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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.

“To Be Channels of God’s Goodness”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23

 

Acts 2:42-47

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 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.

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.


 

Reading this passage from Acts about the apostles and early believers sharing everything they have in common, I am struck anew at how very, very counter-cultural this act is.  One could even say it is subversive.

We buy and sell.  We own and transfer ownership.  We own land.  We build and own property.  And back in Jesus’ day, even women, many servants, enslaved persons, and children were all considered property.  As capitalistic as we are today, there was an even bigger spectrum in Jesus’ day of what and who people thought could be bought and sold, owned, possessed.

Frankly the idea of a person owning another person causes a visceral response in my body.  I find it so very offensive.  Nonetheless, the culture and world to which Jesus came and gave his life saw ownership as a sign of wealth and power, much as we do today.

So when the disciples ask new believers to share everything freely with one another, to sell their possession and give to the poor, to hold nothing back – it is most certainly subversive.  It is a hard ask.  Can you imagine asking that of another person?

 

I cannot.

I truly delight in ownership.  I love owning a car.  I adore owning real estate.  I love the items that I’ve purchased or found and now call my own.  I love the memories.  I love the resourcefulness.  I love being prepared.

And yet the disciples learned a very different way of living from Jesus.  They travelled from place to place, without ownership, without provision, without knowing where their next shelter or meal would come from.  Sometimes they picked wheat and produce from the fields through which they wandered.  And sometimes Jesus asked them to feed people, when they themselves did not have anything on them to offer another.

But Jesus had shown them the power of this way of life.  They’d been challenged to wholly lean on God for their well-being.  When they split up to go and witness to the Kingdom of God in neighboring towns, Jesus had instructed them to go empty-handed.  They were to take nothing but the tunic on their backs.  And they were to rely, wholly, on the generosity of those they met.  Can you imagine?

 

Some in our culture know this way of life.

There are a few who also know not where their next meal will come from or where they will find shelter and rest.  There are some who travel without provision, wholly reliant on those around them to survive.  Many hustle in their own way – trying to sell goods or services to make a buck.  And others beg on street corners, traffic islands, and even grocery store parking lots.

We tend to look unfavorably on these folks.

They are not being responsible, we say.  They are mooching off the rest of us.  We are paying for their laziness, we feel.

We don’t know what to do when we see them.  Are they truly in need?  Are they a victim?  Are they victimizing me?  What will they use my gift for?  Will they use it for life-crushing substances?  Will they use it for food?  Will they use it wisely?

Our questions are left unanswered, as we each try to make up our own minds.  And this discomfort weighs on us, especially as we pass by those we choose not to help.  Are we doing the right thing??

 

And though these wanderers and sojourners differ in some ways from Jesus’ disciples, they also have enough similarity, that it behooves us to pay attention.

 

In America we have some exposure as well to a culture that did not believe in land ownership:  the Native Americans.  The earth and all its fullness is seen as a gift – not to be grasped, but to be received with gratitude and respect.  The earth and all its fullness is not for us to use and squander however we choose.  Rather, we are given its keeping for a little while, and it is our great and holy responsibility to keep it thriving for our children and our children’s children.

Frankly, this view of creation sounds far more in keeping with Christ’s manner of living than our own.  And sometimes, the manner of living of the homeless and wanderers among us, seems much more in keeping with Jesus’ manner of living.  Jesus was, after all, homeless.  He did not have money.  He was not beholden to the systems and powers that be.  He was not part of the economic engine, the machine.  So in this way, he was uniquely free, a freedom many of our homeless brothers and sisters have also known.

 

So where does this leave us?

I’d like to think that our society is just what Jesus would have designed, but I cannot imagine that is true.  I appreciate capitalism.  I love home and land ownership, but this is not what we see in Jesus’ own life, and as uncomfortable as it makes me, I believe you and I are responsible to God for how we life, be it for good or for ill.

So whether we own or use land, whether we own or use resources, whether we buy or borrow goods and services, we are responsible.  And our actions reflect, in some way, our levels of trust, in the good shepherd, with whom “I shall not want.”

 

We give lip service in the church to trusting God.  We give lip service to trusting God with our money, our goods, our lives.  But when it comes down to it, our actions most accurately reflect our trust. 

Do our gifts of money, answer God’s call on our finances?  Have we taken the time to be still and listen for God’s still, small voice speaking over what we possess?  Do we even dare open up ourselves to such a vulnerable position of listening??

How much treasure do we store up for ourselves?  When do we have enough?
How much toilet paper do we store up?  When do we “have enough?”
Isn’t it all relative?
Isn’t it all so easy to rationalize?

 

I do not think there is a one-size-fits-all answer to any of this.  I dare not venture to prescribe how much you should own or give.  And I think God’s answers and invitations to each of us differ widely. 

 

And so, I invite you, to be still before our God, and to listen. 

 

What does God bring to mind?
Who does God bring to mind?
Is there someone in need nearby, whom you can help?
Do you have resources you’ve outgrown that would tremendously bless someone else?

This process is for you and you alone.   Each person, each family, each couple is responsible for how life is lived, what resources are used, what is shared, and whether or not we obeyed God’s private instruction in our lives.

 

The early believers shared all they had in common.  They sold what they had and gave it to the poor.  They shared, wherever there was need.

THIS my friends, is the Kindom of God.
THIS is the radical way of living Christ calls us to.

We are to place our trust in Christ alone, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

 

And I am moved to read this now, because so many of us have been acting more like this of late.  Food Lion issued 1,500 $20 gift cards for school children in impoverished neighborhoods in this community.  Jo-ann’s has been giving out mask-making supplies free to anyone who will make them.  Reservoir Distillery here in Richmond is giving away hand sanitizer every weekday – turning their tasting room into a distribution center.  Celebrities are paying rents for entire low-income neighborhoods.  One is even paying for virtual therapy.  Another has started his own boot-leg broadcast called, “SGN” – Some Good News, and he’s using it to spread stories of hope and courage to lift of the community.

You have made masks upon masks for one another.  You have labored long over financial records and payroll sheets – to find and solicit ways to continue employing those workers who have served in our midst for so very long.  You’ve written cards and letters to one another, especially our home-bound members and friends.  Money for projects and paychecks has been provided, mysteriously, anonymously.  You have rallied to put up and fill a new Little Pantry on our church grounds, to supply the community in this needful time.  When various ones among us have been in a bind, you have responded with help, in time.  When folks call our office asking help to pay a bill, you fund an account that pays portions of these bills.  When folks among us need a ride to appointments, you have shown up.

 

Just as the Israelites long ago were not blessed for themselves alone, WE are not blessed for ourselves alone.  We are called to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world – to be CHANNELS of God’s goodness – of grace and love, abundance and provision, comfort and care.  We are called to shepherd one another, as our God has shepherded us – to love and comfort one another as our God has loved and comforted us.

We are blessed in order to BE a BLESSING. 

 

So as we prepare to leave this gathering,
I invite you,
to covenant
– with yourself and with God –
to set aside a holy moment,
this day,
to listen to your God.

Generous and merciful God,
how are you calling us to be faithful,
here and now,
in this time.
Speak, in ways we can hear.

And by your grace, may we most surely be, your faithful disciples.