An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Stories that Divide

A sermon on Genesis 21.8-21 & Matthew 10.24-39 by Dr Keith Dyer

Everyone tells stories to serve their own ends — and some of those ends have horrific consequences. Our Genesis and Matthew stories this evening have been used to justify millennia of hatred between Jews and Arabs, and centuries of fuelling that hatred by Christians. They have been used to sustain a kind of divinely sanctioned racial prejudice: God loves the Jews, and especially the Christians — but not the Arabs.

The story of Ishmael and Isaac explains the origin of the Tribes of Yahweh and the Tribes of Allah — why they are so close (as step-brothers) and why they are so different. The stories of them and their descendants have been inseparable ever since — the saga of two sons wrestling ever after for their father’s inheritance. And today, Ishmael still lies abandoned, waiting for death, on the West Bank of the Jordan, in the Gaza Strip, and even in Bethlehem itself.

Sometimes it has been Isaac left homeless and wandering, but seldom have the two step-brothers and their descendants been able to share the land peacefully. Nor have those other children of Abraham, the Christians, made things any better. The followers of Jesus Christ bring peace? No — rather a sword! The swords of the Christian crusaders, slaughtering Jews, Arabs and the Orthodox alike; the guns of the Christian Allies, supporting and arming first one side and then the other; the money of the Christian Alliance, funding the war against terror — a war that breeds still more terror. Those who live by the bomb will surely die by the bomb, one way or another.

Must we read these stories this way? Are we trapped in terror by these texts? Do they describe what simply is, or what must and should be, or do they contain the seeds of their own reinterpretation? Is Jesus’ invitation for us to give up our lives for the cause in order to gain life, an invitation for still more suicide bombers? Didn’t Jesus come to bring reconciliation rather than division?

The sayings in Matthew 10 insist that Jesus did NOT come to bring peace — at least not as the ultimate value — not peace at any cost. Rather he came to show the way of the good news of God’s rule — the truth at any cost — a truth worth dying for in order to gain a life which overcomes sin and death. ‘The day is coming when the truth will be exposed’ (Mt 10). This truth of the way of Jesus does not lead to a one-sided peace — a peace that suits the most powerful and papers over the cracks of past injustices. This truth may indeed act like a wedge driving people apart, forcing them to take sides for or against the truth itself. Sometimes polarisation is necessary before true reconciliation can take place. And reconciliation IS what God really wants and continually works to achieve through Christ — a reconciliation of ALL people and ALL creation within the truth of God — the resurrection life of God — given freely when we participate in the story of Jesus and live his way (Romans 6).

Surrendering our lives to this truth does not mean we act as suicide bombers, trying to bring down as many of the enemy with us as we can, but as truth bombers — trying to bring life and love to all, enemies and friends, in the tradition of the non-violent martyrs. To die with Christ to a selfish and vengeful life is to really get a life — a life that participates in God’s great plan for the reconciliation of the cosmos.

And what of Ishmael and Isaac?

Notice that our story speaks clearly of two covenants following the one with Abraham — the first with Ishmael, the second with Isaac — and that God cares for both and promises to bless the descendants of both. Notice too, that the reasons for the split between the half-brothers are not clear. Did Ishmael (17 years old?) laugh AT Isaac (3) or WITH him? Did he torment Isaac (the reading Paul takes in Galatians 4, but for other reasons), or was he playing with Isaac, causing Sarah to worry that they might one day become equal sharers of Abraham’s inheritance? These are all possible ways for us to understand the story, and they open up for us ways of renewing the story of the descendants of Abraham — of dying to the worst implications of past traditions that have imprisoned us, and of re-shaping our heritage with our Jewish and Arab siblings, and of re-shaping the tragic heritage of this land and those who first lived here. This is not without relevance in our immediate setting here today, as you already know.

If we are committed to the way of Jesus more even than we are to each other, we will end up doing what is truly best for each other and for all God’s creation. This is NOT a call for us to impose our Christian faith on Jews and Arabs as the only way for them to find peace — we do not need any more crusaders — but rather a call to welcome and dialogue with the other — those who God has also blessed.

God of Ishmael AND of Isaac
Of Hagar and of Sarah
Of new recruits and coaches
Workers and bosses
Budgies and humans
Daughters and mothers
Sons and fathers
Daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law
Whose truth is life
—life in and beyond death
Whose truth is power both to polarise and to reconcile
Renew us with your love and Spirit
So that we too may bring love to others and re-enter life in a whole new way, we pray.


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