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