Today we hear the story of Ishmael and Isaac, the two half-brothers. When I lived in a society in which some men married multiple wives, siblings introduced each other this way: “Same father, same mother,” or “Same father, different mother.” Isaac and Ishmael were “same father, different mother.” The mothers’ animosity and jealousy caused Abraham to expel Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, from the family.
As children, the half-brothers loved each other. They played together for endless hours, but were abruptly separated. Join me in imagining their encounter many years later, after their distant memories have faded.
As Isaac is traveling one day, he sees a stranger walking toward him. Drawing near to each other, Isaac and Ishmael stop. Even though they do not recognize each other, even though their cultures inculcate animosity, even though their religions nurture suspicion, there is something that makes them stop. There is some attraction, some hint of a bond, some intuition that causes each to pause and look intently at the other. Their eyes meet. Neither speaks. The son of Sarah and the son of Hagar, the sons of Abraham, pause with the destiny of generations in the balance. Will they greet their long-lost brother, or go their separate ways?
In passing by each other, Ishmael and Isaac remain strangers, their sense of brotherhood exclusive and politicized, like The Brotherhood in Egypt today. Many Christians and Muslims descended from Ishmael. The Palestinian and Israeli conflict results from the sons of Abraham turning away from each other. The violence in Iraq between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and the severe risk Iraqi Christians face today are examples of not recognizing the familial bonds given by God, transacted by Jesus Christ, and urged by the Spirit.
You and I are often caught in Isaac/Ishmael moments of decision, aren’t we? Do we turn away, or greet the other? I was particularly aware of such moments while visiting St. Patrick, in Haiti. The people of St. Patrick and I encountered each other as sister and brother. Such deep familial bonds of love derive from the unity of the Trinity, whom we honored last week, in which God is three distinct persons always and eternally united in one communion and fellowship.
As absurd as it sounds, such an encounter can even be the start of world peace. Not only is there the “butterfly effect” that we’re aware of, but more profoundly there is also the Kingdom of God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
Last week I joked with a clergy friend who is pregnant that she should wear a shirt that reads, “Growing the Church, one baby at a time.” God grows the Kingdom of Peace one relationship at a time. Such Gospel relationships are politically revolutionary. We need only look at Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., or Mother Teresa to witness the integration of personal and political relationships.
The other choice in our imaginary encounter between the two brothers is for Ishmael and Isaac to greet each other as the brothers they are. At such moments, the Kingdom of God breaks forth like a green sprout breaking the surface of the earth. Desmond Tutu learned he was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace while teaching at my seminary. Classes were suspended, as we were called to chapel by the ringing of the bells. After our prayers, Desmond gave a spontaneous, heartfelt meditation on world peace. Later that day a friend of mine went to Frankie’s, the corner store owned by Frankie and Mama, for a cup of coffee. My friend asked where Frankie was, and their employee José pointed to the curtain at the back. My friend pulled back the curtain to find Frankie and Desmond sitting on crates facing each other, sharing a coffee break. The world leader and the simple merchant knew each other as brothers. Later, Desmond Tutu witnessed to the love of Christ in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by which a nation was healed of apartheid through forgiveness that came one relationship at a time.
Abraham sent away his son to die of thirst in the wilderness. Oh, how we sometimes treat each other! But God provided a well of fresh water, and pronounced the promise of a great nation. God calls us through Jesus Christ to participate in the deep reconciliation of the world. For in recognizing the stranger, the tourist, the refugee, the immigrant, as a sister, as a brother, we fulfill Christ’s mission of love.
The Rev. Rick Matters, preached at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Carmel