Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sermon: Meeting God in the Story

Genesis 21:8-21
Meeting God in the Story
James Sledge                                                                                       June 25, 2017

Unless you know the book of Genesis well, you are likely unaware of a small problem with the story we just heard. When Hagar walks out into the wilderness with her meager provisions of bread and water, she also carries her child, who by the way, is in his mid to late teens. You hear a lot about helicopter parents, but I’ve never seen a mother carrying her teenage boy on her shoulder.
Now some may be thinking, “Wait a minute. The story doesn’t say a thing about how old the boy is.” True, but an earlier story that tells of the child’s birth, as well as his name, Ishmael, says that Abraham was 86 years old then. He’s 100 when Isaac is born and children were typically weaned at around three. You do the math.
Of course now that I’ve pointed out this problem, I should add that the problem isn’t really with our story. The problem is modern people who don’t know how to listen to Israel’s faith stories, our faith stories.
Like some other parts of the Old Testament, Genesis is a collection of stories, many of which existed independently before being woven together. And because the editors who do this don’t share our interest in precise history or facts, they make no effort to harmonize our story, one clearly about a very young child, with another that makes him much older.
These editors were not stupid people. They were the intellectuals of their day. But they were not writing history or recording events. They were perfectly willing to leave intact and honor stories as they received them, stories that people probably already knew anyway. They wove these into a larger fabric to help Israel wrestle with what it meant to be the people of God, especially in a time when Israel had suffered defeat and exile.

That larger story started with a call and a promise from God to Abraham. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” So Abram went as the Lord had told him.
God calls, Abraham is faithful, and they all lived happily ever after. Well, not quite. As the various stories and adventures that follow make clear, Abraham and Sarah’s path to the promise is a winding one with wrong turns, doubts, questions, and uncertainties. Individually and together, these stories explore questions about God’s trustworthiness, what it means to be faithful, what happens when we are not, even what happens when attempts to be faithful turn out to be misguided and unhelpful.
And so Abraham starts out on his faith journey and has assorted adventures, does well financially, and occasionally puts God’s promise in jeopardy to save his own skin. This goes on and on, but a critical element is missing. Abraham and Sarah have no children and are getting up in years. How can they found a great nation when they have no child, no heir.
God shows up now and then to reassure Abraham, but the years drag on, and still no child. Maybe God’s promise needs help. “God helps those who help themselves,” some people say. So Sarah decides to provide a little help, and Abraham agrees it’s a good plan.
Sarah had a slave girl named Hagar, and Sarah said to Abraham, “Here, see if you can get her pregnant.” Now this may sound a little sketchy to us, but this was considered perfectly moral and respectable in Abraham’s day. Such a child would be the legitimate first born of Abraham and Sarah.
The plan works. A son is born. They have helped fulfill God’s promise. There’s now an heir, and everyone lived happily ever after. Well, not quite.
Sometime later, God shows up again, talking about Sarah getting pregnant and that child being the heir to the promise. Apparently God’s not much impressed with Abraham and Sarah’s efforts to help the promise along. The promise will not run through Ishmael, but through a second son. Not that Ishmael did anything to deserve his place, his fate in the story.
Sure enough, Sarah has a son named Isaac. But Sarah sees Ishmael as a threat. He is the first born, after all. He’s the legal heir, and Abraham loves him. Something must be done, and Sarah insists that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away. She will make certain that the promise runs through Isaac.
So Hagar heads out with her son and what little else she can carry. Abraham’s role in this is a bit troubling. He has to know that both will soon die in the wilderness. Is this one of those moments when people do something despicable and blame their religion? “God said it was fine.” And what of God? God is pretty deeply mixed up in this messy situation.
Our storytellers have no trouble presenting us with the inscrutability and mystery of God. But while the promise to Abraham does indeed run through the younger son, God’s care and grace and blessing are not restricted to Isaac’s lineage, to the people of Israel. God cares for and will provide for the one Sarah sees as threat, the ones Abraham casts off. What a strange twist. In this family story about God’s special covenant with Israel, we find God’s grace and love to the outsider. Ishmael gets his own promise. He too, will be father of a great nation.
These Ishmaelites don’t show up much in the Old Testament, but when they do they are typically enemies of Israel. Yet our story insists that God is concerned for them and blesses them, that they are heirs to God’s promise. What an odd story to weave into Israel’s story. 
In our stories as God’s people, our own meandering, zigzag journeys, our sometimes-faithful-often-not attempts to go where Jesus calls us, what does it mean for us to trust the promise? Where do our attempts to help the promise along make things better, and where do they simply create new messes for God to deal with, messes we might even want to blame on God? And where is God when those messes get too big, when they seem completely overwhelming? Where is God when we get caught up in the messes made by others?
Israel, and the Bible, answer such questions with the artistry of stories, artistry that we too often miss when we mistakenly believe the Bible and faith are about information and formulas. Imagine I had visited the Louvre in Paris and saw the Mona Lisa. You asked my impressions and I said, “It’s an old picture of a woman.” That is a perfectly factual statement, but it says absolutely nothing about the truth and meaning and beauty of the painting. Yet that is exactly how many Christians treat the artistry of the Bible.
If we imagine the Bible to be a quick reference tool, a rule book, an encyclopedia with information about faith and God, or a source of formulas to follow, we are likely to be put off, frustrated, even terrified by large portions of it. But if we will pause and take the time to savor its artistry, to gaze deeply into the images it paints and allow its stories to touch us, we may just encounter the living God, a God deeply engaged with humanity, a God whose purposes continue to move forward despite how often we humans muck things up, a God whose love and grace and care is poured out for us, and also extends even to those we would dismiss, to those we view as threats, even to those we don’t care what happens to them.
O God, give us eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to receive you as you reveal yourself in sacred story.

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