by Danny Bradfield
lectionary text for 6/22: Genesis 21:8-21
Less than two months ago, I began a new ministry. The congregation I now pastor is in many ways a typical Disciples congregation. It has wonderful people, and a nice mix of ages, although members would like the number of people to grow, especially among the younger age groups.
Thus far, a big part of my job has been getting to know the people of this congregation. In doing so, I am also becoming familiar with that all-too-familiar component in our churches: the struggles for power. Nearly every congregation has had power struggles among its members. Usually, the members learn to deal with—or at least live with—these struggles. However, sometimes they can be damaging.
The conflict between Sarah and Hagar (Genesis 21: 8-21) bears many of the characteristics of a power struggle. Sarah has observed her son, Isaac, playing with Ishmael, the son of Hagar, and has become jealous. Isaac and Ishmael are both sons of Abraham. The question is, which one will be the heir, the one to carry on the line of Abraham, the one to receive the rights and blessings of the first-born son?
Muslims today trace their heritage to Abraham through Ishmael, and insist that he is the heir. He was the oldest, and even though he was born to Hagar, ancient Mesopotamian law would have considered him to be Sarah’s son.
Jews and Christians, on the other hand, trace their heritage to Abraham through Isaac. They insist that Isaac is the rightful heir, the one whose birth fulfilled the promise God made to Abraham and Sarah that they would have a child of their own.
In many ways, the power struggle that developed between Sarah and Hagar continues in the power struggles that exist between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. They are struggles that threaten the peace and even existence of the planet. And how does God feel about this? According to Genesis, the quarrel between Sarah & Hagar was “very distressing” to Abraham, and it seems to me that our current struggles and quarrels must certainly be “very distressing” to God.
Quarrels and power struggles are always distressing, not only to those directly involved, but to everyone in the family/community. Parents fight, and their children suffer. Nations wage war, and innocents die. Church members quarrel, and even those not directly involved feel the effects.
In our church (and in many others), there is a part of the worship service called the “Passing of the Peace.” One member recently disclosed to me that he didn’t like “all that hugging” in the middle of worship, that such greetings and signs of affection should take place “outside the sanctuary,” either before worship in the narthex or afterward during our time of fellowship.
His comments made me think that perhaps the theological reason for including a “Passing of the Peace” is lost on many worshipers. Reconciliation has always been an important part of the Christian message. To paraphrase: “When you come to the place of worship, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave the place of worship and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come to worship” (Matthew 5:24). The “Passing of the Peace” is a gesture of the type of reconciliation Jesus describes. It suggests that, sometimes, the “brother or sister” with whom reconciliation is needed is there in the sanctuary. As a part of the worship service, it is most especially needed when there are power struggles in the church—and when isn’t there a power struggle of some sort going on?—as a reminder that whatever struggles and differences exist among us, they aren’t enough to divide us. We’re united in Christ.
The “Passing of the Peace” also serves as a model to be practiced with those outside the sanctuary walls with whom we need reconciliation.
The conflicts of the children are distressing to the parent. As the father of two boys, I know this. Abraham, also the father of two boys, knew this as well. And God, the parent of all the earth’s children, knows this, too. How much joy, then, can we bring to God by being reconciled with our brothers and sisters!