A Sermon by the Rev. Elizabeth Costello
Associate Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
Delivered on Sunday, June 25, 2017
In this morning’s gospel, the twelve disciples are preparing to go on a mission. As they gear up to be sent out to go to the far reaches of the world to proclaim the gospel, Jesus offers them a series of sayings on the cost of discipleship.
You could almost cherry-pick any one of these sayings and preach a sermon on discipleship. Well almost. Most of us would stay away from the verse: “I have not come to bring peace but a sword,” or those bits about turning family members against one another. And come to think of it, who wants to lose their life, and for that matter, pick up their cross?
For many of us, when we listen to these sayings, we wonder where our Jesus has gone. We easily recognize our Jesus in the sayings that talk about the hairs on our head being counted and God loving us more than the sparrows. But when we hear these other verses, we wonder if our Jesus took a vacation, and sent a scary substitute in his stead. We want our Jesus back, please!
It is a gross understatement to say that we should be careful with verses like these. Come to think of it, we probably should not cherry-pick individual verses out of the bible and build a theology around them, reading them in isolation from the entire biblical narrative. Often when we do that, the Bible becomes a justification for our agenda. When Holy Scriptures conform to us, and not we to it, we’re in trouble. And these curious verses this morning have been used to troubling ends, so we need to be careful with how we read and appropriate them into our lives.
Many of us have heard this verse about Jesus turning family members against one another to justify the splitting up of families by sectarian cults. We’ve heard those stories of individuals leaving their family to join a cult that replaces their family of origin with a “church family.” But to simply treat this verse in isolation, as if it was a justification for prioritizing the church over the family, is to read it against the witness of the entire canon—against the sum of Jesus’s own life,
witness, and teaching. For one, Jesus was a Law-abiding Jew. He would not have intended to subvert, for instance, the great commandment to honor our mother and our father.
When we encounter verses like these, we read them as a whole and through the lens of the entire biblical narrative. This takes some wrestling with the text. But like Jacob, who wrestled with the angel for his blessing, wrestling with the text is part of our call as disciples.
After all, disciple means learner. As disciples, we are commissioned to be learners, wrestling with the text, and learning what it means to follow Jesus in the here and now. We know that we are lifelong learners, for our here and now is fleeting, constantly changing with time.
If we consider these verses as a whole, one thing that Jesus makes clear about discipleship is that following him will involve conflict, disappointment, and suffering. The gospel may shake up our values, goals, and priorities, causing internal and even external conflict.
This will be true for the disciples, most of whom will be killed by the sword – martyred for their faith.
This was the reality for Hagar and Ishmael, whose story we heard in the reading from Genesis. Hagar and her vulnerable child, Ishmael, were kicked out of their home and sent into the wilderness by Sarah. If you recall, Hagar was Sarah’s slave, bought to produce progeny because Sarah was barren. After Sarah, in her old age, conceives and has Isaac, she kicks Hagar and Ishmael out. Their expulsion to the wilderness is a death sentence. Their story is the shadow side of our story of faith. A story of people trying to follow God and yet constantly falling short and sinning against one another, and God.
As disciples, we know that these realities are true for us and our world today. We do not have to think too hard about our own experience to know that conflict,
disappointment, and suffering are part of discipleship. We do not have to think too hard about the headlines to recall how violence, terrorism, and sexism are still real in our world today.
We know that Hagar still lives today. As Phyllis Trible said, “Hagar is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class … the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth…the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child … the homeless woman … the welfare mother, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service of others.”1
As disciples, we know that Ishmael still lives today too. Ishmael is the child who has no control over the unjust system or circumstance that they were born into. No control over their class, race, religion, or country. The child who is unwanted, abused, and even abandoned.
But Jesus does not end his teaching about discipleship here. No, he goes on to include the great promise of our faith: that in and through the valley of the shadow of death, God will be with us showing the way to safe pastures and still waters. Just as God was with Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness, a place of death, so too God will be with us in the direst of times. Just as God heard the cry of Ishmael in the desert and saved him from death, so will God hear the cry of the most vulnerable in our society. Because God is with us, we know that we can be agents of resistance, transformation, and peace in the most difficult of times.
As disciples, we can testify to our own wilderness experiences where God’s transformative presence was made known to us. We can recall stories of fellow human beings who were in the direst of circumstances and yet helped to bring about sorely needed change.
In 1986, a woman named Diana went on a mission to teach at a boys’ home in Honduras. Much like Ishmael, these boys were abused, abandoned, and orphaned. In a country where two out of three people live in abject poverty, El Hogar, hoped to break the cycle of poverty.
As Diana taught at the school and lived among the people, she went on walks. As she walked the streets she was struck by the large number of girls who were not in school. She began to notice that some of her students who wore baggy clothes and had cropped hair were not boys, but actually girls! Diana began to ask, “Where were the homes for these girls?”
She was told that there was no such home. She was told, “Girls, were too complicated. They have hormones. They have babies. They can work in the factories for pennies a day.” Like Hagar, whose value was not seen by societal or religious structures, these girls’ true value was not seen.
But Diana saw these girls like God did. She saw these girls like God, who knew and loved every hair on their head, and loved them even more than the sparrows. Like Hagar whose eyes were opened to see a well of water in the desert, Diana’s eyes were opened to see a school for girls where there was no school. Like Ishmael, these girls had no control over the unjust system that they were born into. And like Ishmael, God heard their cry, and came to their rescue.
Diana was determined to open a residential school for girls. She reached out to the bishop of Honduras, who would later become her husband, and started, what would be called Our Little Roses home for girls. With no family of their own, the sisterhood of these fifty girls would become their new family. Their family would continue to expand to include the teachers and visitors who cared for them.
When Diana first went to Honduras on a mission, one thing led to another. As she followed Jesus, she was taken to places that she did not know. Her eyes were open to see the world as God saw it, and she was never the same. In following Jesus and trying to do the next right thing, she lost her old life, and gained a new one. Did she confront conflict? Yes! The gospel’s view of girls was in direct conflict with how many in Honduran society viewed girls. Nevertheless, she
persisted and opened the home for girls. She even met her husband. She expanded her sense of family too! Her family grew to include this great sisterhood of fifty-some girls and even a husband! This is what Jesus is talking about, when he talks about family.
This morning, we will commission a mission team of eighteen parishioners who leave for Our Little Roses tomorrow. Reflecting on her past experiences on mission, parishioner Marggy Ells said, “Grace is there. When you think about the girls and all that they lived through and have had to put up with; and yet there is still such incredible love and spirit there. It fills my heart to be able to be a part of it. It is powerful to see what love and nurturing can do.” Marggy witnessed the suffering of these girls. She also saw God’s presence in action, in their love and resilience.
As disciples, we are still learning how to follow Jesus in every moment of our lives. In following Jesus, our values, our priorities, our goals might be shaken up. At times, they may conflict with society’s values, priorities, and goals. The challenge for all of us, whether we go on mission or not, is the question that the hymn “Will you come and follow me?”, which we are about to sing, asks:
Will you come and follow me
if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know
and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown,
will you let my name be known,
will you let my life be grown
in you and you in me?