Thursday, June 26, 2014

Compassion in the Desert

Genesis 21:8-21
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 read 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 just get home early from work and relax.

The New York Times bestseller list profiles ‘Mr. Mercedes’ by Steven King, ‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt, or ‘Hard Choices’ by Hillary Rodham Clinton as excellent offerings for our summer reading pleasure.  Oprah is not far behind with her list; ‘Mr. Mercedes’ makes her cut also as does ‘Heartburn’ by Nora Ephron and several other books.  Now I haven’t read any of these books nor do I intend to so this is not an endorsement for you to read them. 

This is however to point out that summer reading is different.  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, David and his brothers all the down to Moses.  There are many good nuggets of inspiration for our lives from these stories and they are not to be missed.  No doubt these were the stories of the Hebrew faith that Jesus would have heard and loved.  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 books of Genesis and Exodus.

A man named Abram has been called by God to leave his country, his father’s house and to go to a land that God will show him evenutually.  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 wind up in Egypt because of a famine.  Many things happen to them during that time but Sarai was barren.  So out of desperation she calls for her slave-girl Hagar to ‘be with’ Abram so that he may have a child and 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’s name shall be Sarah.”

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.  Now things in the tent of Abraham 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, imperfect humans for a larger, divine purpose in the book of Genesis.  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.  I would assume that Sarah was fairly close to Hagar, especially since she lent Hagar to Abraham for a specific purpose and 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 Yitzchak or Isaac and Yishmael or Ishmael’s covenants.  Yishmael meaning ‘God will listen’ in Hebrew. 

They would both receive a blessing and someday, as Abraham’s sons, become the father’s of great nations.  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 Christians.  Whereas Ishmael would become the forebearer of the Arab people.  Hence the term “Abrahamic” faiths. 

So Abraham once again, in faith, follows God’s instructions.  Hagar is banished to the desert of Beer-Sheva with her son Ishmael with some 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 there they are alone.  Left to die 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.

Then, in one of the most tender and compassionate moments in the Bible God asks, ‘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 but be refreshed and live.  

You see God works through complex and very sad situations and that is why Ishmael’s story needs to be told.  We learn that God 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.   You might feel as if God is distant and aloof, but God is not.

God sees and hears and sends an angel, a well, someone or something that will redeem us from our suffering.  How will you know?  The proof is all around us.  
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.  Embody hope.  Live into Hagar’s story.  This is also the living gospel for our lives, that where we are Christ is too. 


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