Why do you preach what you preach?

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Chagall_Hagar & Ishmael in the Desert“I kind of wished you had preached on the Gospel,” a parishioner said to me after last Sunday’s service. “I’d like to understand what Jesus meant when he said ‘For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother….’” It was a reasonable request.

Instead, I had preached on the appointed Genesis story about Abraham’s abandonment of the slave who had given birth to his child, ousting both her and the child into the wilderness with a jug of water and some bread. What is a preacher to do when two of the texts read publicly in the service are troublesome? In this case, both the Genesis narrative and the Gospel needed some explication in order to hear the good news — without glossing over what, at first blush, sounds like pretty bad news.

This coming Sunday poses its own quandary. The first text is, again, from Genesis, and it is even harder than last week’s. This week, Abraham — that paragon of family values — hears God tell him to take his remaining son up the mountain and kill him as a sacrifice. God stops him before he does the deed, but, as William Saffron once pointed out, it’s no wonder Isaac’s name for God after that was “The Fear.” This week’s Gospel carries on from Matthew, it’s only two sentences and it’s about welcome – specifically, welcome as a critical part of our presence in the world around us. Which one do you hope your pastor chooses? Welcome sounds pretty innocuous, though it isn’t, at all. The Genesis lesson? It’s the original Text of Terror.

My own bent is to choose the darker passage. If you don’t confront it, most of your hearers will not hear anything else you say. They’re back at the first gasp: the part where they’re thinking, “wait a minute – God told this guy to truss up his kid, put him on the altar, and slay him?”   An additional reason, as the brilliant Frederick Buechner once noted, is that, truly, before the gospel is good news, it’s just the news. This is how things are. All of us – pastors and congregations – know as much about emptiness as we do fullness, and in the midst of our lives, as Buechner would also say, we are all straining to hear the truth. Why it all matters. If we cannot tell the truth about the darkness and the places where God seems absent, why would anybody believe us when we talk about the light and God’s presence. My rector at a church in New York City once told a visiting preacher, before he headed up to the pulpit: “Do not lie to these people. They ride the subway daily.”

Anyway, as you know, you can’t really hear the Gospel in snippets. You have to read the whole book to get the whole, glorious story. This is a good Sunday to be in church. At least, you know it will be interesting.

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4 thoughts on “Why do you preach what you preach?

  1. I wrote about Hagar a couple of months ago – http://biscuitswithjam.com. I have been struggling with some really uncomfortable rivalries (at work mostly) and a friend mentioned Hagar and Sarah to me. That was a great light-bulb moment – YES. God knows how Hagar feels and how Sarah feels. I feel most like Hagar in this situation. I will likely “lose” the workplace battle but the story tells me that God (and everyone who has ever read Hagar’s story) is there for me.

    The more I look at the value of these as stories that provide a frame for our own experiences, the more I can embrace the most difficult stories.

    • Dear J.M.L. – Thank you for this comment. I was touched by your journal entry on Hagar and Sarah, and I think you’re right: God clearly cares for both women. FWIW, I suspect Sarah had ample opportunity to repent of her cruelty and insensitivity as time went on. Imagine her grief over Abraham’s attempt to offer her son as a blood sacrifice on the mountain and note that she doesn’t appear in the story again until her death. The text hints that Isaac did not actually return down the mountain with Abraham, though he clearly came down at some point. I sure wouldn’t have wanted to live in that household after the event!

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