Proper 7a 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG Sarah saw Ishmael, the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had born to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son.”
Before I begin my sermon today I want to note that the Hebrew Scripture readings that we will be hearing over the next months up to Advent mark a departure from the old prayer book lectionary. We have been using the new Revised Common Lectionary for some years now, but this is the first year in which are hearing the alternate track of readings from the Old Testament — most of them never read in worship before, which is why the revisers thought it was about time for us to hear them; and I hope you agree. Now to the sermon proper.
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In the gospel today Jesus talks about the strife that will come to a household between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and various arrangements of in-laws. I’m sure we’ve all been there at one point or another. When we look at the passage from Genesis, however, we encounter an even more painful situation. We picked up the story in the middle of things, so let me back up just a bit.
As I’m sure you recall, Abraham and Sarah had grown to old age without having a child of their own; but Sarah, knowing how important it was for Abraham to have a son to carry on his name, had encouraged him to father a child with her slave-woman, Hagar. Then God enters the situation and blesses Abraham and Sarah with a child of their own, even in their old age. And that’s when the trouble starts — as we see in the passage we heard this morning. Sarah insists that Abraham cast out this slave and her son; and Abraham, after being reassured by God that all will be well, complies with Sarah and sends Hagar and young Ishmael out into the wilderness with bread and water.
There in due course the mother and the boy run out of water, and Hagar, at her wit’s end — thinking that they are doomed to die of thirst but unwilling to watch her child die — leaves the boy under a bush and goes off some distance away to wait for the inevitable. Weeping, she lifts up her voice to God, and the boy cries, too — and God hears and answers, and assures Hagar, as he had Abraham, that this boy will not die but he too will become a great nation. And so, as God has done so many times before, God provides water in the wilderness, opening Hagar’s eyes to see the well of water.
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Whenever I encounter this passage — including this first time as part of our Sunday worship — I find I feel a great deal of sympathy for Hagar, and that Sarah does not come off well. And the visual image that comes to mind is of Syrian refugees escaping from the horror of the very uncivil war going on in their country; most especially the women and their children, dusty and ragged and thirsty. I picture Hagar and her little boy looking like that: covered with dust, perishing of thirst, out in a sunny wilderness; and I ask myself, Why didn’t God help them as soon as they set out from Abraham’s tent? Why let them run out of water first, and get to the point almost of dying? Why let Hagar descend into such a pit of anguish that she could leave her child under a bush to die, out of her pitiable inability to watch the tragedy of his death unfold?
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And the answer is that you have to be lost before you can be found. You have to go without something before you know how much you need something. Now, this is so obviously true about ordinary things that it has become proverbial: I don’t know how many of you have heard the proverb, “Hunger makes the best appetizer,” but it’s true; nothing makes food taste better than being really hungry. And it’s the people who live in the desert who know how valuable water is; who know because they thirst what that thirst-quenching drink does to you — satisfying you the way nothing else can. They also know how hard water is to come by in these days of global warming — I just saw on a documentary last week that there is a town in Yemen used to have to dig wells 80 meters deep to reach water; now they have to dig ten times as deep, to 800 meters, and will soon have to dig to a thousand — that’s two-thirds of a mile! That’s a long way to walk for a drink, let alone having to dig — it’s as far from as from here on up to Bedford Park Avenue. Not many of us would like to walk, on a sunny 98-degree day from here to Bedford Park just to get a drink of water — imagine having to dig straight down that far to find some; and then for the well to run dry!
Now, to put this into the theological framework that the authors of the lectionary no doubt intended: it is those who know their need of God who will find God. It is those who thirst for the living God who will find God springing forth into the desert of their lives.
People who are full of themselves, satisfied with wealth and happiness in life without a care in the world, are not likely to give God much of a thought — perhaps this is why Jesus said that it was so hard for the rich to be saved! But those who have trouble in life, those who thirst after righteousness or hunger for justice, are comforted in the knowledge that God will hear and answer them — but not before they experience that hunger and that thirst, hunger and thirst that develop an appetite for God.
And this is in large part why Jesus tells his disciples that he has not come to bring peace to the earth. He has come to stir things up, to put us in the position of having to make choices — sometimes, perhaps often, hard choices. He lays before us the choice between the easy smooth way, and the hard and difficult way; and offers us the chance to choose the wide highway to perdition rather than the strait and narrow path that leads to everlasting life.
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It is not that Jesus is saying we will need to seek out sorrow or difficulty. These things will come if we are living a Christian life; for being a Christian, one devoted to the teachings of Christ, one willing to respond to the demands of the cross, one willing to be crucified with him as he was crucified for us — that will cost you some trouble, perhaps in your family or with your friends, who would rather you join them on that easy-peasy path that they have chosen. But the hard road that is the gospel of Christ — and it too has a proverb to remember it by: “No cross, no crown” — or as Jesus says in today’s reading from Matthew, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” In God’s cosmic lost and found you have to be lost before you can be found, or as the great old hymn says, blind before you see. You have to wander for a while in the desert before you realize how much God means to you — and look, as to wandering in the desert, all the best people did it! Moses and Elijah and Hagar and John the Baptist and even Jesus himself all spent their time in the desert — and that is where they found the miracle of God’s grace.
Jesus reassures us — as God reassured Abraham — even as he promises him and us difficulties. He reassures us by promising us that however bad things get God will not abandon us, for we are very dear to God, of much more value than a whole flock of sparrows — and if God keeps an eye on them how much more surely will God keep an eye on you, on me, on all of us who have come to know him — who have been lost in this wicked world — but have come to know how much we need our Lord and our God. And who know that whenever we have reached out for God, whenever we have raised our voices, we have found God ready to help, showing us the well of water that was there all along — but which, in our grief, blinded by our tears, we had not seen.
We have taken up the cross and wandered into the desert of this life, but we have found the well of water, starting with the baptismal water into which we were baptized into his death so that, just as he was raised from the dead, so we too might walk in newness of life. He who lost everything for us, who gave himself up to the death of the cross, has redeemed us and found us — the lost has been found.
Thanks be to God for the thirst for God, that leads us to these plentiful waters of grace. To him be the glory, henceforth and for evermore.