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God of the Troubled
The Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
Genesis 21:8-21; Romans 6:1-11

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God of the Troubled
Genesis 21:8-21; Romans 6:1-11

Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
Morningside Presbyterian Church
June 22, 2014

 

What a wonderful week it has been in this building.  I’m not an animist who believes that buildings have souls, but if our building has a soul, what good this week must have done it.  This was Melinda’s tenth VBS, and what a wonderful week it has been.
The building has been buzzing with the sound of children all week long.  They have been in and out of the ark – if you haven’t seen the ark, come downstairs after church – it’s worth a visit!
We had all the creeping, crawling things in the building this week.
It was great to see Will come back to Morningside with the highland cows and sheep and goats on Thursday in the petting zoo.
But they had reptiles in the fellowship hall on Wednesday.
I was not in the office on Wednesday morning. 
In fact, in the staff meeting when it was announced that there would be reptiles in the building, I said to Melinda, “I want you to take a surgeon’s approach to this… you know how they count the implements and sponges from surgery at the start and the finish… you count those snakes in and you count those snakes out.”
What a wonderful week it has been.  There were children all through the building and in the front yard and on the playground.
I love it when it’s like that.
I love what summer brings out in the church – we seem to relax just a little – when it’s appropriate, the staff dress down just a little, you might see some shorts.
And I love summer afternoons too – the heat makes it just a little lazy – it’s the right time for sipping on some lemonade and sitting by a cool pool, and sometimes in the afternoons a thundershower forces us to slow down just a little bit more, even, to stay out of the rain and it breathes a little of the electricity and humidity out of the air.
It’s such a great time of the year that I think the lectionary is positively perverse in putting this utterly hideous story in front of us. 
The stories of this week and next are hideous.  They are ugly and they are provocative – and they are stories about children, which means they hit us at an elemental level.
But they are part of the Bible and they must be dealt with.
What’s more, each story, in its own way, tells us something profoundly important about God.  They speak to God’s immanence and God’s transcendence. 
When theologians seek to speak of God, there are a variety of ways in which God can be described.  Often, generally, we speak not of God’s attributes, but of God’s perfections.
An attribute can have a shadow-side, but a perfection is that which cannot be improved upon. 
We say that God is eternal, all-good, all-knowing, all-present, and almighty – these are some of the perfections of God.
But each of them fails us in understanding how God relates to us and so there are these two words that capture just a tiny bit of how God is in relation to us.
The first word is immanent.
The second word is transcendent.
When we speak of God’s immanence, we are speaking of the reality that God is nearer to us than our very breath.
When we speak of God’s transcendence, we are speaking of the reality that God is not just like us only better, but rather, completely and wholly other.
And so in the middle of summer the fine folks of the revised common lectionary, the list of readings that we use to arrange our study of the Bible so that we read the same texts as many of our Christian sisters and brothers on a given Sunday, has thrown us a curve-ball. 
In all the lightness and joy of summer, we encounter these two ugly stories of human interaction – and children - that tell us something – however unsatisfyingly – about God.
This week we read the terrible story of how Abraham cast out his child into the wilderness – and of God’s nearness to them.
Next week we will read the horror story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his other son on Mt. Moriah.
This week we will see God’s nearness.
Next week will see God’s otherness.
Both are deeply important as we seek to know God inasmuch as we can.
But make no mistake about this, this is a hard story.
Hagar’s story is a terrible story.
It is a story about disenfranchisement.
It is a story about male dominance over women.
It’s the story of the dominance of a woman of power over another woman.
It’s a story about jealousy and treating human beings like disposable commodities.
It starts like this: Hagar was Sarah’s maid.
We don’t know much about Hagar before learning that she is Sarah’s maid.
This was not a low-wage job so much as it was a no-wage job. 
By this time, Abraham had acquired considerable wealth despite being a nomad.  We have no idea how Hagar came to be Sarah’s maid.  Was she the youngest daughter of a poor relation?  Possibly.  Was she kidnapped on a raid of a neighboring nomadic clan?  Possibly.  Had she been sold into slavery to pay the debts of someone to Abraham?
We don’t know.  We don’t know any of this.
But we do know that she was Sarah’s handmaiden, which puts her in a place of some intimacy and status.  Not just anybody got to be in that close of proximity with chief’s wife.
But we also know this: Sarah and Abraham used Hagar.
When God called Sarah and Abraham to leave all they knew and go to the place God would show them, God made a promise – that they would enjoy land, progeny and blessings.
But Abraham and Sarah did not trust the promise.  They had become old and Sarah was infertile.
So they cooked up a hare-brained scheme, or so it must seem to us, to conceive an heir for Abraham. 
Abraham and Sarah used Hagar as a tool in their procreation scheme.  A child born to a handmaiden of the mistress’s husband could be seen as the progeny of the master.
And so Ishmael was born.
Hagar had some unforced errors here too – she used the birth of her son to taunt Sarah for her barrenness and it was a source of pain and heartache between them.
But so the promise seemed to be sealed: by Sarah’s handmaid, Abraham had a son.
But that wasn’t the promise that God had made.  God promised that Abraham and Sarah would have a child despite being in their nineties at the time.
When the messenger announced to them that in fact, God intended that Sarah should bear a child, she was listening at the door and so incredulous was she that she burst into laughter.
And it was decreed that the child would be named Laughter to remember her disbelief.
And little Laughter was born – Isaac, in the language of his parents – and then Sarah’s scheme with Abraham to produce an heir had thorns in it…
Laughter and Ishmael would have to share.
At one moment, Abraham’s heir seemed to be a distant cousin in Damascus, and the next he had two.
But Sarah only wanted one heir.  Sarah was jealous of Ishmael and decided that he must go.
And to Abraham’s credit, he agonized over it – and God knew it.
But even still, it came to pass that Abraham and Sarah cast their slave Hagar out into the wilderness with nothing more than a canteen of water.
What an utterly horrible story.
What an utterly inhumane story.
And yet, the dynamic of powerful over the powerless is a story as old as time itself.
The first story of broken human interactions in the Bible is the story of Cain overpowering and murdering his brother Abel.
The use of power to overpower another is less than what God created us to be.
Let me spell this out so it’s clear: God created us to be human.  To be human is to live a life of mutuality, love and respect.  When we act in ways that use power to exert an advantage, to exhibit unloving behavior and to disrespect, we are less than human.
Let that sink in just a moment.
That’s why I don’t buy the statement, “You’re only human,” when someone behaves badly, sins with impunity, because being human isn’t what makes us sin.  Sin is when we’re acting less than God wants from us, less than God created us to be.
I’m not going to start connecting dots here, but you can think about that when you’re doing business – Jesus Christ isn’t just the Lord of the Sanctuary, Jesus Christ is the Lord of all life… there’s nothing we do that is outside of God’s grace – and there is nothing we do that is outside of God’s judgment either. 
That’s right.  When we do wrong by someone, it’s wrong. 
That applies to your finances, friendships, romantic life – when we violate that relationship of love, respect and mutuality – it’s sin, it’s wrong, and it’s less than God created us for.
So Hagar and Ishmael are cast out into the wilderness with just one canteen of water between them, and I can’t think of anything much more troubled than that.
Hagar pulls away so that she won’t have to witness the death of her child.
It doesn’t get much more troubled than that.
There is a thread of theology called liberation theology. 
Liberation theology is a product of the Catholic church in Latin America and Gustavo Gutierrez is one of its chief proponents.
As a movement it is political in how it sees faith and most notably, liberation theology claims that God is on the side of the oppressed.
God is on the side of the poor.
God is on the side of the troubled.
When God encounters the troubles of Hagar, God acts.
Indeed, throughout the pages of the Bible, God’s righteousness is been exercised on behalf of those who are powerless and unable to care for themselves.
If you’ve ever heard the expression “God helps them that help themselves,” let me quickly tell you that you aren’t hearing the Bible, you’re hearing Benjamin Franklin.
No, the message of this story of Hagar in the wilderness is that God helps them who cannot help themselves.
The doctrine of God’s immanence tells us that God is nearer to us than our very breath – however closely we love and however intimate we may be with another human being – God’s love exceeds our own because when we speak of the Love of God, we are speaking not of love in its imperfection, but in its very perfection.
And as such, God’s love always goes where it is most needed.
That means that God is the God of the troubled.
Whether that trouble is self-imposed, as it so often is, or whether that trouble is imposed by someone or something more powerful forcing its will upon someone weaker – as it is so often is.
When something or someone overpowers another, there is no question where God is.
But here’s the thing about God’s love: it’s not a zero sum game. 
God doesn’t have to love me less to love you more when you need it.  And neither does God’s love for you wane when someone else needs more love.
Because when we speak of God’s love, we are speaking of the perfection of love.
But I have to tell you a hard truth about God that we all need to hear: God is everywhere, but because God’s attributes are perfections, that means that God is most where God is most needed.
And that is where we will find God when we need to.
So let me say once more that hard message of faith: we all have the promise of God’s presence – the doctrine of immanence reminds us of that –
But if we want to see God, and feel God, and know what and where and when God is working, then we need to remember where to find God: in the most troubled places.
That’s it.  That’s the Word of God for us this beautiful summer’s day: if we would find God, then we must go where God is.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.
 

Last Published: November 21, 2014 11:45 PM