Sunday, June 25th, 2017 – A sermon on Hagar and El Roi and Genesis 21:8-21

You can listen to this sermon here.

Genesis 21:8-21
8 The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 

9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10 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.” 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 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 for you. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” 

14 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. 15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 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. 17 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. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 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. 20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

Throughout the history of the church we, the church, and we, individuals,  have emphasized and deemphasized certain parts of Scripture as we strive make sense out of the life we live. We have put certain texts in the center of our faith and others at the margins of our faith.

And for good reason. There are parts of Scripture that seem to carry more weight and meaning for our lives. For example, Psalm 23 means a lot more to many of us than say….Paul telling Timothy to take a little wine for his upset stomach.

Or if you just take a moment and think about the Bible stories or Bible verses you more or less know by heart, by doing so you’ll start to see what parts of Scripture the church has lifted up over the years and what we have found valuable.

But, I’ll be honest, I think we are moving into an age where we are called to start shining a light on some of the dustier parts of our bible. Some of the passages and stories that we’ve dismissed or overlooked in the past few centuries.

For example, we have spent so much time teaching people the story of the so-called Original Sin through Adam and Eve and thusly shaming people as sinful and fallen creatures (which we are), but we have emphasized it to such a degree that we can barely accept and hold onto (or have ever heard, for that matter) the story of the Original Blessing – when you and I and all people are made in the image of God. What would happen to a generation of people if that were their foundational bible story?

Or the Church for a long time now has been in the after-life business, of splitting hairs about who gets into heaven and who doesn’t. But what would happen if we started holding on to the passage from the Gospel of Luke that says, “All flesh shall see the salvation of God”? How would that change the work and mission of the church?

Or over the past few weeks, as we have tried to debate what is justified and unjustified killing of a black person, perhaps we ought to gather around the text from Ezekiel that says, “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord.” What if we started there?

So, I think that’s what we are being called to do – to venture with a flashlight into the hidden and unseen parts of scripture and to look around a bit and shine a light on other words of God.

With this in mind, this morning, you and I have an opportunity to learn (or re-learn) and reflect upon a story for scripture that has too often been neglected in the life of the church – the story of Hagar and her son Ishmael. A story that for some reason doesn’t exist in our children’s bible. A story that, as you can read in Nathan’s beautiful reflection on the first page of your bulletins, is given almost no attention in our church hymnody.

Now, in order to hear and know Hagar’s story, we have to go back a bit.

Last week, we heard about Abraham and Sarah – an aged and barren couple through whom God promised to make a great nation. That their descendants would be a numerous as the stars. And through them, the entire world would be blessed.

But that didn’t happen right away. Month after month, old Sarah remained childless. And so Sarah starts to wonder if she’s the problem – that God’s promise of offspring is a promise for Abraham and not a promise for her. So, they take matters into their own hands and try to help God along a bit and Sarah gives her Egyptian slave-girl Hagar to Abraham as a wife. So that’s how Hagar comes on to the scene. She is their Egyptian slave-girl, through whom they think they can have children.

Now, one of the painful truths about this story is that it includes both economic and sexual exploitation. For Hagar’s sake, let’s give voice to that truth –that Hagar was owned by another human being (economic exploitation) and that no one asked her consent (sexual exploitation). Some scholars will say that there is no reason to judge this behavior – it was commonly understood and well within Sarah’s right to do so. Yeah, well… in this day and age? We know that people can be well within their rights to do something and for it to still be wrong. In this day and age, when we have to create $1 million anti-sex trafficking campaigns simply because the Super Bowl is coming to our state…we darn well better name and condemn the sexual exploitation happing within our own Holy Scriptures and within our own culture.

So, Hagar gets pregnant with Abraham’s child – and then the conflict begins. Hagar looks at Sarah with contempt. Sarah looks at Hagar with contempt. Eventually, Abraham gives Sarah permission to do what she wants with Hagar. So Sarah does what most of us do, we take our internal pain and grief out on others around us. Sarah begins to mistreat Hagar and Hagar runs away.

And then the story follows….Hagar. Into the wilderness. In fact, it says, God found her there. God has chosen Abraham and Sarah for descendants and blessing, but God follows the outsider, the exploited one, into the wilderness.

And then notice…God is the first one in the story to use Hagar’s name. Before she was just referred to as “the slave-girl”. But God calls her by name. I have called you by name and you are mine. We know that Scripture.

God says, “Hagar, where are you running from and where are you going?” All Hagar can tell God is where she is running from – Sarah. She can’t tell God where she is going because what kind of future could a girl like her possibly have.

Well, God has a future for her. And yes, God tells her to return to Sarah and Abraham. But she doesn’t return empty handed. She doesn’t return the same as she was – because God, in the wilderness gives Hagar her very own promises – “I will greatly multiply your offspring, that they cannot be counted for multitude.” What we learn is that God is now committed to the life of Hagar and her soon-to-be son, Ishmael.

At this moment, something happens that never occurs in the rest of Scripture. Hagar, the unchosen and victimized, but also strong and courageous slave-girl, is the only person in Scripture who gets to rename God. “You are El-Roi” she says. The God who sees me.

Hagar – a foreign woman, outside the “chosen” people, gets to give God a new name. El-Roi.

So, Hagar returns to Abraham and Sarah. And the years pass, and as many of us heard last week, Abraham and Sarah give birth to a child, Isaac. Our reading this morning picks up with Isaac being weaned (likely 3 years old) and suddenly the conflict starts up again.

Sarah wants Hagar and Ishmael gone, not wanting Ishmael to receive any of Isaac’s inheritance. Both would have legally had a right to the inheritance, but you see when it’s my child whose future is at stake, too often – like Sarah- our vision, our own seeing, is narrowed to exclude the children of others.

Now, God tells Abraham to let it happen, but God does so while also reiterating the promise that God will make a great nation out of Ishmael as well. And so Sarah and Abraham cast out Hagar and Ishmael.

And then, again, the story follows…Hagar. Not the chosen people. But the outsider, the unchosen ones…Hagar and Ishmael. Out into the wilderness. And then we hear these heart-shattering words, “When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes and sat down a good way off because she could not look upon the death of her child.”

And then it says Hagar cried.

And then it say God heard…God heard the voice of the boy. Sarah and Abraham may have cast Hagar and Ishmael out of their lives, but Hagar and Ishmael cannot be cast out of the life of God. God hears the voice, the cries of the boy. God has ears for the wailings of the little ones. Surely God heard the cries of Diamond Reynolds’ daughter as she says to her mother in the back of that police car, “It’s okay. I’m right here with you. Momma, please stop crying, I don’t want you to get shooted.”

God hears the voice of the child. Surely, God heard the voice of that child.

And then God promises, again, to Hagar that God will make a great nation of Ishmael, and then God opens her eyes. God sees her –El Roi – but then God helps her to see, and shows her a water well, to give the boy a drink. And then verse 20 says, “And God was with the boy.”

So that is the powerful, but often unknown story of Hagar and Ishmael. Why do you think we have, like Sarah does to Hagar, cast this story out into the wilderness of our story-telling and memory?

Listen to this quote from my former Old Testament professor, Terry Fretheim: “I cannot recall having heard a sermon on these texts. One wonders why this story has been so neglected or considered a story only with a negative purpose. Is it because Abraham, that exemplar of faith, does not come off so well? Is it because the main characters are women? Is it because Hagar and Ishmael stand outside the community of faith? Indeed, Hagar has several strikes against her: she is a foreigner, a slave, a woman, and probably black (at least African)…Is it because Muslims track their roots back into these stories, and understand themselves to be heirs of Abraham as much as do Jews and Christians? Is it possible that the story of Hagar and Ishmael is neglected because God makes promises to them..?”[1]

Did you know that our Muslim brothers and sisters trace their lineage back through Hagar and Ishmael and back to Abraham?

We don’t know why the story has been cast out, but today is a good day to shine some light on it. Because our Muslim brothers and sisters have just finished their Holy month of Ramadan, and I’m sure they would be overjoyed to know that their Christian brothers and sisters were thinking of them.

Today is a good day for us to shine a light upon this story because just this past week, religious leaders from around the world released videos asking people to befriend people of other faiths.

We are so used to saying the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What if we started adding Hagar’s name to that list. We believe in the God of Hagar.

We believe in the God of Hagar because in Hagar we have a story where not everything that we do to others and not everything that is down to us is God’s will. God did not intend for Abraham to have offspring with Hagar. Our own plans, our own misunderstandings of what God wants can disrupt what God would have happen in the world. But…the God of Hagar will use and can even bring blessing out of our moments of distrust or unfaith.

We believe in the God of Hagar because in Hagar a story where Hagar’s life matters to God. Ishmael’s life matters to God. God will not be deterred by the ways we try to cast aside and hide others from our life. The lives of the marginalized and the oppressed and the vulnerable matter to God.

We belive in the God of Hagar because in Hagar we have a story about a God who has other stories. And other promises. And other people. God is not exclusively committed to us. Which reminds us (and frees us) that we never have and we never can know all there is to know about God. Yes, God loves you. Yes God is with you. But not only you.

So may the God of Hagar see you. May the God of Hagar hear you. And may the God of Hagar stretch you into a love that is gentler, a mercy that is wider, and a thirst for justice that is greater.

Amen.

[1] Terence Fretheim, Abraham, pg. 93.

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Sunday, June 11th, 2017 – A Sermon on the Holy Trinity and Genesis 1 and 2

You can listen to the sermon here.

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. 6 And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8 God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. 9 And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11 Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. 14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. 20 And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” 21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. 24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” 29 God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

2: 1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. 2 And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. 4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

Last week Pastor Pam began with a Happy Pentecost. Today, we can begin with a happy Holy Trinity Sunday.

I’ll admit, I’m delighted you’re here. At second service last week, in talking about the Holy Spirit, Pam gave a hint that today would be Holy Trinity Sunday and that we’d be talking about all this “God is three but also one. God is one but also three” stuff. And I thought, “Noooo. You’re not supposed to tell the people Holy Trinity Sunday is coming up. You’re supposed to blindside them with it – let them arrive on that Sunday, get cozy in the pew, lock the sanctuary doors, …and then tell them it’s Holy Trinity Sunday.

(True story: A former church I was at had it in their church history that the ushers used to lock the doors when the sermon started.)

Because, let’s be honest, today is the one day in the church calendar when we celebrate everyone’s favorite church word – doctrine. The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity. I’m not sure of anyone who isn’t slightly threatened by that word. Or if not threatened by it, uses it as a threat to others. It’s about as comforting as a cinder block pillow. Even phonetically, it is such a hard word. Doc-trine.

Last week, in Pam’s sermon (and for those of you counting, yes that is the third time I’ve referenced it. It was a great sermon. You should listen to it). She talked about Pentecost as the third child of the Church Feast days – the one whose baby book never gets finished, in comparison to Christmas and Easter. With that in mind, I can’t help but think about today, Holy Trinity, as that family closet that no one wants to open. Because it is just a disaster in there. Or, for some of us, it isn’t a closet – it’s a whole room. In our house, it’s the guest room that rarely is prepared for guests.

But seriously, this closet is where we just shove things that are just sort of in the way, right? We think we need to keep but we don’t really want to look at anymore. And Holy Trinity Sunday and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity sort of feel like that. We know we should keep around what’s in there, but we’re terrified to open that door, because who knows what’s going to come falling out.

In fact, most preaching resources will tell you – don’t open that closet. Don’t preach about the Holy Trinity. Because one of the worst thing a sermon can be is boring. We’ve been told to keep this away from you so as not to be boring –but I’ve recently been reading about how for too long theology has been taken away from the people and been given to the elite, the professionals, the religiously educated. I cannot tell you the number of times I hear someone say, “Well I’m not theologically trained but…” It’s like you think you have no business talking thinking or proclaiming things about God unless you’ve gone to seminary.

Well, today, I hope to challenge that thinking…that theology needs to be kept away from the people. I mean, this is why we do things like Pub Theology and Manna and Mercy. To invite you into this work of the church, the community.

So, this morning, I want to open that closet to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and share with you my insight, and hopefully that will invite your own thoughts and reflections on this central but confusing church teaching.

And in order to tell you about my insight, I want to tell you about something that happened to me last week. My family had a garage sale. And in order to do a garage sale, we had to go through that family closet. And there is something that happens when you open that closet door and start going through it again.

You find the orange and white striped onesie, covered in stains, that remind you of the days when the kids were young, and you can still feel their little peanut bodies, nuzzled in your arms.

You find the blue plates and bowls you got from your wedding, with chips all over them because the sink in your seminary apartment was too small.

You find old birthday cards and the shirt your mother was so excited to give you but it just didn’t fit right.

It’s all of these things that remind you of your relationships. Your relationship with your family, your loved ones. Maybe even painful relationships

And I guess that’s what I find when I tenderly and carefully open the door to the doctrine of the Trinity. There is a lot to deal with in there. It’s overwhelming. But, I think, in the end, it is all about relationship.

Because in the end, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is all about how God, at God’s core, the foundational nature of God, is a relationship.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity says that God is one. But God is one in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that word persons is important. It isn’t modes or ways of being. It isn’t like how I am a husband, but also a father, but also a trumpet player. It is three distinct persons.

I don’t pretend to understand how it works, but what I’ve come to learn is that to proclaim a triune God is to proclaim that God is in God’s nature a social, communal, relational being. Within God’s very self, God is a community.

We can see this in this morning Genesis reading.

While the word trinity and the doctrine of the trinity doesn’t exist in Scripture, the doctrine of the Trinity seeks to describe the God revealed in Scripture, and often times people turn to the first creation story found in Genesis 1.

In this story…notice that God does not just create stuff –God creates community. Almost everything in the creation that is called good is a pairing, a relationship, a community.

The dry land and the waters – and it was good.
The plants yielding seed and the trees yielding seeds – and it was good.
The greater light and the lesser light – and it was good.
The male and the female…the human community – and it was good.
And everything together – very good.

God creates community. And not only does God create community, but get this, God creates community communally.

God creates community communally.

God creates with the earth – let earth bring forth vegetation.
God creates with a divine community – God said, “Let us create humankind in our image”
God invites humankind into the creative process – not only can humankind create and multiply but humankind is given the tender responsibility of caring for the earth.

In the very creation of the earth, God invites the creation to have a crucial role. To participate. That’s what the Triune God is like – God is a sharing relationship of creativity. God creates community communally. Augustine once wrote, “Without God we cannot; without us, God will not.”

Dare I say, God needs you. To help God care for this creation, for this world, for this people.

Now, this creation story was written down during a time when the Israelites were enslaved in Babylon. They were living in exile and they had lost everything. And as slaves they were seen as worthless and discardable. And along comes this revolutionary narrative of the creation of the world, in which God not only calls God’s creation very good but in which God needs God’s people for the flourishing of the world. Do you think the slaves were ever told that they were needed? Do you think they were ever told that they were a good creation?

What a remarkable and revolutionary promise to hear in that context. But we hear it in our context. So let’s take our context…

We live in culture where we may not be enslaved directly but we are enslaved, as a friend of mine says, by isolation. We are told that we should be able to make it on our own. You just need to work harder and achieve more success for yourself. That you are only worth something if you get good grades and go on to college (but let’s be honest, even that isn’t good enough any more…now you need grad school). We are told that we need to be independent and self-sufficient, and the moment you need help, the moment you need others can feel like a moment of failure.

And this is beyond damaging to our humanity, to our divinely proclaimed goodness. Because, as one of the many counselors I’ve seen in my life once said, “The first thing to go when we are tired and disconnected from each other is our generosity.”

When we become disconnected from each other, the first thing we lose is our generosity with one another. We stop being generous, and patient and kind and loving and graceful and understanding.

And it is into that context of ours that Genesis 1 and the doctrine of Holy Trinity get to proclaim…you are made to be in community with each other just as God is made to be in community. It is a creation story that says you are beautiful, you are valuable and you are needed by God for the flourishing for this world. In fact, that is where the image of God can be seen…in you and in your relationships with those around you.

As one theologian would say, we are only fully human when we are encountering one another. Which should mean that every single interaction we have with another human should be seen as a sacred moment. Because it can hold within it the image of God.

Can you see how your life – and in particular your relationships, your community – is part of the very life of God? Can we as a church see how our life together and in this community is part of the very life of God?

A well-seasoned preacher, Richard Lischer, wrote a remarkable book called Open Secrets.  It is about his first year out of seminary and his first parish – a tiny, Lutheran congregation in the cornfields of Illinois. Just out of seminary, Lischer spent that first year showing off his preaching skills.  He used big words.  He referenced great works of literature to show how well read he was.  He spoke with what he called a Kennedy-esque urgency and eloquence.  In those days, he said, the gospel lived or died by my personal performance…and how ridiculous I must have looked to my congregation. But then he asks the question: why couldn’t I see the kingdom of God happening in our little church? Why did I think I had to find it in a book?  People in our congregation, every week, volunteered to exercise the legs of a little girl with cerebral palsy, so that her muscles wouldn’t grow weak.  People helped one another put up hay before the rains came.  When a neighbor lost their farm, we all grieved with him and we refused to bid on his tools at auction.  Weren’t these all signs of the kingdom of God, Lischer asks?  Why couldn’t I see them?[1]

Here is the thing: today maybe about a doctrine, but you are living doctrine. You belong to this communal, relational God. In belonging to God, you belong to the life of God, which is to say that the dance of the Trinity involves you and your life and the life of this congregation. And I can see it. I can see it in the way you welcome strangers into this place. I see it when the called to care ministers put out a call for meals for a family that is struggling and you step up. And you start feeding strangers. I see it when I hear about a member getting cancer and another member who is more or less a stranger saying, “I’ve had cancer before. I know what that’s like. I’m going to drive that person to every one of their treatments.” I see it in the way in which you gather our people in prayer when one of our beloved ones have died.

I need to be reminded to not look for Godin a book, but to look up and to look at the community of God. To see the image of God at work in and among us.

In a moment, we will sing a hymn called “Touch the Earth Lightly. May we touch this earth, this life lightly.…because we carry with us the image of God. And because the grace and love and community of God that is not only with you but is also at work among you. I can see it.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

[1] Richard Lischer, Open Secrets, p. 72-75.