When the Dominant Story is Unjust

06/21/20 Third Sunday after Pentecost. Service of Morning Prayer. Father’s Day

Posted by St. Athanasius Episcopal Church, Echo Park on Sunday, June 21, 2020

062120 Pentecost 3 

Genesis 21:8-21; Matthew 10:24-39


Our country is going through a much-needed moment of reflecting on who we are and what we value. I’ve said before that we have failed to confess and repent of our original sins as a nation – the massacre of the native peoples of this land, and the importation of slaves from Africa. While we are still far from having any national unity around such repentance, the call to confess our sin of domination and racism has entered the national consciousness with potential to make lasting changes. As some of us face the culture of whiteness in new ways, we are confronted with how we have framed our stories in ways that perpetuate deep injustice that we have never truly faced. 

The story of Isaac and Ishmael, which we read in Genesis this morning, is a biblical example of the challenge we face. When I was learning biblical theology, Ishmael was almost never mentioned. Ishmael and Hagar were “also-rans” in the biblical story. In fact, it wasn’t until I started doing Bible Studies with squatter women in Mexico that I realized how cruel the dominant story about Sara is. I had always seen Sarah as a saintly woman who mothered Isaac, the child of promise. The people of Israel and Jesus himself descended directly from Isaac. The little side-story about Ishmael and Hagar did need to be told; but then it could be forgotten. 

That view of the biblical story of salvation has been dominant throughout history. Even the New Testament treated it that way. In fact, questioning it would be major heresy. But we must acknowledge that even people of faith are limited by their cultural and temporal blinders. Genesis presents Abraham as a well-intentioned patriarch stuck between the mothers of his two sons. The writer tries to make us feel better about what happened to Hagar and Ishmael because of Abraham’s kindness to them and God’s intervention in saving them. But even though God was with the boy and he grew up to be an expert in the bow, you can be sure that his early experience of facing death in the wilderness never left him. And the cruelty of Sarah never left Hagar. Oh, she may have gotten over her grudge; but Sarah’s cruelty never stopped informing her life. 

The equivalent stories of our culture are coming to light in new ways since the shooting of George Floyd. Native Americans and African Americans may or may not have gotten over their grudge; but our ancestors’ cruelty – and our own! – has never stopped informing their lives. To question the dominant story of America that speaks of heroic pilgrims and pioneers and start to give voice to the stories of Native and African Americans, is as heretical to the orthodox story of America as naming Sarah’s cruelty to Hagar is to Judeo Christian orthodoxy. Both question a failure to include all of God’s children as part of the family.

Movements like Black Lives Matter are teaching or reminding us that it’s a power issue: we exclude because we can. We find security in being part of a group considered better than another group, even if it’s unconscious: descendants of Isaac are better than descendants of Ishmael; legitimate children are better than “illegitimate” children; citizens are better than immigrants; Christians are better than Jews or Muslims; whites are better than blacks; straights are better than gays; capitalists are better than communists; people with pure blood are better than people of mixed race; Americans are better than anyone else. Even if we don’t identify with any of those statements, we benefit from a system in which their truth is simply assumed. All of this distorts our vision of which injustices are acceptable. For Sarah, it was acceptable to send Ishmael and Hagar away, “casting them out… so that they shall not inherit along with” our children. Whether it’s advantage or exclusion, certain sectors of faith communities always justify it because their sacred story includes it. 

Both last week’s and next week’s Gospels offer another view of sacred history. Radical hospitality and inclusiveness are at it’s core. Welcoming angels who present as strangers, and children who present as nuisance, are the very definition of following Jesus. But today’s Gospel clarifies that we can’t just wish that view into reality. We can’t just want it. We have to oppose all that impedes it. Jesus said, do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. We can’t bring about a new story by postponing the hard discussions about the old one. Jesus set family member against family member, because the old story no longer sustained life and had to be rejected. Abraham didn’t confront Sarah’s injustice, choosing instead to show compassion to Hagar and Ishmael. But the failure to bring justice simply postponed the problem. The names may now be Netanyahu and Abbas rather than Isaac and Ishmael, but the roots of the conflict are the same. And the story is repeated in cultures around the world. In this country, the original names were Pilgrims against Native Americans, and Slave owners against slaves. Now they are White Supremacy and Black Lives Matter, and we better stop postponing the new story, or future generations will have to keep fighting the same battles. It is not enough to stop being racist. We must be anti-racist.

Before calling us to take up our cross, Jesus assures us that we don’t need to fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul, and that even the hairs of your head are all counted. That doesn’t let us off the hook – it simply guarantees resurrection beyond death. That may not be the most comforting promise, but it is the strongest one. Friends, it’s time for a new story. Those of us who have benefitted – consciously or unconsciously – from the old one cannot claim innocence and cannot avoid the family fights. It may cost us dearly. But the promise is life. As Paul says, if we have been united with Christ in death, we will certainly be united with Christ in resurrection. Thanks be to God!