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“The One God of All”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
Genesis 21:8-21

 

Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17

Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you;
save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; be gracious to me, O Lord,
for to you do I cry all day long.
Gladden the soul of your servant,
for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer;
listen to my cry of supplication.
In the day of my trouble I call on you,
for you will answer me.

There is none like you among the gods, O Lord,
nor are there any works like yours.
All the nations you have made shall come
and bow down before you, O Lord,
and shall glorify your name.
For you are great and do wondrous things;
you alone are God.
But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
Turn to me and be gracious to me;
give your strength to your servant;
save the child of your serving girl.

 

Genesis 21:8-21

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But 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.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “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 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.” 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.

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. 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.

~~~~~~~~~~

 

I’ve always found this story rather distressing.  In age-old feelings of jealousy, it appears Sarah decides Hagar and her son should go.  It says she didn’t want Ishmael to inherit with her own son Isaac.

In a land of plenty, in this family with no other heirs, Sarah’s jealousy is most disturbing; why can’t she share?  Does she not trust Isaac will have enough?  …Even though we are told that Abraham is a rich man?  Is this a class war, where she doesn’t want her son playing and associating with Abraham’s son by her slave Hagar?  Or could it be anger and resentment, since – as soon as Hagar becomes pregnant with Abraham’s child – we are told Hagar gloats and looks down on Sarah.  After all, Hagar had surpassed Sarah in her apparent “womanhood” with Abraham, or so the culture would have said.  There was (and even still is) a lot of shame wrapped in a woman’s inability to bear children.

 

But even more disturbing:  wasn’t it Sarah’s idea all along that Abraham sleep with Hagar in order that he might have a descendant that way?  And now she wants to undo what she did?  This feels audacious and cold.  And yet, as judgmental as I feel toward Sarah in this moment, what options did a wife have in those days?  Women were valued by their ability to produce heirs, and this was something she could not yet do.  She was nearing a century of life, without the blessing of having her own child.  Perhaps she turned to her servant Hagar, as her way of trying to fulfill her wifely duties.

 

Whatever Sarah’s feelings or her reasons, we hear that Abraham is greatly distressed by Sarah’s wish to send off Ishmael.  So God speaks into this moment and directs Abraham to do as Sarah wishes.

And so, despite his distress, Abraham does what he has done before.  He believes God.  He obeys.  He sends Hagar off with Ishmael and only bread and a skin of water by which to survive.

But God has told Abraham that God will indeed make a nation of Ishmael also.  So not only will Ishmael survive, but it would seem that he will indeed thrive.  He too will become numerous, having many descendants.  And so Abraham obeys.

 

And this is when we look upon the dire situation in which Hagar finds herself and her son – with no more water, and expecting the end for she and her child.  She leaves Ishmael underneath a bush, farther off, so she might not have to witness the death of her child.

But just as God speaks with Abraham when he is distressed of soul, so an angel of God speaks to Hagar in this moment of deepest despair.  The angel tells her not to fear; that God has heard the cries of her son, and that God will actually make a great nation from Ishmael.  Hagar is to go back to her child and hold him fast in her hand.  And when she obeys, as Abraham had done, God opens her eyes and she sees a well.  She goes and refills the empty skin full of fresh water, and she offers this water of new life to her son.

 

Can you imagine the emotional journey Hagar has been on?  Can you imagine being someone’s servant, their slave?  Can you imagine that someone telling you to sleep with her husband?  Can you imagine the fears that must have entered her mind?

Can you imagine the position in which she finds herself?  Truly she appears at the mercy of her masters.  She does what they will.  She sleeps with Sarah’s husband.  She bears his child.  And when tensions grow between she and Sarah and Sarah wants her gone, she is cast out to fend for herself in lands and cultures where not having a tribe means certain death.

 

But this is not the end of Hagar’s story.  God has a plan for Ishmael as well.

Hagar’s story, tragic on so very many levels, does not end with the death of she and her son in the wilderness.

…For God hears,
God speaks,
And God provides.

 

To this woman, used and abused, God speaks of a future for her son that is magnificent and hopeful.

 

Now I must say that I am still very uneasy with this story.

It seems that, as in so much of life, the rich get richer and the poor poorer, the powerful remain strong while the powerless are jerked around and mistreated.

 

But I am also encouraged by this story.

For God does not treat Hagar and Ishmael as disposable, as trash, as pawns.

For apart from Abraham and Sarah, Haagar and Ishmael will prosper.  Their stories intertwine, but her story branches off here in its own direction.

God is with Ishmael, and he becomes strong with the bow.  He lives in the wilderness, and he marries a woman his mother finds for him from her homeland of Egypt.

They survive.

And they prosper. 

 

This is the character of the God we serve.

Imperfect servants of God, Abraham and Sarah,

They are still used by God.

God remembers that they are made of dust.

 

And yet God’s love doesn’t stop with the family of Abraham who he has chosen.

No God’s presence and love follows Hagar and her son Ishmael,

even into the lonely and vulnerable wilderness.

 

God has mercy on Sarah, who could never bear a child – her one main duty as a wife.  And God works in the life of Hagar, providing for she and her son in the darkest place of their lives, that they may one day form a nation of their own.

 

 

It is a common misconception that God’s choosing of Abraham means God does not love everyone else.  But it has always been for the sake of the whole world that God chose Abraham.  It has always been that THROUGH HIM all the families of the earth shall be blessed.  Abraham is blessed TO BE a blessing…to the rest of the world. 

For God’s love doesn’t stop with Abraham.  God’s love can be shown and grown through a servant like Abraham who listens, believes, and follows.  Through his obedience the families of the earth will find blessing.  But God’s love is for the whole creation, the people of every land and place, all those who wander and run themselves ragged in fear, like sheep without a shepherd.  God has mercy on us, despite our sins, and graces us with undeserved favor and blessing.

 

THIS is the God we serve:
The God who speaks to the rich nomad
and the spurned and abused servant girl,
making them both ancestors of great nations.

Despite all our human-divisions of power and vulnerability, gender and opportunity, wealth and poverty, …master and servant,

GOD is God to all.

 

We are alike,
beloved by the Most High God.

Thanks be to God!!

 

 

 

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE

On this Father’s Day, let us speak aloud the names of those who are and were father figures to us. 

                                                (Psalm 72, excerpts)

Give to your Leaders good judgement, O God, and a sense of what is right.  May they govern your people with justice and do right for those who are powerless.  May the mountains bring peace for the people, and the hills bring forth justice.  May they defend the poor among the people, save the children of those who are needy, and crush the oppressor.  May they endure as long as the sun, like the moon through all generations; like the rains that fall on the early crops, like the showers that water the earth.  May justice flower in their days, and peace till the moon is no more. May they have pity on the week and the powerless; may they save the lives of the poor.  May they redeem them from oppression and violence and regard their blood as precious.  Let grain be abundant through-out the land, and wave on the the tops of the mountains.  Let the crops blossom like Lebanon and the people flourish in the cities like the grass of the fields.

(Iona Abby Worship Book)

Liberator Christ, you came into a holy place and read the sacred word about sight for the blind folk and freedom for prisoners.  Come to this place now.  Read these words to us till our own eyes are opened, our faith is unlocked, and we can see the world as it is, and as it could be; till the yearnings of ordinary people are taken seriously, and the visions of the young are valued, and the potential of the old is released; till you Kingdom is celebrated everywhere, and your church is good news to the poor.

Amen.

“The Love of God Knows No Bounds”

1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

 

1 Peter 2:2-10

Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:
“See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the very head of the corner,”
and
“A stone that makes them stumble,
and a rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.

 

John 14:1-14

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.


 

This scripture passage is so very packed with beauty and power that I scarcely know where to start.  Any one of Jesus’ words, recorded here in John, are enough for a hearty spiritual meal.

I think growing up, I saw Jesus’ words about being “the way, the truth, and the life” as saying that only Christians would be saved.  At least that was how the verse had been interpreted in the world in which I grew up.  But with growth in God, I find that interpretation to lack depth and to smell of religious guilt-tripping and manipulation.

I imagine there are a great many, who have over the years, proclaimed that very message in all sincerity of heart.  But I have not found God to be that one-dimensional.  God opens the mouth of a donkey to speak aloud in one Old Testament story.  God speaks to and through a Roman centurion, a Tax Collector, a Samaritan woman, and a Canaanite woman begging on behalf of her daughter.

Though Jesus tells this Canaanite woman that he has been sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, his action shows us otherwise.  For although he spends his time ministering to the lost ones of Israel, he does not stop at healing and teaching and rescuing only them.  He is life, and wherever he goes, with whomever he meets, he shares life. 

Actually none of those to whom Christ ministers in his lifetime would have been considered Christian – not even the Israelites, as they were Jewish.  But even people of other backgrounds and religions are finding mercy and healing and truth in Christ.

God’s saving work in Christ Jesus is complete and effectual.  There is no need to add to it.  God has made a way for all to come into God’s presence, regardless of their religious background and upbringing.

And from there, we are left with this good gift of forgiveness and adoption into the family of God.  And all have the choice to receive it with thanksgiving or to reject it and remain in sin.  Being Christian is not pre-requisite for salvation.  Christianity is humankind’s creation.  It is our religious response to what we have known and witness to from the life and sacrifice of Christ Jesus, our Lord.

Christianity can be very good.  It is in fact quite good, when we do as Christ did and love as Christ loved, following the lead and living in the power of the Holy Spirit.  But it is important to distinguish between God’s acts and our human acts.  Becoming a Christian isn’t the magic ticket.  The work has already been done by Christ alone.  We have only to receive it.

God saved. 

We proclaim God’s salvation!

We do this within the religion of Christianity.  And the Spirit of God is moving over the whole earth, in lands far and near, to seek out and save the lost.  It is not a human-made religion that saves, but the effectual work of Christ that saves. 

 

Christ is indeed the way, the truth, and the life.

On our own, no one of us will ever been holy enough,
Pure enough,
Sinless enough,
Righteous enough.

 

None.

It is only by the saving act of Christ Jesus, making a way for us to come into God’s presence in the freedom and joy of forgiveness, that any of us may call God’s house our home, that any of us may be called the Children of God.

Christ is indeed the way.

But please do not mistake the way for being Christianity, per se.
Christ, and Christ alone, is the way.
Nothing that humankind can create or do, could ever make a way. 
And that is the very point.

That is precisely why Christ came.
Only God’s own act could ever bridge the deep divide.
And God has done it!!!

 

This message is not for us alone.
This message is for the whole world!
For whomever believes and receives God’s good gift, God has given the Spirit

We do not need to control it.  We do not need to try to box and package it, marketing it.  But Christ does call us to spread this good news – the news that God has done it! – to peoples far and wide.

And WE need to be careful not to place our own obstacles in the paths of those who would come to believe.

Just as Paul discouraged the Jews from requiring that the Gentiles be circumcised in order to be welcome at the table of God, so we must resist the urge for qualifying who is in and who is out, according to our own human-made standards – placing more pre-requisites before God’s good gift of life.  Doing so, it NOT the work of God.

It is not.

 

Only God knows who has received the good gift of grace and forgiveness offered us in Christ Jesus.  Even among self-reported Christians, many have reverted to a works-based system of acceptance.  But here in this scripture, we read that those who believe will do the works of God, and even greater works than Christ himself, as Christ is now with the God the Father, granting whatever we ask, in Christ’s name.  It’s almost unbelievable.  (Or is it just unbelievable?).  Scripture says we will know God’s children by their works (notice: works, not words), and not works done to earn God’s love and acceptance, but rather works that are an overflowing of the gifts of grace and forgiveness that our God has freely bestowed upon us!

 

So may we suspend our judgements and divisions.
These divisions of people are human-made.
But Christ came in order that ALL might be saved and come to knowledge of the truth.

ALL.

 

So may we be like Christ, proclaiming the good news that God has done it!  God has made a way!  And that we are called to believe and to receive God’s good gift to us!!

Let us witness to Christ Jesus, and how we have come to know God through the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.  Let us tell of the good works of the people of God.  Let us be the hands of feet of God in this world, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

And may we always remember that God is bigger than our boundaries.
God is reaching beyond the confines of our human-made groups, in order to reach all.
And everyone who is led by the Spirit of God, is a child of God.
When we cry “Abba, Father” it is that Spirit, bearing witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.

 

God, the Shepherd of our souls, has found us, while we were lost and still far off.
God has called us by name, adopting us into the family of God.
Christ has called us friends, making us disciples.

Near and far, similar and different, from every land and race, God has raised up descendants of Abraham.  Where we had divided one another by land and nation, race and culture, language and tradition, religion and ritual,…

God has made us one people:  God’s people. 

 

May we follow suit.