Tagged with God in Unexpected Places

God in Unexpected Places: On the Mountain

Exodus 3:1-15

When we prepared to leave our church sanctuary last spring, we read a part of the story of Moses. We remembered the time when the people Israel were traveling with Moses through the wilderness, stranded between slavery in Egypt and a new life in a promised land. In that time of traveling, the people worshipped God in a tent of meeting, and God promised to be with them, wherever they went. So we have also created a kind of tent, for our traveling time.  We have been watching and listening and paying attention to how God may still be with us, in unexpected ways, while we are away from our house of worship, and throughout our lives.

Today, as summer draws to a close, we back up to hear earlier parts of Moses’ story. We heard the story of Moses’ birth and then his call to lead the people Israel up out of slavery.  When the baby Moses grows up and sees the suffering of his people, he doesn’t know what to do, so he travels far away from the problem. But God knows that Moses could help to free his people. So God comes to visit Moses, while he is taking care of sheep on top of a mountain.

God comes to visit Moses, and appears as a burning bush. Unexpected, right?  A bush that is on fire, but not consumed, not burned up.  God calls to Moses from out of the fire, and Moses responds, “Here I am.” And then God asks Moses to do something before they continue with their conversation: take off his shoes.

Why would God ask Moses to take off his shoes? Lots of people have tried to answer this question.  Some people argue that God is demanding respect. That seems possible, but surprising.  Usually, if we’re meeting someone important, we wear the nicest shoes we can find instead of taking off our shoes.  Some people argue that God wants Moses to take off his shoes to be closer to creation, to the earth. Maybe. There is even speculation that Moses’ shoes symbolize something about money or politics. Not everyone in Moses’ time and place could afford sandals; and the sandals of some Egyptian rulers bore the image of conquered peoples on the insole, so they were literally walking on their subjects. Maybe God was trying to say something about who should serve her, or how they should serve. But none of these answers really satisfy me. There must be a really important reason why God asks Moses to take off his shoes. (more…)

Yes, Lord

Matthew 15:10-28

Our text begins today with Jesus teaching. He is teaching those who have gathered how to live a righteous life, a life that expresses the love of God.  There are so many different guidelines out there, and Jesus does not want anyone to be deceived.  This matters to him. So he calls the people in, he asks them to come closer.

Jesus tells the crowd, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles… What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart… Out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

This lesson that Jesus is teaching is not a new lesson. Throughout the gospels, Jesus tries to teach anyone who will listen that following  rules of empire, or even rules of faith, such as ritual handwashing before a meal: following these rules is not the most important thing. God deserves our ultimate loyalty, and following God requires flexibility. When we observe others eating differently, or praying differently, or somehow living differently than we do ourselves, we should not treat them poorly, or separate ourselves from them. We should not even assume that we hold moral superiority. Rather, we should treat them with kindness, and wait to observe what their actions reveal about their hearts.

Jesus offers this teaching, and then he moves on. He travels to the district of Tyre and Sidon. As he arrives in this new place, a woman comes out of the crowd and demands Jesus’ attention. She shouts “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

This is, perhaps, not the most polite way to ask for help.  This woman’s words express deference to Jesus, but she is loud, forceful, and direct. Not only that – but just by looking at her, you can tell that she’s not an Israelite. She’s a Canaanite. At first, Jesus ignores this woman. Desperate for help for her daughter, however, she continues her efforts. She badgers the disciples who surround Jesus with further requests. Irritated and uncomfortable, they ask Jesus to intervene. “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”

Finally, Jesus turns towards the woman and speaks to her. He says: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  Perhaps he says these words with compassion. But his message is still clear: look elsewhere.  We don’t serve your kind at this establishment.

Nevertheless, this woman persists. She will not give up. She kneels before Jesus, begging: “Lord, help me.” And then, what comes out of Jesus’ mouth? He says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

I have to admit, this passage is always a little painful for me to read. Even you, Jesus?  Even you – who teach us the story of the Good Samaritan?  Even you – who step in front of a woman about to be stoned? Even you – who eat with sinners and tax collectors?  Even you deny care to someone because of her background; and, when pressed, dismiss her as a dog. Have you not taught us that love and mercy are more important than culture, health, wealth, propriety, or religion? Have you not taught us that it is what comes out of our mouths that  will show others what is in our hearts?

I don’t know why Jesus fails himself and his God in this story. Maybe he didn’t spend quite enough time up on the mountain, praying, in the previous chapter.  Maybe he is still tired and overwhelmed by all demands of his calling. Whatever the reason, in this moment we see the fully human, totally unfiltered part of Jesus. We see that his heart has been harmed by taking in the biases in his upbringing, in his culture.  So, in an unguarded moment, that heart unleashes slander that defiles him.

Thankfully, in that awful moment, Jesus has a worthy teacher.  So many other people, repulsed by Jesus himself, would have slunk away into the crowd. But this woman – this Canaanite woman! She has been ignored. She has been rebuffed. She has been denied. She has even been insulted. Still, she looks Jesus in the eye and says, “Yes, Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Jesus turns on a dime. He must recognize her dignity. He must recognize his mistake. He says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter is instantly healed.

There has been a lot to be angry about this week. Anyone been angry? Frustrated? Nauseous? Despairing? Afraid? Mostly, I’ve been angry.

I’m angry that hate is so unembarrassed in our country today that young white men marched in Charlottesville carrying torches and shouting slogans of white supremacy without even worrying about covering their faces.  I’m angry that our President has so utterly failed to take a moral stance against white supremacy, and is defending and encouraging it, instead. I am angry that the denunciations of white supremacy, white nationalism, racism, and Naziism from our elected leaders are not more definitive or widespread.  I am angry that they have not led to more comprehensive action.

I’m not only angry with our elected leaders. I’m angry with our country as a whole. I am angry that it takes the KKK literally taking over our streets and parks, committing domestic terrorism and vandalizing a holocaust memorial to alert so many people to the fact that racism, bigotry, and anti-Semitism are still a powerful force in our country and in our state. These sins are not the exclusive habit of the few, but the practice of the whole. These problems are not only visible in the extreme event of domestic terrorism; they are woven in to the fabric of our lives together. They are reflected in all of our institutions, and laws, and practices.

Ultimately, I am angry with myself. I am a white American Christian pastor. My ancestors and I, mostly through our passivity, have helped to maintain the legacy of hate that we have been born into. My ancestors and I have reaped countless advantages from that hate without reparation or even full repentance. And the church to which I have given my heart, and within which I have found my calling, has played a major role in dehumanizing native peoples, demonizing Jewish peoples, and defending the enslavement of African peoples. The responsibility lies especially with people like me to stop tolerating lies, and to stop tolerating silence. The responsibility lies especially with people like me to tell the truth, and bring about an end, at last, to white supremacy. White supremacy in America is a white Christian problem.

So I decided to march yesterday. Sometimes anger can do good things. And, beloved, I have to say, it was beautiful. There were so many of us.  We filled up miles of road.  There were teachers, and nurses, and clergy people out in droves. There were lots of old hippies and – don’t worry about the young people – there were boatloads of millennials. Some people made funny signs, and other people wore funny clothes.  Lots of folks showed up with water and food and first aid kits, just in case. My water bottle was filled back up after hours of walking, and someone handed me a whole sleeve of ritz crackers.

All along the way, people leaned out of their apartments, cheering us on. Cleaning crews and nurses working shifts waved and clapped from doorways and windows.  People parked on the sidewalk with signs and strollers to show their children: this is who we are at our best. This is who we want to be. I especially loved the big brass band, with instruments painted in many colors, that showed up and kept us cheerful as we waited in the sun sweating because there were just so many counter-protestors on Boston Common, that no more would fit inside.

It made me think: maybe there’s hope for me. Maybe there’s hope for all the marchers. Maybe there’s hope for Massachusetts. Maybe there’s hope, even for that tiny crowd of white supremacists huddled in the gazebo.

Those of us who are white have been taught to hate; and to ignore and enjoy the disparities that come from hate. It is what we were born into. It has been all around us, all our lives.

But if Jesus can make mistakes, maybe we can finally admit that we do, too. Maybe we will find the courage to listen to those who are different than us, who are despised by our culture, and yet dare to speak up anyway. Maybe we will find the courage to acknowledge and share with one another the truth about white supremacy: the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  It will be painful, and uncomfortable.  But friends, our God is a God of unbounded grace and forgiveness. Won’t it feel good, to be released from this sin, to be liberated from these dangerous fantasies, and to wake up together into a new world of love, and justice, and peace?

Redemption is possible for those of us who have been taught privilege and dominance.  Healing is possible for those of us who have been taught submission and shame. It is not what has gone into our mouths — what we have been taught, explicitly and implicitly — that matters in the end.  It is what comes out of our mouths that will show what is in our hearts.  We, like Jesus, and through the grace of God, can learn and change and be freed. May it be so. Thanks be to God.

God in Unexpected Places: On the Sea

Matthew 14:22-33

A lot is happening for Jesus.

For one thing, Jesus is getting famous. Word has gotten around about this charismatic rabbi reformer, about his preaching prowess and his healing skills. Every new town he arrives in, the crowds keep getting bigger. There are those who need healing.  There are spiritual pilgrims.  There are thrill seekers, and celebrity sighters, and folks who just want a little entertainment.

Jesus is getting famous. But some other things are not going so well for Jesus. Recently he travelled back home to Nazareth. Maybe he was hoping for some comfort, or some rest, or some affirmation. Instead, he is questioned and mocked. Those who knew him when are offended by who he has become.

Jesus moves on from Nazareth, but things do not improve. Soon he finds out that Herod, the local arm of Roman rule, has executed his mentor, John the Baptist.  This is a big loss for Jesus. And even bigger, because at least one of the reasons that John is killed is because Jesus has been  making trouble for the colonial government.

Jesus has a growing list of personal problems, and thanks to his newfound popularity, he is facing a whole lot of practical problems as well.  Crowds are great, but Jesus and his disciples are still trying to figure out what to do with everyone. How many people can Jesus heal in one day? Where can Jesus preach so that this many people can hear him? What about food for all these pilgrims? What do we do with so many people?

A lot is happening for Jesus: personally, professionally. He’s wiser than most of us, so he knows that he needs a break. His first attempt is to get into a boat, and go to a deserted place. Unfortunately, the crowd catches on. By the time his boat is approaching the shore, the crowds have tracked him down on foot.  Jesus has compassion on them. They are so desperate. He cures those who are sick.  Then he feeds everyone, making a meal for thousands out of five loaves, and two fish.

Then, finally,  Jesus says, “enough.” He compels his disciples to get into a boat and leave him. He dismisses the crowd. And he goes up the mountain by himself to pray. (more…)

God in Unexpected Places: Seeking the Kingdom of Heaven

This summer at West Concord Union Church, we’ve been exploring the theme, God in Unexpected Places.  We’re in an Exodus time, a time away from our church building as it is renovated.  I know those of you from TriCon have recently had an exodus experience as well, during the construction of your beautiful new organ, so you know what it’s like.  As you may have heard, during our Exodus, we have created a kind of tent of meeting to take with us, to worship under, at Concord Children’s Center and here. And since we are already on the road, away from our spiritual home, it seems like a good time to pay attention to how God surprises us in places, and times, and ways, that we do not expect.

Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, has been giving his own sermon series about God in unexpected places.  He is preaching in parables, in stories, which have to be explored in order to discover kernels of truth about God. Jesus begins with longer parables: the parable of the sower, and the similar parable about a person who sowed good seed in a field that was later planted with weeds. Helpfully, Jesus takes time to explain both of these parables at length to the crowd who is listening to him. However, as he is wrapping up his teaching, Jesus gives us five additional parables about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, in rapid succession, without any further explanation.

The kingdom of heaven, Jesus tells us, is like a small mustard seed that grows into a great shrub and provides a home for birds. The kingdom of heaven is like one measure of yeast that causes three measures of flour to change and rise into good bread. The kingdom of heaven is like a hidden treasure, that someone is so overjoyed to find that he sells all he has to possess it. The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant who sells all he has to buy a pearl of great value.  The kingdom of heaven is like a net that catches fish of every kind.

After firing off these comparisons, one after another, Jesus asks the crowd: “Have you understood all this?”  And they answer, improbably, “yes.”  I would guess they had at least a few questions about all the things Jesus has just said. I certainly do.

Perhaps there is no really precise way to explain the kingdom of heaven. Ask a pastor or a biblical scholar, people who you might argue are qualified to define it, and we stumble around a bit. The kingdom of heaven is something that is to come, and also something that is right now. It refers to something far away, and also something very close at hand. It describes something very holy, and yet also every day. The kingdom of heaven is a contradiction.

Jesus solves the challenge of trying to describe the indescribable by using many comparisons, scattering breadcrumbs along the way to lead us towards what we’re looking for.  The comparisons that Jesus uses are all very familiar to his audience. The people he’s talking to had seen a mustard plant, and baked bread with yeast, and used nets to catch fish.  Unfortunately, these similes are not as familiar to most of us. So how can we capture for ourselves what the kingdom of heaven might be like? How can we find words or images that will help to make it feel real to us? (more…)

God in Unexpected Places: Angels in Muddy Boots

The Rev. Polly Jenkins Man offered this sermon on July 16th, 2017

Jeremiah 31:7-12
Matthew 13:1-9

Every morning, when we gathered in our prayer circle before work, Charles said the same prayer, “Thank you God for this day which we have never seen before.

It was spring over ten years ago when a bunch of us from here and from South Acton Congregational Church arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana, or NOLA for short, to help rebuild Charles and Winnie Wilmore’s house after it had been destroyed a year and a half earlier by Hurricane Katrina.  Charles and Winnie had moved to their new house in East NOLA only 3 weeks before the storm, finally locating and being able to afford a home where Winnie’s ailing mother could come to live with them.  They had left the neighborhood in the Lower 9th Ward where generations of both their families had raised their children and where many of their cousins, aunts, uncles and lifelong friends were still living in August 2005.

Now, almost 2 years later, they were in a toxic FEMA trailer parked in their front yard, looking at the ruin of their dream. Winnie’s mother had gone to Baton Rouge for the duration. Given the shenanigans of post-Katrina bureaucracy, it was no surprise that, when they checked with the insurance company about the flood insurance   they had purchased when they moved in, the agent told them that the paperwork had been “lost in the aftermath of the storm.”

So no flood insurance, no home, no family, and living in a poisonous environment.  Winnie was partially disabled with a bad hip, Charles retired from the postal service.  Yet every day, without fail, Charles thanked God for the new day, one never before known or experienced.  And then he followed it with giving thanks for the “angels” who had been sent to help. They, apparently, were us.

When the Israelites were in exile, the prophet Jeremiah spoke the words read earlier.  Promising restoration, promising a joyful return home.  “Again I will build you and you shall be built.” Jeremiah spun miraculous images of watered gardens and fruited vineyards that God would provide. To the exiles it must have sounded like a lovely but very unlikely fairy tale.  They were far from home, had lost everything; and there was no sign of any human intervention.  I imagine that God must have seemed as distant to them as George Bush did to the people stranded on rooftops in New Orleans when he flew over them in Air Force One.

Still, the prophet kept reassuring them  “I am going to bring them from the north and from the farthest parts of the earth…from Baton Rouge, Houston, Massachusetts?  How so?

But there we were, angels in muddy boots.  Working under the guidance of Hosanna Industries from Pittsburgh, with a high school group from Tulsa, we cut and hauled big pieces of sheetrock and put them up, nailed floorboards, framed windows, caulked seams.

Then came the roof day.  Although it was April, New Orleans was a steam bath, sweat pouring off us in rivers. Being a creature who is happiest when it is 30 or 40 degrees, dry and briskly sunny, there was no way I was going to go up there, possibly pass out and fall off.  So along with Pris, who had also decided to remain earthbound, we passed the shingles up to the roofers and disposed of the old roofing as they tossed it down.  That being accomplished, we wandered back behind the house where, for some reason, none of us had ever been.  What we saw there were the ruins of what looked to have been a small private garden and some patio furniture.  Stone pavers were upended and cracked, flowerpots tossed about, dirt and debris everywhere.  I don’t remember whether Pris or I said anything, or whether we just looked at each other and simply knew what we were going to do.

After clearing away some of the debris, and righting the furniture, we scrounged some rusty garden tools from the shed and began to dig along the back fence.  That’s when it happened.  As earthworms began to wriggle up from the mud, mud that had been buried under Mississippi flood waters and was now rich with nutrients, I recognized that, down there on my knees in the dirt, I was receiving a call from God. Don’t get me wrong, no angels appeared, no harps or trumpets sounded, and certainly no voice.  It was more like, “Oh yeah, that’s why I came on this trip!”   Then, and this is true, I looked up to see a butterfly flit by and a bird land on a nearby tree. I know, this sounds like a scene from a Disney movie. But my point is that there was life here, where there had been only death and destruction. And I wanted to be a part of it.  To rebuild gardens in New Orleans.  So people, when they come back will have not only a home for their bodies but also a place of beauty for their spirits.  I wanted to plant seeds of hope in the city.

In the parable of the sower, Jesus tells the crowd that not all the seeds that they will sow are going to take root and bear fruit. There are many obstacles that will come along and prevent their growth: poor soil, choking weeds, too much sun.  While this seems to be a warning to his followers that there will be many times when people will not listen to them as they go out to spread the Word, the parable is also a literal reminder that, not all these gardens we plant will thrive. All we can do is, quoting Bishop Ken Unterer,  plant the seeds that  one day will grow, water the seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.  We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.  This enables us to do something and to do it very well.

Our week with Charles and Winnie came to an end, but not before we had led them back behind their house, where they hadn’t been since the destruction.  Over the course of the previous days, we had cleared away the debris, gone to Home Depot (one of the few places that had opened up) to buy flowers that we planted.  Don from our group, although suffering from the flu, repaired the walkway, the teens from Tulsa bought brightly colored cushions for the furniture, we constructed a few side tables from cinder blocks and swept the place clean. When the Wilmores saw the garden, they were beyond surprised and clearly overcome. Melissa from South Acton had recorded some of the great New Orleans jazz on her iPhone; at which point Winnie tossed aside her cane and joined us as we all danced.

And so Gardens for NOLA was born, in the backyard of a ruined house, deep in the Mississippi mud and alive with earthworms, butterflies, birds and mostly, hope.

Last winter Hannah led a series that was entitled “Finding God in unexpected places” and asked for volunteers to tell our stories this summer.  I signed up which is why I’m here today.  to tell you that the last thing that I expected, when I signed on for the New Orleans trip ten years ago is that I would come home with what felt like an encounter with God and a passion to take groups of adults and teens to restore and plant gardens in New Orleans, which we did for seven years and ten trips.  But as I’ve thought about this experience recently, the idea of finding God unexpectedly there really doesn’t make sense.

After all, where else would we expect God to be?  She always shows up where there are homeless and forgotten people. God is always on the side of the oppressed and the marginalized.  He’s there when everyone else has hit the road.

And Charles reminded us of that every single day.

God in Unexpected Places: Isaac & Rebekah

Genesis 24

This summer we are exploring the theme “God in unexpected places.”  Two weeks ago we began with Hagar and Ishmael, remembering how God came to help them in the wilderness. Last week you heard from Andrew Harris, focusing on the Gospel of Matthew.  This week we return to the book of Genesis and hear the story of Abraham’s search for a wife for Isaac.

Abraham is getting on in years, and he has a problem. He has chosen his son Isaac to receive his inheritance and carry on the family line. But Isaac has not yet chosen a wife. The scriptures don’t tell us why Isaac has remained a bachelor so long. At 40, he is far past the traditional marriage age. Is he a playboy? Is he indifferent to women? Is he too focused on his work, tending the land and the flocks?  Perhaps Isaac is unmarried because he hasn’t found anyone who pleases his father.  Abraham does not want Isaac to marry into the Canaanite community where they live.

Whatever the reason for Isaac’s singleness, Abraham sets out to solve what he perceives as a problem. It’s not at all clear that he consults Isaac. Abraham just sends his oldest and most trusted servant back to his homeland to find an eligible match.

Now you may be wondering, how can a trusted servant find a likely young woman in an unfamiliar town? Abraham’s servant can’t use an online dating app, or scope out the bar scene. As far as we know, he has no experience or expertise in matchmaking. But this guy still knows exactly what to do.  He goes to the community well towards the end of the day.  He prays to God for help with his endeavor. He waits for the young women to come to fill their water pitchers. And he watches for a young woman who will give both him and his camels a drink.

Those of us who live in Massachusetts in 2017 may have trouble at first recognizing the wisdom of the servant’s selection criteria.  Why choose a woman based on whether she offers water to camels? It seems almost random. But take a moment to consider. A woman who offers a drink to a stranger is generous.  A woman who brings water for 10 camels is a miracle. Camels are capable of drinking 20-30 gallons of water after a long journey. When she offers to water the servant’s camels, Rebekah is showcasing both extraordinary generosity and tremendous physical strength. She draws and carries 300 gallons of water.  Try that the next time you need a good workout.

Abraham’s servant knows what to do, and he is successful: he finds a woman of great generosity and strength. Rebekah also happens to be beautiful, and untouched by men. Plus, she is a first cousin once removed of Isaac – which may sound like it’s not in her favor, but in this time and place, it is. Everything looks favorable for this match. The only thing left to do is persuade Rebekah and her family to go along with it.

Soon a caravan is headed back towards home, with Rebekah and her nurse and her maids accompanying Abraham’s servant. Then, just as the story is about to end, we get two surprises. First, when Rebekah sees Isaac, she is so struck by him that, according to a close translation, she falls off her camel.  She is lovestruck. It’s romantic comedy genius.  Then, when Isaac weds Rebekah, our narrator tells us that he loves her, and is comforted for the loss of his mother.  In the end, a marriage that was arranged to suit a father-in-law and accommodate concerns of culture, and religion, and wealth, and family, turns out to be a love match as well. (more…)

God In Unexpected Places: Hagar & Ishmael

Genesis 21:8-21

Throughout this summer our services will focus on the theme: God in Unexpected Places.  Some of you may remember that as we prepared to leave our Meeting House, we shared together the story of how the Israelites created a beautiful traveling place of worship for their time in the wilderness. They made a tabernacle and a tent of meeting for their time of Exodus. Wherever they went, God was present with them, and they worshipped God. This summer we are taking our tent of worship here to Concord Children’s Center, and to TriCon, and back here, and back to our transformed meeting house. So it’ s a good time to be especially alert to the unexpected places and ways that God can show up in our lives.  Our texts from this summer, from Genesis and the Gospel of Matthew, also happen to be rich in stories of surprise.

We start the series this week with the story of Hagar and her son Ishmael. We meet Hagar earlier in Genesis as the Egyptian slave of Sarah. Hagar’s role in the story of Genesis becomes more visible to us when Sarah despairs of producing a child.  It was so important in that time for a woman to produce children, and for a couple to produce helpers and heirs.  Sarah is getting on in years, and there has been no child.  So, finally, Sarah asks Abraham to impregnate Hagar.  Because Sarah owns Hagar, a child born to Hagar would legally belong to Sarah. This strategy, though it may sound strange to us, was not unusual in that time and place.  You may remember it also happens with Bilhah and Zilpah, the servants of Rachel and Leah, the wives of Jacob.

Sarah comes up with a plan to address her barrenness, and Sarah’s plan works: Hagar conceives. But as soon as she is successful, Sarah realizes that this outcome isn’t —  exactly —  what she wanted. Hagar’s pregnancy changes Hagar’s role in the family, and Sarah’s role, as well. Sarah wants to put Hagar back in her place, so she treats her harshly, establishing her own greater power in their family system. Hagar is so distressed by her mistreatment that she runs away.  But an angel of the Lord encourages Hagar to return, to survive: to bear the son she carries, Ishmael.

In time, Ishmael is born.  And, miraculously, Sarah also conceives, and bears Isaac.  One might think, then, that the problem Sarah perceived in this family is resolved. But once Isaac has survived infancy, Sarah is discontented.  Seeing Ishmael at play, watching him laugh, she becomes uneasy. Sarah is afraid that Ishmael might inherit a portion of Abraham’s wealth.  She says to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son.”

Abraham is distressed, the scripture tells us, on account of his son. But God promises to care for the child. So Abraham rises early in the morning, and takes bread and a skin of water. Abraham gives the bread and water to Hagar, along with the child, and sends them away into the wilderness.

By this point in the story, I just want to say… what? What has happened to our holy ancestors?  What has happened to Father Abraham, and Mother Sarah, models of integrity and faithfulness?  So many things are wrong in this story.  Our ancestors had slaves. Hagar is forced to become a surrogate, without any indication that she has a choice in the matter. We don’t know if she was raped. After this injustice, she is mistreated again, in order to force her subservience.  Finally, she and her son are sent out to die.

There is plenty of blame to pass around for all the things that go wrong in this story.  We could blame the ancient society, for prizing women only for their childbearing, or for favoring eldest sons. We could blame Abraham, for ducking out of all the moral questions along the way.  We could blame God, who gives some dubious advice in this story – lots of conflicting commentary about that.  I keep coming back to Sarah’s sins. They seem so painfully familiar. In a difficult situation, she makes a terrible choice, not once, but over and over again. She chooses to protect her own interests by taking cruel advantage of someone she has power over.  A woman from a different culture. A woman, perhaps, of a darker skin color.  A woman who is her slave.

In Sarah’s actions, we can see the justifications that white and wealthy and Christians and otherwise privileged people in our society so often make to excuse our mistreatment of others.  We’re just a little too worried about our own place in the world.  We’re just a little too worried about the advantages that our children will receive. Even though we’re already so far ahead of the curve, we are still willing to sacrifice the wellbeing and even the survival of others to get an extra inch of protection.

We see this self-protective instinct when people segregate suburbs and cities by wealth and by race. We see it in debates over school funding. We see it when we decide who can vote, and how hard it is to exercise that right. We see it when we make decisions about the minimum wage.  We see it when a group of white men of wealth make a plan for our country’s healthcare that does not require universal coverage, or even maternity services. We see it when we place the importance of industrial profit above the importance of a healthy planet for us all to live on. We see it when we send immigration agents on a raid at a humanitarian water station in the desert. We see it when the very presence of a Muslim person, or a dark-skinned person, represents to our mind a deadly threat to our way of life. Our margin of privilege, our margin of power, is just too precious to let go of — despite injustice, or destruction, or death for God’s children and God’s creation. Even when it is ultimately in our own long-term interest to make room for others, too often, we just can’t bring ourselves to do it.

The story of Hagar and Ishmael is particularly important to many African American Christian women, because for all the differences in time and culture, this story just rings true.

Hear is the good news: when Hagar goes into the wilderness, God is with her. God hears her, and offers her words of comfort, saying “Do not be afraid.”  God sees her, and helps her to find water to survive. God abides with her, and helps her discern a path towards the future. God accompanies her and her child along that path.

Ishmael’s childhood is not the same as Isaac’s. He is not sheltered in a family compound.  He does not marry an Israelite woman. He does not inherit wealth from Abraham. But, there are blessing to his upbringing all the same.  Raised in the wilderness, Ishmael becomes an expert with the bow. Away from the compound, he is not raised in the ways of slavery. In time, he finds a wife from the land of Egypt, a wife from his mother’s people. And we know that somehow, he does  find a way to connect with his father: when Abraham dies, Ishmael works beside Isaac to bury him.

The promises that God makes to Hagar come to pass. Eventually Ishmael has twelve sons: Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. These sons have villages, and tribes, all known as the descendants of Hagar.  Ishmael lives to be 137 years old, and when he dies, he is gathered to his people.  According to Muslim tradition, the well that saved Hagar and Ishmael in the desert becomes the water source around which a city is built: the city of Mecca.  Hagar and Ishmael are honored as founders of that city, and they are buried in the most holy part of Mecca.  As a pastoral colleague of mine often says, God is such a show off.

Summer is not a quiet season so far this year, as least as it concerns politics and world events. But don’t be pulled down by the undertow.  Remember, when you witness injustice, that God hears, and God sees.  Remember that God abides, and God accompanies.  God is there with those of us who suffer and with those of us who struggle to put aside our power and privilege.  God is working among us, showing up in the most desolate moments.  God is working around our failures and even with them, for justice, for peace, and for joy. Thanks be to God.