Proper 7, Year A, 2014

Welcome to the latest installment of Real Housewives of the Old Testament!

Okay, so this piece of Genesis does not come out of Bravo’s studios, but it is quite dramatic. The lectionary—our Sunday readings—are going to stay in Genesis most of the summer. Because of when Pentecost fell this year, we have dropped smack dab in the middle of Abraham and Sarah’s story, so let me catch you up. Abraham and Sarah were called by God to follow him. He did not say where, he did not give them a road map or leave them GPS. And they did it! They picked up their household, all their stuff, and began a life of following God. God promised to make a nation out of them—that Sarah and Abraham would have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky.

There was one problem. Sarah and Abraham could not conceive a child. For years they followed God and God kept reiterating the promise, but it seemed totally laughable, especially since they were already in their 70s when God made his promises to them. So, Sarah hatched a plan. Deciding that clearly God had not thought everything through, she gave her handmaiden to her husband as an additional wife so they could conceive a child together. (What an anniversary present!) Abraham and Hagar had a little boy named Ishmael. Great, right? Well, no. As soon as Hagar conceived, she and Sarah began to fight. Eventually Hagar fled, but God told her to go back!

Years later, Sarah actually conceived and bore a child named Isaac. You would think that would solve everything, right? But no, Sarah sees Ishmael playing and laughing and cannot stand it. Ishmael represents a threat to Isaac’s inheritance, not to mention a reminder of her own poor decision making. Sarah asks Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael out. When Abraham checks with God, God reassures Abraham they will be cared for. God has gone through a lot with Abraham and Sarah. His goal is to be in relationship with a people and to see the promises he’s made come to pass. The narrative should have been Sarah and Abraham waited patiently, finally had Isaac, boom! promise delivered. Instead Sarah disrupts the plan and Hagar and Ishmael become victims of her regret. And so, they disappear off stage, bread and water in hand.

In another story, that would be the last we heard from Hagar and Ishmael. They don’t fit in with the covenant God has promised Abraham. Why do we need to hear the rest of their story? God may have had a plan for Abraham and Sarah, but our God is a God of love. Hagar and Ishmael may not be part of the covenant, but God’s attachments flow beyond his initial promises. We get a heartbreaking scene where the pair are out of water, so Hagar leaves Ishmael under a tree and walks away so she doesn’t have to watch him die. She weeps and weeps to God and the text says, “And God heard the voice of the boy.” This may seems strange, since it is Hagar who is crying. But the name Ishmael actually means “God hears”. I’m sure when Abraham decided to name him God hears he was thinking of the glory of God’s promise to him, but it turns out that God hears suffering, too. God hears the cries of those who have been shut out, manipulated, abused. God hears the cries of people who are shoved to the sidelines God didn’t just offer comfort, God made a nation out of Ishmael. God saved their lives and lifted them back into society.

God hasn’t stopped hearing the cries of those who suffer. He knows what grieves your heart. He knows the ways you fear for those you love. He knows the ways you have been betrayed. He hears your cries. Too often, we think we have to bear our suffering alone. We come to church, dressed to the nines. We greet our friends with a smile and a platitude, even when our hearts are breaking. One of the gifts we can give to each other as the Body of Christ, is to listen to each other’s cries. But that means someone has to cry first!

One of my favorite books about the power of crying out to God is Frederick Buechner’s Telling Secrets. In it, he tells the grueling story of his father’s alcoholism and suicide and the family’s subsequent silence on the matter. It is only when he begins telling the story of his father’s death, that he experiences true healing. As he reflects on his experience he writes,

I have come to believe that by and large the human family all has the same secrets, which are both very telling and very important to tell. They are telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition—that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are—even if we tell it only to ourselves—because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier that way to see where we have been in our lives and where we are going. It also makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own, and exchanges like that have a lot to do with what being a family is all about and what being human is all about.

 

We become more human, and more connected to ourselves and each other, when we tell the truth about our lives. But telling the truth can be very counter cultural. I can’t stop thinking this week about that picture of Richard Martinez and Peter Rodger that was released last week. Richard Martinez was the father of a young man killed by Elliot Rodger in Isla Vista a few weeks ago. Very soon after the shooting, he gave a very angry speech in which he held politicians responsible for policies that led to the shooting. For a few days his speech was admired as a remarkable outburst of articulate rage. Of course, since media cycles don’t like to admire anyone for too long, soon Martinez began getting criticized for not grieving appropriately, for seeking the limelight in a time where he should have been tucked away somewhere being appropriately sad. Instead of retreating and behaving in a way the world would think is appropriate, Richard Martinez had a private meeting with Peter Rodger, the father of the shooter. The two came out of the meeting vowing to fight for policies that help the mentally ill and stop the kind of gun violence we’ve seen too much of lately.

There is one picture taken of them at this event where their arms are wrapped each other’s shoulders and they stare at the camera with a gaze that captures all their grief and all their defiance. They are letting their cries ring out, and why shouldn’t they? What happened to them was the most excruciating event that can happen to a parent. In telling each other their stories, in crying out to each other, I hope the slow road to healing began. And I hope God hears their cries, and begins to heal them, and our country.

I don’t know all of you, but I know many of you, and I promise you no one in this room lives a life without suffering. We’re pretty lucky, I know. Many of us have income and a roof over our heads and people who love us. But suffering comes in many forms—conflict with a loved one, illness or mental illness of a loved one, loneliness, financial strain, being a survivor of abuse, physical impairment. My dream is that one day instead of dressing all perfectly for church, we would just walk in the room wearing T-shirts that named our suffering. How freeing would it be to realize we were all in this together, broken and crying out to God? Because God does still hear our prayers, but since we are the body of Christ, he may be calling us to be part of his answer. In listening to one another with love and care, we can embody God’s love and care for us.

May we be Christ to one another, bearing one another’s sorrows as we do our best to continue the journey of faith Abraham and Sarah and Hagar began for us. Amen.

Baptism of our Lord, Year C, 2007

I don’t know how many of you are former evangelicals, but I spent most of my later adolescence as a hand clapping, power point watching, profoundly guilt-ridden modern American conservative evangelical.  It was good times. 

Though now I prefer Anglican chant, complicated motets and authentic gospel music, at the time I loved praise music.  My favorite praise song was based on our passage from Isaiah today.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.
The wind and the waves shall not over come you.
Do not fear, for I will be with you.

and so on and so forth. 

For a nerve-wracked college student trying to figure out what to do with her life, the comforting idea of God’s omnipresence in difficult times was very reassuring.  In fact, I still love an image of a God who is with us, even in our most difficult experiences. 

In the passage from Isaiah today, God is responding to the people of Judah who have been complaining that God has abandoned them because Jerusalem has been destroyed. He reassures them that, despite appearances, He is, in fact, with them.  And no matter what deep waters or hot fires might try to consume them, God will not leave them.

How poignant then, in our Gospel passage today, to see Jesus joining the throng as they are baptized by John the Baptist.  While in many ways, this scene of Jesus’ baptism is familiar to us, there is one key difference between Luke’s account of the baptism and the account of other Gospel writers.

While the authors of the Gospel of Mark, Matthew and John remember Jesus’ baptism as an individual event, independent from the baptisms of the crowds that gathered to hear John the Baptist, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is one of many who are baptized.

But why did Jesus even need to be baptized?  The baptism that John the Baptist performed was a baptism for the remission of sins.  Why in the world would God need to repent of sins?

Imagine with me the setting:  John has set up shop on the banks of a river and hundreds of people of every shape and size are crowded around, waiting eagerly to be baptized.  They enter the water one by one or perhaps as a crowd.  As they are each baptized and washed clean, the water around them gets less clean. The dirt that collected on each person’s feet as they made the long trek to the wilderness, drifts into the water.  The sweat from the heat, joins the dirt.  The sin that has built up over a life time of being human, pollutes the water.

Jesus enters into this murky water, embodying Isaiah’s words.  God is not only figuratively with us when we’re in deep water.  In this case, Jesus actually stands shoulder to shoulder with every sinner who wants to be washed clean.  Jesus does not shy away from the messy, literally dirty parts of these people.  Jesus bathes in them and seeks baptism himself.

Instead of washing himself from sins, in that dark water, maybe Jesus was taking on our sins.  Perhaps he was embodying what he would go on to do his whole life-living as a God completely committed to being human, in all of humanity’s strength and weakness.

We all know that when we experience our baptisms, we become one with Christ.  We change our identity.  We become “marked as Christ’s own forever”.  Perhaps when Jesus was baptized by John in the wilderness, he became marked as our own forever. 

And this is what God blesses.  For just as in all the other Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism, a dove from heaven descends, alights upon Jesus and the onlookers hear the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved.  With you I am well pleased.”

At this moment of utter humility-the moment when Jesus enters a body of water to be baptized for the remission of sins, this moment when Jesus is incredibly vulnerable and human-this is when God chooses to make a public declaration of Jesus’ identity as God’s Son. 

Frederick Buechner, the great Presbyterian novelist and autobiographical author knows this aspect of God’s closeness to us well.  The deep waters he waded through were his father’s suicide when he was a child and his daughter’s anorexia when he was an adult.  At the height of her illness, she became so sick she was hospitalized.  Though Buechner was terrified, He writes,

“I have never felt God’s presence more strongly than when my wife and I visited that distant hospital where our daughter was.  Walking down the corridor to the room that had her name taped to the door, I felt that presence surrounding me like air-God in his very stillness, holding his breath, loving her, loving us all, the only way he can without destroying us.  One night we went to compline in an Episcopal Cathedral, and in the coolness and near emptiness of that great vaulted place, in the remoteness of the choir’s voices chanting plainsong, in the grayness of the stone, I felt it again-the passionate restraint and hush of God.”

Buechner sensed Jesus standing shoulder to shoulder with him.  Buechner knew God was in the deep water with him and would not abandon him.

So, it turns out that the words to that praise song I sang as an adolescent are as true now as they were a decade ago.  God will be with us when we pass through deep water.  God will be with us when we walk through fire.  Our God really is Emmanuel-God with us.  Thanks be to God.