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Proper 12, Year A

I am not preaching this Sunday. We have our parish picnic, and our deacon is preaching. I am publishing a sermon today that I preached in 2005. I think it still holds good.

Peace or Violence?

Readings: Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

The consistent theme throughout the past few weeks has been our relationship to a loving God. We have explored what it means to be called by God. We have been warned about the great cost of discipleship. Nowhere in Scripture does that great cost become more evident than in the readings for today!

“I come to bring not peace but a sword,” Jesus reminds us. It is a hard and chilling statement. Conflict at some level and in some circumstances is inevitable. Isn’t this the same Jesus who promised peace? What happened to ‘blessed are the peace makers’? What happened to ‘peace I leave with you’?

We spend much of our lives picturing Jesus as the gentle, meek peacemaker. Jesus spoke such words of comfort to the poor, the ill, and the sinner. But it does not take much reading to find this same Jesus speaking words of challenge to the hypocritical establishment of his day. He speaks as a revolutionary. His words are like a sharp sword slicing into the oppressive and self-centred.

I would remind you that a sword is two-edged. We cannot avoid or ignore the violent events that transpire around us any more than Jesus did in the face of Israel’s legalism or Rome’s paganism. Our responsibility is to put our reputations, jobs, incomes and even our lives on the line to confront violence with courage and hatred with love.

Along with the good – the commitment to a strong relationship with a loving and caring God – comes the bad, the possible alienation and loss of family and friends. Even life in a church community can be a two-edged sword. What purports to be a loving and caring community can sometimes wound and alienate. Christian allegiance is sometimes costly in terms of family relationships. Sometimes children disappoint parents by refusing Christian commitment. Sometimes spouses find the faith of one coming into conflict with the refusal to Christian commitment by the other. In places where social ferment and religious loyalties are intertwined families can find themselves torn apart politically when the understanding of Christian responsibility differs radically between the generations.

The story of Hagar and Ishmael is certainly such a story. We have been following the life journey of Abraham and Sarah. Part of that journey was a deviation from God’s plan. They got impatient with waiting for God to make good on the promise that they would become a great nation. At Sarah’s urging, Abraham took his servant girl, Hagar, as his second wife. By Judaic law Sarah could have raised their offspring, Ishmael as her own. But with the fulfillment of God’s promise in the birth of Isaac, Sarah became jealous and turned against both the mother and the child. Ultimately they were sent away into the wilderness to fend for themselves.

What follows is a beautiful story of God’s faithfulness in the face of adversity. How alone Hagar must have felt! This homeless mother wandering in the wilderness with her young child! How hopeless! God hears her cry for mercy. God has compassion on her and on her child. God gives her a special promise. She too will be the mother of many descendants. From Abraham, Sarah and Hagar come not one but two great nations. God opens Hagar’s eyes to the possibilities. As she comforts her child she sees a well of water. They survive. And God is with them as Ishmael grows up.

There are many modern parallels to the story in contemporary society. Wherever people must become refugees fleeing from the safety of their homes because of war, wherever women must leave their homes because of domestic violence, wherever past injustice needs to be redressed, such stories may be heard.

It is the story of Arab/Israeli conflict. Every week we shudder to hear of yet another bombing of innocent people in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. We wonder what kind of a world we live in where terrorists will willingly give up their lives to maim and to kill. What we don't tend to hear is the utter frustration and hopelessness of the Palestinian people. We don't hear of the struggle for justice.

It is the story of the ongoing civil war in the Sudan. An African woman told me that after forty years of civil unrest there are no young men left to raise families in her country. She pleaded for us to pray for an end to violence.

It is the story is of our indigenous people and their persistence in adversity, their struggle against injustice and violence. It is only through the quiet persistence of our native people that the Canadian church is beginning to redress the wrong of a school system that abused and degraded many generations of children. Even more widespread has been the devaluing of a group of people by ignoring their customs, spirituality and language. God’s compassion and concern for Hagar and Ishmael cannot help but remind us of God’s loving concern for all people, a love that transcends boundaries of nationality, of race, of colour and of creed.

Jesus calls us as he called the disciples to create an inclusive community that is to take precedence even over family. “Whoever does not take up the cross,” Jesus says, “and follow me is not worthy of me.” Christian commitment supersedes everything – ties to family, fear, even the natural desire to avoid death.

In all of today’s readings we encounter stories of adversity – Abraham and Sarah, Hagar, the disciples, and Paul. Nationally and globally we encounter stories of adversity – the struggle of our indigenous people, the continuing struggle for freedom and a just society in South Africa, the struggle of the people of the Sudan, the war against terrorism. We hear personal stories of adversity – people wrongly accused of violent crime, a small child gunned down in the street, health and education programs cut, welfare recipients devalued. Even in the church we encounter stories of adversity – people excluded because of sexual orientation, people abused by power.

The good news that transcends all such stories comes with the reminder that when we are faced with adversity God is always there. God is there in the struggle. God is there helping us to find ourselves. God is there helping us to confront adversity with courage and hatred with love. Thanks be to God.

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