Proper 7

June 22, 2008
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Genesis 21:8-21
Reading 2: 
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
Reading 3: 
Romans 6:1b-11
Reading 4: 
Matthew 10:24-39
By Rick Marshall

Discussing the text
The words “fear not” form a theological touch-stone in most of the scriptures selected for this Sunday. It is a common reminder that comes in many biblical stories: “Don’t be afraid.” Often a cry goes out when circumstances are dire, hope seems pointless, and death appears inevitable. For example, in the middle of the storm at sea, when Jesus was with his disciples, all seemed lost. They awaken him and he calmed the storm. But the dramatic point came when he turned to them and asked “Why are you afraid. Where is your faith?” Or, another example is in the middle of Psalm 23. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” The context in which this famous phrase comes is threat of death. The answer to questions that arise from despair come as they do in the psalm for this morning. “Listen to me, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.” The psalm goes on in this plaintive mood, asking for preservation, because God can be counted on to be steadfast and will deliver, even from the depths of Sheol (vs13).

The words “fear not” also come to Hagar in the story from Genesis. Here is a story of complete abandonment and hopelessness. Hagar was used by Sarah to force the promise God made to her about having a son. She gave Hagar to Abraham in a faithless, desperate, attempt to produce the promise on her own terms. The attempt was a success and Ishmael was born. But then the Lord follows through and visits Sarah as promised and she produces a son. There is great celebration over Isaac but the existence of Ishmael is awkward, at best. He is a reminder of her faithlessness, her desperate attempt to force God’s hand. And there he is, the son produced out of fear, with that woman who was probably younger, and able to produce children, unlike Sarah. The conflict of faith presented by these two sons can’t abide. Hagar must leave and take her son. With great reluctance, Abraham does her bidding, with encouragement from God. Ishmael is not the son of promise. In a moment of conflicted tenderness, Abraham gives her food, puts the child on her back, and sends them into the wilderness, banished, where she is left to wander toward her own fate. But the past can’t be dispensed with so easily. She becomes a wanderer, just like the people the son of promise represents, the other son, Isaac. The odd connection between the two sons will persist in surprising ways.

But again, they come to that familiar place, the dead end, the final hopelessness, the utter abandonment. Hagar places her son under a tree and goes a distance away from him because she cannot bear to witness his suffering unto death. The child’s cry goes up to God’s ears.  Fear not. God responds by rescuing them and giving them a blessing. Fear not; for God has heard the voice of the child where he is. “Arise, lift up the child, and hold him close with your hand; for I will make him a great nation.” What a reversal of fortune!

The divine presence is often in the odd twists and turns of the story, between the faithless acts of desperation, and the inevitable sad consequences. There, in the last gasp of human contrivance, God offers a new possibility.

Humans are by nature vulnerable creatures and it is the nature of the future to be impenetrable, making a natural cocktail of fear and anxiety. We watch these characters curl up on the valley floor, in the heat of fear that the shadow of death cannot cool. The cry to God comes from these places: from under a bush, abandoned; from a reed boat carrying a child down the Nile, the mother watching breathlessly from the distance; a man on a cross, being blindsided by those who should have known better. Jesus knew about that harsh place of abandonment and tried to prepare his followers for it as best he could: “So have no fear of them (those who want to harm you.)” Matthew 10:26. If there is any universal human reaction to the future, it is fear. If there is any one biblical voice in response to the cry of fear it is “Do not be afraid.” And the response implies a theological reality: God is with you. Or, God will hear you. Or, God will rescue you and not leave you alone.

Paul uses theological logic in the Romans text: “If we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.” Romans 6:8. The biblical reassurance seems to be: even if the worst possible thing happens to us, we are still in God’s hands. Life and death are dynamically connected in God’s hands. This is the ultimate biblical claim on faith. The word “faith” follows the word “Therefore.” It is a crucial piece of logic. God is the Creator who loves creation. God is like a parent who wants the best for the child. God will lead us and guide us into an unknown future and will be with us where ever we go. Therefore…do not be afraid.

Process Theology and the text
In the natural rhythm of the emerging moment, receiving from the past, reaching satisfaction at the conclusion of the moment, and becoming a contributing factor for the future, process thought focuses on the emerging moment as the place where everything comes together, including God’s influence. There is no event that first exists and then experiences the past, but the event emerges from the past and becomes an experiencing moment as it organizes its past influences, using possibilities that are offered to God in determining how it will become. The past, present and future are dynamically connected in the present moment. It is all possible because God is integrally involved in that process of emerging, coalescing, synthesizing, moving from one moment to the next, luring the whole unfolding of the world toward greater harmony, complexity, beauty. It’s all possible because God receives everything into God’s own experience and then gives back new possibilities to lure the continual unfolding of everything. Without God there would be no future. Without a future, there would be no present, no past, nothing. It is only an illusion that the future depends upon our management of our own affairs on our own terms. And it is precisely that illusion that is the cause of so much suffering.

The biblical claim “Do not be afraid” makes sense in a process view because God is involved in the unfolding of everything by beckoning from the future. If God is in the future--calling us, welcoming us, and reassuring us--what is there to be afraid of? To fear the future is to fear God. To trust God is to trust the future. Trust makes sense from a process view.

Preaching the text
In the cycle of stories that build up the Abraham saga, each story adds a crucial element to this powerful meditation on being fully human. For a human being to live life confidently with hope, in light of the fragility of human existence, the future needs to be a source of hope. How can the future be a source of hope? If left on our own, depending upon our own devices and abilities, the future is a source of insecurity, anxiety and fear. The issue comes down to: who are we going to trust, ourselves alone, or God?

The Genesis text for this Sunday can be used to describe the contrast between forcing the future on our own terms (Sarah and Hagar), or responding with patience to emerging divine possibilities (Sarah and Isaac). Each character in the story plays his or her own part in the conflict of the human heart that faces the void of the future. The Abraham saga is a meditation on the human struggle to trust the divine promise of help which comes from the future. Yet, God can take even our worst decisions and provide new possibilities for the future, as God gave a blessing to Hagar and Ishmael. There may be one child of promise (one best possibility), but what about other possibilities and other blessings? God receives all things and responds.

What are the consequences of living a life of fear? What wreckage does it leave in its wake? How damaging is it to life? How does the lack of trust limit our experience of life? Even out of wreckage, God provides new possibilities, new life, relevant to the limits of the conditions.

The Hagar story is a wonderful set piece on dead ends and surprising hope and even blessing. How many parallels are there between this story and life the way we experience it? In the rise and fall of our perceived prospects for our future, what is this story telling us? These questions could be the motivating force behind a sermon.

Another angle is to look at Paul’s text and his treatment of what it means to die with Christ and to rise with Christ. How are we “united with him in death like his”? And how are we “united with him in a resurrection like his”? Again, the divine rhythm underlying life and death is the power that can be trusted for both life and death.

Children and the text
Talk about the future and how we think about it.

What do you want to be when you grow up? Elaborate with the children. Talk about what you (minister) wanted to be when you were young. I didn’t plan on being a minister. Did your parents end up doing what they wanted when they were young? Things change, don’t they? When some people go to college, they change their study plans many times before they finish. Someone might start out planning to be a lawyer and end up owning a sandwich shop. Or another person might start out planning to be rich and end up living on the streets. Or another might start off wanting to travel but then end up having three children. The future is a funny thing; it changes all the time. It makes it hard to plan ahead.

What kind of plans do you think your parents have for you? What do they want you to do when you grow up? I bet they just want you to be happy doing whatever you will be doing. My parents had no idea I would become a minister, and neither did I, but they just want me to be happy and to live a good life.

What do you think God wants you to do when you grow up? It almost doesn’t matter what you do, but that you live well and have a good life. The future is like a big building with the lights turned off. We don’t know what’s going to happen. But one thing we do know is that God is there and will be walking with us into the future.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.