Us/Them………Me Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

13 That same day Jesus left the house and went out beside Lake Galilee, where he sat down to teach. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he had to sit in a boat, while the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he taught them many things by using stories. He said:
A farmer went out to scatter seed in a field. 4 While the farmer was scattering the seed, some of it fell along the road and was eaten by birds. 5 Other seeds fell on thin, rocky ground and quickly started growing because the soil wasn’t very deep. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched and dried up, because they did not have enough roots. 7 Some other seeds fell where thorn bushes grew up and choked the plants. 8 But a few seeds did fall on good ground where the plants produced a hundred or sixty or thirty times as much as was scattered.
18 Now listen to the meaning of the story about the farmer:
19 The seeds that fell along the road are the people who hear the message about the kingdom, but don’t understand it. Then the evil one comes and snatches the message from their hearts. 20 The seeds that fell on rocky ground are the people who gladly hear the message and accept it right away. 21 But they don’t have deep roots, and they don’t last very long. As soon as life gets hard or the message gets them in trouble, they give up.
22 The seeds that fell among the thorn bushes are also people who hear the message. But they start worrying about the needs of this life and are fooled by the desire to get rich. So the message gets choked out, and they never produce anything. 23 The seeds that fell on good ground are the people who hear and understand the message. They produce as much as a hundred or sixty or thirty times what was planted.
I’ve always thought of this parable as an “us” and “them” parable.
That is, part of it talks about people like me and part of it talks about people not like me.
The people not like me are the people who don’t produce a good crop. The people like me are the ones who produce a bumper crop.
Them. Us.
This seems like such a simple parable, especially for those of us who live in the middle of farm country. The whole point of planting seed is to raise a good crop. What else is there to say?
We all know you don’t spread seed on gravel. We all know you don’t plant seeds without first pulling out the weeds. It’s easy to dismiss this parable as a no brainer and file it under “common sense.”
I’d like to dig a little deeper, as long as we’re dealing with dirt. I have two questions to explore. First, how do I know for sure what kind of soil lies within me? Second, what is this crop Jesus speaks of?
We know…..because we know how parables work……that Jesus is not talking about farming. Jesus can use farming as an example, or building a house, or just about anything you can imagine, but he’s never talking about work: he’s always talking about people. His whole message, every message is about people. So who are the people in this parable?
Are they the seed? or the crop? Which is what? To save time, I am assuming that the seed is the the Word, the teachings, the lessons of Jesus. I am claiming that the seed is not just words on a page. I am declaring that this seed is alive, active, has potential, just like any seed we plant in the dirt.
So, we have three components, seed, soil, crop. Seed—what we hear. Soil…where it falls. Crop….what happens when the seed grows.
Let’s fit people into this riddle. Soil = people–who hear the word. Crop = what happens when people hear the word.
Let’s look at the soil. As I mentioned earlier, it is easy to think that this soil thing is pretty simple. How often have you heard these verses and let it go at that?
19 The seeds that fell along the road….
20 The seeds that fell on rocky ground….
22 The seeds that fell among the thorn bushes ……..
23 The seeds that fell on good ground………
It’s pretty simple. Examples of rocky ground and thorn bushes abound.
To some people, Jesus’ teachings are nonsense or impractical or illogical. To some people, it’s the latest fix, the latest fad. It’s fun for awhile, but then something goes wrong, and the easy fix isn’t so easy. For some people, life makes too many other demands, between work and family and other obligations, and there’s no time for Jesus. Let me give you an example I just heard from a friend. My friend’s grandson asked his grandma why he didn’t get to go to Sunday School anymore. My friend knew that he was going to wresting meets on Sunday mornings, but she didn’t say anything; she just looked at his father. His father said, “Well, we don’t want him to be overloaded with too many activities.”
Before we point too many fingers at the people who don’t get it, don’t stick with it, who don’t value this Jesus way of life, let’s examine ourselves.
First of all, most crops have to be planted over and over, right? We sow corn and oats and beans and beets and squash and onions every year. There are few perennial crops–alfalfa, berries, rhubarb, asparagus, garlic, that’s about all I can think of.
Everything else needs to be replanted, regularly; likewise the words of Jesus need to be replanted, repeated—and more than once a year. So we are fed, weekly, monthly. For those of us who read or reflect daily on the Word, the planting is continuous.
Here is my question: Are you always good soil? Am I always good soil? Let me speak just for myself. Sometimes, after the Word inspires me, I am distracted by the obligations I have set for myself, and I only think about how to get my work done in the most efficient way. Sometimes that efficiency causes me to neglect those who need me more than, say, the Democrats of Clinton County. Sometimes I am full of the gravel of the material luxuries of this world. I like pretty things in my house; I like to buy gifts for my family. I become upset because I can’t have something; then I lose my ability to nourish that Word.
Sometimes the word of God inspires me, but my environment poisons me with opinions and makes me cranky and judgmental. If I hang out with people who like to separate not only church and state, but church and life, I become selfish. If I think I’m better than the people who don’t do what I do or who don’t think like I think, I stop growing.
Sometimes I get carried away with wanting to solve the problems of the world and I lose sight of the problems right at hand. Sometimes I see the forest when I should be looking at the trees. The Word does not always thrive in me.
What I’m trying to teach myself–and you, if the Spirit is willing– is that this is not an “us” and “them” issue. It is a “me” issue. When we start drawing lines between ourselves and “them,” we lose a lot. We lose compassion. We lose empathy. We lose community. We lose credibility. My new favorite saying is “Anytime you draw a line between you and someone else, Jesus is on the other side.” 1As long as we mark a difference between “us” and “them,” we are excluding someone.
Jesus, on the other hand, was all about including everyone. Perhaps that is why he suggested that the seed might fall elsewhere. The other side of this story is that many seeds do grow just about anywhere. Look at the beautiful chicory and Queen Anne’s Lace growing right up to the side of the road. Look at the grass growing in the cracks in the sidewalk. And look at the weeds that are becoming resistant to Round Up!
Next question:
What does this crop, the ideal crop look like? When the Words of Jesus are planted in our hearts, when our hearts are full of “good soil,” what happens when those seeds grow? What does Jesus see as the ideal crop for people? One of the phrases that comes to mind is “The Kingdom of God.”
What do you envision when you see the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is open to your interpretation. Does it mean that everybody, everywhere, goes to church for worship and Bible Study twice a week? Does it mean that “ In God we Trust is printed on government documents? Does it mean that the Crusaders were right in trying to kill all the Muslims? Does it mean that all Jews should convert to Christianity?
The more I study Jesus, the more radical he becomes. I think Jesus’ Old Testament roots inspired him.
Deuteronomy 10:18 The Lord defends the rights of orphans and widows. He cares for foreigners and gives them food and clothing.2 Does that include 39,000 foreigners under the age of 18 crossing illegally into this country?
My current conception of the Kingdom of God is that everybody is happy. Very simple. Everybody is happy because they have people who love them, they have enough to eat, they have clean, comfortable homes, they have lots of different kinds of friends, they have opportunity to give to others in ways that inspire them to grow. When sorrow or illness strikes, they are happy that they have people who are, likewise, happy to help them. In other words, everyone lives in community that welcomes, rather than demands, that includes, rather than judges.
I had lunch with a friend the other day who believes that people should be forced to do the right thing. I find that alarming, because since the day I was born I have refused to be forced to do anything. Just ask my mother. By the same token, we cannot force the Kingdom of Jesus on people. There are plenty of people around who are trying to force the Kingdom of God into existence.
The Constitution says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” On the other hand, there are those who promote Christian Dominionism. Dominionists celebrate Christian nationalism, in that they believe the United States once was, and should again be, a Christian nation. In this way, they deny the Enlightenment roots of American democracy. Dominionists promote religious supremacy, insofar as they generally do not respect the equality of other religions, or even other versions of Christianity.3
We fall somewhere in between there. As growing, blooming, flourishing plants, how do we meet Jesus’ expectations? We return to the Word for guidance: The Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. Or, to keep it simple. Love God. Love your neighbor. We aren’t called to overthrow the government or bring people to church at gunpoint. We are called to follow Jesus, one step at a time, always trying to show our love to our neighbor, by word, by action, by prayer, by thought. If I can remember that Jesus is walking right beside me, watching me, I can be pretty impressive. When Jesus walks with me, other people join me. Have you ever noticed that? When you share your faith, you really share it; you don’t keep it to yourself. It spreads, like multiflora, like Queen Anne’s Lace, like an orange lily, one flower at at time, filling a ditch.
But sometimes I’m full of gravel, sometimes I’m choked by weeds, sometimes I’m all talk and no show.
A piece of folklore for you. When you walk into a field of oats, pluck a stalk and count the number of oats on the stalk. If there are two oats, the field will yield 2 bushels to the acre. If there are 90 oats on the stalk, the crop will yield 90 bushels to the acre. Those 90 oats on that one stalk came from one seed.4
8 But a few seeds do fall on good ground where the plants produced a hundred or sixty or thirty times as much as was scattered.
Let us pray. Lord, keep planting your seed, keep watch over us as you nourish us so that your Kingdom flourishes. Amen.

1 “Nadia, the thing that sucks is that every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is always on the other side of it” (p. 57). In Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber.2 Contemporary English Version (CEV)3 http://www.publiceye.org/christian_right/dominionism.htm4 Don Stange, 90 bushel to the acre, 2012.

Happily Ever After Genesis 24

Dear Ann Landers:

Why would any husband adore a lazy, messy, addlebrained wife? Her house looks as if they’d moved in yesterday. She never cooks a meal. Everything is in cans or frozen. Her kids eat sent-in food. Yet this slob’s husband treats her like a Dresden doll. He calls her “Poopsie” and “Pet,” and covers the telephone with a blanket when he goes to work so she can get her rest. On weekends he does the laundry and the marketing.

I get up at 6 a.m. and fix my husband’s breakfast. I make his shirts because the ones in the stores “don’t fit right.” If my husband ever emptied a wastebasket, I’d faint. Once when I phoned him at work and asked him to pick up a loaf of bread on his way home, he swore at me for five minutes. The more you do for a man, the less he appreciates you. I feel like an unpaid housekeeper, not a wife. What goes on anyway?

—The Moose (That’s what he calls me.)

Ann’s response is classic. She responded:

A marriage license is not a guarantee that the marriage is going to work, any more than a fishing license assures that you’ll catch fish. It merely gives you the legal right to try.

 

Is there any institution that gives us more grief, more joy, more funny stories, more tragedies than marriage?

Is there anybody who hasn’t’ been married that wishes they had been?  Is there anybody who’s been married who once or twice wished they weren’t?

What is the point of marriage?  Why does every culture have some form of marriage? If the point is to have babies, what’s the point of the expensive ceremony and the piece of paper? If the point is to have companionship, dogs and cats and horses are great friends and they don’t complain about your bad habits.

I have no answers. And if I did, they wouldn’t be relevant to anybody.

Today’s lesson from Genesis is about a specific marriage.  The groom is Isaac; the bride is Rebekah.  The marriage, like all marriages, is unique.

Isaac and Rebekah’s marriage is a little different from most marriages we know, because it was arranged by Isaac’s dad. Think about it for minute, those of you who have been married: what if your dad had arranged your marriage?  Would he have chosen your partner? Or someone else?

When I taught Romeo and Juliet to my freshmen students, one of their assignments was to interview their parents to find out whom their parents would choose for them.  Most students and parents took this assignment seriously. Before the students interviewed their parents, we discussed the reasons for arranged marriages, including both disadvantages and advantages. By the time the papers were written, parents and children had a pretty mature understanding of reasons for their parents’ choices. In at least one case, the choice was compatible.  Hannah’s parents chose Ben and Ben’s parents chose Hannah.  It didn’t end up that way, but it made perfect sense to everyone concerned, as long as it was just an assignment. 

In the case of Romeo and Juliet, following their parents choices would have resulted in a happier, at least less tragic, ending.

Nowadays, falling in love is the first step, followed by courtship, followed by marriage.  Somewhere, I read that the wedding should be followed by falling in love, rather than preceding the wedding.  Remember the musical, Fiddler on the Roof?  Tradition, so dear to the heart of Tevye, the main character, includes arranged marriages.  After running into problems arranging his own daughters’ marriages, Tevye asks his wife, Golde, if she loves him.  She has to think about it.  Their parents chose them for each other, they got married, set up housekeeping and had babies.  What else is there in life? Yet, Tevye persists in knowing whether or not Golde loves him. Finally, Golde concedes: “I suppose I do.”

Arranged marriages aren’t any better or worse than any other beginning. As Ann Landers says, “A marriage license is not a guarantee that the marriage is going to work, any more than a fishing license assures that you’ll catch fish. It merely gives you the legal right to try.”

 

Abraham wants to make sure his son Isaac, has just the right wife.  He has own requirements.  Let’s listen for them.

Genesis 24 Contemporary English Version (CEV)

24 Abraham was now a very old man. The Lord had made him rich, and he was successful in everything he did. One day, Abraham called in his most trusted servant and said to him, “Solemnly promise me in the name of the Lord, who rules heaven and earth, that you won’t choose a wife for my son Isaac from the people here in the land of Canaan. Instead, go back to the land where I was born and find a wife for him from among my relatives.”

But the servant asked, “What if the young woman I choose refuses to leave home and come here with me? Should I send Isaac there to look for a wife?”

“No!” Abraham answered. “Don’t ever do that, no matter what. The Lord who rules heaven brought me here from the land where I was born and promised that he would give this land to my descendants forever. When you go back there, the Lord will send his angel ahead of you to help you find a wife for my son. If the woman refuses to come along, you don’t have to keep this promise. But don’t ever take my son back there.” So the servant gave Abraham his word that he would do everything he had been told to do.

Abraham was remembering that God had promised to make him the ancestor of a great nation, that is, of enough sons and daughters to populate a nation.

At this point in his life, he has one son.  Not looking good for the big promise.  His only hope for that population explosion is his son, Isaac.  Because so much is riding on Isaac, Abraham is very fussy about whom Isaac should marry. 

Rule #1: no local girls.  He wants somebody that’s like them, somebody that believes like Abraham, acts like Abraham, has the same values as Abraham. That means going back to the homeland to look for a bride.

Rule #2  Send somebody who can be trusted. Abraham calls his most trusted servant, whom we will assume has been in the family business for a long time.

Rule #3 Trust God to find the right girl.

Rule #4.  Isaac stays here.  Abraham came very close to killing this precious son through his obedience to God’s strange orders. Isaac can’t be out of his sight.

10 Soon after that, the servant loaded ten of Abraham’s camels with valuable gifts. Then he set out for the city in northern Syria, where Abraham’s brother Nahor lived.

11 When he got there, he let the camels rest near the well outside the city. It was late afternoon, the time when the women came out for water. 12 The servant prayed:

You, Lord, are the God my master Abraham worships. Please keep your promise to him and let me find a wife for Isaac today. 13 The young women of the city will soon come to this well for water, 14 and I’ll ask one of them for a drink. If she gives me a drink and then offers to get some water for my camels, I’ll know she is the one you have chosen and that you have kept your promise to my master.

The servant headed back to the old neighborhood.  He was traveling with camels who carried gifts for the potential bride and her family.

He stopped at a well, a common gathering place, because everybody came to the well for water, for the household as well as for their animals.

The servant came up with a brilliant idea.

If he asked for a drink of water and the woman went the extra mile and offered to draw up water for the camels, she would be a keeper.  

It is hard work to draw up water from a well.  Add ten very thirsty camels to the mix, and that young women is offering a lot.  Think of the qualities that would be revealed in her action.  

#1 She is kind–she offers water to a stranger.

#2 She is generous–she offers water to his ten camels.

#3  She is strong–she pull a lot of water out of that well.

#4  She is poised and self-possessed–she does not show fear or hesitation when speaking to a stranger.

15-16 While he was still praying, a beautiful unmarried young woman came by with a water jar on her shoulder. She was Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel, the son of Abraham’s brother Nahor and his wife Milcah. Rebekah walked past Abraham’s servant, then went over to the well, and filled her water jar. When she started back, 17 Abraham’s servant ran to her and said, “Please let me have a drink of water.”

18 “I’ll be glad to,” she answered. Then she quickly took the jar from her shoulder and held it while he drank. 19-20 After he had finished, she said, “Now I’ll give your camels all the water they want.” She quickly poured out water for them, and she kept going back for more, until his camels had drunk all they wanted. 21 Abraham’s servant did not say a word, but he watched everything Rebekah did, because he wanted to know for certain if this was the woman the Lord had chosen.

The timing is right; the plan works perfectly.

She gives him a good drink and then, without being prompted, offers to water all ten thirsty camels. 

The servant was very impressed.

22 The servant had brought along an expensive gold ring and two large gold bracelets. When Rebekah had finished bringing the water, he gave her the ring for her nose and the bracelets for her arms. 23 Then he said, “Please tell me who your father is. Does he have room in his house for me and my men to spend the night?”

The servant is pretty sure this is the one. But he has to know her blood line, just to be sure. 

24 She answered, “My father is Bethuel, the son of Nahor and Milcah. 25 We have a place where you and your men can stay, and we also have enough straw and feed for your camels.”

Good news! Her father was Abraham’s cousin.  It couldn’t be better. She not only offerws shelter for the night, but she offered straw and feed for the TEN camels.  Could it get any better?

26 Then the servant bowed his head and prayed, 27 “I thank you, Lord God of my master Abraham! You have led me to his relatives and kept your promise to him.”

28 Rebekah ran straight home and told her family everything. 29-30 Her brother Laban heard her tell what the servant had said, and he saw the ring and the bracelets she was wearing. So Laban ran out to Abraham’s servant, who was standing by his camels at the well. 31 Then Laban said, “The Lord has brought you safely here. Come home with me. There’s no need for you to keep on standing outside. I have a room ready for you in our house, and there’s also a place for your camels.”

32 Abraham’s servant went home with Laban, where Laban’s servants unloaded his camels and gave them straw and feed. Then they brought water into the house, so Abraham’s servant and his men could wash their feet. 33 After that, they brought in food. But the servant said, “Before I eat, I must tell you why I have come.”

At this point, Rebekah’s brother stepped in. He welcomed the servant, after seeing the nice jewelry his sister was wearing.

He was ready to eat and welcomeed everyone into his house, including the entire traveling party, but the servant kept his task in mind.

He related his entire story and purpose to Laban, who seemed to be the family spokesman.

“Go ahead and tell us,” Laban answered.

34 The servant explained:

I am Abraham’s servant. 35 The Lord has been good to my master and has made him very rich. He has given him many sheep, goats, cattle, camels, and donkeys, as well as a lot of silver and gold, and many slaves. 36 Sarah, my master’s wife, didn’t have any children until she was very old. Then she had a son, and my master has given him everything. 37 I solemnly promised my master that I would do what he said. And he told me, “Don’t choose a wife for my son from the women in this land of Canaan. 38 Instead, go back to the land where I was born and find a wife for my son from among my relatives.”

39 I asked my master, “What if the young woman refuses to come with me?”

40 My master answered, “I have always obeyed the Lord, and he will send his angel to help you find my son a wife from among my own relatives. 41 But if they refuse to let her come back with you, then you are freed from your promise.”

42 When I came to the well today, I silently prayed, “You, Lord, are the God my master Abraham worships, so please lead me to a wife for his son 43 while I am here at the well. When a young woman comes out to get water, I’ll ask her to give me a drink. 44 If she gives me a drink and offers to get some water for my camels, I’ll know she is the one you have chosen.”

45 Even before I had finished praying, Rebekah came by with a water jar on her shoulder. When she had filled the jar, I asked her for a drink. 46 She quickly lowered the jar from her shoulder and said, “Have a drink. Then I’ll get water for your camels.” So I drank, and after that she got some water for my camels. 47 I asked her who her father was, and she answered, “My father is Bethuel the son of Nahor and Milcah.” Right away I put the ring in her nose and the bracelets on her arms. 48 Then I bowed my head and gave thanks to the God my master Abraham worships. The Lord had led me straight to my master’s relatives, and I had found a wife for his son.

49 Now please tell me if you are willing to do the right thing for my master. Will you treat him fairly, or do I have to look for another young woman?

50 Laban and Bethuel answered, “The Lord has done this. We have no choice in the matter. 51 Take Rebekah with you; she can marry your master’s son, just as the Lord has said.” 52 Abraham’s servant bowed down and thanked the Lord. 53 Then he gave clothing, as well as silver and gold jewelry, to Rebekah. He also gave expensive gifts to her brother and her mother.

Laban, and Rebekah’s father, Bethuel, immediately agreed to the servant’s proposal.  “Take Rebekah with you.  

This was probably the best thing that could happen to a father and brother: getting rid of another mouth to feed AND getting some very nice gifts for themselves and the rest of the family. Notice Rebekah has not yet been consulted.

54 Abraham’s servant and the men with him ate and drank, then spent the night there. The next morning they got up, and the servant told Rebekah’s mother and brother, “I would like to go back to my master now.”

55 “Let Rebekah stay with us for a week or ten days,” they answered. “Then she may go.”

56 But he said, “Don’t make me stay any longer. The Lord has already helped me find a wife for my master’s son. Now let us return.”

57 They answered, “Let’s ask Rebekah what she wants to do.” 58 They called her and asked, “Are you willing to leave with this man right now?”

“Yes,” she answered.

59 So they agreed to let Rebekah and an old family servant woman leave immediately with Abraham’s servant and his men. 60 They gave Rebekah their blessing and said, “We pray that God will give you many children and grandchildren and that he will help them defeat their enemies.” 61 Afterwards, Rebekah and the young women who were to travel with her prepared to leave. Then they got on camels and left with Abraham’s servant and his men.

The servant was in a hurry to get back to Abraham.  One reason may have been that he didn’t want to give Bethuel and Laban time to try to negotiate a better settlement. He also knew that Abraham wasn’t getting any younger….every day counted. 

Laban and his mother seemed reluctant to let Rebekah go, but the servant persisted.

Laban tried one more tactic: Let Rebekah decide. She knew exactly the right answer. She had struck gold, so to speak, and she wasn’t about to lose it. 

Rebekah  packed up and got on the road, accompanied by her family’s blessing, her servants, and those lovely gifts from Abraham.

62 At that time Isaac was living in the southern part of Canaan near a place called “The Well of the Living One Who Sees Me.” 63-65 One evening he was walking out in the fields, when suddenly he saw a group of people approaching on camels. So he started toward them. Rebekah saw him coming; she got down from her camel, and asked, “Who is that man?”

“He is my master Isaac,” the servant answered. Then Rebekah covered her face with her veil.

66 The servant told Isaac everything that had happened.

67 Isaac took Rebekah into the tent where his mother had lived before she died, and Rebekah became his wife. He loved her and was comforted over the loss of his mother.

The first meeting of Isaac and Rebekah was anti-climactic, to say the least.  

After all the prayers and all the traveling and all the negotiating, they ran into each other at a well, the very well where Isaac’s half-brother, Ishmael, had nearly perished. Small world.  

Rebekah’s only concession to tradition was to cover her face with a veil.  Next thing you know, she and Isaac are husband and wife and the marriage is consummated.

 

They lived happily ever after until they had kids and got old.  The end. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Common sense and God-sense Genesis 21:8-21

The time came when Sarah no longer had to nurse Isaac, and on that day Abraham gave a big feast.

One day, Sarah noticed Hagar’s son Ishmael playing, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that Egyptian slave woman and her son! I don’t want him to inherit anything. It should all go to my son.”

Abraham was worried about Ishmael. But God said, “Abraham, don’t worry about your slave woman and the boy. Just do what Sarah tells you. Isaac will inherit your family name, but the son of the slave woman is also your son, and I will make his descendants into a great nation.”

Early the next morning Abraham gave Hagar an animal skin full of water and some bread. Then he put the boy on her shoulder and sent them away.

They wandered around in the desert near Beersheba, and after they had run out of water, Hagar put her son under a bush. Then she sat down a long way off, because she could not bear to watch him die. And she cried bitterly.

When God heard the boy crying, the angel of God called out to Hagar from heaven and said, “Hagar, why are you worried? Don’t be afraid. I have heard your son crying. Help him up and hold his hand, because I will make him the father of a great nation.” Then God let her see a well. So she went to the well and filled the skin with water, then gave some to her son.

God blessed Ishmael, and as the boy grew older, he became an expert with his bow and arrows. He lived in the Paran Desert, and his mother chose an Egyptian woman for him to marry.

=================================================== 

  • Jacob was a cheater.
  • David had a affair.
  • Noah got drunk.
  • Lot’s daughters committed incest.
  • Jonah ran from God.
  • Gideon was insecure.
  • Abraham was a liar.
  • Miriam was a gossiper.
  • Thomas was a doubter.
  • Sarah was impatient.
  • Elijah was depressed.
  • Moses stuttered.
  • Zacchaeus was short.
  • Lazarus was dead.
  • Saul was jealous.
  • Martha was a worrier.
  • Peter had a temper.
  • Paul was a murderer.

God doesn’t call the qualified: he qualifies the called.

=====================================================

We call the Bible “the Good Book,” but it gives us plenty of bad behavior, bad examples, and bad people. 

One of those bad examples is the story of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar.  And, as is often the case when adults behave badly, there are innocent children who are hurt.

For some reason, God had promised Abraham that he would be the ancestor of a great nation.  To be an ancestor presumes that there will be lots of children to carry on the name, to populate this promised nation. 

Abraham and Sarah were married a long, long time and grew tired of waiting for a child. It would have been more than frustrating for Sarah to not get pregnant.  In her culture, and this still remains in a shadowy form in our culture, a woman had value only as a child-bearer.  In other words, if she didn’t produce children, she was worthless, a nobody. Sarah had it made in every other way: she was pretty, she was married to the boss, she had servants. But she was barren.  

When God’s promise of a child appeared to be empty, Sarah took things into her own hands.  According to custom, there was still a way to produce a child.  She had an Egyptian maid, Hagar. Hagar was her property, so she could order her to do just about anything.  She ordered Hagar to get pregnant by Abraham, so that Abraham would have a son.

We can assume that Sarah thought she would then adopt this child as her own. Presto! Chang-o!  The promised child would appear.  That child did appear–a boy.  Perfect.  God’s promise would happen, thanks to the manipulation of Sarah and Abraham, and the obedience of Hagar.

So, what’s our take-away from this lesson?  That we can manipulate God? That God needs help in fulfilling God’s promises?

In a much different culture, in a culture that has the benefit of reading and learning from generations of philosophers and theologians, we are susceptible to the same weakness as Abraham and Sarah.  It comes down to trust.  Do we trust God or do we take things into our own hands?

We aren’t quite so dependent on producing an heir for the sake of the father as we used to be.  But the thought is still there.  When I was pregnant with our third child, my friend told me that if the third one was a girl, making three daughters for Bim, that I really should have another try at making a boy.  And frankly, for a number of reasons, partly arcane, partly out of love for Bim, I would have “tried” for a boy.  As it turns out, the third child was a boy.  However, I cannot begin to describe for you the overwhelming sense of relief I felt when the doctor said, “It’s a boy.”  It was liberating.  So, I’ve got a streak of Sarah in me, a streak of that patristic belief that somehow the men have exclusive rights to passing on the family code to the next generation.  It’s absolutely illogical, but it exists.  You don’t hear of too many women with “junior” or “II” or “III” after their names.  Come to think of it, we could call our daughter, Laura, Laura Prichard II…her great-grandmother was Laura Prichard. 

What foolishness we can dream up.  A lot of times, that foolishness comes from not trusting God.  And, when we don’t trust God, our plans can backfire or can hurt someone else.  What comes to mind is the way we don’t trust God to provide for us.  I think a lot about the disparity between the very rich and the very poor.  That disparity grows every day.

The 85 richest people on Earth now have the same amount of wealth as the bottom half of the global population, according to a report released recently by the British humanitarian group Oxfam International.

 So, if 85 people each had a $1.00, the rest of the earth’s population, 7 billion people, has to share a $1.00. In other words, $86 goes to 7+ billion;   most will bet about 7% of one penny. Eighty-five will each get a dollar.

Multiply that by a thousand….it doesn’t paint a prettier picture.  I get $1000 and you get 7¢.  

Now, what do those statistics have to do with trusting God?  Here’s my theory; you can buy it or leave it on the shelf. We accumulate wealth because we’re afraid.  We don’t trust God to provide, so we use every way we can to make sure we have enough money for today, enough to feed ourselves, enough to pay the rent, enough to buy gas, enough to pay medical bills. Then when we have enough for today, we start worrying about tomorrow; so we work to get some more money. When we have enough for tomorrow, then we start worrying about the next day, the next week, the next month, the next year, the next generation.  What separates the 85 richest people in the world from the 1 billion who don’t yet have enough for today is luck.  It’s not blessing; it’s not being favored by God.  It’s luck, luck fueled by greed.  Because once we have enough, we never have enough. It makes no sense to trust God…we’re on our own.  

Let’s be clear: faith in God is not rational.  Faith in God is not common sense.  The ways of the world are rational and full of common sense. Common sense is a human conception, not a theological concept.

Common sense is not a bad thing, but it fights with faith.  When we decide we are smarter than God, when we decide that God is to far away to notice us, when we decide that God is too busy to help us, then we turn to common sense.  But common sense, when motivated by insecurity or fear, can turn into greed.  And greed skews common sense into manipulation, cheating and stealing (by spending on ourselves and not the foreigners and the widows and the orphans), lying (on taxes)…there are all kinds of ways for common sense to become common ways of the world, the sense of selfishness. One national example is the gap between the wages of company presidents and their employees, or the gap between university coaches and professors.

When we allow common sense to over rule our God-sense, people are hurt. 

Genesis 16   Contemporary English Version (CEV)

16 Abram’s wife Sarai had not been able to have any children. But she owned a young Egyptian slave woman named Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, “The Lord has not given me any children. Sleep with my slave, and if she has a child, it will be mine.” Abram agreed, and Sarai gave him Hagar to be his wife. This happened after Abram had lived in the land of Canaan for ten years. Later, when Hagar knew she was going to have a baby, she became proud and was hateful to Sarai.

Sarai/Sarah used common sense and told Abraham to have a child by her servant.  Sarah though that baby would be hers. But Hagar was the mother and she became proud and hateful toward Sarai/Sarah.  

But Abraham was happy. This son, Ishmael, was Abraham’s son, and Abraham loved him.  But when God finally kept the promise of a son to Abraham AND Sarah, Sarah’s plan came back to bite her in the form of jealousy.  She realized that Ishmael, as first-born, could be the one to inherit the flocks, and she wanted HER son, Isaac, to be the chosen child. With her history with Hagar, it wasn’t hard to come up with a plan: get rid of Hagar and Ishmael.  Even though Sarah had assumed that Ishmael would be “her son” (Genesis 16:2), he never was.  He was the son of Abraham and Hagar, not the son of Abraham and  Sarah. Sarah couldn’t abide the sight of the mother and son.  It ruined the picture of her son Isaac being the progenitor of an entire nation.  Hagar was still her property, and Ishmael was glaringly not her son, so she told Abraham to get rid of them.  She didn’t say “kill them,” but the end result would be the same.  Abraham never had the straightest or the strongest backbone and gave into Sarah.  He sent his son and his son’s mother on a death march.  Anything to keep peace in the family.

Here’s another great thing about God.  God doesn’t get even.  God rescues Hagar and Ishmael and blesses Ishmael with a great nation.  The tradition is that Ishmael the ancestor of the Islam nation.  All three of the great nations of the Middle east, Judaism, Islam andChristianity, trace their roots back to Abraham. In recent years, this connectedness has been acclaimed, even as factions of all faiths have fought with each other.  The big picture, when we look at it, shows that we are all descended from the same patriarch, the same faith family.  I rather like that. It unites us in a way that blood cannot.  It unites us in a way that cannot be divided by wars.

But the big picture still comes down to where each of us stands, to where each of us contributes to the big picture.  When we look at the examples of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, we see flawed people, people who made the same flawed choices we sometimes make. We see children who are unintended victims. Did you know that the next time Ishmael and Isaac see each other is when they meet to bury Abraham?Twenty years later, the brothers come together over the one thing that unites them: their father. 

One way to learn is from experience; “experience is the best teacher,” we say.  I don’t know if it’s the best; experience can be a very harsh and hurtful teacher. I think example is a better teacher, because there are so many good examples of bad behavior to learn from.  One of the reasons I valued teaching literature so much was that it gave my students examples of what not to do. Romeo and Juliet–don’t kill yourself just because your families don’t agree with you. They didn’t have to do stupid stuff to learn about it.  The Bible is the same way.  We have Abraham and Sarah and Hagar and David and Peter and Jonah and Paul and Thomas….in fact, every character in the Bible except Jesus gives us lessons on what not to do.  But they also give us lessons on how to walk the God-way, the Jesus-way.

Abraham did not run away from God.  Even when God’s commands seemed cruel and contradictory….as we see in next week’s reading from Genesis…. Abraham obeys.  

God knows we will sin, that we will try to be smarter than God, that we will grow impatient with God, but God never deserts us, never gives up on us. That is why we call this the Good Book…it carries good news that overwhelms and stamps out and repairs the bad behavior.  

God created us in God’s image. God created us to love, to have faith, to return. The door is never closed.  

Let us pray.  God, thank you for the saints, flawed and faithful, who have gone before us. Thank you for the lessons of life with which you have blessed us in your Holy Word.  Amen.

1 http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-income-inequality-20140121-story.html