When All You Can Do Is Weep.
A sermon preached at The Kirk of Kansas City, Missouri, on June 25, 2017.
John Buchanan tells this great story
About his failings when trying to preach about Hagar the Egyptian.
The last time I preached a sermon on the story of Hagar,
the Egyptian slave and her son Ishmael, I got in trouble.
I was invited to preach at the installation of a friend of mine
[that’s when they formally make her the new pastor of a church]
and she asked me, specifically, to preach on THIS story. So I did.
It is a big church in the South,
the kind of southern Presbyterian institution
where on the wall of portraits of past session members
and clerks and pastors
you can find a few Confederate Generals.
It is also the kind of institution that reflects
the genuine hospitality and graciousness of its culture.
Now I know it’s a regional stereotype,
but it has been my experience
that Yankees are particularly receptive and responsive
and vulnerable to Southern graciousness. We love it.
After all, we’re not often told how wonderful we are
and how lovely it is that we came to the party
and how fascinating and interesting we are.
So I preached a Hagar and Ishmael sermon for my friend
and afterward I was utterly enjoying greeting the people
and being told how wonderful and fascinating
and interesting I was.
I noticed a woman who seemed to be waiting until the line was gone.
When she greeted me,
she took my hand in both of hers and smiled and said
with sweetness and sincerity,
“Mr. Buchanan, it was lovely of you to come
all the way down here from Chicago to be with us this morning.
I just wanted you to know that I hated your sermon.”
She squeezed my hand, smiled sweetly and walked away.
And I said, “Thank you very much.”
So I haven’t returned to the text for a decade.
That was his way of getting into to this text, once again,
after a bit of a break.
As he said: It’s hot—this story is—perhaps too hot to handle.[i]
And why is that?
Well: Everybody has to hate someone, it seems.
And we don’t like to think about that too often.
Anthropologists and sociologists will argue
that we need someone with whom to make
unflattering and derogatory comparisons
you know, in order to feel good about ourselves
and establish our own identity.
We need a ‘they’ who WE are not, in order to know who WE are.
We need someone to be an outsider so WE can be an insider.
THEY are lazy, immoral, undependable, can’t trust them,
they even smell funny.
That’s how Catholics and Protestants regarded each other
for centuries in Northern Ireland—
Greeks and Turks for generations,
Armenians and Azerbaijani,
Jews and Arabs, Hatfields and McCoys,
Royals and Cardinal fans (oh, I meant to take that one out).
I’ve been re-watching Game of Thrones
Getting ready for the launch of season 7 this July
And if there’s anything in that sordid, violent mess of a television show
That we relate to, it’s the vicious struggle of us-versus-them
That it taps into.
Targarians. Baratheons. Starks. Tullies.
Choose your banner and fight your foe.
While some claim that it is the primary cause of all of this,
There is no doubt that, often,
religion is brought into play to support the process of demonization.
The more we can make our enemies different, or strange
Or smelly. Or inhuman, the easier it is for us to do this.
Just look at our rhetoric surrounding terrorism in this 21st century.
The pretext for travel bans. For stirring up fear of the immigrant.
The distressing reality about the human story it how we get
Intuitively get what’s going on in the Bible
when we encounter lists of people who are the “others,”
the outsiders, the enemy, “them.”
In Psalm 83, for instance, there is a kind of roll call
of the enemies of the people of God:
Edom, and Moab, and the Hagrites;
Gebal and Amman and Amalek,
The Philistines and Assyrians—tribes, mostly,
and they are not Israel—
and, by the way, Ishmaelites,
a tribe of marauders that roamed the Southern desert
in the second millennium B.C.E.
What was peculiar about the Ishmaelites,
beyond the fact that they were lazy, undependable, criminal,
violent and dangerous, clearly inferior and smelled bad,
if you believed the stories told about them…
what was peculiar was that their language was Semitic,
amazingly similar to the Hebrew spoken by the twelve tribes of Israel.
These people, Ishmaelites, are a lot like us,
the Hebrews thought,
and therein lies one of the most remarkable and poignant
and powerful stories in the Bible.
Abraham and Sarah, promised parents of God’s chosen nation,
are rich and established and powerful.
They have flocks of sheep and goats;
they have tents and servants and slaves.
Abraham has a harem befitting a man of his station.
What Abraham and Sarah do not have is a son
and that’s a problem
if they’re going to be the parents of a great nation.
So, consistent with custom, Sarah suggests that her favorite slave,
Hagar, an Egyptian,
might become the mother of Abraham’s son.
That’s what happens. His name is Ishmael.
But then something truly unexpected occurs. Even laughable.
Sarah has a son and calls him Isaac.
One day Sarah sees Isaac and Ishmael playing together
and a terrible thought occurs to her.
Why Ishmael is actually Abraham’s oldest son.
He has status.
He has a claim on the family’s patrimony.
Isaac may be the hero and the point of the biblical narrative,
but what in the world are we going to do
with Ishmael and Hagar, his mother.
Sarah knows exactly how to deal with the situation.
She distances herself from her favorite slave,
no longer even uses her name;
and then concludes that there is no room
for Hagar and Ishmael
and they have to go.
Abraham is reluctant but ultimately agrees.
In a pathetic gesture gives Hagar a little bread and water
and throws her out into the desert with her son.
In the big picture—
the big story which is about Abraham and Sarah,
Isaac and Rebekkah,
Jacob and Rachel—
In that big picture: Hagar and Ishmael are unnecessary and expendable.
In the wilderness the inevitable happens.
The bread and the water run out.
Human beings can’t survive without water,
and so Ishmael starts to die of dehydration.
Hagar will die too, but Ishmael is going to die first, in her arms.
As the crisis approaches, Hagar cannot bear it.
Are there more tragically poignant words than hers—
“Let me not see the death of the child”?
Hagar carefully lays the child under a bush
and walks a hundred feet away and sits down and weeps and waits.
Its all she can do, is weep.
She cries, and the kid cries.
And then, given what is going on with the big picture
of Abraham and Isaac and the chosen people
and descendants more numerous than the stars,
in the middle of that
the text makes an astonishing assertion.
God hears the cries of the child.
An angel appears,
and did you notice that the angel says
what angels are always saying in the Bible
—to the shepherds on the Bethlehem hillside,
—to the weeping woman at the empty tomb?
The angel says: ‘Do not be afraid—fear not.’
“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.”
It’s almost as if the Bible is arguing with itself here. It does that. Did you know?
The big story is Isaac. The story is supposed to be about Isaac.
But from the very beginning the Bible keeps reminding us
that God doesn’t forget
about the people who get pushed to the margins
or pushed out of our big story. Our big story is not always God’s big story.
God hears the cries of those who have nothing else left to do but weep.
THAT is the bigger story. The biggest story.
From the very beginning God is passionately committed
to the very ones the traditions and customs and laws
of God’s people exclude.
God stands in judgment of the very tradition God has inspired.
That’s what gets so hot about this story . . .and provocative.
Centuries later Jesus did the same thing;
in God’s name, Jesus remembered and reached out
to the very people who were being excluded
by the customs and traditions and laws of God’s people.
That’s what is going on in the New Testament
when he touches a leper,
and sits at table with tax collectors
and allows a prostitute to pour oil on his feet
and talks with women in broad daylight
and heals on the sabbath,
welcomes the children.
In one way or another these people are outsiders
—those excluded in Jesus’ day.
You simply cannot read scripture
and avoid the radical inclusivity of God’s love.
You cannot truly claim the tradition
without ALSO claiming the part that judges the tradition’s exclusivity.
You cannot claim the name of Jesus
and ignore his embrace of those his own religion marginalized.
Not that long ago, the history of our own tradition
Reveals our struggles with this.
You can trace the biblical and theological contortions
Used to rationalize first slavery and then segregation.
But that cannot be done, ultimately, thanks be to God.
We tried to exclude on the basis of gender and then marital status
And then sexual orientation.
It wasn’t all that long ago that women and divorced and remarried people
were not allowed to be ordained and to serve as pastors.
And more recently still our LGBT brothers and sisters.
In all of these instances,
proponents of exclusion could and did quote scripture
to support their positions.
Let me say again, that in light of scripture,
not in spite of scripture,
we need to be very cautious about who we exclude.
It is not a matter of political correctness.
It has nothing to do with accommodating
the easy amorality of modern culture.
It has everything in the world to do with
the God who surprises everybody by transcending the tradition;
the customs and mores and boundaries and laws of religion
and reaches out to include the outsider,
the God who hears the cries of the abandoned child.
But that’s not even the most important point.
This story is about us—about each one of us.
Not long after the Hagar and Ishmael incident,
the tribes of Israel would find themselves in the wilderness.
In an interesting twist of historical irony, Hagar’s descendants,
will hold the children of Israel as slaves
and when they escape they will wander in the wilderness
just like Hagar and Ishmael.
And just like Hagar and Ishmael
they, too, will feel that they have been abandoned,
forgotten by God
left to die of hunger and thirst.
And like Hagar and Ishmael
they will discover
in the wilderness
that God remembers them.
God is with them, God’s presence will save them.
There is nothing more devastating than feeling abandoned,
forgotten, unappreciated, unaccepted, unwanted.
Our earliest and most profound human need
is for acceptance and affirmation.
We can be warm, dry, well fed
and without the affirmation of human contact, physical contact,
we wither and die.
Our earliest and most profound fear is of rejection and abandonment.
The basic word of faith is that God doesn’t forget or abandon.
God hears the cries of all the children.
God is particularly sensitive to the cries of those
who are abandoned by everybody else:
those abandoned in God’s name,
those abandoned for whatever reason:
you and me when nothing seems to be working,
when life’s meaning and passion and purpose
when we feel oppressed by our jobs or lack of them,
by overwhelming responsibilities or by no responsibilities,
by friends, spouses, companions and lovers who disappoint us,
God doesn’t forget.
God shows up in whatever wilderness we find ourselves.
God comes to bring water for our thirst
and love for our deepest need.
God does not abandon or forget.
As we seek to understand what God is doing
Let us listen for this theme throughout scripture.
Its there, from our earliest days in Genesis
The creation of human beings from dust
Implanted, each and every one of us,
With the image of God
Beautifully and wonderfully made.
Its there as we struggled to become a people
And to overcome this instinct in us to hate people who are different
Its there in the life and ministry of Jesus, who teaches a new way to God’s people
A way of welcome and the power of radical love.
We saw it in this reading from the Revelation to John
Where the Seer of Patmos describes God coming down from heaven
To make God’s home here, among us, among human beings
To wipe away every tear of those who weep
To destroy the power of death and suffering
The alpha and the omega, making all things new
The one who brings water from the river of life.
God does not abandon or forget.
God claims us. God loves us.
God tells you that you matter
That you matter so very much to God.
And because of that, you can open yourselves up to the radical notion
That these things that seem to divide us might not matter all that much,
Not in the end
Not for the God who makes us one because of Christ Jesus.
We affirmed that today for Eli Teen.
In the waters of baptism, we claimed that promise for him.
And we remember that promise, for each of us,
who have been baptized
or who are thinking about being baptized
this sign and seal of something God has already done
from the moment we take our first breath
God praying for us
walking with us
nudging us, caring for us
helping us get back up after we’ve fallen
teaching us to stand for truth and justice and
on behalf of those wronged
that this sign and seal confirms God’s care for us, making all things possible.
My friends, I am convinced that
the answer to life’s tears, to life’s worries,
is the love and the hope of God.
So may we live in that hope
and move forward in that love
that our faith may be confirmed
and our world may be made new
and the beauty and joy and the justice of our world
can finally be the focus of our living.
May it be so. Amen.
[i] This sermon heavily indebted to one preached by the Rev. John Buchanan at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago in 1999.