Thursday, May 17, 2007

Sermon from Sunday, May 13

Hi folks. Sorry I've been so derelict in my posting duties. Life's kinda busy right now--I'm preparing for comprehensives at Drew, August 14 and 17. A third exam will follow in November and a fourth exam will be a paper on Charles G. Finney, due in Spring 2008. But preparing for the August comps is heavy stuff and I hope it calms down a bit soon!

Anyway, here's the sermon from last Sunday, based on the story of Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis 21.

I would like nothing more than to get up in the pulpit here on today, this special Mother’s Day, and preach a sermon about a mother’s love. Mother’s Day is a very interesting holiday, isn’t it?

There is definitely a certain idealism about Mother’s Day: a mother is this perfect creature with a perfect life. A mother loves completely, loves fully, always loves, and never "wants out." She never is impatient, never cross, but always patient and loving. She has a wonderful, kind husband who brings home the bacon; she has 2.5 children, all of them born at least nine months after the wedding, none a surprise, none taking too long to conceive, all arriving just on time, just in the right way, just perfect. In short, in the Hallmark world of Mother’s Day, moms are perfect and kids are perfect, so mothers just pass their time in this sort of fantasy world, happily pouring their lives out for their kids and always making just the right decisions to guide them.

This is sort of an appealing idea, and so like I say, I’d love to be able to get up here on Mother’s Day and tell you that that fairy-tale world is true. And I suppose there will be churches where this happens, where preachers get up and preach the Hallmark gospel where every woman who wants to become a mother gets to become a mother and winds up being a perfect and perfectly happy mother, honored once a year on this special day with flowers and breakfast in bed.

But reality tells us that this is not true. We all know people who struggle to become mothers and, indeed, people who cannot physically bear children. We all know that not everyone who becomes a mother loves the task, that there are mothers who aren’t June Cleaver and feel guilty every moment of the day that they aren’t. We all know mothers whose kids have died, either as young children, or before they were born, or as adults; and for them, Mother’s Day brings no small amount of pain with a limited amount of joy. We know people whose experiences with their mother was not Hallmark-happy, but was marked with sadness, and some even who may have had terrifying experiences with their moms. Our experience tells us that for every Hallmark mom who loves every minute of motherhood, there are many many more women for whom motherhood is a struggle.

But the picture of struggling moms is not quite as appealing, and so on Mother’s Day, we tend to bury that picture in favor of the idealistic one. But that’s a shame, because it’s the moms who struggle are real, and it is they who deserve the most honor. Maybe someday, you will go to the local greeting-card stores, and see cards that say things like, "Mom, thanks for not screwing me up as badly as you might have;" or, "Mom, thanks for putting up with me even on those days you wanted to staple me to my bed;" or "Mom, thanks for paying for therapy;" but for now, we settle for that romanticized image of motherhood.

We see further evidence that motherhood is not always romantic, perfect and beautiful if we look at the Scripture. In an article called "When Mother’s Day is Hard," author Jennell Williams Paris talks about some of the difficult issues related to motherhood in the Scriptures. Ruth was widowed at a young age and never had children. Rachel, Hannah and Sarah all struggled with infertility; behind all those stories that we read so casually, there were real women with real hurts. Eve, the mother of all creation, lived to see her older son kill her younger son; Mary, the mother of God, lived to see her oldest son crucified. Not only was motherhood hard for many people in the Bible, but they also weren’t always good at it. Rebekah, the mother of Jacob and Esau, played favorites and encouraged her favorite son Jacob to be deceitful. Some of Israel’s most wicked kings in the Old Testament were encouraged down their road of wickedness by their mothers. The author writes, "Scripture tells stories like those in our churches: women in diverse life circumstances, sometimes thriving, sometimes coping, sometimes going under."

One mother that we read about in the Scripture is Hagar, who is the star of the story that Andrew read to us this morning. A little bit of Hagar’s backstory: God had promised Abraham and his wife Sarah that they would have a son, and that through their son, all the nations of the world would be blessed. But as they grew older and older and older, eventually, Sarah’s years of childbearing passed. And in those days, there were not so many options for infertile couples. So the common practice was that if a husband and wife could not have children, the husband would instead sleep with a surrogate, usually a servant, and the surrogate would have the baby and then it would belong to the original couple. In fact, it often was the practice that the adoptive mother would catch the baby as it was being born, to start that connection with the adoptive mother right from the moment of birth.

Hagar was Sarah’s servant, and she slept with Abraham, and conceived. As you can imagine, this made Sarah and Hagar’s relationship quite complicated. Hagar started to be somewhat proud that she conceived; the Scriptures say that she "looked with contempt" on Sarah. Sarah responded to Hagar by treating her harshly, and so Hagar ran away into the wilderness. But while she is in the wilderness, God speaks to her and tells her that he has a plan for her son, and she should return to Sarah and Abraham. And so she does, and she gives birth to a son, Ishmael. And it appears that this is how God was going to give a son to Abraham and Sarah.

But meanwhile, God appears to Abraham and says that while he will always have his eye on Ishmael, while he will always have plans for Ishmael, it is not through Ishmael that God will execute this covenant to bless the world through Abraham’s offspring. Instead, God says that it is still his plan to give a biological son to Abraham and Sarah. Sarah can’t quite believe it, and she laughs; but lo and behold, at ninety years of age, Sarah gives birth to a son, Isaac. And Isaac is the one to bear the covenant.

So now it is a very full house indeed; there is Abraham, Abraham’s wife Sarah, their son Isaac, Sarah’s servant Hagar–who, by the way, Abraham has slept with–and their son Ishmael. I know, it sounds like a bad reality TV show. You can imagine all the complicated dynamics going on in that household right then, with the two boys growing up together, and the wife and the servant living together; it was not always easy.

But one day, Sarah sees Hagar playing with her baby. And in that moment, she just snaps. She cannot bear to see this servant playing with her baby; she hated Hagar from the instant she conceived Ishmael and now everything comes flooding back. So she goes and tells Abraham that Hagar has to go, that this servant girl and her son should not be allowed to stay and play around with her son Isaac. And this upsets Abraham, but he consents. And so one morning, probably as Sarah slept, he gives Hagar a loaf of bread and an animal skin filled with water and sends them away.

Of course, a loaf of bread and a skin of water don’t last very long with a little boy in a big, big wilderness. And so we read that once the water had run dry, Hagar, driven by desperation, put her son Ishmael under a bush. And she went away, about the distance of a bowshot, and sat by herself. She knew her son was going to die, and she just couldn’t bear to see it. And she sits there and she weeps and weeps.

This is not an image you will see on a Mother’s Day card. And I know that Hagar’s circumstances were very difficult, but you must confess that she was not a very good mother in this moment. A perfect mother would have fought everything to get her son some water; a perfect mother never would give up, would always press forward, press forward until she found something or died trying. But Hagar is not a perfect mother, and in her desperation, she just knows Ishmael is going to die and she just can’t bear to watch it and so she abandons him to die alone.

But as she is there weeping, waiting for Ishmael to die, something happens. Suddenly, she hears the voice of an angel, and the angel says, "What troubles you, Hagar? God has heard the boy (in fact, the name Ishmael means God hears) and still has plans for his life. Get up, hold his hand and let’s get moving. And then we read that "God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water." Apparently, there was a well there the whole time but she could not see it because her grief and despair had blinded her; but now she could see it, and she was able to give her son the water he so desperately needed. In her despair, Hagar made a terrible mistake; but God, who is so good, gave her the chance and the strength to make things right and she did it.

As I say, this is not a picture you see on many Mother’s Day cards. I can see it now–"Mom, thanks for re-considering when you abandoned me." No, you won’t find many Mother’s Day cards like that!

But perhaps Hagar should be someone we celebrate more than we have. Because Hagar is a realistic picture of the good moms that I know. The moms I know make mistakes. They might not abandon their kids, but they consider it. Like all people, they kick and struggle and wrestle with their callings, sometimes feeling totally invested and loving it, and sometimes hating it and wanting to be anything but a mother. Like all people, both mothers and non-mothers, Hagar is driven by the desperation of the human condition to make horrible mistakes. Like all people, both mothers and non-mothers, Hagar is sometimes blinded to the nourishment she so desperately needs by her own pain and confusion. Water is right in front of her, and she cannot see it because she is so desperately thirsty and sad.

But in the end Hagar is not defined by her mistakes. In the end, Hagar is not a bad mom but a good mom for one reason and one reason alone: God opens her eyes and helps her to see. God touches her and then she sees the water, and she returns to her senses and then she races to help her son taste of the divine water which God has given. Hagar responded to the touch of God by realizing what she truly was down deep; she was not a woman who would abandon her son, she was a woman who would lead her son to divine water, given by God.

This is what I will always treasure about my mother: not that she was or is perfect. When I have Mother’s Day dinner with my mom today, I will not do so because my mother never failed me, never let me down. When I express my profound love for my mother, it is because she was willing to let God touch her life. I appreciate my mother not because she was naturally perfect, but because she was willing to let God open her eyes, and she was willing to be God’s instrument to give me the nourishment, the refreshment, the divine water that all of her children need.

I’m telling the story of Hagar today for lots of reasons. I’m hoping that first, all of you who have mothers (which I think is all of us) will be kind to them. Don’t hold your mother to a standard of perfection, which none of us can meet in the end! Instead, if you’re fortunate enough to have your mom with you today, thank them for those times that they gave you what they could, as God gave them the strength. And if your mom has passed, I hope you have the chance to remember someone who was not perfect, but who gave what God gave them the strength to give.

I’m telling the story of Hagar today because I also hope that those of you who are mothers will hear this story and be encouraged. God loves you not because you’re a mother like on those Mother’s Day cards; God loves you simply because you are. And you will be measured as a mom not by whether or not you ever made mistakes, but by whether or not you allow God to open your eyes. The legacy you will leave with your kids is not going to be perfection; but it will be whether or not you were vulnerable enough with God to confess your mistakes and allow God to help you work through them.

I’m telling the story of Hagar today because I also hope that those of you who have difficult family situations will see the way God touched a servant woman like Hagar. I know that in any group, there are those whose families bring them suffering; children you could never have, children you did have who went wrong somehow, families that have brought pain and suffering instead of joy and light. I hope you know the good news that God used this family: this family seems a more likely candidate for an intervention by Dr. Phil than to be used to bless the whole world. This is what God can do, even if your family or your life feels broken.

Finally, I’m telling you the story of Hagar today because I want to invite you to reflect a bit on an ancient saying of the church: "One cannot have God for a father who does not have the church for a mother." This saying means that we are not designed to live the Christian life alone, as lone rangers for Jesus. We are designed to live it in community, and in a special kind of community, which nourishes us and gives us strength to grow into the kinds of people God made us to be. When I read the story of Hagar in the light of this saying, I realized how Hagar-like our churches can be. You see, in a sense we are all mothers, since we are the church–and like Hagar, indeed, we are not perfect. Our church–and every church–fails, some more often than others. We seek to nourish and we fail. We seek to inspire, to be a role model, to nourish, and sometimes we simply don’t. As a church, we seek to be a perfect mother, one of those ones like on those Mother’s Day cards, and often we fall so far short.

But in the midst of this we must not forget that good mothers are not good because they are perfect. They are simply willing to let God open their eyes. A church is not healthy because they’re always slick, always professional, always perfect–no, a church is healthy when they are vulnerable to the Spirit of God; a church is healthy when it is willing and able to follow the voice of God pointing us to water that will refresh our spirits and the spirits of the world. A church is healthy when, like that ancient mother Hagar, it follows the call of God to get up and press on.