Sunday, June 25, 2017

God of the Other

Psalm 69:7-8; Genesis 21:8-21


Have we become numb to pain? That is an awful, perhaps unfair question to ask. How can one become deadened to the pain of another? I have an infant grandchild who resides in Christiansburg.  If Molly Jane cries, I swear I can hear her. It doesn’t matter she lives over two hour away. Grandparents gradually lose their hearing to everything but the cry of a child. The problem is, not every child is mine.

When is the last time you heard the cry of a Syrian child? That also is an unfair question. Everyone here grieves over the deplorable situation we find in the Middle East. But how can we be expected to know each child’s name. Tomorrow there is another incident. Next week more children will be killed. Eventually, we become numb to the news, and the tragedies, that reveal the pain of another.

In all fairness, we can only be expected to take so much. Our helplessness to respond compels us to turn off the news or retreat to the sport’s page. Our live are filled with enough drama. Why must we be dragged into conflicts no one will ever resolve?

Psalm 69 might have been a lament written for those who suffer and feel they are seldom heard. It begins with the classic words, “Help me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.” A couple of years ago Amelia and Jane invited me to Kayak down the Rockfish River. After spending the entire summer paddling in Lake Monacan, I felt I was more than up to the task.   I was wrong. The Rockfish is not a fast or dangerous river, unless you don’t have a clue what you are doing. At the first sign of a ripple I flipped the boat. They gave excellent instructions, most of which were wasted on me. The harder I tried, the worse I got. Thankfully we were coming to the end of the day. But before we could pull the boats out of the water one last rapid had to be negotiated. Amelia instructing me to do exactly what she was going to do and I would be fine. She went into the rapids, made two very smart turns and popped out on the other side unharmed. I followed her line, immediately panicked, and found myself in the water pinned against a rock. With one hand I held on to the kayak, somehow thinking the boat was my only salvation. To quote the Psalms, “I could not find a foothold and the waters were sweeping over my head.” I grew weary clinging to both the rock and the boat. Then I heard the voice of Jane screaming, “Let go of the boat.” I thought to myself, she must be crazy. But since my arms were aching beyond belief I really had no choice. I let go of the boat and it floated to safety. Then she hollered, “Let go of the rock.”                           (stop)

I had not known Jane and Amelia for very long. Actually the purpose of the trip was to get to know these fine church members a little bit better. But now, as I am being flattened by rushing water, the only advice my alleged friend can render is, jump into the chaos. I would have written my last will and testimony but I didn’t have pen or paper. So I said a prayer, let go, and like the boat, floated to safety.

In the midst of my tragedy, two folks took the time to navigate me home. How often does that happen in today’s world? Usually we are spending all our time navigating through our own chaos.  It is so much easier to look away, especially when we don’t know the other person’s name? Sometimes, even name recognition is not enough.

“Call me Ishmael.” That quote is not from the book of Genesis but rather America’s greatest novel. Melville did not pick the name because of how it sounded. Melville knew the story of Abraham’s first son, a child thrown into the wilderness, surviving only because of the mercy of God. As much as we celebrate the faith of Abraham and Sarah, this incident exposes their inhumanity.

Abraham got tired of waiting for a child. Hagar, an Egyptian handmaiden was offered as a substitute for the barrenness of Sarah. Hager gives birth and the child is named Ishmael, which means “God hears”.  Abraham believes the wishes of God had been fulfilled. A son is born, the nation building will begin.  But this wasn’t God’s plan. Sarah becomes pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. 

Abraham’s loyalty is to the second son, but Ishmael cannot be ignored. He is not adopted. He is the first born of a man given a promise. The birthright should belong to Ishmael but the younger child belongs to Sarah. The child with rights is forgotten. The child who evokes laughter is celebrated. The “other” son of Abraham is forever known as the son of an Egyptian slave. He and his mother are expelled from the family of Abraham. But are Hagar and Ishmael expelled from the family of God?

In the fourth chapter of Galatians, Paul grapples with this question. The Apostle asked, “Are we bond by love or law.” Certainly the law is created to protect us but Paul wants to make the distinction that the law can also enslave us. He moves to the example of Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was born of a slave and will forever be bound to enslavement by the law. Isaac was born of love and will forever be a child of freedom. Then Paul takes a bizarre hermeneutical leap. He writes, “God drove the slave and her child into the wilderness, so Ishmael would not share the inheritance with the child of a free woman. Therefore do not submit yourself to the yoke of the law but live by grace.”

Are you kidding me? If Paul had made that leap in any Presbyterian Seminary he would have flunked.  But it gets worse. Using the same logic, Augustine, Luther, and many modern theologians I really don’t care to read have carefully distinguished between those who are treasured and those considered “The Others”. You see what this does? It pre-determines in the minds of “the blest”  there are the children of God and the children we don’t have to worry about.

On one of my trips to Guatemala I had an interesting conversation with a tour guide at the Museum of Guatemalan History. She asked where I would be taking our fine group of Presbyterians. I told her we were going into the mountains to work with Mayan families. She scoffed and said, “Why waste your time. They are not Christian.”

What a wonderful excuse to keep us from caring. For 2,000 years folks have turned to the book of Galatians to exclude anyone who does not live up to the standards set by Abraham. But are those the standards by which we are called to live. True, Abraham was told by God to send Hagar and Ishmael away. When they ran out of food God appeared with bread and water. And then these words were uttered. “I will make a great nation of Ishmael. The God remained with him and Ishmael married a wife from Egypt.”

Where in the story does it say God loved the descendents of Isaac more than God loved the descendents of Ishmael? What I read is God will not limited by old age, by barrenness, by slavery or by rejection. God is always in the business of creating something new and God expects us to be more than just witnesses. God demands we care.

We hear so many stories of folks ignoring the crisis of others because of who they are or because we predetermine the troubles were of their own making. Jane and Amelia did not have to help me out of the rapids. I got in trouble all by myself. But they risked their safety by showing me the way out of danger. Jane and Amelia believe we are not called to act like Abraham. We are called to act like God. That takes us beyond our needs, our desires, and even our pain. Perhaps it is too much to expect us to rescue all the children of Syria. But why we can speak out on behalf of the children of Nelson County? Do you know the children in Lovingston don’t have a safe park where they can play? Yet our county received over a million dollars to create a passing lane for 18 wheelers on Route 151. Is commerce more important than the children living on the other side of the county? You don’t have to go very far to witness the pain of “the others” living near us. Maybe we should listen a little more carefully. Maybe we should get to know their names. They all go by one surname; Child of God.         Amen

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Never Stop Dreaming

Genesis 18:1-15


        In the last couple of months we have successfully navigated our way through Lent, Holy Week, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. Now summer is upon us. Using liturgical language we have entered what the church celebrates as the Season of Ordinary Days. After hearing Jill preach last week, today we are certainly returning to the season of ordinary sermons. But there is nothing ordinary about this morning’s text. I believe it was Frederick Beuchner who said, “Sarah gave birth in the Geriatric Ward and Medicare picked up the bill.” At my age this story reads more like a Stephen King horror story than a biblical fairy tale. Do any  of us still harbor hopes for another child? The better question might be who among us has that kind of energy? Even Sarah, who wanted a child more than life itself laughed at the idea of becoming pregnant at eighty. But this text is not about getting in the Guinness Book of Records. It is about dreams and faithfulness. It is certainly about more than just wishful thinking.

        God promised Abraham and Sarah they would be the father and mother of a nation. As the couple grew older, being a typical male, Abraham looked at Sarah and decided he needed a back-up plan. Her name was Hagar and nine months later Abraham had a son. What does this say about the faithfulness of Abraham? You might think it dangerous to question the faith of an Old Testament icon. Isn’t this the guy who picked up stakes and headed across the desert looking for the Promised Land? Isn’t this the guy who passed Sarah off as his sister in order that they might receive safe passage through Egypt? Well maybe that is not such a great example. Isn’t this the guy who trusted Lot as his partner in real estate? That really doesn’t help my case either. I’ve got one more. Isn’t this the guy who was willing to prove how faithful he was by sacrificing his own son? We Christians pull the Jesus card when telling this story but honestly, how faithful is it to be willing to sacrifice someone else, particular if the sacrificial lamb is a child? We can talk all we want about the faith of Abraham and Sarah but the only one faithful in this story was God. Abraham bailed out early. Sarah laughed at the absurdity of a senior citizen giving birth.  Yet the promise was kept. Sarah became pregnant and she named the child, Isaac, which means Laughter. 

        Please don’t think I am being hard on either Abraham or Sarah. Paul Tillich suggested, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an essential element of faith.” I imagine everyone here has had a dream complicated by doubt and barrenness. If not, you need to set your imagination bar a bit higher. Having a dream take flight needs to be hard work.

In the gospel of Matthew we encounter the story of the Transfiguration. Jesus and a couple disciples take a field trip up a mountain for a religious experience. If you want to feel closer to God, take a hike up a mountain. If you are not into hiking, go to Montreat. On a weekly basis the best preachers our church has to offer deliver their top drawer stuff and we get excited. When we are on the mountain we feel like we can conquer the world. But then we come back to the valley. So it was with Jesus and the disciples. After the Moses/Elijah experience, the disciples were certain no one could stand in their way. Then coming home they encountered a sick child. The parents pleaded with the disciples to do something. These same disciples who came down the mountain as conquering heroes were left speechless. Jesus healed the child but then rebuked his  disciples by asking, “Why couldn’t you heal him?”

There is never an appropriate response to a rhetorical question, so Jesus continued. “You have such little faith. What good are dreams without actions? Don’t you realize nothing is impossible?”

If I am one of those disciples I would first sulk and then rationalize. The circumstances were not fair. Jesus had not given me lessons on healing children. Healing was his department. I signed up to be a follower. My job was to witness and record. We had been to the mountain. We had proclaimed Jesus to be Lord. Now it was his time to take care of me. Embarrassment  in front of by-standers was not a good way to continue our relationship. If Jesus picked me, why would he go out of his way to make me look so bad?

Gerhard Lohfink wrote, “Being chosen is not a privilege nor is it proof of God’s preference for us. Being chosen calls us to accept the heaviest burden of all; sacrifice for others.”

Abraham and Sarah dreamed of a child. But over time they came to the conclusion that any opportunity to be parents had passed them by. Despite being promised their heirs would sire a nation, Abraham and Sarah never dreamed beyond themselves. Truth is, few of us do.

Imagine living your life on behalf of others. Imagine your dreams expanding beyond a personal address. Imagine folks you don’t even know depending on your dreams. Imagine the amount of faithfulness needed to fulfill these dreams. No wonder Sarah laughed. She laughed to disguise her panic.

Sarah or Abraham probably signed on for nothing bigger than a new addition to their tent. They imaged a child, not a nation. When childbearing seemed impossible it led to a barrenness of both their faith and imagination. But the God who initiates dreams does not give up so easily. The God who pays little attention to the concept of years has never been fazed by our self-proclaimed limitations.

Remember the call of Jeremiah. The soon to be prophet lamented, “Not me Lord, I am only a child.”

Remember the call of Moses. The soon to be liberator gazed into the fiery bush and begged, “Choose someone else. I failed leadership 101.”

Remember the call of Paul. The soon to be missionary lay blind on the side of the road confessing, “Why me, I persecuted your followers?”

Here is a difficult concept to swallow. God’s imagination, God’s dreams and certainly God’s determination has never been limited to a specific viewpoint or audience. It is not about me. It is not about you. It is about celebrating God’s universal understanding of the pronoun “us”. My mind, my energy, my potential falls prey to my self-proclaimed limitations. But God refuses to be limited by my lack of vision. When I lose confidence, God’s faithfulness surrounds my frailty. When I lose steam, God’s faithfulness transforms my energy. When I lose hope, God’s faithfulness reminds me of Isaac. And I laugh at how special I imagined I was.

You see, in the eyes of the Lord there are no ordinary days or ordinary people. Each moment is an opportunity to lift someone up. Each moment is an opportunity to see beyond our gatepost. Each moment is an opportunity to give birth to a community or a world dedicated to justice, righteousness and the welfare of each sojourner.

Go ahead and laugh. God’s heard it before.   

Go ahead and laugh. Just prepare yourself to become pregnant with an inspiration from God’s fertile imagination. 

                                          To God be the glory.  Amen.