A sermon on Genesis 21:8-21 and Matthew 10:24-39 by Alison Sampson
When we moved into our house, our neighbour Ahmed introduced himself. ‘You Christian?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘You Muslim?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘So we’re all Abraham’s children.’ Since then, we have shared food and drink, and a few stories, and some thoughts on faith.
In tonight’s reading from the Hebrew Bible, we heard a bit about Abraham’s original children: those two brothers who grew up to be the ancestors of the Hebraic and Islamic faiths. Ishmael laughed with Isaac and made Sarah very, very nervous. She appealed to Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. And so, after getting the go-ahead from God, Abraham gave them bread and water, and sent them into the wilderness.
Why did Abraham send them away? The story doesn’t say that Ishmael was awful to Isaac; it says he laughed with him. Some versions, including ours, say ‘laughed at’ but the Hebrew isn’t clear. Other translations say that Ishmael ‘laughed with’ or even just ‘played with’ his little brother. Ishmael was seventeen, Isaac was three. How do seventeen year olds play with three year olds?
Well, those of us at the last church working bee caught a glimpse. Nur brought his friend Abdul, and Abdul spent the time playing with Ollie and Jarrah. He sat down on the floor with them, and chuffed the Duplo train around. He leapt up and, to Jenny’s horror, fetched them chocolate biscuits. He kept them engaged and interested. He was responsive and gentle and kind. And those little boys chatted and laughed and gazed at him with adoration in their eyes. That is how young men usually play with little kids, and that is why little kids usually worship young men.
Why would this upset Sarah? Who wouldn’t want their son loved and adored by his older step-brother? Well, Sarah’s issue was with inheritance. Abraham had been promised blessings, and land, and countless descendants. From him would come a great nation. And Sarah didn’t want to share. She said, ‘The son of this slave woman will not inherit along with my son Isaac.’ Ishmael was the son of a slave, you see; worse, his mother, Hagar, was Egyptian. She wasn’t ‘one of us’. So Sarah had them sent away.
If Isaac had grown up alongside Ishmael, and loved him, even worshipped him as a hero – well, what then? Would Isaac have received the whole inheritance? Would he have accepted it? Or would his love for his brother have driven him to share the blessings and split the inheritance? Sarah didn’t know. She wanted to be safe. So she agitated to get rid of Ishmael, that potential threat to the wealth of her son.
Plenty of us gathered here tonight could tell a story or two about inheritance: inheritance lost or swindled away, inheritance given to one side of the family, or to one brother. Passing down property, and land, and blessings can cause terrible conflict and envy in a family: too many of us know exactly what this story is about.
What Sarah didn’t understand is God’s generosity. God had promised that great nations would descend from Abraham. Isaac became the father of a great nation, just as God promised… and so did Ishmael. We are told that God met Ishmael in the wilderness, and stayed with the boy as he grew up, and made him the father of a great nation, too.
So this story about the inheritance of a man, and his sons, and their children is also about the inheritance of nations. The line of Abraham to Isaac to Jacob began the Jewish line. Ishmael, on the other hand, is considered the forefather of Mohammed. So who received God’s blessing? The answer is clear: both of them. And since we’re talking about the blessing of nations, we might want to think about Australia at this point.
There are an awful lot of Australians who don’t want to share the blessings of one of the richest countries in the world. We take a very low number of refugees in relation to our GDP. We send asylum seekers to the wildernesses of remote Pacific islands where there is little access and oversight. A woman I know was at Manus Island a few months ago. She told me about the unaccompanied minors – that is, the children – who have been sent by our government to this stinking hellhole where the water doesn’t run during the hottest hours of the day. And these children – and the adults – suffer this because we, as a nation, have voted for politicians who refuse to share the blessing with people who are not like us.
In the story, the joke was on Sarah. She sent the threat away, but God met Ishmael in the wilderness and stayed with him and gave him a blessing, too. In Australia, the joke is on us. We elected politicians who won’t share the blessing with those other people; now, in the upcoming budget, they won’t even share it with us! We would like to think that our wealth is our birthright, but God has a way of saying, no, not really; and it might be their birthright too.
This is very challenging. In tonight’s reading from Matthew, Jesus tells us exactly how difficult it is. The text has often been used to justify bringing swords and guns and bombs to wipe out the other: the Jews, the Arabs, the Orthodox, anyone who disagreed with whatever interpretation of Christianity the weapon-wielders held. But this is not what Jesus was on about.
We know from the rest of the gospel that Jesus was never a warmonger. His difficult words are a reflection on what it actually means to love our enemies. At his time, in his place, which was a crossroads for travellers and armies and generations of war, this meant loving people of all different stripes, all different religions, all different family and financial and political and ethnic backgrounds.
And Jesus said, loving the other doesn’t always mean making nice. It means doing the difficult and controversial work of loving the Samaritan, and learning from him, and being hated for it. It means giving up the illusion that we own God’s blessing, and inviting others in, and being despised for doing so. It means giving up our privileges, even our lives, to build a world that all can share.
And it means hearing Jesus’ words that whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones will surely receive their reward – just not from the authorities. And those little ones include the Muslim girls and boys on Manus Island, from whom water is withheld for hours of every day.
The news reports on conflict. And whether it’s racial profiling of Muslim men, fundamentalist Christians raging against Muslims, fundamentalist Muslims raging against Christians, or religious violence in Nigeria, Indonesia, Egypt, and everywhere else, it’s easy to believe that Christians and Muslims just can’t get along. It’s easy to fight over the blessing.
But this ignores the story from our shared origins, our genesis, where God blessed both brothers – Isaac and Ishmael, Hebraic and Islamic – and stayed with them both. And it ignores Jesus’ call to love across every divide, no matter how difficult, no matter the cost.
We can’t do much about overseas events. We don’t know how to heal the Australian approach to boat arrivals, or the hostility our nation can feel towards people who are not ‘like us’ – though supporting refugee action groups and opposing the budget seem a good place to start.
But we can love our neighbours, whoever they might be.
One day, my neighbour, Ahmed, told me how grateful he is to live here. ‘I don’t have to shoot you,’ he said, ‘and I don’t have to worry about you shooting me, just because I’m Muslim and you’re Christian.’ From time to time, we chat, or share food, or throw soccer balls back over the fence. We acknowledge our common ground as children of Abraham, people of faith, residents of Coburg, and anxious parents. We honour the brotherhood that exists between neighbours, the joint recipients of God’s blessing.
And perhaps our shared inheritance is this: the chance to eat together in a small smoky shed where, over lamb kofta and a slow conversation, we come to recognise the blessing that descends when ordinary people connect.
Who is your neighbour?