Ishma El

Year A
Genesis 21:8-21
Psalm 69: 8-11, 18-20
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

May the words of my mouth… O God… speak your Truth…

I don’t know if it’s a Jewish thing… or just an expression some of my Jewish relatives used… but whenever you hoped for something good to happen… they would say… from your mouth… to God’s ears

But did your ears… catch the inconsistency in the reading from Genesis… did you say to yourself… wait a minute… that part doesn’t make sense… the text says that after placing Ishmael under a bush to die… Hagar sat as far away from him… as you could shoot an arrow… and she lifted up her voice… and lamented… do not let me look on the death of the child… and she wept… and then the text says… and God heard the voice of the boy… Hagar spoke… but God heard the boy…

You may remember that the Hebrew word El… means God… the word itself comes from a root word… which means… strength… or might… or power… and it probably comes from the U-ga-ri-tic word for god… but in Scripture… it has several primary meanings… it can refer to pagan or false gods… it can refer to mighty men or angels… or it can refer to the True God of Israel… but when it does this last thing… El is almost always qualified by additional words which further define the meaning… and distinguish God… with a capital G… from false gods…

For example… El Echad means… the One God… El Emet means… the God of Truth… El Rachum… the God of Compassion… El Hannora… the Awesome God… and there are others… but then we come to the name of Hagar’s son… Ishma El… and his name means… God will hear… this passage contains nothing that Ishmael uttered… but says that Hagar lifted up her voice… and God heard… and sent an angel… and God opened Hagar’s eyes to a well of life giving water that was nearby… and they drank… and Ishmael… became the Father of the Muslim faith…

Ishma El… and God hears us too… God hears the things we say… God hears the things we think… God understands the faintest inner impulses… that we are afraid to whisper even to ourselves… and God’s been listening throughout this country’s history…

On June 19, 1865… about two months after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Va… Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas… to inform enslaved African-Americans of their freedom… and that the Civil War had ended… God heard their cries too… General Granger’s announcement finally brought the Emancipation Proclamation to every state in the union… which had been issued on January 1, 1863… by President Lincoln… more than two and a half years earlier… so at least in Texas… slavery continued for two and a half years… after it was really over… that’s why Juneteenth… the end of slavery… is celebrated on June 19th…

There’s an interesting dynamic about spiritual growth… we have to stop believing the things… that God doesn’t believe… we have to replace ignorant thoughts… thoughts which ignore God’s Truth… with thoughts that embody God’s Truth… and we have to believe thoughts which might be inconvenient for us to believe… thoughts which might cause us to change… so for example… racism and white supremacy claim that one race is superior to another… not just different… but better than… and when you believe that… it’s easy to treat those with black and brown skin… with disrespect… treat them as property… who don’t have any rights… who you can even shoot in the back while they’re running away…

Erna Kim Hackett suggests that white Christianity suffers from a bad case of what she calls Disney Princess theology… she suggests that when we read scripture… we see ourselves as the “princess” in every story… we are Esther –– but never Haman… we are Peter –– but never Judas… we are the woman anointing Jesus’ feet –– but never the Pharisees… we are the Israelites escaping slavery –– but never Egypt… and for the citizens of the most powerful country in the world… who enslaved both Native and Black people… to see ourselves as Israel and never as Egypt… means that as people in power… we have no lens for properly locating ourselves in scripture or society… and it has made us blind and utterly ill-prepared to engage issues of power and injustice… it is incompetent Biblical interpretation…

But as our insights and beliefs change… our actions must change too… I mean how can anyone believe what the Declaration of Independence says… about holding these truths to be self-evident… which means you don’t even have to explain them… that all people are created equal… and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights… not privileges… that among these are life… liberty… and the pursuit of happiness

And then Jesus says… don’t think that I’ve come to bring peace… I’ve come to bring a sword… and on the surface… that’s troubling… really troubling… because we pray for the Peace that passes understanding… so what on earth does Jesus mean when he says he’s come to bring a sword… how can this be the loving… forgiving Jesus we know… can’t you just leave well enough alone… Jesus… can’t you just let sleeping dogs lie… can’t you just ignore the elephant in the room… we’ve become so good at tiptoeing around it… if you can’t say something nice why say anything at all… why stir up trouble

But Jesus didn’t come to create conflict… or discord… or dysfunction in families… he came to use the sword to shave away those things which stand in opposition to God’s Truth… and it’s only because of that… that some family members will stand in opposition to each other… it’s only a result of that sword… that some churches or church members will stand in opposition to each other…

And it’s only because of our baptismal vows… where we promise to strive for justice and peace for all people… that we can say… that if there’s no justice then there can be no peace… but that if you know justice then you can know peace… and it’s an expression of what Jesus said in John 8:31… God’s Truth will set you free… but we’re not free yet… the social upheaval that began with George Floyd’s murder on May 31… and the protests… have been an ongoing indication of how hard… and for how long we’ve tried to tiptoe around elephants… and God’s Truth…

And Monday was for me… a day of emotional whiplash… in the morning… we caught the jubilant word about the SCOTUS ruling that sexual orientation and gender identity are to be included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964… so that you can no longer be fired Monday morning… for marrying your partner on Saturday afternoon… and in the afternoon we caught the shocking word that Bp. Whayne had been suspended for acknowledging an extramarital affair… and this is heartbreaking…

It’s all like living in a movie that’s playing on fast-forward… with images projected so fast that they blur… and dialogue spoken so fast you can’t be sure what you’re hearing… and just not enough time to process it all… and it will take time for our dioceses to process all the feelings that all the people feel… it will take time to heal and to discern a holy response… time to mete out a just consequence… because we all sin… and God’s love for Dana and Whayne… and their families… has not abated one iota… and there is unmerited grace and forgiveness… I just pray that we’re able to reflect that love and grace and forgiveness… too…

And in the midst of all of this… so many people are asking… when can we go back to normal… I think the likelihood of things returning to how they were before the pandemic… are about as likely as the Titanic arriving… about as likely as women voluntarily giving up the vote… about as likely as nominees for elected office agreeing to subject themselves to the public scrutiny of psychological testing… things won’t go back to the kind of normal we knew… but we are moving… I pray a bit faster than before… and in unprecedented ways… closer and closer to God’s normal…

Wangari Maathai… an environmental and political activist from Kenya… known for the Green Belt Movement… who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004… said… In the course of history… there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness… to reach a higher moral ground… a time when we have to shed our fear… and give hope to each other… that time is now

Holy God… we know Ishma El… we know that you are a God who hears us… help us… to hear you… and seek your Truth… Amen…

About the author: The Rev. Mike Wernick

The Rev. Mike Wernick is a second-career Episcopal priest who grew up in a Reform Jewish family. He relishes his role as the Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Officer for two dioceses and affirms all faith traditions (he has this idea that diversity was never intended to be divisive). He serves on several diocesan and synod committees, including the ELCA N/W Lower Michigan Synod’s Task Force on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, and is currently finishing the final year of a practicum to become a Spiritual Director.