Sunday’s Sermon: Seeing the Other, Being the Other

  • Sometimes, we encounter tough stories in the Bible – stories that make us uncomfortable, stories that make us question, stories that don’t quite fit with the faith we think we know. Today’s story of Hagar and Ishmael is one of those stories.
    • Story involves pain and exclusion
    • Story involves desperation and despair
    • Story that, on the surface, seems to be an “us” and “them” story
    • Main characters: Hagar and Ishmael deal with …
      • Rejection
      • Isolation
      • Death
      • At the heart of this story, we find ourselves following a single mother who’s been thrown out of her home wandering in the desert with a baby. Not the kinds of things we’re looking to find when we turn to Scripture, but these are the realities of the story. These are the details with which we must wrestle because this is the story that we have been given.
  • There’s so much about this story that makes us feel uncomfortable. For starters, we don’t like the callous and vindictive way Sarah treats Hagar and Ishmael.
    • Text: Sarah saw 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.”[1] → There’s no provocation that we’re aware of. Ishmael and Isaac were simply playing together. If Abraham’s house looked anything like our house does, there was some lively babbling and animated gesticulating going on between the two boys. Nothing evil. Nothing threatening. At yet this innocent scene stirs something so powerful in Sarah that she orders Abraham to toss Hagar and Ishmael out as though they were trash.
    • But let’s backtrack for a minute. How did Sarah and Abraham and Hagar get into this thorny situation in the first place?
      • Text: Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. … He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress.[2] → Hagar gives birth to Abraham’s firstborn son, Ishmael
      • But the other part of that covenant: Your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.[4]
      • And yet despite this assurance that her son would inherit the covenant – an assurance that literally came from the mouth of God! – Sarah decided to turn out her maidservant and the child when it seemed as though this illegitimate child was getting a little too friendly with her “rightful” heir.
        • Total disregard for either Hagar or Ishmael as a human beings – orders Abraham to exile Hagar and Ishmael from the only house the child has ever known à makes it very clear that they are and always have been “the other”
        • Scholar: This is an unjust situation that is painful to imagine. … The magnitude of the injustice done to [Hagar and Ishmael] bears down on the reader.[5]
  • We also don’t like Abraham’s feeble and ineffectual response to Sarah’s tyrannical demands.
    • See Abraham’s discomfort with the whole situation – text: The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son.[6]
      • Even more distressing = God’s response: Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for its 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.[7]
        • This is not what we want to hear from God! We want God to be up in arms over Sarah’s unjust treatment of Hagar. We want righteous anger and judgment and maybe even just a little bit of smiting (nothing serious … just a slight singeing). Even if God is promising Abraham that Hagar and Ishmael will have a future, we want to feel like God doesn’t sanction such treatment.
      • And yet we read Abraham’s ultimate response: 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.[8] → “Here’s your bread. Here’s your water. Here’s you kid. See ya.” Abraham’s attitude is so passive, so compliant. Again, it doesn’t sit well with us.
  • Finally, we don’t like the life-threatening situation that Hagar and Ishmael encounter out in the wilderness, and we certainly don’t like the anguish that we see in Hagar when she leaves her beloved son under that bush, certain of his imminent death.
    • Text: When the water in the skin was gone, she 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.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.[9]
      • Confession: this is difficult to read → And cliché though it may be, it’s a hundred times more difficult now that I have two boys of my own. You know, Ishmael wouldn’t have been much older than Luke and Ian during our story today. Children that age are so fragile, so defenseless, so dependent.
      • Our response: Where is God?!
        • Probably Hagar’s response, too → You see, Hagar had a little secret of her own.
          • Hagar found out she was pregnant → ran away →God found her and spoke to her: The angel of the Lord found [Hagar] by a spring of water in the wilderness … And he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.” The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.” The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.”[10] → With these words ringing in her ears, Hagar must have wept bitterly, wondering what had happened to that promise that God had made to her. How could her offspring be multiplied so if her only son died here with her in the desert of starvation and thirst? Where was God?
  • But here is where our story turns.
    • Scholar: In the midst of a seemingly hopeless situation, the text makes a transformational statement. “God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven.” At the point of despair, God steps in.[11] → Here, in the midst of the darkness and desolation of the desert, God’s light shines on this single mother and her son who have been abused and abandoned.
    • God did not forget the promise previously made to Hagar – text: [The angel of God said to 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.” … And God was with the boy, and he grew up.[12] → Finally!! We rejoice in God’s attentiveness to Hagar and Ishmael’s dilemma. As Hagar surely did, we can feel our hearts lift when we hear that God heard the voice of the crying child. As Hagar surely did, we can feel a powerful protectiveness swell within us when we hear the angel’s command to “lift up the boy and hold him fast.”
      • Heb. here is uplifting as well – “hold him fast” = having courage, becoming strong → This is a command not just for the good of the child but for Hagar’s good as well. Hold him fast. Have courage. Be strong.
  • And yet, even in the midst of this rejoicing, we hit another snag – another element of this story that stirs discomfort within us.
    • That “great nation” that God promised would come from Ishmael = Islam → Islam is known as one of the “Abrahamic faiths” (along with Judaism and Christianity) because it can trace its sacred roots back to Abraham, but unlike Judaism and Christianity (who trace roots through Isaac), Islam traces those roots through Abraham’s other son, Ishmael
    • Muslims. We are talking about a people and a faith tradition that within the past decade or so have been increasingly vilified.
      • Important note: There are extremists in every religion, and all of them – Jewish extremists, Hindu extremists, and Christian extremists alike – can be dangerous.
      • We can’t turn on the news without hearing the words “terrorist” and “Muslim” inextricably linked. We see someone of Middle Eastern descent in cultural dress in line at the airport, and we worry. We readily draw a thick, red, impenetrable line between “us” and “them,” excluding the other for what we are convinced is our own good.
        • Scholar: This text reminds us that the world is filled with both physical and spiritual descendants of Ishmael. … How is the other half of Abraham’s family going to relate to these brothers and sisters in ways that acknowledge this ongoing work of God?[13]
          • Difficult question
          • Uncomfortable question
          • You see, it’s easy for us to see the injustices in our own lives, in the lives of those we love, and even in the lives of strangers who appear to us to be vulnerable – a single mother and her child who have been turned out into the wilderness. And it’s easy for us to pinpoint those times in our lives when we’ve been “the other” – the one excluded, the one singled out, the one ostracized and made fun of and shamed. But what about when we find ourselves naming “the other”? What about when we are the ones drawing that thick, red line, essentially (and sometimes literally) stating, “You don’t belong”? Where is our faith then?
            • Challenged to remember Jesus’ encounter in Luke: Just then a lawyer stood up to text Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” [Jesus] said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And [Jesus] said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”[14] → How can we even begin to recognize our neighbor when our eyes are so focused on the lines that divide us?
  • Every day, there are injustices happening to every person and every group in every part of this world. – cannot turn a blind eye to these injustices
    • Denominational responses
      • [Z] resolutions from Annual Mtg.
        • Eradicating racism and embracing diversity within the conference
        • Standing up for undocumented persons who cannot stand up for themselves
      • [O] overtures from GA
        • Marriage equality
        • Peacemaking within the Middle East
        • Working to end gun violence
    • Scholar: In this story the people of God should recognize and rejoice that God’s saving acts are not confined to their own community. God’s acts of deliverance occur out and about in the seemingly godforsaken corners of the world, even among those who may be explicitly excluded from the “people of God.” Here we see God at work among the outcasts, the refugees of the world. … Persons of faith are to participate in their lives, to lift them up and hold them fast until the wells become available.[15] Amen.

 

[1] Gen 21:9-11.

[2] Gen 16:1-2, 4.

[4] Gen 17:19.

[5] Edward L. Wheeler. “Proper 7 – Genesis 21:8-21” in Preaching God’s Transformative Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 293.

[6] Gen 21:11.

[7] Gen 21:12-13.

[8] Gen 21:14.

[9] Gen 21:15-16.

[10] Gen 16:7-10.

[11] Wheeler, 293.

[12] Gen 21:17-18, 20a.

[13] Terence E. Fretheim. “The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 1. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), 490 (emphasis added at the end).

[14] Lk 10:25-28.

[15] Fretheim, 489-490.

Sunday’s Sermon: Following the Bones

Okay … full disclosure. This is the sermon from Pentecost Sunday a few weeks ago. I’m a little bit behind, and between conferences and a very sick kiddo (who is now feeling mostly better), I missed a few Sundays in there as well. Hopefully, though, we’re now back on track. Okay, Pentecost ………..

  • Story of mission trip to Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota
    • Split between 2 missions – children’s day school and work on homes (painting, etc.)
      • Playing with kids = inspiring … but exhausting!
      • Painting and fixing up homes in sunshine and heat = fulfilling … but exhausting!
    • On mission trips, exhaustion is a daily thing but grows stronger as the week progresses → You work really hard all day long and return at the end of the day to rest and relax in your nice comfy sleeping bag … on a nice comfy tile floors. Ahhhhhh! So refreshing. By the last day or two, it’s a miracle everyone is able to get out of bed at all in the morning.
    • Mission work certainly not the only place we encounter exhaustion
      • A million small ways in our day to day lives
      • Situations of high emotion/high stress (spring/fall – farmers)
      • Events that require a lot of planning ahead of time and activity
      • I don’t know … raising twins!
    • But in any of these times of great exhaustion, there’s often something else at work – something more, something deeper – something that not only overrides our exhaustion but leaves us renewed: the work of the Holy Spirit in us and through us.
      • Mission e.g. – While they may be the walking definition of bone-weary, those on a mission trip are always more than ready to dive back into whatever needs to be done and get their hands dirty.
      • And our Scriptural stories this morning speak to this depletion and restoration. They’re stories that remind us that God is our renewal, even – and especially – when we least expect it.
  • Look at OT passage first
    • The vision that the prophet Ezekiel experiences is certainly one in which we naturally expect anything but renewal.
      • Txt: The hand of the Lord … set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.[1] → pretty clear, pretty cut and dry (no put intended) … these bones have had it
        • A couple elements point this out for us
          • 1st: God leads Ezekiel “all around” the bones → God doesn’t just let Ezekiel stand impassively at the valley’s edge. God walks Ezekiel all through the valley. God makes Ezekiel hike among the piles, step around the bones, making sure that Ezekiel takes in every femur and collar bone, every finger joint and knee cap and skull, ensuring that Ezekiel not only sees a vague mass of white but a truly vast multitude of individual bones.
          • 2nd: Heb. places heavy emphasis on the fact that these bones are lifeless and dry → pesky little word that keeps popping up: hinneh (TAKE NOTICE! PAY ATTENTION! LOOK!) appears before the phrase “lying in the valley” and before the phrase “they were very dry”
            • LOOK! Those bones are just lying in the valley – obviously aren’t going anywhere
            • LOOK! Those bones are very dry – obviously beyond any and all hope
          • Finally, in his own reaction to God, even Ezekiel adds emphasis to the unlikelihood of this whole situation: God said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”[2] → Can you hear a little bewilderment, a little exasperation, a little question in Ezekiel’s voice? – “Can these bones live?” “God only knows!”
      • And yet in the face of this improbability – this absurdity! – God comes back with a truly unexpected renewal → commands Ezekiel to tell the bones that God will reassemble and restore the fullness of their bodies, and poof!:I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin covered them.[3]
        • Holy Moses! Suddenly, Ezekiel find himself smack in the middle of a Biblical ghost story! Just a moment ago, he was looking down on a valley full of disconnected bones. Now, spread out before him is this host of bodies that God has just re-formed … but there’s still a problem → There was no breath in them.[4]
          • You see, even with new flesh, new sinew, and new skin, these bodies assembled before Ezekiel are not alive. I think we can probably take a stab at what Ezekiel’s thinking: These bodies may look like they’re alive, but they’re not. And they’re never going to be because what was dead can’t be given new breath – a new life, a new soul – … can it?
            • Ahh … be careful what you wish for! Then [God] said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.[5]
        • Scholar highlights the power of this: In recounting his vision, Ezekiel challenges his fellow exiles and generations of his readers to view their circumstances not through their own, limited vision, but through God’s eyes. Can these bones live? Of course not. But look at them through God’s eyes, and watch bones rushing to their appropriate partners. Watch as ligaments bind them together, flesh blankets them, and skin seals them tightly. Watch as God’s spirit, which heals hopelessness, infuses them, so that they rise up … Look through God’s eyes, and watch them come up, receive God’s spirit, and return home.[6]
        • Wow. Renewal at a time in which anything but renewal was expected. These were desiccated bones that had been relegated to the grave, and yet, God resurrected them, freed them, and gave them powerful reassurance: I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.[7]
  • Kinda sounds like the story of Pentecost, doesn’t it? I don’t think the disciples – or any of those who had gathered with them – had any idea what to expect. Think about it:
    • Jesus had been brutally killed … but days later, he’d come back to life again … and then after just a short while, he left again – not died, left – just shhhmp right up into heaven
      • Luke: Then [Jesus] led [the disciples] out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.[8]
    • I’m sorry … what?! After all that, I don’t know if I’d even be expecting anything, but whatever the disciples might have been expecting after their final encounter with Christ, I’d be willing to bet that what happened to them that Pentecost morning wasn’t it.
      • Text: And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.[9]Come on … nobody would expect that! It sounds like the kind of crazy scenario that only Hollywood screenwriters could dream up.
    • Like dry bones in Ezekiel’s valley, early church must surely have been in need of renewal
      • Text: At this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered[10]
        • Gr. “bewildered” has both positive connotations (amazed, excited) and negative connotations (stirred up, troubled) → see how emotionally taxing this is
      • That sounds like heck of an emotional rollercoaster, and emotional rollercoasters are always exhausting. Think of …
        • Time of immense stress or grief
        • Time when you’ve thrown your whole self into something for an extended period of time
          • Project or activity, organization or event
        • E.g.s
          • Teachers – end of the school week/year → students, too!
          • Planning something big like Peace Camp [or Country Store]
          • The way I feel after worship on Sunday morning
    • But in the midst of all those questions and emotions and confusion, on that Pentecost morning, God provided renewal in a powerful, unmistakable way. → remember end of our NT passage: Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.[11]
  • Everything about this story from Acts speaks to one thing: the amazing work of the Holy Spirit, work that is done not only to those early Christians but through them.
    • I know we don’t often think or talk about the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, but we also see the subtle footprint of the Holy Spirit’s work in Ezekiel: The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord … Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.[12]
      • In Hebrew, the word for “breath” and the word for “wind” and the word for “spirit” are all one and the same. In the story of creation, God breathed new life and Spirit into Adam. In this story from Ezekiel, God breathed new life and Spirit into the valley of dry bones. And in the story of Pentecost from Acts, God breathed new life and Spirit into the very heart of the early church. It is this same Spirit – the Holy Spirit – who has been working for millennia, and it is this same Holy Spirit – noisy and flashy and wholly (and holy!) refreshing – who continues to work in our lives today.
        • Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has observed that Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones bears no date because every generation needs to hear in its own time that these bones can live again.[13]
          • Scholar: Like the exiles of old, we too can at times feel as good (rather, as bad) as dead. We are null and void inside. But if we look through God’s eyes, we can see broader realities, bases for hope. God can sustain us and fill our barren experiences with lively hope. Is it possible? Absolutely not, disbelievers [declare]. But look with God’s vision and watch it happen![14]
          • Look with God’s vision and watch even the most unlikely and unexpected renewal wash over you like a mighty, Spirit-filled wind. Amen.

 

[1] Ezek 37:1-2.

[2] Ezek 37:3.

[3] Ezek 37:7-8a.

[4] Ezek 37:8b.

[5] Ezek 37:9-10.

[6] Katheryn Pfisterer Darr. “The Book of Ezekiel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 6. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), 1503-1504.

[7] Ezek 37:14.

[8] Lk 24:50-52.

[9] Acts 2:2-4.

[10] Acts 2:6.

[11] Acts 2:46-47.

[12] Ezek 37:1, 9.

[13] Elie Wiesel. “Ezekiel” in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, ed. David Rosenberg. (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987), 186.

[14] Darr, 1504.