It seems that every night on the news, there is some story involving religion, often a story involving religious intolerance or persecution by one group or another; these stories are a steady reminder that even if most of our friends and family are part of our own faith tradition, the world is filled with many who are part of myriad other religious traditions. This lesson from Genesis, in which we hear the story of Abraham’s slave Hagar and their son Ishmael who would go on to be a forefather of Islam, reminds us that the conflicts we read about in the newspapers and hear about on our evening news are not simply modern conflicts, but rather ancient conflicts. And so, when we consider difficult passages such as this one, we must remember that it is not just a moment in history we are reading about, but rather part of an ancient struggle that continues to this day.
Yet, despite how difficult this story can be when we consider its broader implications, it is also filled with hope, as God hears and responds to the cries of Hagar. Although she and her son were cast out by Abraham, God was listening and provided the wellspring that sustained Hagar and Ishmael.
- In times of hardship, how do you interact with God? Do you call out to God in your pain, or do you quietly rest in your sorrow alone? The next time you are struggling or you feel as though God may be distant, remember Hagar, and consider setting aside a few extra minutes to talk through your hardships with God.
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
This week’s psalm reminds us that having a relationship with God cannot be limited to only petition or only praise, but rather must be a balance of these two acts. The psalmist’s petitions for God to “bow down,” “keep watch,” “be merciful” and “gladden the soul” are followed by the statement that “You, O Lord, are good and forgiving, and great is your love toward all who call upon you” (v. 5). This back-and-forth of petition and praise continues throughout the psalm and concludes, fittingly, with the statement that God has already acted, as the psalmist notes, “You, O Lord, have helped me and comforted me” (v. 17).
- How do you understand the relationship between petition and praise? In your own prayer life, are petition and praise an either/or proposition for you, or do you understand them as a both/and entity?
- This psalm wonderfully complements the reading from Genesis and, in a sense, seems to give voice to the cries of Hagar we read about earlier. As you are studying this week’s lessons, consider revisiting the Genesis text after studying this psalm and imagining Hagar’s situation as though the pleas from the psalmist are her words. By giving word to Hagar’s cries, is your experience of this story changed?
At first glance, this lesson from Romans can feel a little heavy. With seven references to sin and five references to death, this just does not seem like a pleasant or happy little passage. Yet, in this passage, Paul is explaining how, through Christ, our lives are not limited to sin and death. Rather, through the grace of God, we may be united with Christ and escape the bonds of sin and death.
While it may seem like the answer (be united with Jesus) is simple enough, it can be harder to tell what this passage is talking about. Must we literally die to sin in order to be united with Christ? Are our old selves actually crucified, with a cross and nails just as Jesus experienced?
Buried amidst all these references to sin and death, though, is one brief but important statement: “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” (v.4).
For Paul, baptism is the answer to all the confusing questions that this passage may raise for us. It is through baptism that we are united with Christ and come to share in the joy of the resurrection, but also how we come to participate in Christ’s death. Unlike Christ’s death, however, the death that we encounter through baptism is not a literal, physical death, but rather a death to our old selves. Baptism marks new life, new beginnings and a transformation of the self, a transformation that is only possible through the grace of God.
- In this passage, we hear that we are united with Christ through baptism, but what does baptism mean to you? If you are baptized, does baptism play a role in your identity? How has baptism played a part in your life so far?
If anyone has an idea of Jesus being meek or mild, this week’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew must surely disabuse him or her of that notion. In what is another difficult lesson, we encounter Jesus preaching what could almost be considered a rallying cry against unity, or so it seems. Indeed, we hear Jesus proclaim, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” (vv. 35-36).
Ultimately, this passage teaches us that following Christ and living a life of faith will not always be easy and that, sometimes, doing what is right may cause conflict or damage relationships. Yet, ultimately, we will be rewarded for doing what is right and be acknowledged before God (v. 32).
- Consider times in your own life when you have been faced with conflict or with a situation in which you had to take a stand against family or friends. How did you handle the situation, and how did you feel?
- In times of conflict, taking a stand is one matter, but ensuring you are engaging conflict in a loving and respectful way can be particularly difficult. How does God shape these difficult interactions in your life and provide guidance for your relationships?