‘The Steadfast Love of the Lord Never Ceases’ (a sermon for July 5th on Genesis 24)

Here’s a video of my sermon for Sunday July 5th

And here’s an approximation of the text (I say ‘an approximation’, because I don’t preach from a full manuscript)

I’ve heard Doug Sanderson say several times that the book of Acts is his favourite book of the Bible. I can certainly understand that feeling!

The book of Acts tells the story of the early days of the Christian Church, when things were a lot simpler, smaller, and less institutional. There was very little structure and planning and organisation and tradition, but Holy Spirit was powerfully at work. The gospel spread around the ancient world like wildfire, and thousands of people turned to Christ.

But of course, it wasn’t all rosy in the garden! When we actually read Acts, we find stories of Christian missionaries quarreling with each other and parting company. Jewish and Gentile Christians couldn’t agree on whether or not you needed to be Jewish in order to be Christian. People pretended they’d given all their possessions to God when secretly they’d kept something back. And we haven’t even mentioned the fact that Christians were always getting arrested and punished because of their loyalty to Jesus!

That’s the way it is with idealism. Idealism is important—it can inspire us not to be satisfied with the status quo—but the down side is that sometimes it can present us with an overly simplistic view of reality. Genuine reality is always more messy.

It struck me a few years ago that the Book of Genesis is the Old Testament equivalent of the Book of Acts. Later on in the Old Testament we get the story of the nation of Israel, which eventually becomes a mighty empire with kings, armies, and bureaucrats—not to mention a huge expensive temple with a priesthood and sacrifices and laws about who’s in and who’s out. But in Genesis, that’s all still in the future. In Genesis, God chooses a single family—the family of Abraham—and guides its development over three or four generations. There’s a promise of much larger things to come—God tells Abraham his descendants will be more numerous than the grains of sand on the seashore—but none of that has happened yet. There’s no priesthood, no written law, no traditions. There’s just God speaking, God calling, and people listening and responding.

Or ‘not’. Actually, often ‘not’! The people described in Genesis are every bit as stubborn and cantankerous as we are. They refuse to listen to God, they have feuds, they take moral short-cuts, and their family arrangements are very colourful by our standards. And I’m glad about that. I’m all for a life of simple faith in God, but let’s be clear that no-one’s ever practiced it perfectly. No one’s even come near. Not even in the Bible. And especially not in Genesis or Acts!

Today in our Old Testament reading we have a rather confusing set of excerpts from the story of Abraham’s son, Isaac. Let me quickly put them in context for you.

If you’ve been following our readings for the past few Sundays, you’ll know that Isaac’s parents, Abraham and Sarah, were childless. This was a problem—not just because it was such a sadness to them, but also because God had promised Abraham to make of him a great nation; ‘in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3). Later on, God told him his descendants would be more than the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore.

But Abraham had to wait twenty-five years, until he was nearly a hundred years old, for that promise to be fulfilled. By the time Isaac was born, Sarah was well past the years of natural child-bearing; this birth was nothing short of a biological miracle. Those twenty-five years had been hard for Abraham and Sarah. At one point, in a moment of desperation, Sarah had given her slave girl to Abraham so he could have a child by her; in Sarah’s view, God obviously needed a bit of help!

But eventually, against all the odds, Isaac was born. It didn’t take long for things to turn ugly. The slave-girl’s son Ishmael was now a problem to Sarah, and she made sure he was driven out of the family home; no one was going to take precedence over her boy. Sarah conveniently forgot that the whole ‘sleeping with the slave girl’ idea had been hers in the first place!

And so we come to today’s story. It’s a long chapter,  Isaac has grown up and he needs a wife. Abraham’s family aren’t originally from Canaan; they’re from Ur of the Chaldees, near modern Iraq. They came to Canaan by way of Haran, where Abraham’s brother and other members of his extended family still live. Abraham wants his son to marry someone in the family, not one of the local girls. And so he sends his servant back to Haran; he’s confident God will guide him to the girl he has in mind for Isaac.

It’s a long journey in the ancient world; four hundred miles by camel. On the way we can imagine Abraham’s servant doing a lot of praying. He prayed when he got to Haran, too:

“O Yahweh, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink’, and who will say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master” (Genesis 24:12-14).

And that’s exactly how it worked out. The girl who came down to the spring was actually Rebekah, the daughter of Abraham’s nephew Bethuel. Just as the servant had prayed, she offered to water his camels, and when he asked her about her family he discovered she was his master’s grandniece. She took him to meet the family, he explained his mission, and they agreed that she should go back with him and marry Isaac—marriage to a first cousin once removed being quite acceptable in those days. Of course, there was no nonsense about falling in love first; in the ancient world, that expectation was frowned upon!

If we carry the story on a bit, we discover that the basic family weirdness continues into the next generation. Like her mother-in-law Sarah, Rebekah has difficulty conceiving a child. Eventually Isaac prays for her, and she gives birth to twin boys, Esau and Jacob. Esau is a few minutes older, and when he grows up he becomes his dad’s favourite, because he’s a great hunter and Isaac enjoys the wild meat he brings home. But Rebekah has a soft spot for the younger one, Jacob, and eventually she manipulates her husband and deceives him into mistakenly giving his parental blessing to the younger son, not the older. This leads to anger and the threat of violence, and Jacob has to run away from home and go back to Haran for twenty years, where he can be safe from his brother. But more about that in the next few weeks.

What’s this got to do with us today?

Let’s go back to what I said a few minutes ago: Genesis is the Book of Acts of the Old Testament. Those were the days before Israel became a nation or an empire, just like Acts describes the days when the church was a movement and a community rather than an organization. In those days the fire of personal faith burned hot and pure. Or so it seems to us, anyway.

We actually have no idea how Abraham heard the voice of the one true God, Yahweh, speaking to him. We don’t even know whether Abraham believed that there was only one true god; it seems unlikely, given that most people in his day believed in many gods. But we do know that Abraham and his family would have been in a minority in worshipping Yahweh, and especially in not using idols in their worship. In the same way, the Christians in Acts would have been a minority; this message about Jesus was new, and most people didn’t believe it. The church consisted of small house fellowships scattered around the cities of the Mediterranean world. It wasn’t the majority world religion, like it is today. It was an incredibly fragile movement. And perhaps that fragility is where we can connect.

In the stories I’ve told you this morning we’ve seen two instances where the community almost died. It was necessary for both Sarah and Rebekah to have children, so that the community of faith could continue. But it proved impossible, humanly speaking, for them to give birth. They needed a miracle to help them do it. The entire continuing existence of this tiny community of faith was a miracle from God. Without God, it could not have happened.

When he arrived in Haran, Abraham’s servant prayed “O Yahweh, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham” (24:12). That phrase ‘steadfast love’ translates the Hebrew word ‘chesed’; the King James Version has ‘loving kindness’, but ‘loyalty’ would also be a good translation. It’s not just that God loves Abraham and his family; it’s that he has committed himself to loving them, through thick and thin, whether they’re lovable or not. That’s what this little community of faith is based on: not human fertility or wisdom or achievement or organization or skill, but God’s steadfast love.

And that’s true of us as well. There are times when our community of faith feels very fragile. Lots of churches seem to be closing down these days, especially in small rural communities. And even in our church, which is younger than most, when we looked around on a Sunday morning (in the days when we could look around on Sunday mornings!), we oldsters seemed to be rather better represented that the youngsters!

Covid-19 also has churches worried. Not all churches are doing as well at staying together as we are at St. Margaret’s. And many are in real financial trouble. Even here, the pandemic has been a blow to our community life, and it’s hit us right as we were on the brink of starting our building project. Our ministry staff and volunteers are having to work really hard to keep the community together, and the technological learning curve has been steep. I can tell you, as the rector, that it often feels fragile to me.

That worries us. And we certainly need to think about it, and make good and wise plans to deal with it. But let’s remind ourselves of this one fact: the continuing existence of the church is ultimately based on God’s steadfast love, not any human plan or wisdom or strength. God had to make it possible for wrinkled old Sarah to have a baby. God had to give supernatural guidance to Abraham’s servant so he would meet the right girl at the right time. Yes, God’s people have to be faithful, but we also have to be full of faith—faith in the steadfast love of God! And that love is steadfast, even when we’re not!

Let’s be honest: the church is not made up of super-spiritual types. It never has been! Genesis tells us that when Abraham was afraid the folks around him would kill him to steal his wife, he asked her to pretend she was his sister. Later on, Sarah suggested her husband sleep with her slave girl to raise up children for her—and then when her own son was born, she drove out the slave girl’s son. Rebekah favoured her son Jacob, but Isaac favoured Esau. And Jacob didn’t learn; when he grew up and had kids, he had a favourite too, Joseph—with the result that his family was split apart by the resentment of Joseph’s siblings.

These are the kind of people God works with: flawed, imperfect people. God has no choice about this; there are no other kinds of people. God doesn’t only work with traditional families with two opposite-sex parents and 2.1 kids. He works with families like Abraham’s and Isaac’s and Jacob’s. He works with blended families, single parent families, single people, gay couples, and those whose marriages are in trouble and don’t dare admit it to their church friends. It’s perfectly possible to be full of faith and struggling with weaknesses and sins and failings at the same time. We all do it. But God is patient and steadfast, and he never abandons us.

Brennan Manning calls this ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’—the idea that we’re all ragamuffins, but God loves us anyway. But Genesis goes further: God loves ragamuffins, and uses them to build his church. The community of faith is made up of ragamuffins. I’m one of them. So are you. And that’s why we need to be gentle with one another. As Paul says, ‘Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you’ (Ephesians 4:31-32).

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). One translation says, ‘Blessed are those who know their need of God’. That’s what Abraham and Isaac can teach us. They did all kinds of things wrong—they made plenty of mistakes—but they knew without a shadow of doubt that they needed God. They could not exist without God. Without God, the people of Israel would have died out after one generation. And without God, the Church of Jesus Christ will die from the inside out, even if for a while it still looks like a prosperous institution.

Fortunately for us, we never need to be without God, because God has promised never to abandon us. Let me close with this wonderful promise from the book of Lamentations, written at a time when the city of Jerusalem had just been destroyed by its enemies, and many of its people taken away into exile. It certainly wasn’t a time of great hope, and yet the author of Lamentations isn’t ready to give up on God just yet. Here’s what he says:

‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness’ (Lamentations 3:22-23).

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

‘By Faith Abraham…’ (a sermon on Genesis 22.1-19)

Today’s Old Testament reading is surely one of the most horrifying stories in the Bible. As a preacher I share that horror. I see from my sermon notes that the last time I preached on this text was 2002. I do remember, however, that I did plan to preach on it at least once since then, but chickened out at the last minute.

What on earth is this story about? Every now and again we hear about people who think God has instructed them to kill someone. We usually believe those people are unbalanced! But then we come to this story, which Jewish people call the ‘Akedah’, the ‘binding’, and we wonder—what’s going on? Would God really ask us to kill one of our children as a sacrifice to him—and judge the quality of our faith by whether or not we obey him?

So how are we supposed to deal with this passage?

Let’s recap the story so far, because the story’s important. Abraham and his wife Sarah were a childless couple in their mid-seventies. They came from the area of the middle east that is now part of Iraq, and presumably they were worshippers of the gods of their ancestors. But one day the one true God, creator of heaven and earth, spoke to Abraham and commanded him to leave his home and his family of origin, and go to a land God would show him. There God would make of him a great nation, and all the families of the earth would be blessed through him. Obviously, if that was going to happen, this old couple would somehow need to have a child, and in later conversations with Abraham, God made that promise explicit.

But as we saw last week, Abraham and Sarah had to wait twenty-five years for that promise to be fulfilled. While they waited, their faith was not always strong. We’re told that on separate occasions, each of them laughed in disbelief. Can a child be born to a man in his nineties? Can wrinkled old Sarah actually bear a child and nurse it? And we remembered last week the story of how, mid-way through the twenty-five year waiting period, Sarah even suggested that Abraham sleep with her slave girl and bear a child by her, so that the child could be counted as Sarah’s and be Abraham’s heir. This was quite acceptable in the culture of the day, but it wasn’t God’s plan. It wasn’t walking by faith in God; it was trusting in human ideas and human ingenuity.

The long wait for the birth of Isaac wasn’t the only way Abraham failed to trust God. On two separate occasions, when he was forced by famine to go into strange countries, he lied about Sarah’s relationship with him, because he was afraid the people of the land would kill him to steal his wife. But this backfired seriously, and in both cases he actually put her safety at risk by his actions. Instead of trusting God to protect him, he trusted in his own plan of action.

Abraham is called a hero of faith in the Old Testament, and it’s true that sometimes his faith was spectacular: “Abraham believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15.6). At other times, he clearly failed the test.

But at the end of the twenty-five year waiting period, Abraham’s faltering faith was spectacularly rewarded. In a truly miraculous event, Sarah bore a child in her nineties and named him Isaac: ‘he laughs’. I think of all the years of waiting, and how many times Abraham and Sarah had struggled to believe it. With every year that went by, the event became even more impossible. But now it had happened, and their faith in God was vindicated.

What had Abraham learned over these twenty-five years? He’d learned that when he tried to take matters into his own hands, he usually messed up. He’d learned that when he tried to figure things out, he didn’t usually get it right, because he couldn’t see the big picture, and God could. He’d learned that nothing was impossible with God.

Most of all, he’d learned that God was spectacularly committed to his promise to Abraham. God was looking forward to that great nation through whom all the families of the earth would be blessed. God had told him several times that it was through Isaac that that nation would come into being, not Ishmael or any other child Abraham might bear. During that twenty-five year wait, Abraham sometimes had occasion to doubt God’s commitment to his own promise. But all that changed with the birth of Isaac. After that, Abraham would never doubt God’s purposes and God’s promises again.

And so we come to today’s story. We don’t know how old Isaac was when this tale took place. He was old enough to help his father carry the wood for the fire, and old enough to ask him questions about the absence of a lamb for the sacrifice. The text doesn’t specify his age; some commentators have speculated that he might be a teenager by now, but we can’t know for sure.

God’s command to Abraham dials up the emotional cost with its threefold repetition: “…your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love” (v.2). Let’s remember that at this point in the story Abraham, at his wife’s request, has sent his older son Ishmael away with his mother Hagar, ending any legal obligation to them. So yes—Isaac is his only son, who he loves.

Abraham obeys instantly. We’re never told anything about his emotional state; the author leaves us to puzzle it out for ourselves. He makes all the preparations, takes Isaac and a couple of servants, and makes a three day journey to the land of Moria. Many Jewish commentators believe that the place where the Akedah took place was actually the site on which the Jerusalem temple was built in later years, the place where all the sacrifices of Israel were offered.

There are a couple of little hints about how Abraham was seeing the situation as he made this journey.

On the third day, Abraham saw the place God had shown him. He turned to the servants and said, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you” (v.5). Not, “Iwill come back to you,” but “wewill come back to you.” Was he deceiving the servants? But why would he feel he needed to do that? As their master, why would he feel like he owed them an explanation? And why would the author of the story include this detail, if he didn’t think it was significant?

There’s also the hint of Abraham’s reply to Isaac’s question:

Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

Some have cynically seen this as Abraham lying to pacify his son, but I don’t read it that way. Personally, I find it hard to imagine Abraham doing such a thing. It would require him to mentally add, “and by the way, it’s you!”

So what am I saying about Abraham’s state of mind? Did he know that from the start that the test was a fake? If so, how was it a real test? These are very difficult questions to answer, and none of us can claim any certainty on the subject. But for what it’s worth, I’ll give my opinion.

The real lesson Abraham has been learning for over thirty years has been how to live by faith, by trust in God. Sometimes he’s been good at it, sometimes not so good. I would suggest that, at this late stage in his life, God is still testing his faith.

Here’s how it works. The birth of Isaac has convinced him that God is absolutely committed to his promise of a great nation who will be a blessing to all the families of the earth. And God has specifically told him that Isaac will be the ancestor of that nation. Not Ishmael or any other son of his, but Isaac. And Abraham has learned that God’s word is utterly reliable. If God makes a promise, you can depend on it.

But now comes this shocking command: “Go and behave like a pagan, Abraham! Offer Isaac to me as a burnt offering, just like the worshippers of pagan gods do!” We should note that at this point in the story God hasn’t specifically forbidden child sacrifice. Later on in the Old Testament he does forbid it, several times, and recoils from it in horror. But Abraham doesn’t know this, it’s still an open question to him.

So here’s Abraham’s dilemma. He knows Isaac will be the ancestor of the great nation, because God has told him that, many times. But now, God is telling him to kill Isaac. How can that be? Is God not committed to his own promise after all? That’s unthinkable to Abraham. If there’s one thing he’s sure about, it’s God’s commitment to his promise.

In the New Testament the letter to the Hebrews joins up the dots for us:

‘By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named after you.’ He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.’ (Hebrews 11.17-19)

Of course, the writer to the Hebrews didn’t have access to Abraham’s mind and heart, any more than we do. He could only read the story as we read it, meditate on it, and draw his own conclusions. He comes to the conclusion that Abraham didn’t think for a moment that he was about to lose Isaac; God had told him many times that he was completely committed to Isaac. But Abraham didbelieve he needed to trust God and do what God said. Somehow, God was going to work this out so that Isaac would come out of it alive. Abraham didn’t know for sure how that would happen—although he made a guess when he said to Isaac, “God will provide a lamb for the sacrifice.” But he did know he needed to do as he was told, and let God work things out for good for everyone concerned—as God had always done, in Abraham’s experience.

This is the way I understand the story. It’s still an uncomfortable story for me, and I know without a shadow of doubt that I would have failed this test. But then, I also know without a shadow of doubt that God would never ask me to take this test. That’s because since the time of Abraham he’s made it crystal clear that he doesn’t ask parents to offer their children in sacrifice to him. If a bug in my head tells me to do something God has clearly forbidden, it’s not God that’s wrong, it’s me!

So what’s in this story for us today, if the central drama no longer applies to us?

You sometimes hear about people who try to relive their own lives vicariously through their children. In other words, even if their own lives have been full of disappointment and frustration, they feel they can experience all the success and enjoyment they missed out on, through their children’s success and enjoyment. This is often unhealthy for those children, because their parents see the children’s future as belonging to them, not to the children themselves.

At the time of Abraham the Old Testament people had little sense of a future life after death. To them it was literally true that children wereyour future. For many years, from his point of view, Abraham had been without a future. Finally in his old age he had been given a future, and now he was being asked to trust God enough to let go of it, and embrace uncertainty, with nothing to go on but God and his promise.

In fact, Abraham had been called to sacrifice both his past andhis future. Many years before, at the age of seventy five, he had been called by God to leave his home in Haran and go to a country God would show him—the land of Canaan. In other words, he had cut off all ties with his past—ties with his own culture, his sense of identity, his ancestral family and so on. Now God was asking him to be willing to do the same with his future as well. At the end of the day, he was asked to entrust everything to God. The most important truth about him would not be that he grew up in the prosperous cities of Ur and Haran, or that he was the son of Terah, or even that he was going to be the ancestor of a great nation. Rather, the most important truth about him would be that he was God’s friend. God was asking him to be content with that, and nothing else.

This passage is challenging us. Where do we find our identity and significance? Is it in our Canadian citizenship, our family of origin, our circle of friends? Paul talks about how all of this is worthless to him when compared to the gain of knowing Christ. He mentions his Jewish heritage, his circumcision, his membership in the tribe of Benjamin, his faith as a Pharisee and so on. He says, ‘I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’ (Philippians 3:8).

To me, this is the most important lesson of this passage. Despite all our difficulties and struggles with some aspects of it, here we have the story of a man of faith who was content to leave his past behind, to cut himself off from all tangible hope of a future if that was God’s will, and simply trust all he had to God. All the rest was stripped away from him. All he had left was the fact that he was God’s friend. But that was enough. He knew that, being God’s friend, God would not abandon him. God would not abandon his promises to him. And so in faith, he put his future in the hands of God, and waited to see how God would work it out.

I’m convinced that this is the way of peace. And while I don’t pray that any of us would ever have to go through so terrifying a test as Abraham, I do pray that we would learn the lesson he learned: the ability to put our trust in the goodness and faithfulness of God, even when outward circumstances seem to be pointing in the opposite direction. For God to teach us that lesson would surely be an incredible blessing. Are we ready to ask him to do that?

A Place for Prayer

Woman-Reading-BibleEvery morning I make myself a cup of coffee, go into my tiny home office and shut the door, and have my morning quiet time of Bible reading and prayer. Later, I use the same space to lead live streamed Morning Prayer and Night Prayer on Facebook.

Some days, as an alternative, I like to go for an early morning prayer walk. I find I quite enjoy praying out of doors. I didn’t always connect well with God in nature, but I do now.

Back in 1990 I made a mission trip to the isolated Inuit community of Umingmaktok, where I stayed for a week in a one room house shared with five other people. Very little space for privacy. Funnily enough, though, I found the people instinctively understood the need for private space. If I sat down in the corner to read my Bible and pray silently, people respected that and left me alone til I was done.

C.S. Lewis once remarked that he enjoyed saying his prayers in railway carriages (in those days British railway carriages were divided into small compartments with seating for perhaps six to eight people). He said they provided exactly the right balance of privacy and distraction. He also talked about kneeling down beside his bed to pray (which was a common practice in years gone by, morning and/or evening—the Queen is even seen doing it in the TV series ‘The Crown’). I used to do this when I was a student.

I know people who write their prayers as letters to God, using a journal. I’ve done this myself from time to time. One advantage I find is that it’s an easily transportable form of prayer; for instance, it’s quite enjoyable to do it in a coffee shop, which again provides Lewis’ ‘right balance of privacy and distraction’.

I know people who work in offices who purposely go to work a little early so they can spend the first few minutes of the day at their desk in prayer.

My wife and I frequently pray together while we sit up in bed. We usually have cups of tea at hand; we read a passage of scripture and a devotional commentary, then we each pray extemporaneously, closing our prayer time with the Lord’s Prayer.

There’s a venerable Christian tradition of family prayer around the meal table. The 1959 Canadian Book of Common Prayer actually provides two short forms of prayer for use in families, one in the morning and one in the evening. They are designed to follow the reading of a passage of scripture, and to be led (somewhat quaintly) by ‘the head of the house’.

What do all these ways of praying have in common? Answer: they don’t require the use of a church building.

Currently, some Anglicans in various parts of the world seem to be be putting a lot of emphasis on the importance of having church buildings open in a time of continuing coronavirus pandemic, so that people can go into them during the day for private prayer.

I would like to submit that if we have schooled our people to see access to church buildings as essential to private prayer, we should be sued for spiritual malpractice. Most New Testament Christians had no such access, and their prayer lives appear to have been very healthy.

Rather, we should see it as of first importance to teach people to take prayer into the normal locations of their daily lives. That is where God is to be found. Time will hallow those locations just as it has hallowed stone sanctuaries. This is entirely a function of the way habits wear themselves into our brains. And once formed, those habits will serve us well in the cultivation of a sense of the presence of God in the midst of ordinary life.

One final thought. What did Jesus teach his disciples about avoiding ostentation in prayer? “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6.6 NRSV).

‘Into your room.’ Of course, Jesus was well aware that many poor people in Galilee didn’t have their own ‘rooms’; his point was not about location but about attitude—praying out of love for God, not out of a desire to be admired for one’s spirituality. Nevertheless, I find it interesting that he assumed that the natural and common location of private prayer would be the home.

May it be so for us too.

The God of the Outcast (a sermon on Genesis 21.8-21)

Who is Hagar? I suspect lots of people today have never heard of her. Or if they have, they confuse her with the Viking from the cartoon strip ‘Hagar the Horrible’!

In Genesis, Hagar is a young girl born in Egypt who somehow became a slave in the household of Abraham. We’re not told how that happened. We know that Abraham and his wife Sarah went down to Egypt at least once; maybe they bought Hagar at a slave market while they were down there, or maybe Pharaoh gave her to Abraham as a gift. We know from Genesis chapter twelve that Pharaoh gave Abraham many gifts while he was in Egypt, including both male and female slaves. However it happened, Hagar came into Abraham’s household and became a slave girl for his wife, Sarah. And then, a few years later, her life changed in a big way.

Last week we remembered how God appeared to Abraham when he was seventy-five and promised him that he and Sarah would become the parents of a son. Up ‘til this point they had no children of their own. That’s a sadness to any couple who long for a child, but it was even more of a sadness in the ancient world, where children were seen as the greatest blessing anyone could ask for. But God told Abraham they would have a son who would be the ancestor of a great nation; through him and his descendants all the families of the earth would be blessed. We can imagine how thrilled Abraham and Sarah were to hear this, although they must have had a hard time believing it, given how old they were.

What happened next? Nothing. Abraham and Sarah travelled, fought in a couple of wars, had a quarrel with their nephew Lot and parted company with him. But no child appeared. In Genesis chapter fifteen God spoke to Abraham again and repeated the promise; he even made a solemn covenant with him, affirming that this would happen. But the years went by, and Sarah got older, and no baby was born.

Eventually Sarah got to thinking, “God obviously needs a bit of help with this promise.” In those days it was accepted that slaves were just pieces of property. If a wealthy woman was childless, it was quite acceptable for her to give her slave girl to her husband to bear children, who would be counted as if they were the children of the mistress of the house. Here was Hagar, young and able to have children. So Sarah said, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave girl; it may be that I will obtain children by her.” (Genesis 16.2).

So Abraham agreed, and he did as Sarah suggested. Apparently Hagar had no difficulty at all getting pregnant. And we can imagine how this would have felt from Hagar’s point of view. Up ‘til now her life had probably been miserable, and even now she was being used as someone’s sex slave, but at least bearing her master’s child might give her some status in the family! Not surprisingly, we’re told that when she discovered she was pregnant ‘she looked with contempt on her mistress’ (16.4).

Sarah complained to Abraham about Hagar’s attitude, and he basically shrugged and said, “She’s your slave; do whatever you want to her.” So Sarah treated Hagar harshly, and eventually Hagar ran away to escape her mistress. She ran off into the wilderness, probably weeping for herself and all the injustices that had been perpetrated on her.

But God had seen what was done. It hadn’t been God’s plan for Hagar to have Abraham’s child, but now that she was pregnant, God didn’t abandon her. He sent his angel to speak to her in the wilderness. And the angel made a promise to Hagar, very similar to the promise God had made to Abraham: “I will so greatly enlarge your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude” (16.10). The angel gave the unborn baby boy the name ‘Ishmael’, and told Hagar to go back to Abraham and Sarah. She was impressed that God had spoken to her like this—we get the impression that this had never happened to her before—so she did as he said. And so Ishmael was born when Abraham was eighty-six years old.

Thirteen years went by, with more promises coming from God. And then, as we read last week, when Abraham was ninety-nine, the miracle finally happened. Sarah gave birth to a son in her old age and named him Isaac. God made it quite clear that this was the one through whom his promises would be fulfilled.

We can imagine the rejoicing in the family of Abraham. But we can also imagine the despair in the heart of Hagar. For thirteen years she’d been the mother of Abraham’s only heir. Even though legally Ishmael was Sarah’s son, everyone knew that Hagar was his biological mother, and no doubt there was a special bond between them. But now their position was in jeopardy. Abraham and Sarah had a boy of their own. The writing was on the wall for Hagar and Ishmael.

And so we come to today’s reading. In those days a child might be weaned around the age of three, and when this happened for Isaac, Abraham gave a great feast in his honour. But during that feast Sarah saw Ishmael, who would now be about sixteen, playing with her son Isaac. The word translated ‘playing’ is ambiguus in Hebrew and some versions say ‘mocking’, which is how Paul understood it in the New Testament, in Romans. Sarah was furious, and once again she complained to Abraham: “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit with my son Isaac” (21.10). Genesis says, ‘The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son’ (21.11), and we can well imagine. For thirteen years Ishmael had been the apple of his father’s eye, but now, all that had changed.

But God reassured Abraham: “Do as Sarah tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named after you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring” (21.13). So this is what Abraham did. He got up early in the morning, gave food and drink to Hagar and Ishmael, and sent them away. Actually the text says, ‘sent heraway,’ which in Hebrew is exactly the same as the common phrase for divorcing someone. In other words, he ended all legal obligation between him and Hagar and her son.

This is difficult for us to hear, and it’s difficult for us to imagine God telling Abraham to do such a thing. And of course, it was even more difficult for Hagar and Ishmael. They left and wandered south in the wilderness toward Beersheba. Eventually they ran out of food and water. The text seems a little confused about the age of Ishmael at this time. It tells us that Hagar ‘cast him under one of the bushes’ and went and sat a bowshot away, saying, “do not let me look on the death of the child.” It talks about her weeping, and God hearing the voice of the child, as if he was a little baby crying in hunger and thirst, rather than a sixteen year old who could have hunted for food himself.

However we work that out, what happened next is amazing. Listen to the story as we heard it in our first reading:

‘And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for 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.

‘God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.’ (Genesis 21.17-21).

Hagar and Ishmael aren’t part of God’s original plan. God’s plan has always been for Abraham and Sarah to have a child of their own, Isaac, the one through whom God’s promises will be fulfilled. Ishmael isn’t part of that line, but that doesn’t mean he’s disposable. He might be disposable to Sarah, but not to God, and the fact that Hagar is a slave doesn’t give her a lower value in God’s eyes. So God speaks to them, assuring them of his provision for them, and giving them a future and a hope.

So what can we modern Christians glean from this strange story?

First, I’d suggest that this story reminds us of the weaknesses and fallibilities of human beings. We can see many examples of this. For instance, in the New Testament Abraham and Sarah are held up as examples of faith, but the birth if Ishmael didn’t come about because of their faith; it happened because of their impatience. And it’s hard for us to criticize them for that, because if we’d been in their situation, we probably would have found it hard to believe God’s promises too. Ancient people were not stupid. They understood that after a certain age a woman can’t bear children. God asked Abraham and Sarah to believe the impossible, and to believe it for a quarter of a century. He asked them to wait patiently for his promise to be fulfilled. And he didn’t tell them how long they’d have to wait. Sarah’s solution—the Hagar expedient—seemed to her like common sense. Let me ask you: in your life, when faith comes into conflict with common sense, which one usually wins?

So in this story we see the doubt and impatience of Abraham and Sarah. We see the way they treated Hagar; she was a slave, and in their culture no one thought there was anything wrong with slavery. And when they didn’t need her and her son any more, they thought it was quite okay to dispose of them. Or at least, Sarah wanted that, because of her own insecurities, and Abraham was willing to go along with it.

These are heroes of faith? Maybe, and maybe they’re also ordinary human beings like us. They’ve been formed by the attitudes and beliefs of their own culture. They find it hard to trust God for the long haul. They find it hard to treat a slave as their equal, just as many of us today find it hard to treat people of other races as our equals; we may believe they are in theory, but it’s hard for us to feel it. Does God approve of our attitudes? Absolutely not. Does God refuse to work with us because of them? Absolutely not. There are no perfect people available. God only has imperfect people to work with.

The second point follows on from the first. We’ve seen the weaknesses and imperfections of human beings in this story. We also see howGod is quite prepared to adjust his plan to take into account the mistakes those human beings make. As I said, Hagar and Ishmael weren’t part of God’s original plan. But he was prepared to adjust his plan to include them.

You know what happens when you’re following a GPS to reach a certain destination. It tells you to turn at a certain street, and because you’re not concentrating, you miss the turn and go off in the wrong direction. Or maybe you think, “This machine is stupid; I know a better route.” You don’t, of course, and you very quickly realize you’re lost.

What does the GPS do? Does it have an electronic hissy fit and say “I refuse to work with stupid humans?” No. It recalculates. It takes into account where you actually are right now, rather than where it wanted you to be, and it plots another route for you.

I think God is like that. His original plan didn’t include Hagar and Ishmael, but here they were. To him, they weren’t disposable. So he recalculated, and found a way to include them in his plan. And I find that very encouraging. I know I’ve made many mistakes along the way. I haven’t always heard God very clearly, and sometimes I’ve purposely ignored God because, well, I actually convince myself I’m smarter than God is! And through it all, God continues to be at work. In Romans, Paul says, ‘We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8.28). Two alternative translations are, ‘God makes all things work together for good,’ and ‘in all things God works for good.’ You get the picture: God is a master planner and our mistakes don’t destroy his plan. He’s well able to adjust things to take new realities into account.

This story reminds us of the weaknesses and frailties of human beings, and it also encourages us to trust that God is well able to adjust his plan in the light of our mistakes and our stubbornness. Lastly, this story reminds us that the God of the Bible always has a soft spot for the underdog.

God cares for widows and orphans; that’s one of the best established principles of Old Testament theology! Widows and orphans were helpless people in that society, with no social safety net to look out for them. But God was rooting for them. To him, they weren’t disposable, just as Hagar and Ishmael weren’t disposable.

Jesus, of course, is always rooting for the underdog. He’s always hanging out with prostitutes and tax collectors, lepers and Samaritans, the outcasts and the sinners. He’s always reaching out to people he’s not supposed to reach out to.

Today, June 21st, is observed in our church as National Indigenous Day of Prayer. Today’s story ought to remind us of the way indigenous people have been treated throughout Canadian history. In the days of the Hudson’s Bay company the story of Hagar and Ishmael would have been repeated many times. Fur traders coming from England and Scotland often took what they referred to as ‘country wives’ from among the local indigenous population, and had children with them. Usually, when the traders went home, those families were abandoned. There were a few wonderful exceptions to this rule—the story of David Thompson and his wife Charlotte comes to mind—but they were exceptions.

So let’s close with this thought. God cared for Hagar and Ishmael, because God roots for the underdog. God is always reaching out to the marginalized, the victimized, the helpless, the stranger. Shouldn’t we, his church, be following his example?

This week, how can you and I follow through with this? Where are the Hagars and the Ishmaels in our world? The ones our society sees as perfectly legitimate targets of mistreatment? The invisible people. The powerless. The ones we’re encouraged to ignore. Who are those people in my world? Who are they, in yours?

What does Jesus say? “Whatever you did to the least you did to me.” Let’s think about that this week, and let’s go looking for Hagar and Ishmael. Chances are, they’re actually right in front of our eyes. We’ve just never noticed them. May God give us eyes to see. Amen.

‘I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say’

I took a little longer to make the second video in this series of folk arrangements of 18th and 19th century hymns. My apologies, but I hope you find it worth the wait!

I love this nineteenth century hymn by the Scottish minister Horatius Bonar (1808-1889); it was written, I believe, in 1846. The tune is ‘Kingsfold’ by Ralph Vaughan Williams; he based it on an old folk tune known in England as ‘Dives and Lazarus’, and in Ireland as ‘Star of the County Down’. Was it originally English or Irish? We’ll probably never know! The guitar arrangement is my own.

Amazing Grace

‘Amazing Grace’ was written by John Newton in 1772 and was first published in 1779 in a collection called ‘Olney Hymns’ in which all the lyrics were by either Newton or the poet William Cowper. We have no idea what tune was originally sung to this hymn.

‘Amazing Grace’ became very popular in 19th century America and it was there that it was first sung to the American folk tune we now associate with it.

Interestingly, Newton’s original final verse was different from the ‘When we’ve been there ten thousand years’ verse that we now sing. The substitution was made by an American editor, who replaced the original (which he apparently felt was too Calvinistic?) with the words now familiar to us. The difference is easily noticeable in that Newton’s original verses are all in the first person singular, while the new verse is in the plural.

I have written my own tune to ‘Amazing Grace’, and have chosen to sing Newton’s original words, not the later American edition.

‘The Power of Your Love’ instrumental

This is my instrumental arrangement of the well-known worship song ‘The Power of Your love’, by Geoff Bullock.

The guitar tuning is CGCGCD. I created this instrumental almost accidentally; I’d been leading the song at a Facebook Live streamed worship service (strumming, in standard tuning), but when I got home my other guitar was tuned to open C and I began ‘noodling’ with it. The result was this instrumental. Hope you enjoy it!

The Pastoral Work of Nay-Saying

One of the weaknesses of our human nature appears to be that we are attracted to easy answers. We want reality to be simple. We want a universe where good deeds are clearly and quickly rewarded, and bad deeds are promptly and obviously punished. We want a life in which the way forward is always clear, and where there’s always a simple solution to every difficulty. We want a world where morality is always reassuringly black and white. We want to be able to avoid the terrifying feeling that we are tiny, helpless beings set in the midst of a dangerous world that seems callously indifferent to our existence.

But the truth is that the world is not simple. The real world, the world we actually live in, is a place where good people die of cancer at a young age, leaving families who spend years processing the pain of their loss. It’s a world where children are kidnapped and forced to become child soldiers or sex slaves. It’s a world where people brought up by good parents in good homes find themselves saddled with mental illnesses that make their lives a constant struggle. It’s a world where a tiny little virus that very few people saw coming can end the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and disrupt the lives of millions more.

One of Eugene Peterson’s most brilliant books for pastors is called ‘Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work’ (the ‘five smooth stones’ title is an allusion to the story of David and Goliath, where David takes his sling and selects ‘five smooth stones’ from the brook to kill the giant). In it, Peterson looks at five lesser-known Old Testament books and explores their relevance for the pastoral task. They are the books of ‘Song of Songs’, ‘Ruth’, ‘Lamentations’, ‘Ecclesiastes’. and ‘Esther’. Possibly my favourite chapter is the one on Ecclesiastes; he calls it ‘The Pastoral Work of Nay-Saying’.

Yes, nay-saying can be a pastoral task. The quest for easy answers does real damage to people’s souls and people’s relationships, and it can be a legitimate pastoral task to point this out to people. Kate Bowler, grappling with a diagnosis of terminal cancer while in her thirties, writes about this in her brilliant book ‘Everything Happens for a Reason’ and Other Lies I’ve Loved. ‘Everything happens for reason’ is a cliche people use to protect themselves from the feeling that their lives are spiralling out of control. Well-meaning people think they are bringing comfort to others when they use it, but in fact, they rarely are. When you’re on the receiving end of that particular pat answer, it feels as if your pain is being trivialized or dismissed. The person who tells me “Everything happens for a reason” is not taking my suffering seriously. They find it too hard to just listen to what I have to say, without trying to give me solutions to my problem.

If your prayer life is shaped by the psalms, you know that reality is far from simple. The writers of the psalms love the image of God as ‘a rock of refuge in times of trouble’. In other words, when it seems as if life is a deadly quicksand, they have discovered that the presence of God can be a solid rock, a secure place to stand. But at the same time, they are well aware that God often seems to be absent, or asleep. They complain about how long he’s taking to show up and change things. They ask what they’ve done to deserve what they’re getting. They agonize over the prosperity of the wicked and the sufferings of the innocent.

It seems to me that to live as an adult in this world is to acknowledge both these truths: ‘Life is hard and complex’ and ‘God is my rock’. This has certainly been my experience in the present pandemic. On the one hand, in the past few weeks I’ve experienced the physical symptoms of stress in ways more severe than ever before. On the other hand, I can’t remember a period in my life when I’ve been more aware of the presence of God, especially in our shared times of Morning Prayer and Night Prayer on Facebook Live.

So yes, I believe in the ‘pastoral work of nay-saying’, and in the next few weeks I want to do a bit of nay-saying on this blog. I want to look at some of these easy answers, these ‘lies we’ve loved’, to use Kate Bowler’s phrase, and explore why, in the long run, they really aren’t very helpful. I haven’t yet decided which of these pat answers to consider first. Will it be ‘everything happens for a reason?’ Or ‘God is in control’? Or ‘God won’t send you more than you can cope with?’ Or ‘God is good, all the time’? Or ‘now I am happy all the day?’ I’m not sure yet. Stay tuned!