Those of you whom I have been privileged to pastor for some time, know that I derive my weekly sermon inspiration from the way one or more of the four weekly Scripture passages from what we call “The Revised Common Lectionary” strikes or inspires me. The common comes from the fact that Christian churches Protestant and Catholic — I suspect not Orthodox because they follow a different calendar, at least in some places, — Christian churches Protestant and Catholic around the world are today reading the same Scriptures that we have read, and tens of thousands — I’m not sure what the real number would be — tens of thousands of preachers are using one of these Scripture readings as the basis of her or his sermon.
But this week, I made what I am sure you will agree was a brilliant, intuitive deduction that had previously alluded me: those who put together The Revised Common Lectionary must have been male-hating feminists! Why else, on the day that this country observes as “Father’s Day,” would we be asked to read the Hebrew Bible story of Hagar, the servant of Sarah, wife of Abraham, and her very young son, Ishmael. It is perhaps the most beautiful story of motherhood to be found in the Bible — though imagery Paul uses in 1 Thessalonians when he wrote,
“we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children”
has also always struck me, the idea of a “professional mother,” or in Saddam Hussein terms, “The mother of mothers” as the standard of the utmost in tender loving care.
But in what we read today we get something very comparable, and truly awesome.
Today’s Psalm began, “Incline your ear, O LORD.” That the LORD does “incline his ear” is shown in this Hagar and Ishmael story in the glorious book of Genesis, the first book in the Bible.
But first, let me back up a bit and give more background to the story that we are about to read. Abraham and his wife, Sarah, are both quite old, ninety-nine and eighty-nine, and childless, so Sarah gives to Abraham “as a wife” Sarah’s Egyptian slave, Hagar. I know this sounds terribly kinky and immoral, sounds shoddy, in which case you would like the story of Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, and the two sisters who were his wives, but this was all arranged by Sarah [!] and this was before God gave the Ten Commandments, so let’s ignore the menàge a trois issue.
Hagar immediately becomes pregnant, which makes Sarah jealous, enough so that Hagar runs away, but she, Hagar, is stopped by “a messenger of the LORD!” She is stopped by a messenger from God who speaks to her and tells who her child will be, such that she returns, and eventually gives birth to a son, Ishmael. At 99 years of age, Abraham finally becomes a father, specifically, the father of Ishmael.
Her slave girl’s becoming a mother seems an odd fertility inducer, but Sarah, as promised by a visitor, God in disguise, in a reading from a few weeks back, herself becomes pregnant, and when Abraham is one hundred, Sarah gives birth to Isaac.
Alas, this is not enough for the very human Sarah, who in our reading becomes jealous again as the two small children play together, so Hagar takes her son and flees again, the beginning of today’s reading in which we shall see that the needs of Ishmael are channeled to God through the tears and weeping of Hagar. This beautiful story is one that I hope all of you will file away in your memory and return to again and again.
8 The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” 14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
Gen. 21:15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 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. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 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.
Gen. 21:20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
As we read:
When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy;
The mother cried, and God was able to hear the voice of the boy! Gad, what incredible amazing power a mother must have! We never read of a father’s being able to do anything like that; the choice of those who provided this reading for today in The Common Lectionary is clearly to disregard men!
Still, what an amazingly beautiful idea: she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy. The mother channeled, to God, the needs of her son, who in this case was presumably too young to express those needs himself.
. . . the needs of [someone] channeled to God. . . isn’t that somewhat what we do when we offer our pastoral prayer, the “concerns” part? Most of the people whose names we offer in prayer do not know that we are doing so, but we hope that as we pray, we are indeed channeling their needs to God.
But in reality, our channeling another’s needs to God presumes that God does not know those needs, yet both Jesus — and I, regularly — Jesus says that our Father in heaven knows out needs before we even ask them, so if we do channel those needs, it is really most meaningful when the person can sense or know that we are praying for him or her.
No, our prayers for another are not to channel to God, they are not for God’s edification or illumination, but in part for our’s, for our being reminded both that “No man is an island,” that others are indeed, with us, children of God.
But what about channeling in the other direction, channeling from God to others, why, that is another matter. Channeling in the sense that, forgive me, but to quote myself, channeling in that sense is being the funnel through which God pours our the Spirit on others who are not yet aware of God, and doing so is one of the functions to which we are called by Jesus’ words, “Make disciples of all nations.”
I want to refer today to the wonderful prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, from whom the current Pope chose his name, the prayer that is both theologically awesome and poetically magnificent and begins,
O Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace,
And that “instrument,” I suggest, is indeed a “funnel” or, if you prefer, “a tube” or “a pipe” through which we might let God’s blessings of love and comfort, of forgiveness and understanding, of acceptance despite our shortcomings, flow to others, and that as a result, they will not need a channel like Hagar for their appreciation and thanks to flow back to God.
And we do not have to be high and mighty nor perfect nor sin-free nor versed in Greek and Hebrew to do this. That in the story, Hagar was both an Egyptian — not a descendent of Abraham, though it is too early to call anyone a “Jew” — that Hagar was both an alien and a slave and yet God through a messenger, which is to say, “an angel,” spoke to her and, in today’s reading, heard through her! That is meaningful, if we stop and ponder what would have been a message in this story to those first hearing it. One message would be that one does not have to be exalted or a member of what others might consider “God’s ‘in group’” to serve as an instrument for God.
Some would say that as church goers, we are members of “God’s ‘in group,’” yet we know, I hope we know, I hope we mean what we confess when we confess, that while we might not be slaves, might not have been given away as a chattel as was Hagar to Abraham by Sarah, but we “count” to God, we know — at least I keep preaching to you — we know that we are beloved children of God.
And it is because we know God’s love that we want to be that instrument, want to be that channel or funnel or tube or pipe or ethernet cable or WiFi signal or whatever through which God can reach those who do not yet grasp God’s love as we know it.
And, from an ancient Hebrew perspective, if an Egyptian slave woman could do it, we can do it! We can be a channel available to God in whichever direction God needs for us to channel.
“Great, John, but how do we do it?” Forgive me again for quoting myself: It is for us always to be open to the possibility that in each person we encounter, not just that woman in Walmart whom I usually mention, but that scruffy guy next to us at the drink dispenser at the Circle K, or that irritating woman who cannot dig the change out of her purse when we are in a hurry to be out of the checkout lane and on our way, in each of them we might be and can be encountering Christ, so let us always be open to that opportunity of seeing Him in others.
And let us also be willing to make it easy for all those others to perceive the presence of Christ within us. Quite simply, let us greet every human being we encounter with joy and gladness, for, to paraphrase the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, many have entertained saints and angels by doing so.
Lord make us channels; makes us funnels; Lord makes us instruments, and let us amplify my request by joining in that wonderful prayer of Francis of Assisi:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.
Francis of Assisi [1181 or ’82]