“Competition and Scarcity”
A sermon given by the Rev. Clare L. Hickman on June 25, 2017
Texts: Genesis 21:8-21; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
June 25, 2017—Proper 7A
Genesis 21:8-21; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39
They malign me; they will malign you if you are my followers. They might well even kill you for it. And even your family might turn against you, because of me!
Jesus never said it would be easy. On the contrary, he promised his followers, over and over again, that it would be HARD. That it might well be costly. That following him would absolutely, positively not be a road to a life of ease and prosperity, with everyone thinking you are a super swell person.
People might hate you, for what you believe or what you do.
And boy howdy, he was right about that one! Not that it was much of a stretch for anyone to believe, except perhaps for those “prosperity gospel” folks who’d like to sell you on the idea that Christianity is a good investment strategy. They might be wondering how come life is still full of challenge and conflict. But most of us knew then and know now that religious practice and beliefs rarely fail to set people against each other.
Now, I’m not sure whether Jesus actually thinks this is a GOOD thing … not sure that people hating you for your Christianity is some kind of proof positive that you’re a good Christian. But the fact remains that religious conflict has always been with us, and scripture is full of stories in which different followers quarrel, fight, disparage, and condemn each other in the name of their god (or the way in which they worship the same god).
The story of Hagar and Ishmael delivers this in spades. It’s the story of two faiths, two peoples, told through (rooted in) the story of two mothers and their sons. One more story of sibling rivalry: that great biblical theme! This time, it’s Abraham’s sons: the older son Ishmael, born of Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar; and his second son Isaac, born late in life to his wife Sarah.
Sarah waited a long time for a son of her own blood. In fact, she’d given up hope by the time those angels promised her a child. But once he was born, she feared the older son would steal her child’s birthright (whether that be his father’s love, or God’s promise of favor and lands). She could not trust that there would be enough; she could not bear the competition and uncertainty; so she asked Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away.
Which he did.
Cast out of their home into the desert, they come very close to dying. In fact, she is so sure that they will die of thirst that she walks away from her child rather than have to watch him take his last breath (which is either the most callous or the most tender image of motherhood you’ve ever heard … perhaps both). Either way, she is saved the horror of her child’s death. God hears their cries and provides not only a spring of water but the promise that this child will also be the father of a great nation (just like his little brother).
It’s the foundation story claimed by the Muslim people, set (right from the beginning) in competition and conflict with that of the Jewish people. Both descending from Abraham. Both afraid that there isn’t enough to share. Both competing for the love of their father, as though there isn’t love enough for both.
We fear this: that there won’t be enough. Oh Lord, how we fear this. And the fear combines with our natural tendencies to identify with our own tribe (whether that be religion, race, nationality, or even sports team). We draw strength from belonging, and we strengthen our sense of belonging by emphasizing competition with the other.
And then, remember, we are afraid. Afraid that there isn’t enough love, or salvation, or truth or wealth to go around. So we double down on the conflict, and the cycle continues. We revile and despise each other, in the name of our nation, our race, our team and our god.
We do this. And because of it, we suffer. We are cast out; we are maligned; we are persecuted. We cast others out; we malign them; we persecute them. We suffer, from our own action and that of others. And, if the biblical story is to be believed, God will not always save us from ourselves. After all, God saves Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness, but didn’t prevent Abraham from banishing them in the first place … and certainly hasn’t pulled off any miraculous solution to the conflict that has continued between the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael for centuries!
Religions clash. Religions clash, convinced that God wants it that way. Religions clash, sure that God could not possibly survive being understood in different ways … being understood only partially … being understood in an entirely limited, human, “true as far as we can express our experience of God” kind of way.
Religions clash, and as with so many things that seem destructive in this world, God hasn’t stepped in to stop it yet. And maybe that’s because God is still hoping that the one religion that actually has it RIGHT will finally win the argument. Or maybe it’s because God (as previously noted) rarely steps in to save us from ourselves. And maybe God even suspects that there’s something we might learn from such conflicts.
Because there is something about separateness that asks us to think more deeply about who and what we are than we ever would if we were all the same. If there are others who think and behave differently, that prompts us to pay close attention to what it might mean to really be something and hold to it. Where does it lead us? What does it make of us? The contrast between practices and worldviews enable us to see ourselves more clearly.
But only if we are willing to open our eyes to those other worldviews (nations, races, religions) as well. Only if we can acknowledge that God hears their cries, sends them life-giving water, and promises them a great and prosperous future, just as he promised our ancestors. Only if we can engage in the challenging process of cleaving to the truth and power our own tradition, while still recognizing (and occasionally even envying) that of another.
It’s worth a shot. Because, in that zero-sum game we have often made of life, there is a problem: EVERYONE thinks they have the truth, they are the greatest nation, they are the superior race, their endeavor is blessed by God. And … we can’t all be right. In fact, in that system, most of us, statistically, must be wrong. So we have a choice: we can bet it all on the chance that we’ve picked correctly (and close our eyes to the strengths and gifts of those around us) … or … we can have the courage to notice those gifts, and to notice that God sends us all both hardship and blessing. Over and over.
Jesus was right: religious differences set us against each other. We clash, sometimes violently. But it’s worth asking whether this is actually God’s desire, or whether it might simply be one more manifestation of humanity’s tribal nature. What would it be like, to let go of the effort of maintaining all these exclusive claims on virtue and favor? And is it possible that we might gain more than we lose, if we did so? I have to say, I think it’s worth a shot. Amen.