Thursday, 26 June 2014

God in the messiness of life- Gen 21

Genesis begins with God creating a beautiful world. It is a world where human beings live in harmony with each other, with animals, with creation, and with God. It is the world we were all created to live in. It is a world where our talents and capacities find their perfect match, and where we would know work but not toil. It is a world of continuous and developing contemplation of the infinite God and the bliss that goes along with it. The first couple, we are told, eat from the forbidden tree. It is a rejection of God’s leadership. They have decided that they know better. They eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and bad, and to gain knowledge of the “bad” they must leave paradise. This is what we know as the Fall.
To bring human beings back into full relationship with Him, God puts in motion a plan. That plan begins with a man and his wife- Abraham and Sarah. In their old age God calls them away from the land of their ancestors to wander and follow God’s leading.  God makes a promise to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:1-3). God’s plan to draw humanity back to Himself runs through Abraham and Sarah’s family.
When we look at Abraham we don’t exactly find a perfect example to follow. He and Sarah don’t seem like people God is going to use to recreate the world. In some ways Abraham seems like a real person of faith- an example to follow. He leaves and follows God’s command not knowing where God is leading him. … But, then we read that out of fear he lies to an important person of authority saying that Sarah is his sister in order to save his own skin thinking that person might want to kill him and take her if he told the truth and said she was his wife. And, Abraham does this not once, but twice (Gen 20:1-18; 12:10-20). He is not exactly an image of chivalry.
God had promised Abraham and Sarah a child, but over a decade later Sarah approaches Abraham and tells him to sleep with her servant, Hagar, to produce a child. Sarah decided that maybe they had to help God out with the promise. Abraham doesn’t argue at all and sleeps with Hagar and she becomes pregnant. Hagar gets upset with Sarah because she made her become a surrogate mother for them and then Sarah approaches Abraham, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt” (Gen 16:5). Sarah mistreats Hagar and Hagar runs away. She is brought back by an encounter with an angel.
In today’s Genesis reading, Hagar’s son, Ishmael, is probably a teenager. Sarah has now given birth in her old age. Her child, Isaac, is the child of the promise. He is the one who carries the promise God made to Abraham. Ishmael seems to have been making fun of little Isaac as he was learning to eat solid food for the first time and Sarah suddenly realizes the potential for competition between Isaac and Ishmael and Sarah tells Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Hagar is loaded up with water and they are sent into the wilderness. Soon they run out of water and Ishmael is placed under the shade of a bush exhausted and about to die of thirst. Hagar is off at a distance crying, unwilling to watch her son die.
This is the situation where God’s promise finds root in human life. This is not life as it should be. This is the messiness of ordinary life. Once in a while I’ll meet people who think they have to have their lives together before they can come to church, or they think that unless they are doing everything God wants them to do that God will not notice them, or hear their prayers. God’s people are people living real lives and that often means messy lives. They are people who sometimes make bad choices. They are people who have to deal with the consequences of other people’s bad choices.    
This is us. Our lives are messy. Look into the lives of our families and our friends and we see messy lives. We make bad decisions. We try to decide for ourselves what us right and wrong rather than following God’s direction. We are sometimes recipients of the bad decisions of others and through no fault of our own our lives are made complicated and messy.
I wonder sometimes how this makes God feel. Once in a while I will have someone in my study who is having a problem. I come to believe that the problem would be helped by taking on a particular spiritual practice, so I will suggest it. I will meet again with the person only to find out that they haven’t tried the spiritual practice, and (surprise surprise) the problem they are having persists. After a few of these visits I will think to myself that they must not want this problem to be solved and that really there is no point in us meeting until they are willing to follow my suggestion and take on the spiritual practice. These practices are the containers for the grace of God. Like water in a glass, grace usually comes through some sort of container to carry it. To deny the glass is to deny the water. To deny the spiritual practice is to deny the grace of God that would be delivered through it. To complain about the disease, but refuse to take the medication is Ludacris.  
And if you spoke to my spiritual director (and he ignored the rule of confidentiality between us) he would tell you that I am no different. I will come to him with a problem, and he will suggest a practice, and the next month I will come to him with the same problem. He is very gracious, but there must be some part of him saying “we have already had this discussion Chris”. You know what you need to do, but you aren’t doing it.  
If I imagine myself as God I would be continuously frustrated by the refusal to receive the healing grace offered, and I would be tempted to say to Abraham and Sarah and all those leading messy lives, “Come back to me when you figure out what you really want. There’s a plan to rescue the world, and I’d like you to be a part of it, but you’re being really inconsistent. So I’ll give you some space to think and when you figure out if you want to be a part of what I’m doing and you’re ready to live it, then let me know”. … But that’s not what God does. God is right in the thick of it with us. He is even working through us in spite of our faults- our pride and ingratitude, our judgementalism, our cowardice and greed, our gossip, and back-biting. God still works through us and is lovingly present to us.
Ishmael, through no fault of his own or of his mother, was an accident. Ishmael was conceived because Abraham and Sarah didn’t believe that Sarah would become pregnant and so they made Hagar be their surrogate to give them a child. And then, when Sarah finally does give birth to Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael are cast aside. They are victims of the powerful. They have been shamefully mistreated and used, then cast aside when they were no longer needed to provide an heir for the promise.
The book of Genesis (and we could say the entire Bible) is about God’s promise. God’s promise to bless the world through Abraham’s family flows through Isaac. Really as far as the story of the promise is concerned Hagar and Ishmael could have been dismissed and we could have not heard about what happened to either of them because what we are really concerned about is Isaac and this promise. Surprisingly there is more included about Hagar and her son. We are off the main story now. We meet Hagar and Ishmael dying of thirst in the wilderness. They are victims of those with power. I look up to Abraham in many ways, but this is a shameful episode. Hagar and Ishmael are victims of the power of Abraham and Sarah and now they are dying of thirst. She has laid her son under a bush for shade and goes off a distance because she can’t stand to witness the death of her son.
The name Ishmael means “God hears”, and God does indeed hear the cries of the boy. An angel speaks to Hagar saying, "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." And then we read that “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”.
Ishmael was not the one to carry the particular promise. In one way of thinking he was a consequence of Abraham and Sarah’s lack of faith. But, God works in spite of us. And he will use what we give him. He can work even in the midst of our character defects and the messiness we make of the world and our lives.   
This is one of my favorite stories about God and the messiness of the world. One day there was a little girl and her mother.  It was a big day, they were going to a fancy wedding later that day and so they had both bought new dresses. It was still early in the day but the little girl couldn't stop thinking about the wedding and her special dress she was going to wear. She would run into the house from the backyard, then up to her mother and ask "is it time to go to the party yet?" And her mother would reply, "no, not until later today, dear". The little girl would go back outside to play. Periodically, the little girl would run up to her mother and repeat her question, and the mother would repeat her answer.
            Eventually the little girl thought that it must be getting closer to the time for the party, and thought that perhaps she would finally be allowed to wear her dress. So her questions stopped being about the wedding and instead she started asking if she could put on her dress. Her mother would reply, "I don't think that's a good idea hunny, you might get it dirty before the party". Soon the little girl's questioning became begging, "pleeeease Mom! Can I put on my dress? I won't get it dirty, I promise". Eventually, the mother gave in to the girl's begging, and the girl was allowed to put her dress on, on the condition that she would promise not to get it dirty. She put her dress on and marched outside very pleased. She began playing. Eventually she became wrapped up in her play and wasn't as careful as she should have been. As she was playing she tripped and fell in a mud puddle. Mud was all over her new white dress. She sat in the mud, her mouth opened in shock and horror. Just then her mother walked out the back door all fancied up in her new dress. It was time for the wedding. The girl looked up at her mother and then down at her muddy white dress- and she burst into tears. She remembered her promise. She couldn't stand to even look her mother in the face. She knew she was in trouble. She sat in the mud puddle her face in her hands and cried. The mother slowly walked over to the little girl in her fancy new dress and sat in the mud right beside her little girl. Her daughter looked up into her mother's smiling face with tears in her eyes. They were both filthy, and they both started laughing.

            And that is the incarnation. God has come into our messy lives. God has entered the mess. We have made such a mess of things. In the incarnation, God has come among us, God came to sit in the mud with us, not to wallow in it with us, but to show us that God will not abandon us. God has come to sit in the mud with us in order to pick us up out of it and clean us off. We can sometimes think that God is not in our lives when they get messy, but that is just a lack of ability to see in the midst of the mess. The cross was a s messy as it gets and Theologians tell is that nowhere was God more open and present to us than on the cross. Hagar and Ishmael and Abraham and Isaac and Sarah were living messy, imperfect lives (like ours), but we are told God was there and was doing something amazing. In that mess God was drawing all humanity back to himself.  

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