Monday, June 29, 2020

July 12, 2020 - 6th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                        Biblical Words                                            [668]
Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.
People feel bound by their tribal ethos, but life in the Spirit can lift them beyond such boundaries.    

Genesis 25:19-34. 

After several weeks of readings about Abraham’s life, our readings in Genesis now turn to Jacob, the even more immediate and rowdy ancestor of Israel. 
While the Abraham stories in Genesis usually maintain a proper dignity and reverence for the worthy old ancestor, the Jacob stories present the main character in a more boisterous and not very respectful light.  What we have in these stories, of course, is tribal lore, a kind of folk wisdom compounded of earthy insights about tribal characteristics. 
Old folks tend to comment on how you could see the personality traits of a prominent person showing up already in that person's childhood.  Out of such comments come stories of tribal fathers and mothers.  They are earthy, pretty blunt, and very ethnic.  They are tribal. 
The birth story, verses 19-26:  The destinies and behavior traits of two peoples are projected back to the circumstances of their birth.  Jacob was a fighter.  He was fighting in his mother’s womb – with his brother who may have gotten out of the womb first but not without Jacob hanging on to his heel, symbolizing that Jacob would eventually “supplant” [a play on the name Jacob] his older brother (verse 26). 
The birthright story, verses 27-33.  When they were young men, the older brother Esau was a hunter while wily Jacob was more agricultural, raising lentils to make delicious stew.  Jacob catches Esau in a moment of desperate hunger and forces him to sell his “birthright” before he will give him any food.  For the old folks telling the stories, this is the same punch-line as in the birth story – the younger son supplants the older.  What in the natural course of things would have been Esau’s has become Jacob’s.  Jacob got the birthright, the normal inheritance of the firstborn son. 
In yet another story, which our Lectionary readings skip, it is told at even greater length how Jacob cheated Esau out of their father’s final powerful blessing, the blessing that would pass along the charismatic power of the ancestor to the next generation (the story in Genesis 27). 
In all these ways, the old folks looked back from the days when Israel dominated its neighboring kingdom of Edom and said, It was written in the stars – or in the signs at birth, in the foolish selling of birthrights, and the crafty manipulation of blessings – that Israel would be the great power over its brother tribe to the south. 
So was tribal history shaped.  So is tribal history still shaped. 

Psalm 119:105-112. 

The tribal destinies foretold in portents at birth, and in surprising reversals in formative years, came in time to be understood as divine decisions gradually worked out in human experience. 
In later times and other settings, the tribal mode of wisdom was replaced by the revelation mode of wisdom.  Thus, finally, even the descendants of Jacob came to understand that it was the word or decree of God that ruled human life.  This insight the devout teachers and poets of the wisdom tradition in Israel expressed in this great psalm, all 176 verses of it, making it a monument to their belief in God’s torah as the key to history. 
If we listen to this stanza created by the devotion of the torah-lovers and hear it as the speech of Jacob, the beneficiary of the twists and turns working in his destiny, then we learn that it is not tribal history that matters in his life but only God’s “word,” “ordinances,” “law,” “precepts,” “decrees,” and “statutes” that guide and determine his life.  “Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.”  (Verse 111, NRSV.  Note that the exact terminology here varies in different English translations.  All the terms quoted are, however, synonyms for “torah,” law. ). 
This is the Jacob no longer shaped by tribal lore.  It is the Jacob revered as ancestor by those who knew and loved what God had given through Moses. 

Romans 8:1-11. 

The Epistle reading shows that for those who are “in Christ Jesus” it is not destinies, birthrights, or ancestral blessings that make our fate; it is the Spirit of God. 
“For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death”— free from the tribal bondage and determinism of the past (verse 2, NRSV). 
Paul has passed through (in chapters 3-7) the discussions of justification by faith, of original sin, and of the personal bondage of life dominated by “the flesh.”  Now he unfolds the positive side of the drama of salvation in Christ, the life in the Spirit.  
“Spirit” was mentioned five times in the Letter to the Romans prior to this chapter; here it is used over twenty times. 
[Should it be “Spirit” or “spirit”?  Translators get to decide this, since the ancient Greek has no such distinctions.  The original KJV (1611 Facsimile) uses “spirit” throughout this passage; New KJV makes it “Spirit,” NRSV footnotes give you a choice.] 
“By ‘spirit’ Paul means the supernatural or divine element in human life, and his test for it is the presence of a love like the love of God in Christ” (C.H. Dodd, Romans, Harper, 1932, p. 118.) 
In our reading there are two points(1) The life in the Spirit is very different from the former life lived “in the flesh.”  The flesh is death; the Spirit is life and peace (verse 6).  (2) The new life is the life of God’s Spirit.  “You are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you” (verse 9). 
Though in the past the body was dead “because of sin,” now the Spirit is alive “because of righteousness.”  If in the old life our dead condition showed up through sinful actions, now the life of the Spirit shows up through righteous actions. 
The Spirit creates a sharp contrast between life and death, and therefore a sharp contrast between sinful and righteous acting. 

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23. 

Today’s Gospel reading begins three Sundays of readings from Matthew’s third collection of Jesus’ teachings, the parables of the Kingdom. 
Modern Study of the Parables.  In the last hundred plus years of New Testament scholarship a sharp distinction has been made between what Jesus originally meant by his parables and what his followers and later church teachers made of them, not just in their teachings but right in the Gospel texts.  The early followers had changed the meanings of the parables before the Gospels were written. 
The scholarly emphasis has especially been on the difference between a parable and an allegory.  A parable has one main point to make and all details are subordinated to that point, while an allegory assigns significance to each of the details separately.  If one allegorizes the Good Samaritan, the inn to which the wounded man is taken is the church, the robbers are the powers of Satan, the medicines given the man are the sacraments, and so on.  That is an allegory.  The single point of the parable, on the other hand, was simply who is a neighbor to the man in need. 
On this scholarly view of Jesus’ parables, the allegorizing tendency began already here in our reading, with the parable of the Sower.  Mark’s Gospel, which Matthew follows closely, had already made the fatal shift from parable to allegory. 
However, the Sower (or the parable of the Soils) is perhaps one of the weakest places to apply this theory.  That some of the parables may have been allegories from the beginning seems clear from the parable of the Wicked Tenants, used in all three Gospels (Mark 12:1-12; Matthew 21:33-41; Luke 20:9-19).  There the vineyard is the promised land, the tenants are the Israelites, the early messengers are the prophets, and the son who is finally sent is the Suffering Servant (or Jesus).  The rejection of the prophets and the Son/Servant will produce judgment and loss of the promised land.  That is an allegory rather than a parable – when the two are sharply distinguished.  Many scholars deny, of course, that Jesus himself told the parable of the Wicked Tenants, but that is where the theory begins to twist the evidence rather than illumine it. 
Concerning the Sower.  The parable tells how the sower scatters the seed so that it falls on all sorts of soil.  Three kinds of soil are unproductive.  On good soil the seed is very productive, so much so that the loss to the poor soils is negligible.  The point of the parable –  when one is certain it cannot be an allegory – is the abundance of the crops that do produce.  Even the details of what happens to the seeds on bad soils are only for the sake of this one point about the abundance produced by the word of the kingdom when it is fruitful. 
To which Floyd Filson commented, “Does this parable teach only that in spite of loss of labour and seed the sower still reaps an abundant harvest?  No; the varied soils in which the seed falls also have point…” (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, “Black’s New Testament Commentaries,” 2nd ed., London:  Adam & Charles Black, 1971, p. 160.)  That single-focus theory of parables cannot suppress the fact that – in this parable – the different soils in fact “stand for” something — and from the very beginning stood for something.  
If the parable is more of an allegory, it is about responding to the message of God’s kingdom – as is all this section of Matthew’s Gospel.  The point of the parable then is that indeed there will be losses, represented by each kind of soil.  Not all who have the chance will respond productively to the good news of the kingdom.  This parable tells you some of the reasons. 
There are three kinds of failure to make the kingdom message one’s own. 
First, there are those who just don’t get it – one “does not understand it” (verse 19, NRSV). 
Secondly, there are the quick starters, enthusiasts who turn out to be rootless and fall away before closing time. 
Thirdly, there are those with agenda paralysis.  They have so many things demanding their resources that the gospel message is squeezed out and they are smothered by the thorns of the world. 
The fourth option is when the seed grows to abundance and the energies of life become extravagantly productive – though it is a productiveness defined exclusively by the life of the kingdom of heaven (and not necessarily by the world in general). 
If Jesus himself didn’t teach the parable this way, the experience and understanding of his disciples quickly showed that it has more relevance and truth this way than otherwise!  
The parable of the Sower is about life as open to a new message.  It insists that life is not necessarily confined by past birthrights and birth accidents, though people may allow such things to smother their lives.  The parable insists that the power of God’s word will find its productive reception.  The hearers of the word have a genuine choice, a chance to grasp the heritage of a new life, a life of the spirit/Spirit “that blows where it wishes” (John 3:8), and that brings blessing and righteousness in its breeze. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

July 5, 2020 - 5th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                        Biblical Words                                         [667] 

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45:10-17; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30. 

The cycles of the generations and the struggles of the soul are promised rest at the end of the journey.  
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67. 
The Torah reading is selected verses from the long story of the finding of Rebekah to be Isaac’s wife. 
Stages of Abraham’s Life.  The last stage of Abraham’s life (Genesis 22:20-25:11) is introduced by “Now after these things…” in Genesis 22:20.  That formula occurs only at three places in the Abraham narrative:  Genesis 15:1; 22:1; and 22:20, dividing the entire Abraham cycle into four parts, concerned respectively with wealth, getting a son, sacrificing that son, and tasks of old age.    
This last stage is concerned with the final life-tasks of the elderly head of the household.  (1) He keeps in touch with his close relatives in the old country (Genesis 22:20-24), (2) he procures a proper burial place in the new country for his wife (Genesis 23), (3) he finds an appropriate wife for his main son and heir (Genesis 24), and (4) he provides for other wives and their offspring (Genesis 25:1-6).  After that he dies and is honorably buried by his sons Isaac and Ishmael (25:7-11). 
The story of Rebekah is an unusual narrative in Genesis.  This is an actual narrative, told at length, not just a brief statement of the essentials needed for a story-teller’s repertoire, as are most of the episodes told about Abraham and Jacob. 
This narrative takes an entire chapter of  67 verses to relate an episode that could have been told in just a few verses.  After all, all that happens here is that the old faithful servant of Abraham (whose name we never learn!) goes to the old country and, after appropriate tests for God’s guidance, finds a beautiful girl from a related family who is willing to go to Canaan and marry her distant cousin Isaac.  There is not even any space taken up with the marriage itself! 
This story is told with careful elaborateness.  One must read the entire story and not just the Lectionary’s selections, to get the full force of this.  In the opening of the story Abraham gives careful instructions to the servant, making him swear an oath not to allow Isaac to marry a Canaanite woman (verses 2-4).  The servant discusses the options he might have to deal with but sets out to do as he is told.  The whole exchange is marked by formality and courtesy, and this style and mood will be preserved throughout.  There is great dignity and propriety pervading the life of these ancestors of Israel. 
An essential piece of the story takes place before the first Lectionary selection.  That is the servant’s commitment of the entire enterprise to God’s providence.  The servant specifies that the woman that God designates for Isaac’s wife will be the one who offers to give water not only to the traveling man, but also to his camels.  (Realistically, that would not be a minor item.  The camels would require many more jars of water from the well than the man.) 
As the selected readings begin we have already had all the introductions and the servant is making his offer – an offer that can not be refused – to Rebekah’s brother and family.  He explains Abraham’s great wealth and his determination to avoid intermarriage with the Canaanites.  He also explains God’s providential guidance in identifying Rebekah.  What can the family say?  They bless Rebekah and send her on her way.  When she is approaching Isaac, the husband-to-be, she discretely veils herself and is received by him to comfort him after the death of his mother.  That is, she becomes the matron of the nomadic clan. 
The immigrants observe all the proper addresses and courtesies in arranging a marriage for the boy of the promising future with the proper girl from the old country.  Abraham’s seniority is also blessed as a new bride enters the clan, promising another generation to inherit the promise. 
Psalm 45:10-17. 
The psalm reading is the last half of an ode to the king and queen at a royal wedding in Jerusalem.  It reflects the days of glory and wealth when the marriage of the Davidic king to the daughter of another ruler or of a great noble was an event of major importance in the diplomatic and political world. 
Our verses are the poet’s address to and description of the bride.  She is charged to forget her past identity as a daughter and devote herself to her future as queen mother, whose favor will be sought by the wealthiest and most influential powers of their world (verses 10-12).  Her fantastically rich wedding garments are celebrated (verses 13-15). 
In the conclusion, the king too is called upon to look toward the future rather than the past.  “In the place of ancestors …you shall have sons, / you will make them princes in all the earth” (verse 16).  The psalm celebrates the fulfillment of what was only a promise in the time of Isaac and Rebekah, though it was anticipated in the blessing given her by her family (Genesis 24:60). 
Romans 7:15-25a. 
The Epistle reading is a complete contrast to the irenic providence of God described in the Rebekah story and the joyful celebration of the royal wedding of the psalm.  Paul’s long description of the plight of the sinner before salvation, which really began in chapter 5 of the letter, here reaches the nadir of despair. 
He graphically describes the divided self, the self that wants desperately to do the good but only finds itself caught in the bondage of Sin, which is exacerbated by the law of God itself.  “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (verses 22-23). 
C.H. Dodd argued that in this chapter Paul was reading his own experience – and the typical human experience – in terms of the story of the fall of Adam in Genesis 3. 
Paul read in Genesis how Adam at first lived in innocence.  A command was given to him, intended to prevent him from forfeiting his immortality, according to the rabbinic interpretation.  The serpent, subtly turning this command to his own ends, seduced Adam (through his wife — but, for Paul here, that is not significant).  He transgressed the command, and death was the result…  Translated into terms of individual experience, the story runs:  “I lived at one time without law myself, but when the command came home to me, sin sprang to life and I died; the command that meant life proved death for me.  The command gave an impulse to sin, sin beguiled me, and used the command to kill me.” [quoting Romans 7:9-11 in the Moffatt translation]  It fits like a glove; and there are enough verbal echoes of the Greek translation of Gen. iii to make it likely that Paul actually had the passage in mind.  (Romans [“The Moffatt New Testament Commentary”], Harper, 1932, pp. 105-106.) 
The apostle concluded his description, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (verse 24, NRSV). 
When confessing this miserable condition, Paul knew that there was an answer. 
There was a union available that would both rescue him from his lonely struggle and complete his life as the good Lord had intended it.  His soul waited for the union that would deliver and comfort it.  “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (verse 25). 
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30. 
The Gospel reading has two contrasting parts.  The first is a despairing judgment on the present generation that will not respond to God’s summons, and the second is a declaration of the availability of intimate knowledge and comfort through the Lord. 
The previous parts of the chapter have talked about John the Baptist, the one bringing God’s word in preparation for the Messiah.  The common folks will not respond to John’s call for rigorous self-restraint, and the learned religious leaders condemn Jesus because he associates with the ordinary folks of the rude and crude world. 
“We played you a wedding tune, but you would not dance; we sang a funeral dirge, but you would not mourn.”  Such is the meaning of the saying about the children playing in the market-place (verse 17).  People at large want their religious leaders to dance to the tune that they play – not to learn new songs and lessons. 
The last part of the reading begins, “At that time...,” as if emphasizing that Jesus’ following words of revelation and comfort were spoken just when the hopeless resistance of the people had become absolutely clear.  In the face of such stubborn opposition from people and leaders alike (expressed even more intensely in the verses omitted from the reading, the condemnation of the Galilean towns, verses 20-24), Jesus speaks this “bolt from the Gospel of John” that appears in the middle of the Gospel According to Matthew. 
“All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (verse 27, NRSV).  There is only one route to an intimate communion with the heavenly parent, and such intimate communion is the supreme good for all human living. 
But there IS one route – the Son who, speaking in the voice of Wisdom, says to the simple and uneducated folks, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (verses 28-29).  In the face of all opposition and rejection by the worldly folks, there is a comfort and a rest available to the truly humble who wait upon the Lord. 
At the end of the journey for a new union, at the end of the struggle against the bondage of divided selves, there is comfort, there is rest. 

Saturday, June 13, 2020

June 28, 2020 - 4th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                        Biblical Words                                           [666] 
Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42.
The life of faith leads to sacrifices – sometimes beyond belief, but finally as God provides. 

Genesis 22:1-14.  

The Torah reading is the famous, or infamous, narrative of the sacrifice of Isaac. 
The opening phrase, “after these things,” marks a new beginning in the Abraham cycle.  This phrase last occurred at Genesis 15:1, where it introduced the topic of getting Abraham a son of his own.  That topic was completed in its fully developed form in Genesis 21, where Isaac was born to Abraham from Sarah and the other son, Ishmael, had been sent away.  The promise of the heir was fulfilled! 
Now, the whole heir-promise is jeopardized by a command from God (it is “God,” not Yahweh, until verse 11).  This divine command is to sacrifice the heir – to bind him, cut his throat, bleed him, and burn his body on a mountain-top altar.  The specialness of the son is emphasized.  “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…” (verse 2, NRSV).  
The story then draws out the details of Abraham’s actions, to build suspense.  He “rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him… he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him” (verse 3).  Abraham speaks to others as if they are simply carrying out a standard act of worship to God (verse 5). 
Isaac is a dutiful son, carrying the wood on his back while Abraham carries the fire and the knife.  The son asks innocently where the sacrificial animal is, which they will need to complete the worship.  Abraham says that God will provide the lamb.  After they get there, build the altar, and arrange the wood, it becomes obvious to Isaac how God is providing the lamb.  It is he himself who gets “bound” with ropes (the traditional Jewish name of this passage is “the binding,” the ‘aqedah) and placed on top of the pile of wood.  As Abraham is about to cut his throat, the messenger of the Lord (Yahweh, not God) intervenes.  
What the messenger says shows that all this has been a test of Abraham’s faith.  “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (verse 12). 
This is a powerful story, told remarkably well.  However, it is an ancient story, not a modern one.  The story is so well told that it constantly seduces the modern reader into projecting Abraham’s or Isaac’s thoughts during the action – though the story itself, in the usual style of Hebrew narratives, keeps us strictly out of the heads of the characters.  
The story, nevertheless, has been modernized, psychologized, theologized, and apologized in a myriad ways, almost always to its loss as an ancient story.  
Its one sheer, stark point, however, is the threat of the loss of all meaning to one’s earthly pilgrimage.  What would it be like to lose all that you have held worthwhile?  Or at least the key to the future on which you have staked your whole life work?  And not only to lose it, but to destroy it with your own hand – because God asked for it.  
That is the horror.  That is the despair.  That is the ultimate temptation to apostasy – better no God than a God like this!  
This text stands as an awesome model of Jesus’ saying, as given in the peroration of his Mission speech:  “whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).  
To the great perplexity of the ages, Abraham proved worthy of the God who gave the one beloved heir.  

Psalm 13.  

Hebrew narrators do not take us inside peoples' minds.  Psalmists, however, have no hesitation about showing us peoples' most intense feelings! 
Reading this psalm after hearing the story of the sacrifice of Isaac invites us to hear two praying voices, those of Abraham and of Isaac.  
First Abraham, his interior dialogue despairing at what is about to become an empty and abandoned life.  
How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever? 
      How long will you hide your face from me?  
How long must I bear pain in my soul, 
      And have sorrow in my heart all day long?  (Verses 1-2, NRSV) 

And Isaac’s voice as he awaits his fate.  

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! 
      Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, 
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; 
      my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.  (Verses 3-4.) 

The final word of the psalm, however, is Abraham’s, after the release, after the “unbinding” of Isaac.  
But I trusted in your steadfast love; 
      my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.  
I will sing to the Lord, 
      because he has dealt bountifully with me.  (Verses 5-6) 

Romans 6:12-23.  

The reading from the Epistle follows the profound passage about dying and rising with Christ:  “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (6:4, NRSV).  
Today’s reading, accordingly, presents the life of the new believer as dead to the bondage of past sin and now living as the creature of God, a creature belonging wholly to righteousness.  The life of dying and rising with Christ is a life of becoming a living sacrifice.  
“For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification” (verse 19).  As in the past you presented your bodies to evil things for evil, so now present your bodies as sacrifices of righteousness.  The verb “presented” is the one also used in Romans 12:1, “I appeal to you… to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”  
The life of the one raised to “newness of life” (6:4) is one of living as a continuing offering of righteousness in whatever places the Spirit leads one.  This is the new life opened up by the new sacrifice, greater even than the sacrifice of Isaac, the sacrifice of Christ, “who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25).  

Matthew 10:40-42.  

The Gospel reading is the very last word of Jesus’ Mission speech, the discourse in which the disciples of Jesus were sent out as apostles to Israel, and in time to all the nations (chapter 10).  
This conclusion is a warrant from Jesus that the work of the apostles is the work of Jesus, and of the One who sent Jesus.  As the disciples go through the towns and homes of the people, they are in fact the coming of God to test those who wait for righteousness.  “Whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of [that is, simply as] a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous” (verse 41, NRSV).  
This entire discourse about the mission among the needy, among the hospitable and the persecutors, among those who war among themselves – all this enterprise concludes with a soft and gentle touch that is remarkable:  “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of [simply as] a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward” (verse 42).  
What a quiet note on which to end!  After vast challenges, trials, and sufferings anticipated for the faithful workers, a cool drink at the end of the day from a kindly stranger – the work of the gospel includes that also!  

Saturday, June 6, 2020

June 21, 2020 - 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

                                                            Biblical Words                                                [665] 
Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39. 
Great separations come about, for petty or profound reasons.  Yet God goes with the separated.  
The theme uniting the readings for this Sunday is separation.  There are separations between tribal clans (Ishmael and Isaac) and faith traditions (Judaism and Islam), separation from the former self now dead (Romans 6), and separation of lesser things from the one supreme value (conflict within families). 

Genesis 21:8-21.  

The Torah reading is the separation of Ishmael, Abraham’s first son, from Isaac, the later and more favored son.  The thrust of the passage is that Ishmael, too, will have a blessing and will be the father of a mighty people.  Abraham’s sons do not go without God’s blessing. 
The destiny of nations may be worked out through petty human motivations.  In our story it is Sarah’s jealousy and envy of the slave woman’s son that leads to the separation and the need for a special blessing from God for Ishmael.  Sarah sees the boys playing together and she wants none of this mixing.  “So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’” (Verse 10, NRSV.)  
Abraham is upset by this, but he receives assurance from God that this separation is OK, because the first son too will have his destiny.  Abraham goes to Hagar, Ishmael’s mother, loads her with supplies and sends her out into the wilderness.  
The rest of the story is hers.  (The basic Hagar-in-the-wilderness story is used twice in Genesis, in chapter 16 as well as here.  The story in both places assumes that Ishmael is a small child, not a young adolescent male as the chronology of chapters 17 to 21 makes him.)  When the water is exhausted, she despairs, casts the boy under a bush and waits desperately for the end.  God hears the crying of the child and intervenes to show Hagar where there is water.  He assures her that the boy will be saved because “I will make a great nation of him” (verse 18). 
Ishmael is the father of the Arabic peoples, and when they become a great people they will receive the prophet Muhammad and become muslims (those who submit [to the only God]). 
This story of the separation of Ishmael and Isaac is the ancestral link between Judaism and Islam.  In the Qur’an Abraham and Ishmael rehabilitate the holy place in Mecca and anticipate Islam as the service of the true God.  
We [Allah] enjoined Abraham and Isma’il [saying]:  “Purify My House for those who circle it, for those who retreat there for meditation, and for those who kneel and prostrate themselves.”  And [remember] when Abraham said:  “My Lord, make this a secure city and feed with fruits those of its inhabitants who believe in Allah and the Last Day.” (Qur’an, 2:125-126, trans. Majid Fakhry, An Interpretation of the Qur’an, New York University Press, 2002, p. 23.) 
And while Abraham and Isma‘il raised the foundations of the House, [they prayed]:  “Our Lord, accept [this] from us.  Surely You are the All-Hearing, the Omniscient.  Our Lord, cause us to submit to You [i.e., become muslims], and make of our posterity a nation that submits to You.  Show us our sacred rites, and pardon us.  You are, indeed, the Pardoner, the Merciful.  Our Lord, send them a Messenger from among themselves who will recite to them Your Revelations, to teach them the Book and the wisdom, and to purify them.  You are truly the Mighty, the Wise.”  (Qur’an, 2:127-129, ibid., p. 24.)  

Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17.  

The Psalm reading invites us to hear the cry of the boy Ishmael as he is on the verge of death in the desert. 
Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, 
      for I am poor and needy.  
Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you; 
      save your servant who trusts in you. …
Turn to me and be gracious to me; 
      give your strength to your servant; 
      save the child of your serving girl.  (verses 1-2, 16, NRSV
There is even a hint of the themes that will dominate Islam.  
There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, 
      nor are there any works like yours.  
All the nations you have made shall come 
      and bow down before you, O Lord, 
      and shall glorify your name.  
For you are great and do wondrous things; 
      you alone are God.  (verses 8-10, NRSV
The brothers Ishmael and Isaac may be separated, but they have a common voice in the prayer of the needy before God.  

Romans 6:1b-11.  

The reading from the letter of Paul to the Romans is about the believer’s death to the old life of sin.  
There is a separation from the old that is complete.  In this teaching the Christian ritual of baptism re-enacts the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The old self dies as one submerges below the water.  The person who emerges from the water rises “to walk in newness of life” (verse 4, NRSV). 
What one is separated from in this passage is Sin.  Here, especially, Sin represents a cosmic power that binds and enslaves a person beyond all capacity to master it – until its power is broken by an intervention from the outside.  
The power of Sin here is like that of addiction, as many recovering people have come to know addictive bondage in their lives.  Some have come to hear this passage in such terms as these, substituting their addiction for the word “sin.”  
We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of our addiction might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to our addiction.  For whoever has died is freed from the addiction.  But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.  We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death [from the addiction] no longer has dominion over him.  The death he died, he died to the addiction, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.  So you also must consider yourselves dead to the addiction and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  (Verses 6-11, NRSV adapted.)  

Matthew 10:24-39.  

The Gospel reading is most of the later part of Jesus’ discourse on the sending out of the disciples.  The disciples are to take the good news and the good works of God to the needy folks of Israel – and later, as understood by the end of the Gospel, to all the nations.  This section of the discourse emphasizes the costs of discipleship, the separation of the disciple from the conventional values of the society.  
(This passage has close parallels in Luke.  See my essay on Luke 12, the section entitled “Seven Sayings in Twelve Verses.”  Use the Blog Archive for November 2019, click here Luke 12 .) 
The first point is what to fear and not fear.  Do not fear the persecutors (described in the previous passage, verses 16-25), because they can only imprison you, beat you up, and take your life.  Fear the one who can not only kill your body but cast your soul into hell -- destroying your inner integrity and the eternal value of your life (verses 26-31).  
The second point is the eternal value of what you stand for.  Who (or what) you proclaim and confess in the public realm will determine how you will be registered in the annals of heavenly renown and glory, what your life truly represents for the ages (verses 32-33).  
Not peace but a sword.  Finally, one of the hardest sayings in all of scripture is the declaration by Jesus that he came not to bring peace but a sword – a sword which cuts apart and separates.  This passage (verses 35-39) insists that the ultimate issues of life do create conflict, and the emphasis here is on conflict within the most intimate groups, the family.  
Put most sharply, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (verse 37).  This is nothing less than a totalitarian claim that must be an absolute scandal to those who place “family values” above all else.  This apocalyptic mission of Jesus pulls persons out of their natural social matrix and makes them absolute instruments of God’s service.  (It makes them an apocalyptic commune, as in Luke 12.)  The image is similar to the Elijah and Elisha roles in the days of old Israel.  The commitment is for life or death.  
The disciples addressed in this passage had to expect intense division within their society.  They are told at the beginning to go only to the “lost sheep” of the house of Israel, not to the nations or the Samaritans (10:5-6).  The conflicts within families are conflicts among Judean people, conflicts precipitated by the claim that Jesus was the Anointed One (the Messiah), who had already come and had now received heavenly authority to call all nations to be baptized and learn his teaching (28:16-20).  
The Gospel According to Matthew was dictated in a Syrian world in which Judeans and Christians were separating.  They were beginning seriously to go their own ways, at the cost of intense and agonizing separations – separations of family members, and of two great religious traditions of the Western world.