A Sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison to a Church of Scotland Congregation in 2014, but with continuing relevance in 2020
When Abraham was one hundred years old (21: 5) he did not receive a telegram from the queen. Instead, so the biblical story goes, he received a son from his wife Sarah. Abraham named the son Isaac. When Isaac was eight days old Abraham circumcised him. When Isaac moved from milk to solids, thus negotiating that vulnerable infant phase of life in the ancient world, Abraham marked this by throwing a party, by having a big feast, to which all and sundry were invited.
Among those invited – by Abraham rather than by Sarah one presumes – were Hagar, a slave by whom Abraham had previously had a son, and their child, Ishmael. Isaac and Ishmael, innocent children, play happily together at the party, but things are not so simple as far as the adults are concerned. Instead, the sight of the two kids together, both potential heirs to Abraham’s fortune, angers Sarah and she forces Abraham to choose one woman and child over the other woman and her child. Family life and love, it is suggested here, can only ever be a matter of either/or, never both/and.
Life is complicated. Abraham loves Sarah and she loves him, and they both love Isaac. Abraham also cares for Hagar and loves their son, Ishmael. But Sarah, who loves Isaac, hates Ishmael, fearing that he may have some claim on her son’s inheritance when Abraham (who is getting on in years let’s not forget) finally passes away. Fear of loss is what triggers Sarah’s demand that Abraham shows Hagar and Ishmael the door, leaving the field clear for Isaac to inherit. Not surprisingly, we are told that all of this was ‘very distressing for Abraham on account of his son’ (21: 11) – though there’s no mention that he was equally upset about throwing out Hagar.
Fortunately for the man’s tender conscience God reassures Abraham that things will work out ok for the mother and child he’s about to pitch out into the wild with only a minimal supply of food and water. We’re then told the tale of Hagar in the desert, deep in her distress, unable to bring herself to look upon her dying child. Informed by a heavenly messenger that God has heard the cries of her son, she is in then directed to a source of water which saves both Ishmael and herself. Subsequently, he grows up to be a skilled archer, continuing to live in the wilderness, wed to a woman from Egypt that his mum had obtained for him.
However we read an ancient text like this, whether we understand it to be a simple factual account of events that once took place, or regard it as a folk fable written to make a general point, or see it as something in between, we can surely agree it contains realistic portrayals of aspects of our human condition. Prominent amongst these, is the insight that when we feel that resources are finite or threatened we fight our own corner, however we perceive that, at whatever the expense to other people. To illustrate this with a simple example from the life of two other childhood brothers, this is why the Jamison family had to institute the rule: ‘he who cuts the cake chooses last’.
To bring things more up to date from my childhood and family life in 1960s Belfast, or even the much more troubled family in Genesis chapter twenty-one, I’m struck by how fear of loss affects the decisions so many people and peoples make that then affect the lives of other people and peoples. I suppose I’m sensitised to this by my current work situation; Environmental Chaplain for Eco Congregation Scotland, an ecumenical agency, trying to persuade churches (such as this one) that we need to make practical concern for God’s creation a significant and central part of congregational life.
Persuading churches to do this is not entirely straightforward. Sometimes they are just raring to go with the task of greening their church and their local community. On other occasions that not the case. A lot comes down to timing and local circumstances. Perhaps preventing the church roof falling in rather than attaching solar panels to it is the more pressing priority. Maybe just now, with the new minister arriving in a month’s time, it is not the moment to move forward on such matters, but next year might be. There are often good reasons, not merely bad excuses, why a congregation is not about to embark on doing the thing that I desire.
And yet, I think there are deeper reasons for a reluctance to take seriously environmental challenges in church life, and, as with this Genesis story, fear of loss preys upon our minds and impacts upon our actions. And this is true both of what we label ‘church life’ and also, on the wider stage, in what sometimes gets called ‘the real world’, though experiences in and views of the ‘real world’ often seep into our shared church life, influencing or dictating some decisions we take.
In church life, especially if the congregation is not as big as it once was, we are under a lot of pressure; trying to ‘keep the show on the road’; still trying to pay the bills for a building or a minister that costs as much or more as in the past, but with less money than we once possessed; still putting as much energy into the weekly worship offered by the congregation as has ever been offered in previous generations; still engaged in social and charitable actions, though in communities now less likely to automatically understand or welcome church input.
Then along comes some enthusiast commending or demanding that you get involved in yet another activity – saving the planet, no less – when you were running at full throttle already. It is hard to see how you can take on this without taking away much needed resources from what you believe to be the essential elements of church – its worship, its witness and its loving service. It’s as though an illegitimate sibling has been introduced, demanding from you something that you have already dedicated to Christian church life. To offer another metaphor, there are only so many ways we can slice up – divide – the cake of our contribution to church life.
What we experience in a church setting we are confronted with in a world setting. For decades and centuries we have been the beneficiaries of the slicing up of the cake of the world’s resources. For generation after generation we, at least in this country and some others, have been in the happy position of consuming more and more without worrying about how this impacts upon others, but now all of that has changed.
Now we realise, based on the opinion of the great majority of relevant scientists; that the world’s climate is changing, that humankind’s activities are the main cause of the change, and that if we don’t put the brakes on then people and planet will suffer, today and in the generations to come. And our response, so like that of Sarah and Abraham to the inconvenient existence of Hagar and Ishmael, too easily tilts in the direction of either / or; it’s either them or us, and we don’t like the idea of it being us. None of us wants to see greater injustice in the world, but if greater justice comes only at the price of fewer things available to us, or reduced prosperity for us and ours, well … like Abraham and Sarah, we’re only human, after all.
That response is very human, but it is not very Christian, and we know that because the Bible tells us so. There’s a hint of it in Genesis and there’s a statement of Jesus’s belief about it in our Gospel reading. Confronted by the pressing demands of his wife and the futures prospects of their son Abraham can only spare Hagar and his other son a loaf of bread and a skin of water; enough to salve his conscience though not for them to survive upon. God, on the other hand, has more than enough love to spare; not only for Abraham and Sarah but for Hagar; for both Isaac and Ishmael as well: ‘as for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also’ says God. (21: 13)
And that God has more than enough love to spare is the conviction that Jesus holds. This Gospel passage begins by reminding us that from Jesus’ perspective we are the ones in the position of Hagar. Jesus reminds his followers (and us) that ‘a disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above a master.’ (10: 24) Jesus’s understanding of what that implies about God and us, however, is very different to Sarah’s hostile attitude or Abraham’s grudging response: ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father in heaven. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are more value that many sparrows.’ (10: 29-31)
I suppose that Abraham and Sarah would be interpret that as ‘sparrows are worth less than humans, so we don’t have to worry about sparrows or what happens to them or others species’. But we are not being invited to be followers of Sarah and Abraham. We are called to be followers of Jesus. Our Teacher, our Master, Jesus, tells us that God is a God of both/and, not a God of either/or, as far as love is concerned; both us and the sparrows; both us and the other species; both us and this planet, and all those who live upon it and depend upon it in order to live; ourselves included.
In truth, when congregations become interested and committed with regard to environmental issues, they find that it is a both/and sort of situation. Joyful thanksgiving for God’s creation enriches, not detracts from, the experience of worship; factoring in green perspectives to building and finance issues encourages thoughtful approaches to stewardship in general; commitment to green issues in a local community rebuilds credibility for the church and establishes links with those not committed to faith.
Abraham was a well-off man and, even had it been divided, his estate was big enough to make both Isaac and Ishmael happy. Also, I reckon that there was always enough cake in our household in Belfast to meet my needs, even if there was not always enough to match my childhood desires. I wouldn’t be surprised that if we human beings committed ourselves to do what was necessary, there would be more than enough of the world’s resources to go around today and also be available for the coming generations. If we only perceive others as rivals, however, there will never be a big enough inheritance, never enough cake on the plate, or money in our pockets.
Thank God then that, as Jesus points out to us, his followers, God’s love is great enough, and wide enough, to encompass brothers and sisters, people and peoples, humankind and sparrows and other species, the church and this world. It is this God-like both/and love to which Jesus calls us today, and upon which we and our neighbours depend.