How Can the Creature Say…? (6/25/2017)

A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Text: Genesis 21:8-21; Matthew 10:24-39 (NRSV)

God of the sparrow
God of the whale
God of the swirling stars
How does the creature say Awe
How does the creature say Praise

When I was growing up, I remember being taught that God was omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent – all-powerful, all-knowing, and ever-present. I don’t intend to do a word study on those terms this morning, but they did have an effect on my young faith, an effect that, in retrospect, was not altogether beneficial. I know that the inner conflict of these qualities, combined with the inevitability of judgment and the threat of heaven or hell, was, at times, terrifying. God, who held the whole world in his hand, could destroy any part, or all of it, at any time, if we didn’t straighten up and fly right. I’m not sure what that might mean for sparrows, but it surely was not good news for me.

God of the earthquake
God of the storm
God of the trumpet blast
How does the creature cry Woe
How does the creature cry Save

I’ve talked before about what an imposing presence my father could be when he took to the pulpit. The “father’s” voice could certainly thunder the consequences of sin and the need for repentance. Salvation, if not exactly earned, was surely shaped by good behavior. I still believe in the reality of sin, the need for repentance, and the promise of salvation, but I no longer believe that we are all “sinners in the hands of an angry and all-powerful God” who saves some and condemns others to hellfire and damnation. Maybe today’s texts can help clarify the progression in my understanding of God.

Both texts come from harsh settings. Jesus’ affirmation of the worth of sparrows come in the middle of a discourse in which he proclaims such things as:

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

“…whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:24-39).

These are ominous words, not easily understood or taken in.

The tale of Hagar and Ishmael is surely what Phyllis Trible would call a “text of terror.” What had either of them done to deserve their fate, except do what they were told and to enjoy the party to which they were invited? Sarah’s ugly jealousy toward her Egyptian slave goes unpunished while Ishmael’s innocent play with his young half-brother is punished by banishment. Surely this is a moment when someone ought to cry out for justice, to ask how an all-powerful God can let such a thing happen. In this ancient story, God actually seems to collude in the bad behavior of his “chosen ones.“

“Cast out this slave woman with her son,” Sarah demands of Abraham, “for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” Beware the green-eyed monster! Jealousy rears its ugly head and the consequences are dire. Needless to say, “The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son.” Poor old Abraham loved both his boys, and, at 102, wanted to hang out with both of them while he still had time. It was party time In the camp of Abraham and Sarah. They were celebrating the weaning of Isaac. He didn’t want to have to think about the complications of primogeniture, the claims of the first-born son on the bulk of his father’s wealth and good-will. He wasn’t ready to try to figure out who might inherit what.

Even if this story is meant to undermine the claims of primogeniture, it’s a harsh way to go about it. “…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.’” These were the terms of the covenant between Yahweh, Abraham, and Sarah. It appeared Hagar and Ishmael need to be out of the picture. A fine mess, indeed!

Oh, and by the way, Ishmael only existed because Sarah didn’t trust the terms of the covenant in the first place. She didn’t really believe she would ever bear a child herself, so she insisted that Abraham produce a child with her slave, Hagar. It was a kind of insurance policy against God’s promises. Of course, Abraham gladly agreed. Now the child of their lack of faith was a major liability and had to be disposed of.

Before sending them away to fend for themselves, God did try to offer Abraham a glimmer of hope: “As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” So, we find Hagar and Ishmael alone, wandering in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. They’re out of food and water. The future looks bleak for them, non-existent, really. They lay down under a bush to breathe their last, only Hagar can’t stand to watch her only child die. She musters enough strength to crawl far enough away that she won’t have to see Ishmael’s tragic demise. She lifts her tear-streaked face to heaven and shakes her dusty fist at God. “How can this be? How can you let us die like this? Why have you broken you word to us and left us out here to die in the desert?”

It’s the classic cry of those who feel abandoned. “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Where is God in the midst of the suffering and tragedy of the creation? Why do bad things happen to good people? If God is all-powerful, why doesn’t God do something to relieve our distress?

God of the hungry
God of the sick
God of the prodigal
How does the creature say Care
How does the creature say Life

You may not be thrilled to hear that I have no definitive answers for those age-old questions of theodicy, of the disenfranchised and downtrodden, of the doubtful and despairing, about the ways in which God works. That’s above my pay grade. For today, suffice it to say that I find little or no use for the notion of God’s omnipotence, at least not in the sense we have come to see and understand power. Ultimately, power means one can manipulate anything, create and destroy at will. That notion of power may well serve a demagogue or a dictator, but I can’t say it serves to characterize any God I want to worship.

Dorothee Soelle (Suffering) writes of turning her back on the “God who slays,” who demands the sacrifice of anyone – Jesus, Ishmael, Isaac, the woman caught in adultery, refugees and immigrants, those who stand up to the powers that be, those who say “no” to domination and the violence that comes with it. She believes, and in this, I am her disciple, in a God who is ever-present, the God who sees and hears. As we considered last week, she holds out for the God whose “central quality” is compassion as demonstrated in the life and ministry of Jesus, of the God who hangs on every cross raised to crucify creation or any part of it.

God of the neighbor
God of the foe
God of the pruning hook
How does the creature say Love
How does the creature say Peace

That is what I take from these texts, embedded as they are in difficult settings. I can’t explain to you why the story of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael unfolds the way it does. I’m sure there was and still may be good reason for the privileging of some over others in this particular instance. Here’s what I find meaningful in the old story. In the end, God shows up. In fact, God was there all along.

Earlier, when the pregnant Hagar first ran away from Sarah’s cruelty, God found her, reassured her, and sent her back.  In that first wilderness encounter, God promised Hagar, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.” It’s the same basic promise God made to Abraham and Sarah. “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Holy One has given heed to your affliction.” Ishmael literally means “God hears.” In addition, the ancient text says she names the Holy One “El-roi,” “a God of seeing” or “the One who sees” (Genesis 16). A God who sees and hears, a God who accompanies, even in the despair of our desert days, isn’t that the very definition of compassion, One who goes with us, all the way?

And that is what Jesus affirms in the midst of his difficult discourse on the cost of discipleship. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Heavenly Parent. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So, do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” God – omnipotent or not – cares what happens to us, God hears and sees and cares. “His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.”

God of the rainbow
God of the cross
God of the empty grave
How does the creature say Grace
How does the creature say Thanks

Whether faced with God the omnipotent, the Christ of great compassion, or the Spirit who blows through the wilderness, how does the creature say…anything? How does one speak to the Holy One? What can one say? It can be intimidating. Yet the desperate, dying Hagar cries out to God who hears her and sees her, who opens her eyes to discover a find a well of water standing nearby. Had it always been there and she couldn’t see it? Was it a miraculous answer to prayer? We will never know nor do we need to. But, if the creature is silent, is it possible nothing happens. If we do not act, nothing will change.

God is not only characterized by compassion but is also fundamentally relational. God sees and God hears beyond God’s self. How can the creature not say something to the One who sees and hears all of creation? And it is not just a matter of speaking on my own behalf. If I am a child of God, made in the image and likeness of a God who hears and sees and cares, a God characterized by compassion, then am I not made to approach life and God’s beloved creation with the same compassion, by hearing and seeing, and caring in the same way?

God of the ages
God near at hand
God of the loving heart
How do your children say Joy
How do your children say Home

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We are a progressive Baptist Church affiliated with the American Baptist Churches, USA. We have been in Palo Alto since 1893. We celebrate our Baptist heritage. We affirm the historic Baptist tenets of: Bible Freedom, Soul Freedom, Church Freedom, Religious Freedom

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