Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Do the Right Thing

Exodus 2:1-10, Romans 12:1-8
Have you ever seen something that needed to be done?  Some sort of action that need to be taken that you know would enable another person’s situation and life to be just a bit better?   But, for some reason, you hesitated because you didn’t know if they really wanted the help, or your didn’t want to offend them, maybe you just didn’t want to stick your neck out or maybe it just wasn’t clear to you if it was the right thing to do.  Probably we all have at some point in time passed up that momentary opportunity.  And, if you’re like me you spend the rest of the day kicking yourself for not taking action.

But sometimes you just have to take action and do the right thing risking vulnerability, without second-guessing yourself or asking permission.  Because it is the right action to take at the time, and you have used your best judgment considering all of the facts and given the circumstances.

I could have very easily entitled this sermon ‘Five Mothers and a Baby’ since there are five prominent women who take the opening two chapters of the Book of Exodus by storm.  Prior in Exodus there are the two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah and then three unnamed women of which we will hear more about in a minute.  All heroin’s in her own right.  All chose and took a course of action that would change the events and the lives of the people around them.  May their vision and hearts be blessed for their trust and courage.

The Book of Exodus opens with a new King arising over Egypt.  He could care less about Joseph, the favored of Jacob’s twelve sons.  In fact Joseph and his whole generation were long gone.  This was bad for the Israelites who, by now, were tipping the population charts in their favor.  And this population explosion did not make for a happy Pharaoh so he made their lives miserable, more miserable than usual. Forced labor, imposing menial and backbreaking tasks, Pharaoh was ruthless.

So he orders the midwives of the Hebrew people, Shiphrah and Puah, to murder all of their male children right after birth.  But they did not.  They loved God, they feared God and they let the little boy babies live. 

Pharaoh yelled at them, “Why did you do this?”.  They pleaded, “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women”.  “The Hebrew women give birth too fast before any respecting midwife can get to them.”  Sneaky?  Yes!  The truth?  No!  Did they save lives?  Most definitely!

Shiphrah and Puah stood up to the mighty Pharaoh with their civil disobedience, and then blessed by God they had families of their own and the Hebrew people became even more prolific and strong.  They exercised sober judgment and upheld what was right and good for their people no matter the cost to them.  They didn’t look back; they acted quickly and saved lives.

But as we see Pharaoh continued on his murderous rampage even with what Shiphrah and Puah did and life dragged on for the Hebrew people and the baby boys were still in danger.  Let’s pick up Exodus the 2nd chapter and back to the Hebrew people.

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.  The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him for three months.  When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river.

His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.  The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it.  When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. ‘This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,’ she said.

Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?’ Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Yes.’ So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.’ So the woman took the child and nursed it.  When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son.  She named him Moses, ‘because’, she said, ‘I drew him out of the water.’

Here now enters three more women, all unnamed.  There was the mother of Moses who, later in chapter 6 is named as Yocheved.  There was Pharaoh’s daughter who was the Princess and then there was Moses’ sister whom we later know to be Miriam.  But for now, we don’t know anything of these women.  All we know about is their motherly acts toward this little baby boy.  It doesn’t matter whether one was the birth mother and the others adoptive mothers, all, in some way acted as a loving mother to Moses and secured, unknowingly, the future of the Hebrew people, the Israelites.

God had a very large stake in our story from Exodus.  God’s providential handprints are all over this story of mothers – birth mothers, adoptive mothers and siblings who chose to seize the moment, to do the right thing, and act in a ‘Godly’ manner.    They are the ones who will love and nurture Moses, the eventual leader of the Israelites who will bring them out of slavery to the Promised Land. These women were open to promoting goodness and love and they too, like Shiphrah and Puah exercised sober judgment for this future leader.  I don’t think their actions were just willy-nilly.  They were carefully, well thought out actions that allowed for this transformation from possible death to life. 

It was Moses birth mother Yocheved who unselfishly let him float away in that little basket so that he could have a chance at life. This was a decision made with compassionate love and sobering judgment for the good of her child. 

It was his sister Miriam who so lovingly protected him and watched out for him when his own mother couldn’t be there.  She left the familiar, the comforts of her home and family to be with little  Moses – a big decision for someone so young.

It was Pharaoh’s daughter who was able to nurture him and provide for him, and who was kindhearted towards him, who took him in as her own.  Through these women God’s compassionate and maternal nature is shown.  It is through their decisive and mindful actions, their willingness to do the right thing that God could grow and solidify the eventual covenantal relationship between a people and an ethical, monotheistic God.

They sacrificed much and gained so much more that affirms the creative presence of God in this world.  Oh that we all could make decent decisions that uplift God’s truth and love and that God’s presence may be experienced and understood.

But sometimes we just don’t, do we?  For whatever reason we fail to take some action because our minds just have gone a little dull or we’ve become complacent with the world as it is thinking someone else will step up to that proverbial plate.  That’s the way it is sometimes but it doesn’t have to be.  I am reminded of a quote in part by the Jewish scholar Hillel, “If not now, when?”  If you don’t take action now, when will you?

I think the apostle Paul could have had this in mind when he wrote his Epistle to the Romans, after all he was of the school of Hillel in Jerusalem.  Sound judgment and a renewal of the mind is what he urges those early Christ followers in his Epistle which reads:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.  Romans 12: 1-3 

He then punctuates this passage noting that the body of Christ has many members with many gifts all functioning as one.

What Paul is saying is to not do or think what most of the world would do, or think, or say but let God be the one to guide you and change the way you think and act.  Let the precepts of God be your guide when making decisions in how you will conduct your life.  Sober judgment doesn’t mean thinking to the extreme right or left because we know that can build up tight barriers that are impermeable.  Sober judgment is to make judgments that are well thought out and well reasoned even though you have considered all of the facts.  It is to be transformed by the renewal of your mind.  We know ‘a mind is a terrible thing to waste’, as the moniker of the United Negro College Fund reminded us in 1972.  So we are urged to renew our minds in God’s love and God’s law.

For Paul there was a lot gone wrong in his Greco-Roman world, which is why he is always rather outspoken in scripture.  There was a lot that took up space in his mind just as there is much that takes up our minds today.  All you have to do is read the paper or watch the news to know that racism, anti-Semitism, hatred and fear are not things of the past but are forces that threaten us still.  But we can’t give in or give up.  A renewal of the mind as Paul talks about summons us to discern carefully God’s intentions, what is good and acceptable, what is equitable and loving and to act accordingly, doing the right thing.

If we say we are a part of the body of Christ then we have a stake in the welfare of each of our brothers and sisters, then we must do our utmost to carry out God’s commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves, which includes slow, deliberate, and sober judgment in all of our actions.

In the book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, we find the true story of a protestant pastor, Rev Andre Trocme, and his congregation and town of Le Chambon, France.  During World War II when the Germans occupied Southern France, Trocme led this town to peacefully resist the Germans and to give refuge to thousands of Jews who were seeking shelter for their lives and others who resisted the forces of fascism. 

But this type of response wouldn’t have just happened overnight for Le Chambon.  It happened over time because Trocme built an ethic within the congregation – a very firm foundation.  It was an ethic that took to heart the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount – to thirst for justice, to be merciful to all, to be pure in heart, that is to have hearts whose moral intentions are unpolluted from worldly temptations and always focused on God. 

It was their natural response to God’s involvement in this world.  This ethic was not just a sprinkling of benevolent goodness all over town…. it was pervasive, in the ethos of how they ordered their lives. They said: "Things had to be done and we happened to be there to do them. It was the most natural thing in the world to help these people."  In essence, like Shiphrah, like Puah, like Yocheved, like Miriam, like Pharaoh’s daughter they did the right thing.

Having renewed minds was the moral meaning and existence of Trocme’s parish, and ultimately this towns life.  Trocme laid a very firm and functional foundation – and their actions were part and parcel of this foundation based on the teachings of Jesus.  They heard and they acted the message of the gospel.   Their minds were transformed and renewed.

Let us today pray for peace and transformation in our hearts and minds so that we might show some degree of understanding and love.  And let us pray for peace and transformation in the hearts of others also so that shalom, wholeness and healing may begin.  So that when the time comes, we may do the right thing.


Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Risk Takers

July 9, 2017                                                                                                Genesis 24:selected verses

People will do anything (almost) to find a spouse.  Someone with whom you can grow old with, enjoy life with, kick back and feel the ocean breezes with.  Perhaps you used a matchmaker like Tzeitel from the movie, “Fiddler on the Roof” or used Match.com or Plenty of Fish, or Speed dating, or even the old fashioned ‘blind date’ to find your lover and friend.  Maybe your marriage was an arranged marriage, which still happens in some cultures.

When I speak with couples who are about to married it’s always interesting and intriguing to me to hear how they met because people meet in all ways.  Some meet by happenstance and some work very hard to capture the heart of someone else.  There are many stories that are each so wonderfully captured and remembered by the couple. 

Today’s scripture is just that.  It’s the story of how Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah, and Rebekah came to be husband and wife.  Each generation has to discover God’s faithfulness and promise anew and now it is Isaac’s turn.  The metaphorical torch has been passed.

We are following the Ancestral Stories of Abraham and Sarah in the Book of Genesis that will continue throughout the summer.  Last week we heard about the binding of Isaac and previous to that Abraham banishing Hagar and their Ishmael from the tent and then we heard about Sarah and her unlikely pregnancy at a very advanced age.  She laughs at the idea, but God delivers her a beautiful son Isaac, who is Abraham’s heir to the covenant.  So really we are due some happy stories

Now Isaac is all grown up, about forty years old scholars estimate and it is time for him to be a marryin’!  The $64,000 question is, ‘where do I get a wife’?  And that is what the entirety of Chapter 24 is about in the Book of Genesis.   FYI, Chapter 24 is the longest chapter in the Book of Genesis, and that’s for free!!  So now let me recap the beginning.

Abraham was old and richly blessed - read - rich.  He commands his servant to get a wife for Isaac, his 40 year old bachelor son, NOT from the land of Canaan, a foreign land but a wife from their homeland, the home of his ‘peeps’ in the 21st century vernacular.  There was some negotiating between Abraham and the servant takes off confident that if he could not deliver a wife under Abraham’s condition he wouldn’t be held responsible. Fair enough!  That was a tall order that Abraham give so this was a good deal.  It was also promised that an angel would accompany him.   And so the servant set out with camels, riches, lots of gifts and some heavenly guidance.

He arrives at the city of Nahor and cleverly goes to the well in the middle of the city to water his camels because that is where the women went to gather water.   Reading from the Contemporary English Version we continue with the story and I will intersperse some comments in between this lengthy passage.

The servant explained:

I am Abraham’s servant. The Lord has been good to my master and has made him very rich. He has given him many sheep, goats, cattle, camels, and donkeys, as well as a lot of silver and gold, and many slaves. Sarah, my master’s wife, didn’t have any children until she was very old. Then she had a son, and my master has given him everything. I solemnly promised my master that I would do what he said. And he told me, “Don’t choose a wife for my son from the women in this land of Canaan. Instead, go back to the land where I was born and find a wife for my son from among my relatives.” 

Interestingly enough this story is told from the servants perspective...and we’ll see that he is a man of faith and a loyal man to his master Abraham.  And yet in our scripture the servant had a penchant for repeating himself….

When I came to the well today, I silently prayed, “You, Lord, are the God my master Abraham worships, so please lead me to a wife for his son while I am here at the well. When a young woman comes out to get water, I’ll ask her to give me a drink. If she gives me a drink and offers to get some water for my camels, I’ll know she is the one you have chosen.”

Even before I had finished praying, Rebekah came by with a water jar on her shoulder. When she had filled the jar, I asked her for a drink. She quickly lowered the jar from her shoulder and said, “Have a drink. Then I’ll get water for your camels.” So I drank, and after that she got some water for my camels. I asked her who her father was, and she answered, “My father is Bethuel (Be - tu - el') the son of Nahor and Milcah.” Right away I put the ring in her nose and the bracelets on her arms. Then I bowed my head and gave thanks to the God my master Abraham worships. The Lord had led me straight to my master’s relatives, and I had found a wife for his son.

So Rebekah then runs to her mother’s household and her brother and father appear.   The text repeats the entire story of what just happened thus far.  This is often the case when a story from the oral tradition finally gets recorded on papyrus.  It was repetitive so that the listener could remember the details and so we can really understand what is going on.  And then the servant asks of her father and brother:

Now please tell me if you are willing to do the right thing for my master. Will you treat him fairly, or do I have to look for another young woman?

They called her and asked, “Are you willing to leave with this man right now?”

“Yes,” she answered.

So they agreed to let Rebekah and an old family servant woman leave immediately with Abraham’s servant and his men.

They gave Rebekah their blessing and said, “We pray that God will give you many children and grandchildren and that he will help them defeat their enemies.” Afterwards, Rebekah and the young women who were to travel with her prepared to leave. Then they got on camels and left with Abraham’s servant and his men.

At that time Isaac was living in the southern part of Canaan near a place called Be - er'   la - chai'  ro - ee', or “The Well of the Living One Who Sees Me.” One evening he was walking out in the fields, when suddenly he saw a group of people approaching on camels. So he started toward them. Rebekah saw him coming; she got down from her camel, and asked, “Who is that man?”

“He is my master Isaac,” the servant answered. Then Rebekah covered her face with her veil.  The servant told Isaac everything that had happened.

Isaac took Rebekah into the tent where his mother had lived before she died, and Rebekah became his wife. He loved her and was comforted over the loss of his mother.

Ahh, what a beautiful story.  If we were to stop here that would be enough!  Isaac finds a wife, his servant has done an exemplary job of being faithful and obedient to his master’s word, and God’s covenant, and we could intuit that there would be enough progeny as there are stars in the magnificent sky. Because God keeps the promises that God makes.  This is the story of faith, obedience, and love.

But beyond that when we dig deeper, this is a story of taking risks and leaving home, leaving that place which brings you comfort and a safe harbor..  Isaac’s servant travels a distance to find the perfect bride.  He leaves home in order to fulfill his obligations to Isaac.  Rebekah offers extraordinary hospitality to a stranger, she leaves her comfort zone and risks talking to a stranger.  They both take big risks and they both leave home or their comfort zones which is what I think our learning is for today.

Leaving home can be interpreted in different ways if literally taken.  A five year old leaves home and trot’s off to kindergarten.  A preteen goes on an overnight somewhere else for the very first time.  A high school graduate leaves home to seek his or her fortune at college and gets her own apartment.  All of these seem like natural and positive leave takings.

But I think it is so much more because what is home?  It is a place where we are comfortable.  A place that you don’t have to think to much about, a place where you can ‘scratch where it itches’ sort of place, a place where routine becomes carved in stone sometimes and we really don’t have to change. Or perhaps it is a place that we hide from the outside world or our own feelings.  Now it gets trickier doesn’t it?  Because this scripture asks for complete and utter honesty to consider departing from that confining place that are so comfortable in to a place where we might experience complete freedom.  

The servant had to leave home in order to fulfill Abraham’s request of him.  And he did.  Rebekah had to leave home in order to become Isaac’s wife.  And she did.  Both left home, their ‘happy places’ and what they knew, for what was yet to be.  And God blessed them both, indeed God was with them both as they set their course for the future.  It took guts.  It took chutzpah!
But they had to take the first step.  Indeed Rebekah took a big step. She risked leaving her family and her surroundings because she had faith and because she believed that her life would be better and would fulfill the great good of God’s purposes. 

Sometimes risks need to be taken.  And I don’t mean ‘Evil Kneval’ risks or risks that could bring harm or injury to yourself or another.  I mean risks that could show you a whole new horizon for your life.  It’s easy to become complacent with your life and not push beyond the quotidian moments and happenings.  But there could be so much more out there for you.

I believe that God wants us to fulfill our highest potential; that is to dream big and go after it.  To have the courage and faith to chase after something that is just out of reach because you just never know how it may change your life and maybe even change the world and those you love. 

Believe with your heart that God will be with you during these times of transition and change.  And then go forward step by step if you have to, with God’s guidance and God’s presence.  There is not one place that you can go that God has not already been.  If you believe that God is everywhere then God has been to where you are headed, you need not fear.

Isaac and Rebekah marry and are blessed with many children, two of which we will hear about next week, all because she risked her present for her future.


With Eyes Uplifted

Genesis 22:1-14                                                                                                July 2, 2017

Today we continue with the second of several stories from the Book of Genesis as we settle into the summer lectionary readings.  We are exploring the saga of Abraham and Sarah and their descendents.  These are complex stories and ones that will, no doubt, make your eyebrows life, your face cringe at the very least and be utterly repulsed in every sense of the word. 

There is a part of me that asks, ‘What made me think this was a good idea to use these lectionary scripture readings?’  Good question.  But I tend to not shrink from challenges and so we continue because they are the stories of our faith and because they confront us with some unpleasant realities and push us to a greater level of thinking.  They invite us to go deeper into our relationship with God as we explore what it means to be a person of faith.

Today is about the binding or sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s son.  You’d think last week’s text would be enough.  That was a harsh moment in the life of Sarah and Abraham not to mention Hagar and Ishmael banishment to the desert and Ishmael’s brush with death.  And yet God saved, God sent a well for Hagar to draw from averting Ishmael’s death and giving him life.  So these are the things that the author refers to when we begin the passage for today.

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.

Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

Artists have depicted and theologians have written about the binding of Isaac.  There have been many images throughout years of this story.  There is a poignant Donatello statue sculpted in 1418 depicting Isaac at the mercy of his father, Rembrandt’s painting of the Sacrifice of Isaac in 1635 is equally as emotional with the ethereal angel’s light shining upon the face of Isaac and Abraham. Chagall’s image in red, blue and browns shows a strong image of deliverance with the crucifixion in the background.   

And George Segal, sculptor designed the memorial for Kent State killings in 1970 that equate the killings at Kent State to the sacrifice of Isaac pointing out the moral injury of such killings.  Rashi, a Jewish commentator from the 10th century made comment, and theologian/philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote a book entitled ‘Fear and Trembling’, in which he sets forth the idea of the “theological suspension of the ethical” or the challenge of the moral system for the sake of a higher law.  All this to say, the sacrifice of Isaac has haunted us for thousands of years and it indeed asks us to suspend any ethical or moral fibers that are threaded within our psyche so that we can pull out meaning for our lives and I believe this too is that what God asks Abraham to do. 

Let’s put it in context.  Abraham has lost Ishmael, the son he fathered with Hagar the slave woman to Sarah. Now he is asked by God to sacrifice Isaac, his long awaited for son, the son promised to Abraham and Sarah while they were in their 90’s – the son that was supposed to be the progenitor of great nations.  Another test?

What is important here is that we have to remember that Abraham and Sarah are living in a time and place where there were many, many gods, with a small g.  Pearl S. Buck has an interesting interpretation on this scripture, she says, “God had one more test for Abraham and it was a difficult one.  The Lord taught his people that he required their complete faith and love, even their lives, and that they should be willing to offer anything to ‘him’ [sic]”.[i] So listening to or being persuaded by the surrounding polytheistic culture wasn’t going to cut it for God.

And also, the Lord said that they should not shed the blood of another that a burnt offering from the flock given freely is enough.  The sacrifice of a human and especially a beloved child was wrong in the eyes of God. Let’s get that straight.  God was not like the other gods.  God wanted to be sure that Abraham understood this while he proved his love and faith. So God asks for faith and love and to give of our lives but not in the sense of killing.  God wanted Abraham to be sure he got it, hence the test.  Abraham obeyed God but failed the test.  And yet God saves and God continued to love and bless Abraham.

The angel called to Abraham to which he answered, here I am.  The angel lets him know that God now knows that Abraham loves God above all of the other gods out there.  Then, Abraham ‘looks up’ or in the KJV ‘with eyes uplifted’ he sees the ram in the thicket and this is what he is to use to sacrifice. 

He hadn’t noticed it before, it was only at this moment that the ram became apparent to him in plain sight. If ever there was a time to use that platitudinous phrase, “God works in mysterious ways” this would be one of them.  Abraham had to redirect his hand and his thinking away from his son and the awful sacrifice and to undergo a change.  He had to lift up his eyes from what he was doing to see the ram.  You just wonder what went through his head at that moment.

Midrash of the rabbi’s  say that “it isn’t so much about this mountain ram as it is about our own potential to grow in understanding and insight and to find miracles to be grateful for even under the direst of circumstances.”  They suggest that the ram was always there in the sense that God never intended for Abraham to kill Isaac, but the ability to see the ram, to perceive a better choice can be understood as the everyday kind of miracle.[ii]

Miracles occur every day.  It is a matter of how we see and interpret those miracles particularly when we are in the ‘direst of circumstances’.  It’s often when we are in those dark places that it’s real difficult to see, I get that.  It’s hard to see from where any help or relief will come.  It’s tough to understand that there is goodness and hope and that you are not alone when things come crumbling down around you.  And yet there is this ram waiting to be seen.

It’s the miracle of the ram when a sick friend realizes that your phone call to him was all he needed to get through the next hour of pain.  It’s the miracle of the ram when you don’t have enough to cover the rent and your neighbor pays back a debt owed to you.  It’s the miracle of the ram when someone is just there for you, could be a stranger or a friend but they are there compassionately listening to you and lifting you up. 

God is always providing for us, God is always there through miracles seen and unseen.  I once saw a sign that said, ‘Bidden or not, God is present’.  It is a reminder that God’s presence is never far away but only as close as we can see and understand.  While today’s story is one of the more difficult ones it is also one that stands as a stark reminder of this relationship between humans and God and the ways in which we feel tested by life’s troubles but also relieved and redeemed by God’s care. 

“The ram is always there, if we will but lift up our eyes.”[iii]  


[i] Buck, Pearl S.  The Story Bible.
[ii] KOLEL – The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning – Canada’s Reform movement.
[iii] IBID.

God Hears

June 25, 2017                                                                                    Genesis 21: 8-21

God Hears

There is something about summer and reading.  You go on vacation and choose a mystery thriller for the long flight or car ride to your favorite destination, or you pick a romance novel to take you away as you sit in your beach chair sipping iced tea with sunscreen slathered on your body listening to the waves lap up on the sandy shore. Or maybe you decide to read an autobiography or a biography about some influential person or movie star as you get home early from work and relax.

This is to point out that we have these fantasies about summer.  It implies that our days are less rushed, less programmed and far more relaxing so that we can loose ourselves in a ‘good and juicy book’.  So it is with summer preaching, or rather summer preaching from the lectionary.  Often the summer lectionary offers some sort of lengthy saga from the Old Testament such as the many stories of David or in the case of this summer the stories of the descendents of Abraham. 

And so this is what I am going to be preaching from this summer, the likes of Abraham and Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Esau, and Jacob and Rachel.  There are many good nuggets of inspiration for our lives from these stories.  They are not always easy stories to hear and comprehend but they are not to be missed.   No doubt these were the stories of the Hebrew faith that Jesus would have heard and loved growing up.  He probably asked Mary to tell him the story of David and the giant Goliath over and over again because it is a delightful and provocative story to the child’s imagination.

So let’s settle in now as we begin our summer reading from the Old Testament book of Genesis.  I just wish that I could offer you a glass of iced tea so that you could relax in the summer breeze!

A long time ago and in a place very far away a man named Abram was called by God to leave his country, his father’s house and to go to a land that God will show him eventually.  God tells Abram that a great nation will be made out of his descendents.  And so Abram leaves and takes his wife Sarai and they set off and take refuge in Egypt because of a famine.  Many things happen to them during that time, but most notably, Sarai was barren and she so badly wanted a child.  

Out of desperation she calls for her slave-girl Hagar to ‘be with’ Abram so that he may have a child.   Of course Hagar conceives and a son is born to them.  The boy child is named Ishmael.

When Abram was 99 years old God comes to him and makes a sign of a covenant with Abram.  God says, “I will make of you and your offspring a great nation and I will give you the land of Canaan for a perpetual holding.  Each male child shall bear the mark of my covenant by circumcision and your name now will be Abraham and Sarai shall be called Sarah.”  Important ‘God moments’ are marked by name changes in the Bible.

And the blessings continue.  God comes to Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre and tells him that he and Sarah will also have a son.  Sarah conceives and has a son and they name him Isaac.   So in the tent of Abraham now there are two boys who are half brothers, Ishmael and Isaac.  Now things in the tent begin to turn a bit sour.

Let us now pick up the story in Genesis, the 21st chapter.
The child (Isaac) grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’ The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son.

But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named after you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

Not one of Sarah’s better moments, what do you think? But God works with what God has – even us imperfect humans.  God works for a larger, divine purpose in the book of Genesis that we can be sure, these stories are not to be taken in isolation but within the context of God’s story of salvation.

We can figure that Isaac in this scripture reading is between 2and 3 years old because they have just had a festival to celebrate his weaning.  He’s off and running, as they say.  Now I would assume that Sarah was somewhat close to Hagar since Hagar was her ‘right hand’ slave-girl and especially since she lent Hagar to Abraham for a specific purpose.  Once that purpose was fulfilled Ishmael became part of the mishpaha, the family.  It seems that at the point when Isaac was old enough to play with Ishmael that her jealous streak reared its ugly head. 

And what about God in the first part of this passage?  Well to understand why God would endorse her actions you need to understand that earlier God makes a clear distinction between Isaac and Ishmael’s covenants.   

They would both receive a blessing and someday, as Abraham’s sons, they each would become the father of a great nation.  It’s just that this Book of Genesis was written by and for the Hebrew people and Isaac would become the proGENitor of the Jews and ultimately us Christians.  Whereas Ishmael would become the forbearer of the Arab people.  Hence when we talk about the  “Abrahamic” faiths we are talking about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

And so back with the story - Abraham once again, in faith, follows God’s instructions.  Hagar is banished to the desert of Beer-Sheva with her son Ishmael carrying just a few rations.  This is where this passage, for me, becomes heart wrenching. 

Hagar wonders about with little Ishmael and just enough food and water to last them a very short time.  The desert is parching and the sun’s rays are relentless and they are alone.  Hagar separates herself from her child so that he would not hear her cry out of her pain and sorrow and so that she would not have to look upon her dying child.   It is in this deep and throbbing grief that God hears and listens to her cry.

And God asks Hagar in one of the most tender and compassionate moments in the Bible, ‘What troubles you Hagar, do not be afraid, I see you, I hear you and I will save you, take little Ishmael’s hand’.  And her eyes were opened to the well of water in front of them.  Not only did God send a drop of water but and entire well to Hagar so that she and Ishmael could be refreshed and live.  

You see God works through complex and very sad situations and that is why Hagar and Ishmael’s story needs to be told.  We learn that God hears and saves those who are cast out from home and hearth, from the swell of society’s mainstream.  The refugee, the migrant, the other, those of us who feel as if we have been all but forgotten, God sees and hears our cries and saves us.  

Today we know that persecution sadly still exists; it is reported that there are 21million refugees in the world.  These are people like Hagar and Ishmael that are persecuted because of race, religion, social class or group, nationality, political opinion, and are forced to leave their homeland.  Forced to leave everything that they know and love, perhaps other family members, their belongings their security, their very existence just so that they may live fully, freely and safely.  That is a tragic reality that has existed for millennia as we see back from the Israelites being forced to flee Egypt.

We, the US, invite 85,000 refugees – those seeking shelter and safe refuge to come here each year.  This is reported by IRIS (Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services).  Lest you think it is easy for them to get here, it’s not.  They must meet the UN’s definition of a refugee, there’s a background check, a medical examination and they must be sponsored by an authorized agency.  It’s not free ride for them, they take loans out to get here, are fully documented and come with skills but no command of the English language.  Between 500-800 come to CT seeking a safe harbor. 

God has heard their cry; and through resettlement they have been offered a well of water in a parched land.  We can absorb them faithfully, carefully and securely.  For it was Jesus who said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt 22: 31-46), “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone else who has none” (Luke 3: 11), and the apostle Paul who said, “It is a question of fair balance between your present abundance and their needs” (II Corinthians 8: 13-15).

Sometimes I think the only thing that stands between life and death for a refugee is our own prejudice and fear.  There are a lot of ‘reasoned’ arguments for rejecting refugees that discreetly hide biases and preconceptions.  And that is something that each one of us individually and honestly needs to examine.  But we are a people of hope and God will be with you if you chose to engage in this reflection.  God is not distant and aloof, just as God saw and heard Hagar and sent a well, someone or something that will redeem us from ourselves too.

How will you know?  Dawn follows a dark night, spring has always managed to appear after a snowy winter, a shower breaks a hot, hazy and unbearably humid summer’s day, the proof is around us that redemption exists and God’s ultimate redemptive act for our lives is just around the corner. 

Be of faith my friends.  Embody hope.  Live into Hagar’s story.  This is also the living gospel for our lives, that where we are, Christ is too. 


Go Ahead, Laugh

June 17, 2017                                                                                                              Genesis 18:1-15

Super market tabloids are really something aren’t they?  From Elvis being about to fake his own death to surgeons cutting off someone’s head and then sewing it back on, they are really just unbelievable, and yet we read on.  Then there’s this one, “After visited by other worldly, ethereal like beings, woman pushing 100 years old gives birth”.  This one was reported by the Holy Bible, the 18th  chapter of Genesis. You have to admit; today’s scripture could actually make a very nice, very impressive, very enticing tabloid headline for tomorrow.  Surely it would sell thousands of papers.

Let us now hear the story of Sarah and Abraham as they hear the news of her pregnancy.

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.

Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

Sarah’s story is a very unbelievable story like most of the tabloid headlines.  They make you stop and think, could this really be, can this really have happened?  Naaaah! Who are they trying to kid?  And yet, we read on!  What’s different about this story of Sarah’s impending motherhood is that it is true.  Unlike the splashy, exploitive headlines of the National Inquirer or the Weekly World News, where stories take advantage of our emotions and nurture our ability to dabble into the extremely inquisitive and strangely eccentric and definitely weird side of human nature, Sarah’s predicament, or rather prayers finally answered were divinely orchestrated.

But we know in life that unbelievable and far-fetched things happen if you are attuned to them, they happen all of the time.  Particularly, and especially, if you are a believer and a follower of God.  I think that we are open to a mirage of possibilities that might defy human understanding.  For as we know, all things are possible with the Creator no matter how weird and unfathomable it may seem at times.  Yet there are still those times that are WOW moments.

We are beginning for the summer a sermon ‘series’ in Genesis as we explore the ancestral stories or sagas of Abraham and his descendents so we begin and the very beginning.  Imagine if you were Sarah.  Well into the crone years of your life, your youthful beauty now only a shade of your former self, has experienced the cessation of her menses, and way beyond the energy level of a young expectant mother, she finds out that she, and her beloved husband Abraham, are going to parent a child together.  Unbelievable!  Incredulous!  And so tabloid-esque.

Sarah, an aged woman, advanced greatly in years, stooped over maybe with osteoporosis is going to give birth.  Imagine being Sarah, and at 102 or 103 you will be taking care of an energetic, determined and strong willed, well meaning and loveable two year old?  Oh those terrible two’s.  Or even more taxing yet being a 117 year old parent to a 16 year old?  Talk about generation gap, this is a generations gap.

And yet Sarah and Abraham, I’m sure after getting over the shock of it all, are elated and happy beyond belief.  It is a dream come true for them.  Finally after all these barren years, after all these years of wishin’ and hopin’ and dreamin’ and prayin’, they are going to have a baby. And they believe.  They trust that everything will be all right, because they have proof that, with God, everything does turn out ok.  They have proof and a past with God.

God told Abraham to leave his home in Ur and begin anew, and Abraham obeyed.  God told Abraham that he would inherit the land of Canaan, and it was so. God and Abraham are in a covenantal relationship that becomes the hallmark of their association and life together.  Abraham was not perfect and yet God tells Abraham that he will be the father of many nations.  As many stars in the sky, that’s how many children that Sarah and Abraham will beget.  This is God’s everlasting covenant and prayer.    God enters into an abiding relationship with Abraham.

Where there is covenant there is relationship.  It cannot be any other way.  When you are in covenant you are in covenant with someone else.  God’s covenant is not necessarily reciprocal like the kind that we make with one another.  I am your pastor and we covenant to walk together as the God’s faithful people as Orange Congregational Church.  We covenant with other Churches to do the work together of the United Church of Christ.  The UCC remains committed to being in relationship with other Church body denominations and to be the gathered Christian community. And in fact just yesterday the CT Conference, the MA Conference and the RI conference voted to work towards being in covenant together as one conference, the Southern New England Conference.  These covenants are built upon shared interest, a deep and abiding love for God, mutual admiration, respect, and human trust.

A covenant with God is different than other covenants because it is made by human hearts in harmony with divine wisdom and love that we call God.  God is the sovereign one and we are not.  Now God will never go back or turn away from the promises that are made no matter how irresponsible we may be.  No matter how many times we may forget our end of the covenant, or somehow blow it to pieces, God doesn’t renege or retract a promise made. I find that so reassuring that God will always be my partner in life and walk with me through those narrow and dark passages of life, when I’m at odds with the world.  And for our part, all God asks for is a little obedience.  Not too difficult, right?

Wrong!  Obedience goes against every self-evolved, self-reliant, self-sufficient, independent muscle in our body.  God lays out the command, love me and love your neighbor as yourself and in return all God asks for is obedience to the command.  We often falter.  But that’s ok.  That’s what redemption is all about.  A covenant made, a covenant breached by the error of our human ways, a covenant renewed.  It is an ongoing, circuitous movement of relationship.  That is God’s love.

Obedience to God is to get out of the way of ourselves and to trust that God will get you to where you need to be.  Abraham was called out of his homeland to parts unknown and he obeyed.  It wasn’t easy, he faltered yet he obeyed and God blessed him.  God will bless us too just like Sarah whose prayers were answered, in time, ours will be too.

Sarah and Abraham’s baby is born and they name him Isaac.  It wasn’t some tabloid headline but a real promise and delivery by God.  They trusted and God fulfilled God’s part of the promise. 

In time God made another additional covenant for us Gentiles, who is Jesus Christ.  “Trust me”, God says, “my son is for you.  Jesus will show you the way in which you must go in your life.  He can help you chart out the path that you must take.  He can help you with that obedience ‘thing’.  He will show you a more perfect love, forgiveness and redemption.  Trust me”, God says, ‘follow him’.  God’s covenant of love continues for our taking.  So, like Sarah, go ahead and laugh if you must but also believe that God will renew love and remain steadfast in our covenantal relationship with God almighty.