A Sermon by Ailsa Schmidt
for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7, Year A)
at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church (St. Paul, MN)

In today’s reading from Genesis, we’re put in the middle of a family dispute, whose consequences reverberate through our world today. Nobody was on their best behavior at Abraham and Sarah’s place, and as so often happens, understanding was not in abundance. It was a big day: Sarah and Abraham were celebrating Isaac’s weaning. Their miracle baby, their golden boy, their favorite heir was growing up! Also present at this feast, though, were Hagar and Ishmael. Like so many family get-togethers are, it was awkward! But everyone was hanging in there- until Sarah saw Ishmael “playing with her son Isaac” and “laughing”. [1] In a moment of insecurity and judgement, our matriarch Sarah ordered Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael out to the wilderness, and while Abraham is “distressed”, he rolls with it. Without divine intervention, a mother and her son would have been destitute or dead in the wilderness.

As I read this passage, I was struck by how similar the dynamics felt to modern headlines. It can be genuinely hard to honor, without mockery or offense, someone else’s enthusiasm for topics you don’t share. For example, when avocado toast became a trendy snack among millennials, their enthusiasm was conveyed to readers in terms of the “15 Restaurants that Millennials are Killing Off”. Or when young teenage girls project their budding notions of romance and adulthood onto popular music groups, we label them hysterical “fangirls” and disregard their bands as an affront to our ears, minimizing their artistic interests and autonomy because of their supposed immaturity. [2] When we don’t share or understand each other’s joy, we demonize the other and someone else’s laughter becomes a personal affront. In these mild examples, the worst consequence for the other party is annoyance or embarrassment.

For young people of color, however, misinterpreted joy or misplaced laughter can be fatal. Simple pleasures- jogging down a street, snuggling into bed, birdwatching, dancing in a club- can be dangerous in the presence of white people and police officers who regularly conclude, like Sarah did, that one child cannot prosper without another perishing.

As we ask kids in Godly Play, where are you in this story? How do we bring our varied privileges to the text? As Christians, our storytelling tradition calls us to identify with Sarah and Abraham, but as a historically Anglo-American denomination in a white supremacist society, we must recognize that God has moved both within and beyond these inherited accounts. As Womanist biblical scholar Dr. Wil Gafney asked while reflecting on Black Lives Matter and her own scholarship, “Which lives matter in the Hebrew Bible? Israelite lives matter, and the lives that collaborate to produce, propagate, and protect the people of Israel matter… It cannot be said that all lives matter in the Bible, nor can it be said that, of those lives that do matter, they matter equally”. [3]

We know that this isn’t God’s vision for human communities. Our evangelist notes that though “two sparrows are sold for a penny”, “…not one [sparrow] will fall to the ground across from [our] Father”, and unlike in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it doesn’t matter if the sparrow or the swallow is African or European, if the sparrow is young or if it’s an older, wiser,
lay-sparrow. Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar didn’t live in that world, and the way we tell their story reflects that we don’t either.
“In the Quran”, Dr Gafney writes, “Ishmael is the child of promise”, [4] he’s not just a throwaway son, he’s a prophet. In Arabic, Hagar’s name means “splendid”, while in our Biblical Hebrew she’s not named, but labeled an “alien”. [5] According to Islamic tradition both Hagar and Ishmael are buried near the Kaaba, in the Sacred Mosque. I’ve heard it time and again that as Abrahamic faiths, Jews, Muslims, and Christians all pray to the same god, but Our Muslim neighbors see Ishmael’s laughter as just as holy as we regard Sarah and Isaac’s, but Ishmael’s joy and celebration is not the part of his story we emphasize. It’s only with community and critical examination of our own practices that we might be that unified. After all, Ishmael and Isaac were laughing together in the first place.

I suspect that if you haven’t ever felt uncomfortable in conversations about privilege and power, you have in the last few weeks and months. Some of us have seen the shops we frequent change, felt anxiety or anger at the smell of smoke, read books or articles that challenged your points of view, and had hard conversations with family and friends. These go for conversations about race and living with young people! As we heard in the Gospel today, it’s supposed to be hard. The sword is sharp, and so are our tongues. But we don’t need peace to have joy. In the words of Frederich Beuchner, “Joy…is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it”. [6] Where there is joy, there is God. Where there was police brutality and destruction on our city’s streets, I’ve also seen line dancing and barbeques, and for every politician using the word “thug”, there’s at least a hundred people of color posting incredible selfies, making resistance an art form on social media. Where there are disgruntled elders, there are also bridge-building postcard exchanges and sidewalk chalk decorations between parishioners.

Rather than diminish the Bible, or our other go-to’s, looking outward and taking in new-to-us things reveals both the beauty and the challenge in our scriptures. We’re offered a chance to witness the ways God is working across time and space, and when we can all bring our best selves to the table, our scriptures point us back to God’s love for humanity, a love so expansive that one book can’t contain it and none of us can perfectly express it. When we expand our sources and step out of the comfort of our own stories, biases, and preferences, we become better equipped to see both ancient and modern “others” as neighbors and friends, created in God’s image, just as you are.

May we love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our minds, and may we love and value all of our neighbors, and their food, and selfies, and music, and children, and their laughter, as our own. Amen.

[1] “BibleGateway,” Genesis 21 CEB – – Bible Gateway, |PAGE|, accessed June 21, 2020, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis 21&version=CEB)

[2] Sandra Song, “In Defense of Fangirls,” Pitchfork, May 29, 2017, |PAGE|, accessed June 21, 2020, https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/719-in-defense-of-fangirls/)

[3] “A Reflection on the Black Lives Matter Movement and Its Impact on My Scholarship.” Journal of Biblical Literature 136, no. 1 (January 1, 2017): 204–207.

[4] “Wil Gafney: Womanism and the Hebrew Bible”, on A People’s Theology, (April 29, 2020)

[5] Wilda Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne
(Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017)

[6] Frederich Beuchner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1993), p. 58

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