I’m sure you folks are aware of the murders that took place this week in New Zealand (describe briefly what we know so far). As I was listening to responses, one notably stuck out not simply to me, but to many around the world. This was it. It came from a New Zealand senator: “I am utterly opposed to any form of violence within our community, and I totally condemn the actions of the gunman,” Anning said. “However, whilst this kind of violent vigilantism can never be justified, what it highlights is the growing fear within our community, both in Australia and New Zealand of the increasing Muslim presence.” The senator claimed “left-wing politicians and media” would blame gun laws and nationalist views, but “the real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.” Let me read this to you again.
I don’t know whether this senator has any belief in any god, or whether he is atheist who believes in a materialistic universe where individuals construct and reconstruct meaning and purpose as they see fit with their own goals or agendas. But our Scriptures have something quite explicit to say to such a response perfect love, God come to us in Jesus Christ, casts out fear. This doesn’t mean that you will not feel fear, that you will not experience being made uncomfortable, that you will not be challenged, or confused, or worried about your present or future; about how your culture, your country, your city, your schools, your customs and traditions are changing. Perfect love doesn’t get rid of events, or how you feel about events, or even the consequences of events. Rather the perfect love who is Jesus Christ come into the world, who fundamentally changes the world when he reconciles us to God, he gives us the true capacity to respond not out of those fears we experience about so many things, so many changes to our lives, our customs, our cultures, but out of thanks for all that we have been leant by God to be stewards over.
Our readings this morning really drive at the fact that Jesus Christ delivers us from evil and death and so we’re asked to live differently, to live and act out of hope, joy and love. And yet, we’re asked for something more. And we’re asked for something more precisely because while we’re still waiting for Jesus’s return when we’re all finally gathered to God, there will indeed be things that scare us, that challenge us, that can cause us to suffer, physically, mentally and emotionally; there are things we are asked to give up, to sacrifice, to let go of. And foremost amongst the things we are asked to let go of, are responses of violence where there isn’t immediate and evident physical threat to our lives.
Listen to what God says to Abram when Abram is afraid. You see, Abram has a problem. Bearing children was essential for the Israelites because this is how they survived and sustained their families, worked their land, fed their families, were able to find food and shelter and protection. But Abram and Sarai couldn’t conceive as it appeared that Sarai (who will become Sarah) was barren. Today this would be very sad, but also not about a matter of survival that it would have been then. Abram with great fear says, my heir cannot be the slave boy, Ishmael, whom I made with Hagar. I must have a child with my wife Sarai. For the rightful heir cannot be a slave, an imperfect heir. And God answers Abram as we know. And from barren Sarah, comes the true heir Isaac. And Isaac of course, as we know, will go on to beget another generation who then begets another. And God says to Abram, see those stars up there, your ancestors, from Isaac, will be more numerous than them. Now here’s the important part. Remember that Abram here was dealing with a really concrete issue of fear: heritage, survival, provision for family, and he’ll have to deal with land and even an order from God to sacrifice his only son who of course Abram thought was to be the one promised to him.
It’s really important that we stop here because in this story, God is telling us a story not just about Abram and Sarai and their fear; he is telling us a much bigger story about his relationship to all of us in our fears. For you see, in this story, we’re actually hearing a repeat of the Fall in the Garden, and of God’s keeping his promise to us on the Cross to reconcile us to him. How so? In the story, Abram represents more than just himself. He represents all human beings in their natural fear about survival and a next generation, but he also represents the first Adam when he reproduces Ishmael with Hagar. Abram could not join with Sarai his proper wife, to produce offspring that could rightfully inherit Abram’s land. Like Adam and Eve, Sarai tells him to go into the forbidden fruit, Hagar, who is not his wife, with whom he is not one flesh, and like Adam, the result is fruit/offspring/Ismael who could not be the inheritor of Abram’s family line and land. Ishmael then represents all of fallen humanity who cannot, by themselves, be in relationship with God, like Ishmael, slaves to sin. And yet still children who were made and belong to God, and so people for whom God will provide just as he does for Ishmael and for Hagar.
But just think about how frightening this is for a moment. Think of the complexity we have going on here: massive fear about survival, fear about being overtaken by enemies, fear of the unknown, fear of people of different cultures and tribes … this is all real stuff that Abram is dealing with and guess what? It’s the same stuff we’re struggling with today.
This is why it’s so important that we see the story about God, within this story about Abram. So here we have Abram, saying, God what on earth, I’ve gone into Hagar because Sarai wanted me to produce a child. But this child, he is a slave. Now let’s move this story into God’s perspective. God gives to Adam and Eve, to Abram and Sarai everything they could possibly need with one stipulation, don’t seek more than I have gifted you with. Sure enough, Adam and Eve do, and Abram and Sarai do. So God says, okay, you have determined that’s how you want to live, I’ll let you live out those consequences. And what are those consequences? Being enslaved to sin we created for ourselves that snowballs in so many ways in every relationship we get into, and in our treatment of other people.
And what does Abram say to God, as will be repeated over and over by generations of Israelites: my God my God why have you forsaken me, please help me, I cannot do this anymore, I am terrified, my enemies are all around me, my body is wasting, my mind is falling apart, my relationships are crumbling, I’m lost, our whole culture is being destroyed, there is violence all around me, even within my own mind, who will take my place, who will follow you from my bloodlines as you promised. And God answers Abram: "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own child shall be your heir." He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." And the Scriptures say, “that Abram believed and followed where God led him.” Here, we move to God’s promise, to the Cross, because we can cheat and know that Abram and barren Sarai will indeed bear a child they name Isaac. Again God tells us about himself here. In his faithfulness to God, and so through God, Abram represents God the Father, in being born of a barren woman, Sarai, Sarai who represents the Virgin Mary, baby Isaac is grace, the gift of God, and he of course represents to us Jesus: the pure gift of God. What two human beings through the natural sexual act could not produce – children, born from below, who could live in the Kingdom of God, children reconciled to God – God provided in Jesus’s Virgin birth, his life, his death and his resurrection.
The key here is to understand that our one Scripture passage from Genesis has laid out the one story of God, told from two perspectives. The first perspective we encounter is of course this basic story about survival and offspring to ensure this. This is a story that each one of us sitting in this room shares: how will we pay the bills, what happens if I get sick, what if my spouse is sick and I lose him or her or they change so much, I feel as if I have lost everything; how will my children or grandchildren do in life, will they be okay, this world is changing, no religion, wrong religion, no longer the culture I grew up in; I don’t know about this, I am afraid. And yet the story of Abram and Sarai in their own pedestrian life, in their calling before God, in their faithfulness and righteousness and in their doubt; these bits and pieces of life, just like the bits and pieces of my life and yours, is taken up into the greater story of God who has fulfilled his promise to us in Jesus Christ. No story we have, nothing about who we are – our worst and our best – has not already been taken up by God in Christ through his Holy Spirit. Not one fear we have, not one moment of suffering, or loss or anguish or worry, or agonizing, debilitating despair, has not been met and taken up in God, we see all our stories across the Scriptures and how these are taken up into God, being gathered to him.
This goes for the fears we have about other people; about their distinctions from us, about their customs, languages, religions, or ways. And the issues we have cannot be resolved with simplistic responses because they’re complex. Many people are afraid of things like Sharia law being enacted or enabled in Western countries which would allow for some disciplinary measures that are considered illegal in Western law. I am afraid of this, for example. And yet, to react out of my fear would be to forego the freedom won for me in Jesus Christ that presses me and insists, in fact, that I love my neighbor and even my enemy. That I take the time to get to know my Muslim neighbors, that I don’t cut them off, that I don’t judge, especially out of my fearful ignorance, that I ensure that as they, like Abram, went out from their lands, that I not become territorial about the land God has leant me and my family to steward. In the aftermath of such a heinous act of cowardice, driven by a lack of faith, hope and love, for the gift of grace and life we have received TO SHARE WITH OTHERS, let us ask where we as Christians are in our own lives. How are we sharing our faith and our hope; how are we sharing God’s love with others? Let me end with this written my friend and former colleague, Paul Hand:
The Christian soldier is not the murderer but the martyr. The martyr is fearless to die and has no fear that would lead them to kill. They know that Christ is Risen trampling down death, and that no power of this world can kill a flesh that has already been crucified with Him. However, as St. John Climacus said, the man who doesn't fear God is scared by his own shadow. Those who fear shadows, who think everything is a conspiracy, turn to guns to save them, destroying lives and souls, including their own. May all who fear God be protected from the vain fears of the world. To anyone who celebrates these acts on behalf of my skin color: I know you're out there and I hope I'm as unattractive to you as the "shadows" you fear. I would rather suffer with them than celebrate with you. God grant us love, strength, and mercy. AMEN.