Not that long ago, Greg Garrett spent a weekend lecturing and preaching
in Cody, Wyoming.
His hosts built in time so he could take
a long hike in Yellowstone National Park.
Greg Garrett is a novelist, a professor of English at Baylor University,
and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.
But knowing that he was going hiking ALONE on a bear-laden trail,
they warned Garrett about the Swiss hiker
who had been eaten, on that very trail.
Only prudent, you know.
But that warning affected his whole Yellowstone experience.
On his hike, he saw bears everywhere:
that clump of grass,
those shadows deep in the forest.
Bears everywhere. He was so jumpy thinking he was seeing all those bears,
it was hard for him to enjoy the amazing views around him.
In fact, he didn’t notice the views at all—
–just lots and lots and lots of things that looked like bears.
“From the news we consume,
to the opinions we hold,
to the pain we feel,
and the preoccupations we share—
–in today’s world:
if you’re looking for bears,
you will most certainly see bears.
…But, bears may be ALL you see.”
Garrett was speaking about his last six years studying the
emotional, spiritual, and theological responses
to the events of the past decade, beginning with 9/11.
Among the many conclusions he draws from his research is that
our culture has spent a decade plus warning us about BEARS.
As a result, people of faith come to God’s promises,
but DON’T experience those promises—
–INSTEAD “we see bears everywhere”
because we expect to find them there.[i]
Scripture reflects, a lot, about the human condition.
Our stresses, our strain, our base instincts.
Our imagination for petty crime and deep, murderous intent.
Our fear that we aren’t in control, not really.
Our deep sense of guilt at wrong done to our neighbor
and to ourselves.
Our longing for companionship, or for legacy,
and the extremes we’ll go to find them,
and how easily we veer off course for instant gratification.
Or about how the BEARS of our lives can consume us,
disorient us, blind us to the great good all around.
This is the story of human nature, but it is also, scripture asserts
the story of a God who created us, loves us, redeems us.
And so that same scripture
talks about God’s relentless engagement with the creation,
pressing again and again and again to remind us
who and whose we truly are,
the God who acts in ways that surprise us, startle us,
and ultimately shape us into God’s people.
These are ancient stories, particularly these stories from the Hebrew Scriptures,
the Old Testament.
The next several weeks or so,
we’ll be looking at many of these stories in Genesis and Exodus
and their wisdom to us for today.
They may be ancient stories, but they are profoundly important for us
as we try to be the people of God in this place in the 21st Century.
/// Michael Kruse last week offered us some reflections from the very beginning,
from the first creation narrative in Genesis,
and he stressed for us that the ancients didn’t think they were writing
literal history, not as we talk about history.
These early stories are not meant to be history textbooks,
much less science books.
They are, many of them, in the category of myth: stories with a purpose.
Not false, not untrue, but stories with a purpose,
where truth lies not in their historical veracity
but in the valence and the threads that they offer.
This story, this story of Hagar and Ishmael
of their banishment by Abraham and Sarah, and their wilderness journey,
fits this description.
Abraham: the great man of faith lauded as the ancestor of so many people—
–the Hebrews, who would later identify themselves as Jewish
–the Christians, cousins as we are of our Jewish relatives
following ourselves a Jewish Rabbi as our LORD and Savior
–the Arabs, of whom some would be the first Muslims centuries later,
whose holy book traces their ancestry back
to the selfsame Abraham, through Hagar’s offspring.
/// The backstory to today’s melodrama are just a few chapters before.
You might remember that Genesis unfolds from its first few chapters
about the origins of human society
into stories about a nomadic couple Abram and Sarai
those to whom God offers a covenant,
a promise of eternal relationship between the two
God gives them new names: Abraham and Sarah.
They will be God’s people,
and God will give them descendants, more numerous than the stars.
This causes Sarah to laugh, of course,
because she is well past her child-having years.
There is no hope for her, no future for her, no security for her.
Not in a land and a time where security was defined
by offspring, particularly male offspring,
to continue a family legacy.
In short, Sarah, and Abraham, saw BEARS.
They only knew BEARS, everywhere they looked.
But they being human, and God being God,
God reasserted the promise, encouraged them to trust
and the narrative continues.
Sarah couldn’t wait,
So she persuaded her husband Abraham to have a child
through her lady’s maid Hagar instead. She offered her as Abraham’s wife.
And Abraham and Hagar seemed willing, and it was done.
So much for a traditional monogamous biblical marriage.
Soon a child was on its way, the one born as Ishmael.
All the prerequisites for the drama that would unfold in the story we have today
can perhaps be predicted by these circumstances.
Sarah was still seeing BEARS, everywhere.
Here’s how Federick Buechner re-tells it:[ii]
As Sarah saw it, Hagar no longer walked around the house, she flounced,
and whenever she had a craving for things like bagels and lox,
naturally Abraham went out and got them for her.
In no time at all Sarah was livid with jealousy.
Eager for peace at any price,
Abraham said to go ahead and fire Hagar then
if that would make things better,
and within a short time Hagar was out on the street
with all her belongings piled around her, including a layette.
It wasn’t long, however, before an angel found her there and persuaded her
to go back in and try to patch things up with her mistress.
Not having anything better in mind, Hagar agreed.
Then the angel told her that the Lord had taken pity on her
and wanted her to know that she was to name her baby Ishmael
when he came.
He also wanted her to know that though Ishmael
was never going to win any popularity contests,
he would nonetheless be the first of a multitude of descendants.
It was a promise.
Much cheered by this,
Hagar returned to the house through the servants’ entrance,
ate humble pie, and was eventually given back her old job.
A few months later, Ishmael was born, just as the Lord had said.
But her troubles weren’t over.
To the stupefaction of her [doctors],
it wasn’t long before Sarah herself gave birth to a son named Isaac,
who God also promised would be the father of a great nation.
This was so far beyond her wildest expectations,
not to mention everybody else’s,
that for a while she was as happy as she’d ever been;
but then one day she found Isaac and Ishmael playing together
in the nursery, and once again the fat was in the fire.
She was convinced that her upstairs son
would have to split his inheritance with Hagar’s downstairs brat,
so for the second time she nagged Abraham
into driving them both out of the house permanently.
They got as far as Beersheba, they ran out of water.
Hagar gave up her son for dead and sat down and wept.”
/// Every time I read this story, I imagine the horror Hagar must have felt there
in the wilderness, her child parched and hurting and crying out.
Every time I imagine the jealousy of Sarah,
the willingness of Abraham to send his son off never to be seen again
the sadness of Isaac, losing his half-brother and playmate.
But here’s the thing: if this story were merely descriptive of the human condition,
I think we’d see human nature accurately described here.
We get jealousy.
We understand horrible choices made, the stuff of regret.
We see, we HEAR, mothers (and fathers) mourning the hurt, the death throws even
of their children.
We just have to pick up the paper to get how REAL this is.
But the purpose of the story isn’t merely to describe the human condition,
it is to note how GOD is there, picking up the pieces, mending and healing
in times of the most painful trouble.
This story, as retold by the Hebrew people in their holy text,
recounts how God LOVES not just Sarah and Abraham
the first of the Hebrew people and through whom
the covenant with the Jews is sealed
but how God LOVES Hagar too, and Ishmael
How God acts to save them,
to lead them to water and safety
and makes of them a people as well.
Its remarkable, perhaps, that this story is told this way in the Hebrew Scriptures.
It’s a reminder to us that God’s compassion isn’t just inside the family, so to speak.
That God’s love doesn’t create barriers, it destroys them.
That God’s mercy isn’t intended to be hoarded.
That human acts of banishment, of ruptures in human relationship
are not binding on God, who acts to heal and to repair
to stand between people who are hurting
and to offer reconciliation, a new future.
This is how Buechner imagines the end of the story:
“The story of Hagar is the story of the terrible jealousy of Sarah
and the singular ineffectuality of Abraham
and the way Hagar, who knew how to roll with the punches,
managed to survive them both.
Above and beyond that, however,
it is the story of how in the midst of the whole unseemly affair
the Lord, half tipsy with compassion,
went around making marvelous promises
and loving everybody
and creating great nations
like the last of the big-time spenders
handing out hundred-dollar bills”
What a remarkable image of God:
wantonly, recklessly dolling out love, mercy, grace
like a big-time spender, overflowing with joy!
Can we see God that way, when we are hurting and despairing?
Can we see God doing that in OUR midst?
/// I spent much of the past several days at our church’s national assembly
There will be time to process all of what the church did at another time,
in another setting,
but we did make national news: not once, but twice.
The church decided it was time for us to allow pastors and churches
discretion in officiating at all legal marriages, including same-sex marriages,
and we decided it was time for us to no-longer profit from
Israel’s violent occupation in Palestine, even as it
reaffirmed our relationships with the modern state of Israel,
offered words of love and peace to Jews, Muslims, and Christians there,
and rejected the global call to Boycott, Divest, or Sanction its people.
I think the church was faithful on both accounts, and we should be proud of them,
though there was considerable disagreement about both.
And no small amount of hurt and disappointment.
At the same time,
There was SO MUCH MORE that happened in Detroit than those two actions.
It was incredible, really.
We worshiped, together, thousands upon thousands strong,
in churches across that hurting city and in the assembly hall,
seeking to make Christ the center of our time together.
We celebrated 250 or so new worshipping communities that
that our church has sparked these past two years, on our way to 1001 by the year 2022.
We heard about new initiatives to bring education to a million children
around the world who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity.
not to mention our disaster assistance work,
our racial-ethnic leadership endeavors
our stance against gun-violence.
We elected the fourth younger-adult vice-moderator of the assembly
in recent years, a young Chinese American pastor from New York,
and celebrated her ministry there,
while expanding our relationships with Episcopalians
and affirming our desire for multi-faith work in mission and service.
We did SO MUCH MORE than what will be reported in the news.
Much to be proud of.
But I’m afraid that when we talk about our church,
or about what others see in the church, all we see are the bears.
The debates and deliberation about these newsworthy stories
kept focusing on the bears.
Will we fall apart over our differences?
Will people misunderstand what we have done in Israel and Palestine
and hate us for it?
This impacts us as a national church, but also as the Kirk.
There’s so much beauty, so much good that we do as a church
such a beautiful view before us, so much that can inspire us, inspire you
get you involved in some MEANINGFUL work
right here, on 114th and Wornall, in Christ’s name.
But what if we stay focused on the bears?
What if we are so worried about the dangers lurking about
that we miss the beautiful vision God has for us?
The actions that did make the news carry with it the undertone of worry
that the actions will maul us and tear us apart.
And who knows, maybe in some sense they will.
Maybe the doom and gloom will turn out to be right.
Maybe there are bears around the corner,
ready to pounce on us.
Maybe we’re about to be out in the wilderness,
watching our beloved community parched, thirsty, dying
unable to bear the cries.
Or maybe, instead, we KNOW that God does not abandon God’s people
and that in times of hurt, in times of heartache, in times of distress
God is there, with healing and with hope and opportunity,
there with living water for thirsty people.
/// For me, maybe the living water this week,
the reminder that God will be with us
encouraging us to see the world as it really is,
and not as swarming with bears,
was a reminder of something Mother Teresa once said:[iii]
People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends
and some true enemies;
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;
It was never between you and them anyway.
My friends, this ancient story tells us that God comes to us when we are faithful.
Let us keep loving, keep striving for the common good,
keep telling all people about God’s wanton, wildly-inclusive love.
And who knows,
we might just be the living water that someone else desperately needs…
May it be so. Amen.
[i] Greg Barrett, “Reading the Bible after 9/11,” Day 1 Blog, posted August 22, 2011
[ii] http://frederickbuechner.com/content/weekly-sermon-illustration-hagar, accessed June 21, 2014
[iii] According to EmergentVillage, accessed December 16, 2012: https://www.facebook.com/EmergentVillage/posts/449586255101874