Proper 7: June 21, 2020



This is all very strange. We’re here, outside, at St. Luke’s, and if I stop the sentence there, it might seem like any other summer. At least, I hope so. This is my first year with y’all, so it’s all new to me. Had someone told me that, in normal years, the church comes together at St. Luke’s for a Sunday in June, sits spread out on the field, then doesn’t have a church picnic or river float…I mean, the first part might sound a little strange, but I would have believed that person. I don’t know how much that is a blessing and how much is a curse.

A few of my more experienced clergy friends and mentors have told me it must be strange starting at a church, especially since this is my first call, right before covid. And, yeah, but I don’t think it’s any stranger than what everyone else, clergy and otherwise is doing. I think it might be a bit easier for me because I don’t know what I’m missing.

Before I started here, I made myself two promises. First, I promised myself that I would give myself time and space to adjust, that I would be patient with myself. I made this promise because I knew that when I got here, I’d come across any number of things for which Seminary, internships, experience as a member and employee of other congregations would not have prepared me—that there would be times I would walk out of a room, a meeting, or a conversation and think “I could have done that better” More likely, there would be times I’d walk out of that same room or conversation thinking it went great, and it would take someone else to tell me that I could have done that better. So, I promised myself that I wouldn’t take it personally, that I wouldn’t let that throw me off, but that I’d take the chance to learn and improve and keep moving.

I’m not saying everything has been easy, but, oddly enough, and even with everything else going on, I’m still waiting for that shoe to drop. You’ve all been amazing these last four months. Thank you. I haven’t had to struggle to keep that first promise.

The second one though…

I promised myself I wouldn’t change anything for at least six months. For six months, I would do everything I could to fit myself into the existing patterns of the congregation and community. I definitely wasn’t going to touch the way we do worship. At least six months, since I thought I’d be splitting my weeks between here and DC until the end of June.

Yeah, so much for that. I should have listened to my own first sermon here—my plans mean nothing. I don’t imagine many of you need me to say it, but I’ll do it anyway. I broke that promise. I walked into my first session meeting to say I thought we needed to close our doors.

I promised myself that I would spend months listening, and then I put a camera and a screen between us.

I don’t regret that. Moving our worship and community online, connecting through the internet and the phone, was the right decision. We have been fortunate here, not just as a congregation, but the wider Romney and Hampshire County communities have not yet been hit as hard as they could have been, and that is due to some combination of luck and the prevention measures, including suspending in-person worship. The problem with taking preventative measures is that, unless they obviously fail, it can be difficult to tell if they worked or were never needed. We made the right choice closing our doors. I hope coming together in person today was the right choice. You’ll notice a few things: I’m wearing a mask, even while I preach. We have urged you all to stay six feet apart from anyone who isn’t part of your household. We have not any collective prayers or responsive readings. We haven’t sung; our music has been instrumental.

These are some of the precautions you are likely to see whenever we start to meet indoors. If you would like to stay after worship, we will talk about some of the other steps we have taken, or are planning to take, both at the Town Church and at St. Luke’s.

We will, however, be careful about making promises because sometimes we don’t know what promises we won’t be able to keep.

Which brings us to our text.

God repeatedly promised Abraham children, but God works in God’s time. Eventually, Abraham’s wife, Sarah, grew impatient. She wasn’t having children, and, in fairness to her, what I’m about to talk about happened before the passage from Genesis we read last week, before God made that promise to her. Sarah decided to get pro-active, in a story told in Genesis 16. Sarah decides to give one of her slaves, Hagar, to Abraham to take as a wife, so that Abraham might have a child. Sarah’s plan works, and Hagar becomes pregnant. Sarah and Hagar are not, however, able to adjust to their new relationship, and Sarah drove the still-pregnant Hagar into the wilderness. There, Hagar encounters God, who promises Hagar’s child will survive and thrive, and so she returns to Abraham, no longer a wife, but once again a slave to Sarah.

We don’t hear much about Hagar for the next few years. We do hear some about Ishmael, so we know they are both still around, but Hagar disappears from the narrative for five chapters and some sixteen or seventeen years before she returns in today’s text.

Hagar is treated terribly. We have no idea what kind of relationship she and Sarah had in the intervening time. Somehow, they tolerated each other, but I can’t imagine things were much better than that, especially after reading verse nine. This is a verse that translators struggle with. The New International Version, or NIV, says: “But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking,” The NRSV says: “But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.” I think the problem translators have here is that both translations are right. Ishmael was probably playing with Isaac. At this point, Ishmael is sixteen or seventeen, and Isaac is two or three-years-old—as the text tells us, he has just been weaned. But, I think, for Sarah, it did not matter what Ishmael was doing. I think Ishmael has just become the latest collateral victim of Sarah’s feud with Hagar, the excuse that Sarah finally uses, all these years later, to break whatever truce, whatever promises she had made to Hagar, Abraham, and Ishmael.

Abraham, the text tells us, was distressed. Through all the drama between Hagar and Sarah, Abraham had always been a caring and devoted father to Ishmael, even extracting promises from God that Ishmael would not be left out of God’s promise and protection when God told Abraham that Isaac was the son through which God would keep his promises to Abraham.

Abraham doesn’t want to break his promise of protection to Ishmael and Hagar, and only does so after God, once again, reassures Abraham that even as Hagar and Ishmael go on their way, that God will provide for them. God assures Abraham that he is not abandoning them but freeing them.

And, in a pattern Abraham really ought to have learned by now to break, he does not pass on that information. We don’t have time now, but if you spend enough time with this story, it becomes more and more apparent that much of this drama between Sarah and Hagar, and yes, also Abraham, might have been avoided if Abraham told the women the things he and God talked about. Once again, Abraham does not bring Hagar into the loop, and so she loses hope and expects that she and Ishmael will both die in the desert.

Fortunately, God keeps promises, even when people break theirs. Even when we break ours, God keeps God’s promises.

And so, even as Hagar is filled with despair, certain she and Ishmael will die of thirst, God shows her a well.

I promised I wouldn’t change how we do worship here. I couldn’t keep that promise. God’s promise is that we can still be a church, still be a community, still worship and serve God, serve and love our neighbors, still care for one another and all the rest of the body of Christ. Some of us are here together today, some of us will watch this service online later today. It may still be a while before we can all come together indoors, and it will likely be longer still before we sing, hold fellowship dinners, and greet one another with hugs and handshakes. The church will survive. God will keep working in our world and in our community.  

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