A Handmaid’s Tale

Yesterday, at St. Paul’s, we celebrated Andy Heller’s 20th anniversary as Director of Music! It was a fantastic day, with beautiful music and good food and fun together. As I mention in my sermon, though, unfortunately our texts weren’t quite as festive. Continuing on through Genesis, this week we read of Hagar and her son Ishmael.

Understandably, texts like these give people a lot of questions. When we read difficult texts, the challenge is to find where God is acting in them and to see how they are calling us to act.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today has served as a really good example to me why I ought to read ahead to see what texts are coming up before we go about planning a party. Happy twenty years, Andy. But don’t get too comfortable because Jesus is here to bring not peace, but a sword.

I spent some time this week trying to figure out how to weave these passages into something happy, but finally decided that my gift to you today would be to have the best sermon I could, even if it isn’t the happiest it could possibly be. So here goes:

Last week, in our Genesis reading, we had Sarah’s story. God’s reminding Sarah of the promise, God fulfilling God’s promise to give to Sarah a son, despite her doubt and disbelief. And we were right there with Sarah, not believing that such a miracle could come true after so much time and yet rejoicing when the Lord brought life out of death.

If last week was Sarah’s story, this week is Hagar’s turn. Our reading doesn’t do a great job of explaining exactly who Hagar is. She is Sarah’s slave, her handmaiden. And during the years when Sarah was growing desperate of her ability to have a child, she “gave” Hagar to her husband Abraham, to bear a child for him. After all, she was a slave, so anything she has is Sarah’s: her son would be Sarah’s son. And so we have Ishmael, the son of Hagar the Egyptian.

But now that Sarah has a son of her own, her one-time solution has become quite a problem. Ishmael is no longer a means to continue the promise of God, but a liability and a threat to Isaac’s future. She tells Abraham to cast them out, to turn his back on them, and he does it. He’s a little reluctant, but he still does it—giving the woman and his son just a little bit of food and water and sending them into the wilderness.

As we read this story, I think the challenge for us is to ask ourselves, who do we cast aside? Or, perhaps, like Abraham, despite feeling badly about it, who do we let be cast aside? What fellow human beings are expendable to us in our pursuit of…whatever it is we’re after.

Is it the people whose hard work and labor we benefit from every day, sometimes all around the world, but never stop and question whether they have any decent standard of life? Whether their economic slavery is worth our comfort. Is it the children never given a chance to succeed with overcrowded, underfunded schools, just a county line away? Is it those ravaged by addiction and an opioid epidemic, that we would honestly rather we didn’t have to think about?

When Sarah sees Hagar and Ishmael as expendable, she’s playing a zero-sum game. If Ishmael has more of anything, it means that Isaac has less. For Isaac to win, Ishmael has to lose. It’s our problem, too. We act like life is a zero-sum game. And we all want to win.

But God has a different set of rules. God’s promise to Isaac, the covenant made with Abraham, it does not entitle Isaac to exclusive claims on God’s care or God’s presence. There is a promise to Ishmael also—God sees Ishmael, hears his cries, and cares and loves abundantly. There is no division of limited resources, of limited hopes and promises, but instead abundance. God’s way is not a zero-sum game. There is more than enough for all.

When Abraham offers a meagre skin of water that runs out quickly, God produces a well. God cares, God cares especially for those whom we cast aside. God cares especially for those others view as expendable. Giving abundantly of the love and mercy that will never run out.

This passage, as tough as it is, is an invitation for us to do the same. To stop playing the zero-sum game, and instead treat others, perhaps especially those we tend to cast aside, with God’s abundance. Not just in our hearts, but in our actions as well. What might the world look like if we actually did this?

If we truly give it a shot—loving like God loves, loving who God loves—I think we ought to be prepared for some of that conflict Jesus talked about. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth,” he says, “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.”

What he means is that Kingdom of God is not calm and tranquil. The Kingdom of God upsets and disrupts. The Kingdom of God upends systems of power and abuse that treat human beings as expendable. In their place, the kingdom of God demands true peace—not the false peace of the status quo—but the real peace of God.

Taking up our cross and following God’s way does have costs, and it might, in fact it probably will, cause conflict. Because it calls into question the ways we view and treat our fellow human beings. It calls into question the things we value. And it challenges the systems that teach us we can only win if someone else loses. And those systems and those values aren’t going to go down without a fight.

Yet right in the midst of this challenging, honestly scary, passage, we hear those words of Jesus that are spoken again and again in scripture: Do not fear. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. God knows every single hair on your head. You are of immense value to God. Just as God heard the cries of the child Ishmael, God still hears us today. God notices us, and God cares for us.

We would never be able to take up our crosses, and take up this holy calling if God had not first taken up the cross to show us the truth of love. That same love that we have received, that has changed our lives and made us whole, we take to extend to the outcast and stranger.

May God go with us. May God go behind us to encourage us, above us to watch over us, beneath us to lift us up, within us to give us the gifts of faith, hope, and love, and may God always go before us, to show us the way. Amen.

Laughing with Sarah

Below is my sermon from June 18th, the second Sunday after Pentecost. It focuses on the story of Sarah laughing when God tells her she will bear a child, found in Genesis 18. If you’re curious, the whole story of Sarah and Abraham starts in Genesis 12, with the initial promises.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today, in addition to being Father’s Day, is an important day in the church. The second Sunday after Pentecost, the first after Holy Trinity Sunday means that today is the first in our long, long season of ordinary time. It’s the non-festival half of the church year, and we will be in it from now until October.

Do I sound excited enough about this yet? I must say that the long months without festivals—without big celebrations—tend to wear on me. It doesn’t help that green just isn’t my favorite color, either.

But there is one thing I am excited about: this summer, we’re trying something new for worship, and will be using a different set of first lessons. Instead of jumping around, our first reading each week will more or less follow the previous week’s. And so, from now until October, we will work our way through the books of Genesis and Exodus, hearing the continuous story of the beginnings of God’s people.

We jump into the middle of the story this week, with Abraham and Sarah, and God’s promises to them. When God first called Abraham, God promised to make from him a great nation, God promised to bless Abraham and his descendants so that through them all the peoples of the earth would be blessed.  Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the night sky, as many as the grains of sand on the earth.

But some time has passed since the promise was made, and Abraham and Sarah are now in their old age, and there are no children. It’s starting to look like there is no hope of the promise coming to fruition.

And here our reading for today picks up the story. God, disguised among three strangers, appears to Abraham and Sarah, who offer them welcome and hospitality. And God once again reminds them of the promise, saying, I shall return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.

And Sarah laughs. She laughs to herself because it’s all so implausible. Sarah knows as well as anyone that she is no longer capable of bearing children, and her husband isn’t exactly the picture of youth either. So she laughs, and asks herself the incredulous question—after I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?

Can’t you just imagine it? Sarah, eavesdropping on God’s conversation, is faced once again with the reality of her disappointment. Reminded that the whole of the promise rests on her ability, or  inability, to bear a child. And so she lets loose the laughter of desperation, of lost hopes, the laughter that is the only option left to her unless she wants to cry.

I’m familiar with that laughter, and I know a lot of you are, too. There are times when it seems the only appropriate response is to laugh in the face of God’s promises. When God has promised that all people God’s children and deserving of love and respect, and yet we continue to struggle with racism, and sexism, and homophobia in our culture and in our own hearts, that bitter laughter can all too easily come bubbling up.

When God has promised to hear our prayers, to give us whatever we ask, and yet the cancer remains, the depression and anxiety are still there—Sarah’s laughter doesn’t seem so ridiculous. When God has promised that there will be a day when no one is hungry and everyone has what they need, it seems laughable when we look at the reality of the world, where growing inequalities mean that while some have plenty, more and more people struggle to even put food on the table or keep a safe home.

And in our frustration with the way things are, our despair at our own inability to effect real change, we join Sarah in her laughter. But then God’s question comes, interrupting Sarah’s laughter: “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Can God fulfill God’s promises, despite the facts on the ground? Can God bring life even out of the dry husk that is Sarah, not to mention the 100-year-old Abraham? Abraham and Sarah don’t believe it to be possible.

But as Paul writes in Romans—hope does not disappoint us. We often talk about hopes as wishful thinking: “I hope it won’t rain”; “I hope I win the lottery”; “I hope the Phillies might win two games in a row.” (That last one, I don’t think even God can help with.)

But for Paul, hope isn’t wishful thinking. Rather hope is absolute certainty about the future, because our hope is grounded in God’s faithfulness to keep God’s promises. What God will do in the future is grounded on what God has already done. Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Hope does not disappoint us, because Christ died for us while we were still sinners.

The source of our hope is God’s love poured out for us in Jesus Christ, and in promises fulfilled. God kept God’s promise to Sarah to give her a son—despite her laughter, despite her doubt. Suffering and doubt do not last always, and our weariness can never limit God’s graciousness.

Sarah and Abraham’s son was called Isaac, which means, he laughs. The laughter of despair became the laughter of hope and new life. Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s keeps God’s promises. Like Sarah, we might wonder when, and how. God’s when and how don’t always match up with ours. That’s ok, though.

But let us not despair in the meantime. Let us not lose hope that God will keep God’s promises. And may we, as the church, as the body of Christ in the world, live in that hope, live in those promises. May we trust in God’s promise that all people are made in the Father’s image and let that promise shine forth in our own lives and actions. May we trust in God’s promise that someday there will be no hunger, and let that promise drive our loving kindness.

May the promises of God, may the love of God in Christ Jesus, and may the hope of God, guide our lives and our love. For hope does not disappoint us. Amen.