The Third Sunday After Pentecost, Sunday
Proper 7: Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17;
Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39
Good morning. The last time this particular set of texts came up in the lectionary, I had the honor of preaching at Washington National Cathedral (you can find the text of that sermon here). It was Pride Month of 2014. Lavern Cox, one of the stars of Orange Is the New Black, was on the cover of Time with the headline “Transgender Tipping Point.” There was a growing national narrative that a “critical threshold” had been crossed in an inevitable march toward justice and equality for trans people. When I arrived at the Cathedral that morning and saw a large bus festooned with anti-LGBT sentiments parked in front of it, I was alarmed. And while I was well aware of such extremist bigotry then, three years later patterns of dehumanization in this country—racism, xenophobia, Islamphobia, sexism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, and more, in varied combinations—have surged, becoming more openly and visibly practiced under this Presidential administration. Three years later anti-trans violence has increased, emboldened by combinations of trans-misogyny, racism and classism. We can see this pattern in the increased death rates: so far this year we have lost thirteen trans people to anti-trans violence, all of whom are trans women of color. We can also see it in the so-called “bathroom bills” which have been spreading across the country. When the Texas legislature begins its special session in mid-July, it may pass such a bill. It has already passed a strongly anti-immigrant bill that is now being challenged in the courts. With General Convention slated to take place in Texas next year, mindful of the ACLU's recent announcement of a travel warning, some of us are calling for the Episcopal Church to seriously consider moving the Convention. With all of this in mind, as I look at our readings for this morning, what strikes me most strongly is the message that God meets us where we are, whoever we may be, however we may struggle, standing with us as we find a way forward.
Our passage from Genesis this morning foregrounds the struggle of Hagar. Hagar was originally a slave of Sarai’s as she is described in chapter sixteen of Genesis (Gen 16:1). When Sarai was initially unable to conceive, despite God’s promise that she would bear a son (as we heard last week (in Gen 18:1-15), she offered that Hagar could bear a child with Abram instead. When Hagar became pregnant, the text reports that she “looked with contempt” at Sarai who then began to treat her harshly (Gen 16:4-6). In response, Hagar ran away into the wilderness. There God met her, encouraged her to return and told her she would have a son whom she should call Ishmael (meaning, “God hears”), “for the Lord has given heed to your affliction” (Gen 16:11). In response, Hagar had boldly declared “‘You are El-roi’ (the God who sees); for she said, ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive” to tell the tale (Gen 16:13)? In our passage, the sight of Ishmael playing with the newly weaned Isaac prompts Sarah (as she is now called) to worry that Ishmael might supplant Isaac’s birthright. Harshly, she asks Abraham to send him and Hagar away. The text records Abraham’s “distress” at this request, but “distress” hardly scratches the surface of the injustice and the sheer pain afoot here. Hagar had been forced into this situation by Sarah and Abram in the first place and would now be cast out and left to die alone with her young son. Abraham is assured regarding Ishmael, “I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring” (Gen 21:12), but no one would seem to have filled Hagar in on this reiterated promise. She wanders with Ishmael in the wilderness until her skein of water runs out, then casts her son under a bush and sits far enough away to not have to witness his death. In that place of utter despair and hopelessness, an angel of God visits Hagar and evokes the meaning of Ishmael’s name once more, saying “God has heard the voice of the boy where he is” (Gen 21:19). In that moment the God who sees opens Hagar’s eyes to behold a well. They would live.
In her book Sisters in the Wilderness, the Womanist theologian Delores Williams describes the Hagar story as a key example of an important theological stream that has sustained African American Christians, and particularly African American women, for centuries. Hagar, as Williams notes, “becomes the first female in the Bible to liberate herself from oppressive power struggles.” She is a woman of resistance. “Though the law prescribes harsh treatments for run-away slaves,” Williams continues, “[Hagar] takes the risk rather than endure more brutal treatment by Sarai.” At the same time, the narrative tradition represented by Hagar does not emphasize God as liberator, as in the Exodus story, a tradition that plays a central role in Black theology. Rather than straightforwardly liberating them, Williams says, “God participates in Hagar’s and her child’s survival.” Hagar’s story reflects what Williams calls the “survival/quality of life struggle and the community’s belief in God’s presence in the struggle.” The God of Hagar is the God who meets those who are struggling where they are, the God who hears, the God who inspires the opening of eyes to see the springs that can sustain life in the midst of the harshest terrain.
Our passage from the Gospel of Matthew also emphasizes God’s presence in the midst of strife and struggle. “Have no fear” in the midst of conflict, when others condemn you and your household, Jesus says (Mt 10:26). Christ did not promise peace, and in fact did not come to bring peace, he says here, “but a sword” (Mt 10:34). He brought a conviction of good news so strong that it could not but defy hierarchy and challenge empire. To follow this Christ requires taking up one’s cross (Mt 10:38), living out the passion of resisting dehumanizing ways of being, however those patterns may manifest themselves. To follow this Christ is to stand at the margins, to accompany those driven into the wilderness, to open our eyes and identify God in the bleakest places, and to bear witness to the divine hope that meets us there. We need this God who struggles with us, accompanies us, who sustains survival, now more than ever. In a week when a second police officer was acquitted in the shooting death of an African American man (this time in Milwaukee), a week in which a local family has now buried Mike Lefiti, a UPS driver known and beloved by so many in this neighborhood, we need to feel the presence of this God who promises to be present with, to sustain, all who find themselves in the wilderness. And in this season and weekend of Pride, we are also invited to celebrate those who have survived in the wilderness, to celebrate the witness of the God who stands in the margins, in the most difficult places. We are invited to answer the call to bear witness with our lives, our streamers, our rainbow colors, our tee-shirts, our feet, our wheelchairs, our very bodies, that God continues to stands with those who struggle, that God will continue to walk with those on the margins, will sustain us when “tipping points” tip back. We do this giving thanks that God in Christ has immersed Godself in our lives, has taken up our heartbreaks, our pain, and our struggle. We bear witness that having been baptized into Christ’s death, as Paul describes in his letter to the Romans, we must also “consider ourselves” -- discover ourselves – “alive to God” (Rom 6:11).
On Friday afternoon and evening I made my way to the Sacred Space tent at the Trans March. Sacred Space, as you know from hearing Daniel Borysewicz on Pentecost, is a ministry to and among the LGBTIQ community, which we support here at St. Aidan’s. I stood with several other religious leaders from various traditions, hanging out at the threshold to the tent as people made their way by. Across from our space was the tent of an organization called Trans Lifeline which is “dedicated to the well being of transgender people,” particularly those in crisis and who are in danger of self-harm. There I met a fellow trans man, parent, and theologian, a strong trans lifeline supporter Adam Ackley (here is his Huffington Post profile), who lost his job at a Christian university when he was outed as trans in 2013. He and I had connected over email when his story broke in the news that fall, and had collaborated on a project with the poet and scholar Joy Ladin, but we had never met in person. How moving it was to finally, serendipitously, speak face to face (he does not live in the Bay Area). How moving it was to connect with trans folks, parents, partners, and friends of trans folks who came up, talked, gave hugs. How beautiful it was to hear the music rising up from the stage at the front of Dolores Park—filled with energy, joy, anger, life. So much beautiful defiance, such healing and community. To me the God of life, of sustenance, the God who meets us in the wilderness, was very much present, flowing through all of this. That God was there, inviting us to live, to grow, to thrive, and to celebrate, now more than ever.
 As Samantha Allen summarized in her Daily Beast article of March 31, 2017, “Whatever Happened to the Transgender Tipping Point?” http://www.thedailybeast.com/whatever-happened-to-the-transgender-tipping-point
 In 2014 the number was at least 12; in 2015 it was at least 24; in 2016 it was at least 22. In all likelihood these numbers are conservative. For more information, see https://mic.com/unerased/database
 See https://www.glaad.org/blog/glaad-calls-increased-and-accurate-media-coverage-transgender-murders and https://mic.com/unerased
 For an explanation of this legislative effort as of June 9, 2017, see: https://apps.texastribune.org/texas-bathroom-bill-annotated/
 Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness (New York: Maryknoll, 1993, 2013), 18-19.
 Williams, 4. Italics mine.
 Williams, 5.
 Kay Nolan and Julie Bosman, “Milwaukee Officer Is Acquitted in Killing of Sylville Smith”, New York Times, June 21, 2017 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/21/us/milwaukee-police-shooting-trial-protest.html
 Sarah Ravani and Evan Sernoffsky, “Slain UPS driver Mike Lefiti ‘was always there for you’”, San Francisco Chronicle, June 15, 2017 http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/UPS-shooting-victim-Mike-Lefiti-was-always-11220588.php