into arguments about Jewish tradition and Muslim tradition, meanwhile, we notice not the log in our own religious eyes.

How can we, then, as complex people of complex faith affirm all of the above—Jewish, Muslim, Christian—“children of God in the body and spirit of Abraham”? 
Sorry if you’re expecting an answer. This is not a question for one sermon or one church or one nation—but we are better for it if we wrestle with these big questions again and again and again. Together.

We’re going to do some things wrong—we’re going to grab at words as they tumble out of our mouths, wishing we could stuff them back in there before anyone heard them. It happens. 

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he acknowledges that the stakes are pretty high. I just love the abrupt start of our portion this morning. Right off the bat, he’s like, “Should we continue to sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!”—if any of the high schoolers are playing sermon bingo this morning, I hope “sin” and “grace” are on your card. But I don’t know about that, y’all. Martin Luther says “Sin boldly! Trust and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” A fun thing about having so many “fathers” of our faith is that even they disagree sometimes, and we get to draw our own conclusions, taking theirs into consideration. What fun! I’m with Marty on this one. Grace abounds. Be who you are, unafraid of what pieces of you others may name as sin. Speak truth to power. Speak the truth to one another in love. Err on the side of saying so. Grace abounds. 

This brings us to the third confusing text of the morning, the Gospel. Jesus is talking about slaves and masters and teachers and Beelzebul and secrets and dark and light and bodies and souls and then sparrows…? (Congratulations, by the way—you are of more value than many sparrows. I’m putting that on my résumé.) 

These verses are meant to be reassuring, but I’m not reassured. Shelley Douglass, who’s part of the Catholic Worker movement, is with me on this one. “Who wants to lay down their life?” She asks. “Baptismal death is comfortably symbolic; we’d prefer to leave it that way.” 
The part of this dying to life paradox that is comforting, after all, is “not that we won’t die, but that if we die for [Jesus’] sake, we will live again. Like Jesus, we will live a transformed life.” 

Sometimes, in this transformed life, we’ll run into those hard conversations and insolvable riddles and those foot-in-mouth moments. We’ve been warned by Jesus in this text that we’ll be set father against son, mother against daughter, in-laws against in-laws—families might be torn apart. That’s a huge risk. That’s some bold sinning we’re about to do. 

But Shelley Douglass continues to keep it real, writing, “We cannot know as we begin to act what the outcome will be. We can only know that as we respond to the mercy shown to us by showing mercy, we invite the death of our former selves. And we believe—sometimes barely—that when the dust has settled…we will regain our lives.” Mmm. 

And so my favorite prayer that Martin Luther wrote seems like the ideal way to draw this to a close: “Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”


You're Invited -- Matthew 10:40-42