“In this week on war and warriors, my expertise is in the messy realm of human relationships where peace and war begin. We can work to welcome peace, reconciliation and right relationship or not,” said the Rev. Amy K. Butler at the 9:15 a.m. Friday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. Her sermon title was “Graveside” and the Scripture reading was Genesis 21:14-21 and 25:7-10, the story of Hagar and Ishmael in the desert.
After the coming of her promised child, Isaac, Sarah had a hard time welcoming Hagar and Ishmael at her table, Butler said. It was a violent breach that was not reconciled until Isaac and Ishmael met at their father Abraham’s grave.
The bottom line for Sarah, Butler said, was that Isaac was the son of the promise and Ishmael and Hagar had to go. Suddenly, the promise was only for Sarah’s son and Hagar and Ishmael were put out of the camp with no protection.
“This is what happens when we forget that God’s love is for the whole world. It happened in Germany in World War II and Rwanda in 1994,” Butler said. “We know what happened. Sarah’s agenda meant more to her than God’s agenda of love, peace and reconciliation of the whole world.”
Sarah thought she would be just fine on her own, with the people she invited to her table, with her given son. She did not think she needed Hagar and Ishmael anymore, but the boundaries of God’s love included them as well as Abraham, Sarah and Isaac. It was the same thing when the prodigal son came home. The gossip and prejudice of the community kept them from participating in peace, reconciliation and right relationship.
“As long as my position is the most important, that will blind me to yours. We think that God’s promise is just for us and people like us, but we forget that when we live in a desert, that can’t be done,” she said. “I need you, you need me, we all need each other and if I put you out, I make the same mistake as Abraham and Sarah.”
In the final scene of the story, Isaac and Ishmael are reconciled at Abraham’s grave.
“Is this what it takes to bring us together? What is our agenda? The moment we implement our agenda and prejudice over God’s agenda, peace begins to unravel,” Butler said. “God’s plan of love is wider and more all encompassing than the limited agendas we think are right.”
God blessed Hagar and Ishmael with the same blessing as Abraham and Sarah, to build a great nation from them.
“God is always at work fulfilling the promise in our lives. God extended the boundaries of safety over Hagar and Ishmael,” Butler said. “For those who hold their boundaries close, God is always pushing them out; God calls us to radical inclusion.”
Butler visited Ferguson, Missouri, after it was announced there would be no trial of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown. She and a group of church leaders flew to St. Louis and immersed themselves in the flawed educational, justice and other systems. They met with young community organizers.
“They knew they were talking to faith leaders, but that did not impress them. They were saying to us, ‘The church is not showing up. It has no relevance for the brokenness and despair that covers my existence,’ ” she said. “After all the churches have been doing, why were they not stopping Michael Brown from dying?”
Butler’s group visited the new police station in Ferguson. Outside were National Guard troops in riot gear and across the pavement were peaceful protesters.
“It was not more than 20 feet and the space was filled with the dark nights of tear gas and smashed storefronts, injustice and the broken systems of life,” Butler said. “That narrow gap held the original sin of our nation and of our humanity.”
She questioned how people will make peace when they clutch prejudice so tightly.
“Will it only be at a graveside?” she said. “You and I want to be followers of the God who saw the boundaries Abraham set and said, ‘Oh, no. This will not work. These boundaries are too limiting for me. My love extends beyond the parameters of what you think.’ ”
If we are followers of such a radical God, then we are part of the promise and we need to proclaim it with clarity, she said. We have to remind the world of God’s love.
“Sarah could not and the community of the prodigal son could not. I wonder if we can do it. I invite you one more time. We make the choice every single day,” she said. “Are we so entrenched that we can’t see beyond our outrage, to see beyond to a world that desperately needs peace, reconciliation and right relationship?”
Chautauqua is a magical place, she said, the best of what can be, given with generosity and affection.
“Can we extend this feeling beyond this community so we don’t have to meet for the first time across a grave?” she said.
Butler closed with a poem by artist and author Jan Richardson, a United Methodist Church minister and director of the Wellspring Studio:
Forgive us, God, when we live our lives within the lines,
When we say
this is the shape of our work
this is the boundary of our habitation
these are the limits to our love
these are the lines of our vision
these, and none other.
Draw us beyond our patterns into yours;
casting forth, and welcoming home.
The Rev. Carmen Perry presided. The Rev. Peggy O’Connor, vice president of the Chautauqua UCC Society and an intentional interim pastor living on Cape Cod, read the Scripture. The Chautauqua Strings, 51 young adult musicians from Pittsburgh at Chautauqua for Orchestra Camp, premiered Hannah Ishizaki’s “Light In Isolation.” The Chautauqua Strings joined the Motet Choir, both under the direction of Edward Leonard, for the anthem “Offertory” by John Ness Beck. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, provided accompaniment on the Massey Memorial Organ. The John William Tyrrell Endowment for Religion provided support for this week’s services.