Not Left Behind

Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 6/25/2017


The Lord was attentive to Sarah just as he had said, and the Lord carried out just what he had promised her. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son for Abraham when he was old, at the very time God had told him. Abraham named his son—the one Sarah bore him—Isaac. Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old just as God had commanded him. Abraham was 100 years old when his son Isaac was born. Sarah said, “God has given me laughter. Everyone who hears about it will laugh with me.” She said, “Who could have told Abraham that Sarah would nurse sons? But now I’ve given birth to a son when he was old!”

The boy grew and stopped nursing. On the day he stopped nursing, Abraham prepared a huge banquet. Sarah saw Hagar’s son laughing, the one Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham. So she said to Abraham, “Send this servant away with her son! This servant’s son won’t share the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

This upset Abraham terribly because the boy was his son. God said to Abraham, “Don’t be upset about the boy and your servant. Do everything Sarah tells you to do because your descendants will be traced through Isaac. But I will make of your servant’s son a great nation too, because he is also your descendant.” Abraham got up early in the morning, took some bread and a flask of water, and gave it to Hagar. He put the boy in her shoulder sling and sent her away.

She left and wandered through the desert near Beer-sheba. Finally the water in the flask ran out, and she put the boy down under one of the desert shrubs. She walked away from him about as far as a bow shot and sat down, telling herself, I can’t bear to see the boy die. She sat at a distance, cried out in grief, and wept.

God heard the boy’s cries, and God’s messenger called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “Hagar! What’s wrong? Don’t be afraid. God has heard the boy’s cries over there. Get up, pick up the boy, and take him by the hand because I will make of him a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well. She went over, filled the water flask, and gave the boy a drink. God remained with the boy; he grew up, lived in the desert, and became an expert archer. He lived in the Paran desert, and his mother found him an Egyptian wife.


 

When I preach on any story about Abraham, the first thing to pop into my mind is that kid’s song “Father Abraham, had many sons,” right? So that song’s cute and it’s good for kids to know it. But as I was studying Abraham’s story in depth this week, the song didn’t fit anymore. I have to be honest with you: the story of Abraham actually disturbed me deeply this week. Let me show you what I mean.

I’ll skip the whole first half of the story and start where we were last week, when Abraham met those three men who turned out to be God under the oaks of Mamre. He and Sarah hear God’s promise that they’ll have a son in their old age.

So they accept this. But, eventually, Sarah gets tired of waiting. So she tries to take matters into her own hands and gives her young servant Hagar to Abraham to be a surrogate mother.

Now, surrogacy might’ve been a common practice at that time, but still… They take the promise of God into their own hands to make sure it comes about. And if Hagar has to suffer for it, so be it – she’s just a slave.

So Sarah and Abe use Hagar as a surrogate mother. But when Hagar actually gets pregnant with her son Ishmael, Sarah – who still doesn’t have a child – gets jealous and banishes Hagar. And when Hagar is out in the wilderness, God appears and tells her to return to Abe and Sarah.

But now, in the passage for today Sarah, in her old age, has a son. So she names him Isaac, which means laughter. Because what else are you going to name a kid when you have him in your 90s? For those first 7 verses, the story is great! But then Sarah sees Ishmael – her surrogate son – playing with Isaac – her biological son. She gets mad and tells Abe to banish Hagar and Ishmael again so that Ishmael won’t have any possible share in Isaac’s inheritance

Now Abe doesn’t want to send them out. But he still does it, even though it’s against his instincts, because God encourages him to do what Sarah tells him. So Abe does it, but he has to know that he’s sending them to their death in the desert.

So Hagar and Ishmael are wandering alone in the wilderness. Their food and water runs out, everything seems lost, but then an angel shows up. And God says that he’s heard Ishmael’s cries and promises to make him into a great nation. Then God shows them a well where they can get water and makes sure they get to a good place.

I’ll be honest here – I have a lot of problems with this story, I really struggled with it this week.

The story seems to end happily ever after, with Ishmael growing up, becoming an expert archer, and marrying a woman from Egypt. But it’s still so incredibly messed up. Abraham and Sarah are the father and mother of our faith. But there is so much wrong with their story – they take advantage of Hagar’s position as their servant and use her as a pawn. She has no power to resist anything here – not the surrogacy and not the banishment.

So the family is incredibly dysfunctional by our ethical standards today. But my biggest struggle with the story is this: God is wrapped up in all of this.

God tells Hagar to go back to an abusive household after that first banishment.

When Sarah banishes her the second time, God encourages Abraham to send her away.

I mean, sure, at the end of the story God makes everything work out for Hagar and Ishmael. But by the time they get there, can you imagine the mental, emotional, and physical trauma? This sounds like the God of love encouraging abuse and sending a slave back to her masters instead of setting her free.

Every week, I dig into the Scriptures the lectionary gives me to preach to try to find a meaningful word for us today. Starting last week, and continuing until July 30 I’ll be digging into the Old Testament texts assigned by the lectionary each week to discover more of God’s mission. How is God working toward the salvation of all? How is God working to transform the world?

I’m doing this because July 30 is my last Sunday as your pastor, which means I only have 5 more Sundays in this pulpit after today. Don Clinger will be following me as your pastor, and you’ll be in very good hands with him. But in times of pastoral transition, we must remember that God’s mission among us must be at the top of every list we have as a church, no matter who the pastor is, no matter when they leave, and no matter when they come.

But honestly – I’m almost at a loss to find anything meaningful in the passage for this week – anything convicting, inspiring, missional, anything at all.

So this is all that I’m left with: The mission of God leaves no one behind, not even Hagar and Ishmael.

Now even that statement has problems. Like I said before, it seems like God encouraged Hagar back into the house of her abuser and later encouraged Abraham to banish her. I don’t really know what to do with those pieces.

But no matter what happened before this episode, Hagar was not left behind. We have this agonizing picture of her lost in the desert. She has no food, no water, no one around, and death is imminent. But then, at her lowest point, God comes to her and says, “You will not die. Ishmael will not die. You will have a tomorrow and many more tomorrows.”

God visits this abused, banished slave woman, sees her as she truly is, and cares for her. Sarah kicked Hagar out twice because of envy and rivalry, but God accepts both her and Ishmael into God’s plan.

I have many other difficulties with this story, but that’s what I hear today: the mission of God leaves no one behind.

You are not left behind.

I am not left behind.

No matter how other humans make us feel left behind, no matter how many people turn their backs on us, no matter how many doors have been shut in our face, no matter how much this village declines, no matter how many jobs you’ve lost, no matter how many family members you’ve lost, God has NOT Left us behind. God is with us yet.

I believe that with all my heart – God has not left us behind. But I also know this – we ourselves do have a tendency to leave people behind. Like Abraham and Sarah, we have a tendency to take what we think is God’s mission into our own hands and decide who gets to be a part of it.

I do this. I would much rather be a part of a church where everyone looks like me, believes like me, has the same political commitments as me, dresses like me, likes the same music and movies as me, gets the same jokes that I do

Etcetera

Etcetera.

We make our own decisions on who can belong to God’s people – the church. People who look like us, people who act like us; people who vote Republican and wouldn’t dream of anything smelling like Democrat or liberal; people who believe the same as us down to the small-as-possible specifics. People like that – they can be God’s people.

And if someone does not fit our description, we tend to try to change the person, or we leave them behind, hoping that God will convert them to our specific brand of God’s people.

We tend to leave people behind and write them off so easily. Because of course we know how the church should look, we know how worship should work and sound and look. And if people don’t like that, that’s ok – we can just leave them behind.

But you see, God’s mission for the transformation of the world leaves no one behind. We are called to participate in that mission; we are called to be on that mission ourselves. That means that we don’t leave anyone behind either, no matter how much we want to. There are people I would rather write off, and I’m sure there are people you would rather write off. But to follow God’s mission, we can’t keep doing that.

This calls us to examine ourselves. Who do we leave behind? What kinds of people are we keeping out of our circle and avoiding – as individuals, families, and as Alger First UMC?

This is related to what I said last week. We in the US church have a tendency to open our doors and expect people who don’t know Jesus and aren’t a part of the church to take the initiative and come in to us.

But when that’s our attitude, we leave them behind. And if we keep doing things the same way, and keep expecting others to conform to how we do things, we’ll continue to leave behind those who are not with us yet.

God’s mission calls us further. Who do we leave behind? How can we change so that we don’t leave them behind? What can we do to offer Jesus to those who aren’t here on terms that they’ll understand so that they know they’re not left out?

All this will require change. But this church building we’re in has been here for 100+ years. So people in this village who have not joined this church in this building will not be a part of this church if we don’t change.

Now that understandably makes us nervous. But our God isn’t in the business of leaving people out of God’s mission. How can we know this? I am here. You are here. We are here. This congregation of Alger First still exists. God didn’t leave us behind and God won’t leave us behind. God is with us at this very moment, filling this space and filling us, saturating every molecule here.

That’s the grace and love of God at work. So how can we extend that same grace and love to the world, embodying Christ in this community?

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