Sunday, August 23, 2015

Blood Brothers

This week Hathy and I have been staying on Cuttyhunk Island, guests of the Cuttyhunk Union Methodist Church where I was asked to preach and lead worship today. In this ecumenical context where the lectionary is not required, I decided to preach on Genesis 25:7-18, a text that never appears in the Revised Common Lectionary. It goes like this:

This is the length of Abraham’s life, one hundred seventy-five years.Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre, the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried, with his wife Sarah. After the death of Abraham God blessed his son Isaac. And Isaac settled at Beer-lahai-roi. These are the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s slave-girl, bore to Abraham. These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, named in the order of their birth: Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael; and Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. These are the sons of Ishmael and these are their names, by their villages and by their encampments, twelve princes according to their tribes. (This is the length of the life of Ishmael, one hundred thirty-seven years; he breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people.) They settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria; he settled down alongside of all his people.

A couple of years ago I was asked by my Bishop to serve on his executive team. All that this crazy Episcopal title of “Canon to the Ordinary” really means is that I work for him. He is the “ordinary” – a term that shares the same Latin root with the word “ordination.” Episcopalians like to use big vocabulary words and fancy titles, but I’m kind of like an assistant principal at a middle school.

Anyway, before this move I was a parish priest. Over the course of almost two decades, I  officiated at an average of probably 8-10 funerals a year, so maybe I've done somewhere between 150 – 200 by now.  It is a part of the work I have always considered to be a holy privilege – to commend a life to God. And in the process, you almost always get a glimpse into how complex families really are.

Whether the deceased was a long time parishioner of mine or someone who had not been to church in decades, I tried to follow the same pattern. I’d sit down with the surviving family members, and ask them to tell me about the deceased. It’s a kind of practical exercise in post-modern epistemology, because very rarely do the stories you hear fit neatly together. What we know (and what we think we know) is so profoundly shaped by where we stand.

I don’t know how many of you are on Facebook, but I recently saw a post perhaps some of you also saw that went like this:

Oldest Child – I Make Rules
Middle Child – I’m the Reason We Have Rules
Youngest Child – The Rules Don’t Apply to Me

So when you are preparing for a funeral all of this comes into play. Very often you discover that people who have lived under the same roof 
didn’t grow up in the same house, because things change. The rules even change! This is why when you ask the adult children to tell you about dear old mom or dear old dad they tell you different stories and even different versions of the same story. If you have the opportunity to add grandchildren to the mix it gets even more interesting.I love it when an oldest child tells a story that her younger siblings have never heard because it happened before they were born and I love it when a youngest child speaks of those moments in the kitchen, late at night, after all his older sisters had gone off to college or gotten married. And then, best of all, are those stories where there are multiple versions. “No, it didn’t happen like that at all! What happened, was…”

I never cease to be amazed at what a great mystery we are to one another, even (and maybe most especially) among those you would think might know us best. On occasion, I have presided at the funeral for a family where one or more members of that family have been estranged from one another, perhaps for years or even decades. It’s such a hard thing to bear witness to as people choose different corners of the room or cross their arms or perhaps speak about one another rather than to each other. In such moments one struggles to find words that point toward the love and grace that enfold us all.

One of my favorite scenes from the film “A River Runs Through It” is when the father, a Presbyterian minister, stands up after his son’s funeral and says to his congregation:
And so it those we live with and should know that elude us, but we can still love them. We can love completely, without complete understanding.
I have not forgotten that we have a Biblical text before us tonight, and it is to that text that I would now like to return. It’s with the eyes and ears of my experience as a pastor (more than with the eyes and ears of a great Biblical scholar) that I come to the text before us today. I find myself watching Ishmael and Isaac, these two grown men who have come together to bury their father. Each with their own stories and their own pain in the complex relationships they had with their father.

Do you remember the last time we saw Ishmael? He was a teenager being sent away – cast off really—with his mother, Hagar. Do you remember? Those who would call upon us to focus on the family would do well to remember that the families in the Bible are a lot more complicated than the families of 1950's television. It was Sarah’s idea (as the story is told) that Hagar serve as a surrogate to Abraham back in the day before in-vitro clinics. And so Ishmael was born to Hagar and for a while at least counted as Abraham’s firstborn. Until Isaac came along. And then Hagar and Ishmael disappear from the pages of the Bible. They are sent away to another holy book – the Koran.

We know only a little more about what has been happening in Isaac’s life. In fact, the Biblical narrative is way more interested in Abraham and Jacob than in Isaac, who is basically a kind of transitional figure. He’s Abraham’s son and Jacob’s father. But who can forget that horrible day when he and his father climbed Mount Moriah? Luckily the Lord provided a ram in the thicket just in the nick of time. But still, you don’t forget a thing like that. 

Anyway, I find myself watching these two half-brothers intently as they stand together at the cave of Machpelah to bury their father, two different men with different mothers and different experiences of being children of Abraham, and yet also bound together forever as blood brothers. And I find myself wondering what it would be like to be their pastor in this moment. I find myself looking for clues about the kind of men they have become and wondering whether this shared grief will bring them together or whether it will re-open old and painful wounds.  Probably, I suspect, a little of both. I imagine it was a tense time.

I find myself wondering if they are yet able to even begin to grieve, given the terrible memories each of them has about his relationship to this father who was bigger than life, this man who staked his life on the Voice. (If you think it’s hard to be a “preacher’s kid” then just try to imagine what it would have been like to be Abraham’s kid!) I find myself looking for a gesture: does one or the other put an arm on his brother’s shoulder? Do they gather back at Isaac’s tent afterwards for hummus and olives and pita and wine—or is that invitation not extended to Ishmael? 

I have no way to answer these questions, of course. All any of us can say for sure is that as far as the Biblical narrative is concerned, Ishmael disappears after the funeral. The future belongs to Isaac, who we are told just nine verses later learns that his wife, Rebecca, is pregnant with twins: “two nations are in your womb…” (Genesis 25:23) In an almost scary way the past is about to repeat itself, this time with twins. The Promise will extend through Isaac to his younger son, Jacob who will come to be known as Israel. These are the ones we are told are “blessed by God”—the ones we tell our children and our children’s children about in Sunday School. But mostly we are silent about Ishmael.

But does God have just one blessing? I realize that the narrator’s questions aren’t necessarily mine. Yet there’s no getting around the simple point that Ishmael is there in that field of Ephron for the old man’s funeral. The narrator makes a point of telling us he is there even when it would have been easier to just say: “Abraham died, after a good long life, and he was buried in the cave of Machpelah.” 

And then, as often happens at weddings or funerals when we see long-lost relatives we haven’t seen for years, something even more extraordinary. The narrator turns to us, almost in a whisper, and says: “You remember Ishmael…the one whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s slave-girl, bore to Abraham.” And then, before the story can continue, before the narrative can move forward to those twins in Rebecca’s womb and to the twelve tribes of  Israel, we are told of the twelve sons of Ishmael:
Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael; and Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemeh, by their villages and by their encampments, twelve princes according to their tribes. This is the length of the life of Ishmael, 137 years of age…[his people] settled from Havilah to Shur, opposite Egypt, in the direction of Assyria.  
His people settled over there – in those Arab countries. You could go to Church your whole life, and if like mine you use the lectionary, then you will never hear this text read aloud in Church. In fact that’s why I just had to preach on it with all of you – because I never get a chance to!

A few years back I read a remarkable book that I commend to you by a journalist named Bruce Feiler. It’s called Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. Don’t get me wrong – I knew that Abraham died and he was buried and I suppose if it was a final question on Jeopardy I would have gotten it right that both sons were there and could have named the field where the cave was. But I’d just skimmed past it. I never before had an occasion to go deeper, because as I said, it never comes up in the lectionary, and so I never had occasion to preach on. I never lingered on this moment in time until I read Feiler’s book. But it has haunted me ever since I did. Feiler's thesis is that the world needs Christians and Jews and Muslims to realize we are all children of Abraham - that we're all cousins. 

Karl Barth suggested to preachers that they hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other; that we hear a “Word of the Lord” in the conversation that emerges between those two worlds. I’ve been reading a lot about the proposed treaty with Iran lately. Don’t worry, I’m not going to move from preaching to meddling now. Whatever your politics, I assume that in this place we all have a desire to find peace in the Middle East even if we have to also face the complex realpolitik of it all. And it’s hard to sit down and talk with Iran without alienating Israel, to be sure. This stuff goes back a long ways…back as far even as this cave of Machpelah.

But of course the real reason that this treaty evokes so much emotion is because none of us can get those terrible images out of our heads of people whose lives have been beset with violence. Fear paralyzes us. And in any given week you can pick up a newspaper and find images of Palestinians grieving the death of a child killed by an Israeli, and of Israelis grieving the death of a child killed by Palestinians.

You don’t have to look very hard. Grief and fear and pain will be so apparent in both pictures, and I cannot even imagine what it would be like to sit down in a room with any of them to plan those funerals. We try to distance ourselves from those photos but after 9/11 they got etched in our own minds much closer to home. And so it is easy enough to imagine a third image next to the other two—one taken, perhaps, at Ground Zero on that clear September morning in lower Manhattan of American Christians grieving the loss of their loved ones. There is so much that keeps us separated. But here is the thing: the pain on the faces of all who suffer loss is virtually indistinguishable.

We live in a world where the children of Abraham – Jew and Christian and Muslim – continue to inflict violence on each other. Google “Franklin Graham and Muslim” when you go home tonight and you’ll see if you don’t know already how the children of Abraham continue to be rent asunder by fear and by fundamentalisms of various flavors, and by ignorance, and by terrible grief and violence. After centuries of estrangement from one another will we ever find the path to reconciliation? Or will an “eye for an eye” indeed make the whole world blind?

Surely the covenant that the living God has made with us in compels us to enter into conversations with some long lost cousins that may yet lead to forgiveness and healing and hope. Surely it matters, now more than ever, how we speak in our diverse congregations about those people who settled over there, opposite Egypt, in the direction of Assyria – Ishmael’s folks. This is why this moment at Abraham’s graveside is so powerful to me, because it compels me to ask – how many more gravesides do we need to stand at before we allow our grief to open a door to reconciliation?

At a bare minimum, we need to find ways of getting re-acquainted with these these children of Ishmael as they walk from the Bible into the Koran. One of the small ways my denomination is trying to do this is by requiring not just ordained leaders but those being confirmed to include in their curriculum some study of  both Judaism and Islam – at least enough to keep us from bearing false witness against our neighbors, and hopefully more than that, enough so that we can work towards love of neighbor.   

One of our “distant cousins” is the Sufi mystic, Rumi, who was born in 1207 in what we would call Afghanistan today. I want to share the words from one of his poems with you today. Tell me if you don’t hear truth in it that binds us together:

                             Come, come, whoever you are.
                             Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
                             It doesn’t matter.
                             Ours is not a caravan of despair.
                             Come, even if you have broken your vow
                                      a thousand times.
                             Come, yet again, come, come.

My friends gathered here tonight: wonderers, worshipers, lovers of leaving, it doesn’t matter - ours is not a caravan of despair.

There is a twelfth-century illumination on one of the many websites dedicated to Rumi that is printed in your bulletins today. It is an image of Father Abraham with all of his children—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—sitting on his large-enough-for-all lap. That was the promise after all – descendents numbering like the stars, from many nations.

I choose that image to live into. I choose that image of hope to point to the kind of Christian I am trying to become. Not those photographs of Christians, Jews, and Muslims killing each other, separated by fear and hatred. I choose that image of love, of Abraham’s big-enough-lap where there is room for all of us as a reminder that God is love, and that God hates no one. God is love, and the journey of faith boils down to just two things: love God back, and love our neighbors. No exceptions.

We gather here on this August night from diverse places. We have come to be together and I hope in some real way to be reminded that ours is not a caravan of despair. There are moments in our own lives, moments in the Bible, that invite radical transformation and perhaps as we return from this island of beauty to our home congregations we might do so with renewed resolved and commitment to the work of healing and reconciliation that this world so desperately needs of us.

As St. Francis of Assisi once put it – St. Francis who traveled (by the way) to the Middle East during the height of the Crusades to meet up face-to-face with a sultan:  “Lord, make us instruments of your peace…” Where there is hatred, let us sow love.

May it be so. 

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