Sunday, June 22, 2014

Spare Parts and Broken Hearts - A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

Who says you can't go home? Today I was the preacher at the Hawley United Methodist Church - the congregation that took seriously their promises to help raise me up in the faith. The readings for the day can be found here; the sermon is based on the Old Testament reading from Genesis 21:8-21. 

In the fall of 1973, my family moved from Scranton to Hawley. I was ten years old, and about to began fifth grade at the Hawley Elementary School in Mrs. Keefer’s class. Even though my parents had grown up in this town (my dad at Cole Memorial Baptist Church and my mother at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church; and I’d been baptized at St. Paul’s) they’d found their way during the years they lived in Scranton to Elm Park United Methodist Church. So when they moved back to Hawley they decided to stick with that plan, and that is how my family landed here. Gail Wintermute was the pastor and Katherine Bates was my Sunday School teacher. If I may paraphrase a bit, “everything I ever needed to know about God I learned in Sunday School, right here in this building.” Milly Wintermute was my piano teacher, and it was she who first suggested I consider career options other than becoming a concert pianist. She wondered out loud with me if I might be called to the ministry, but I assured her that no way, no how, not ever—no offence. I was going to be a lawyer and then go into the family business: politics.

So here we are, forty-one years later. God has a funny sense of humor. I left Hawley in the fall of 1981 to attend college in Washington, DC and have not lived here since then. I preached here once when I was in seminary and I think the day after I was ordained a deacon at Elm Park, in the summer of 1988. Some time after that I ended up making my own denominational move from the Methodists to the Episcopal Church, but I’ll save that story for the next time I’m invited back to preach. The short version is this: I remain a Wesleyan in my strangely-warmed heart, but found that I could live that spirituality out better in the Episcopal Church.

It’s good to be home. When I told some friends I was returning home to preach this weekend, they reminded me what happened to Jesus when he preached in his hometown and they wished me the best and told me to avoid getting near any cliffs. This trip down memory lane has gone on long enough; I couldn’t get away with this much additional time in the pulpit in an Episcopal Church, but as I remember it, in the Methodist Church it doesn’t even count as a sermon if it doesn’t go on for at least thirty minutes, right?

So let’s talk about this strange reading from the twenty-first chapter of Genesis. I’m pretty certain that we never studied it in Mrs. Bates’ Sunday School class – because most Sunday School curricula cuts out the really interesting parts of the Bible, like David and Bathsheba and the Song of Songs and this complicated triangle between Abraham and Sarah and Hagar. But what I did learn here was a love of the Bible, and that the Word of God is heard there - even though sometimes we have to dig deep. So let’s do some digging.

God had promised Abraham and Sarah descendants numbering like the stars. They trusted God, and left behind everything to pursue that dream. But it didn’t happen. Or at least it didn’t happen on their timetable. And now Abraham and Sarah were getting on in years. According to the narrator, it was Sarah’s idea to ask Hagar to serve as their surrogate mother – you can see already why this story isn’t covered in Sunday School, right? This was in the days before in vitro clinics so they had to go about it the old-fashioned way. 

In any case, Abraham and Hagar have a son – and they name him Ishmael and everyone figures this son will now be the heir. But God’s plan, and promise, was apparently for Abraham and Sarah to have a son together, and they do. Remember that Sarah laughed when she found out she was pregnant, which is why the kid’s name – Isaac – means “laughter.”

As Walter Brueggeman puts it: “the conflict between the two sons...the two mothers...and the reluctant ambiguous father is… complex." Ha! No kidding! You don’t need a PhD in Old Testament or Family Therapy to figure that out! 

So as we heard, Isaac grew and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.  The weaning of a child in the ancient world was a big deal because it meant that the child had made it through the hardest year or so of childhood. Ishmael is now a teenager. And Sarah sees 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, the narrator tells us. For sure. 

Abraham hears the Voice of God telling him not to be distressed and that everything will be ok. But I think we make a big mistake if we think God just tapped Abraham on the shoulder and said it in a flash. I think that Abraham probably had more than one or two sleepless nights in there where he tossed and turned because this matter was indeed very distressing to Abraham and because how could a father just send his son away like that? But somehow – who knows, in a dream maybe or out for a walk one day or in the quiet of the night—Abraham “hears” the voice of God saying:

Do not be distressed because of the boy…do whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring. And 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.

Ugh. End of story, right? God has just one promise and all of us learned somewhere along the line, maybe in this very Sunday School from Mrs. Bates, that it’s the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and then Jacob has twelve sons, the favorite one is the guy who gets that coat of many colors that lands him on Broadway…

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Not Abraham, Ishmael, and whoever. So Ishmael and his mother are discarded – thrown away from the pages of the Bible, only to turn up later in the pages of the Koran, as the one through whom Muslims call Abraham their father too.

Except that it is not the end of the story. While the narrative for Jews (and by extension the narrative for us as Christians) continues through Isaac, that story doesn’t continue until we first see God at work in the lives of Hagar and Ishmael. Listen again with me, to the rest of the story as we heard it today:

When the water in the skin was gone, Hagar 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."
She’s in the desert and the water is gone…she knows what is coming next. 
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.

Notice that this "other son" is not so easily dismissed by God. God cares for the outsider whom the tradition wants to abandon. In fact, while this story lingered around in the oral tradition for a long time, I imagine that when the Bible got edited there was someone who probably said, “do we really have to talk about this?”  Why don’t we just leave that part out? Like in families where something unpleasant happens and we sort of silently agree never to speak of it again. But here it is, and yes, we should talk about it because deep inside this text I think there is good news about the living God.

You want to know something really interesting – at least it is interesting to me.  Even this is not the last we see of Ishmael in our own holy book. Guess when he comes back? For their father’s funeral. Ishmael and Isaac, these two half-brothers, stand together at Abraham’s grave. (Genesis 25:9) Ishmael returns home, all those years later and these two sons of Abraham, these two fathers of great nations, weep together. And then before the narrator moves on to Jacob and sons, he tells us that Ishmael had a whole lot of kids himself, a whole lot of children and grandchildren. In other words, there is another story out there – about the God of Abraham, Ishmael, and Nebiaoth.

It’s a strange story isn’t it? But it’s so real. At least it feels very real to me. I think it has huge implications for us when it comes to interfaith conversations, because it suggests that Jews and Muslims and Christians are all cousins - part of one big extended family. A dysfunctional family to be sure, but still a family where love is possible, and required. And where it is clear that God has more than one promise.  And more than enough love. 

There’s a line from the prophet Bruce (Springsteen that is) that goes like this: spare parts and broken hearts/ keep the world turnin’ around. (I had to work in at least one Springsteen line just to be sure my brother is still paying attention.) It may seem like Hagar and Ishmael get treated like spare parts, literally discarded when the new kid comes along. But with God that is never the end of the story. That may be how Sarah and Abraham get on with their lives, but God’s love is bigger than that. For me this strange story about Hagar and Ishmael is like an old black and white snapshot stuck in a family photo album. And one of the grandkids comes along and says, “who’s that?” And all the old folks take a deep breath. But in the telling of a story like this, there is more than good news for interfaith dialogues, as if that would not be enough and something our post 9/11 world still desperately needs. There is good news for all of us here.

Phyllis Trible says that Hagar is "the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth…the pregnant young woman alone…the divorced mother with child…the welfare mother, the self-effacing female whose identity shrinks in service to others." And I would go even further and say that even if you can’t identify with anyone in that litany, then it may help to remember that even those of us who look most put-together on the outside are not immune from the pain and hurt this life can bring – of feeling like we don’t measure up, that we aren’t good enough, or thin enough, or smart enough. There is some part of all of us, I suspect, that knows this feeling of “spare parts and broken hearts.” 

We may be children of the promise claimed as God’s own, forever, in holy baptism. But it doesn’t mean we feel that way every day of the week. Sometimes we feel a little bit despised and a little rejected and maybe more than a little acquainted with grief. And it’s tempting to think that we can’t bring all that with us to a holy place like this on Sunday mornings. That we need to polish our shoes and our selves all up.

But then we come to church on a June morning and there it is – this story of Hagar and her son out there in the wilderness, down to their last drop of water and a mother who expects that she is about to watch her son die. A desperate mother, at the end of her rope – discarded by the powers-that-be. And the living God is present in that supposedly God-forsaken place, saying what God always says: do not be afraid - 
Do not be afraid. Give the boy a drink. Take a drink yourself – of living water, and know that I will be with you.  
That same God is present whenever we’re lost too. Present when a man says from a cross, “I thirst.” Present in our crazy families and in our crazy congregations, present from generation to generation. Present on the edges, in the places we’re sometimes afraid to look. Do not be afraid. God meets us where we are – and there is more than enough love to go around. God is in the promise-making and promise-keeping business. Do not be afraid. Eat and drink . Taste and see that the Lord is good.  

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