University Congregational Church
June 19, 2016
Seeing the World Through God’s Eyes
Genesis 21: 1-21
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who lived around 300 BCE. According to Aristotle, the foremost desire that human beings have is to flourish – to develop ourselves and our potential to the extent that we can live happy, satisfied and successful lives. So, Aristotle said, we go through life trying to find the meaning of happiness.
A major problem for us is to discover what it is in this life which will make us truly happy. There appear to be many ways to gain happiness and it can be distracting. We all participate to one degree or another in the fruitless game of “if only”…
If only I could get this job…
If only I had this item…
If only I could lose weight…
If only …
Aristotle rejected all of these as being key to finding happiness. What he said was that if we are going to flourish and reach the highest potential as human beings, then we need to find someone who has been able to live the good life – someone we can follow as an example. He referred to these individuals as “people of practical wisdom”. We might call them “good role models” or “mentors”, those we want to put on a pedestal, not with so much idealism that they become unrealistic, but people who honestly show us that a better way of living is possible.
For some of us, our fathers were people of practical wisdom, good role models, and mentors. They had a tremendous influence in our lives. For others, another man filled that role – perhaps a grandfather, an uncle, a brother, a step-father, or a foster parent. Today, we celebrate the men in our lives who show us a better way of living: those who have inner happiness and personal integrity; those whose lessons come more from their actions than from their words.
Abraham has been called the father of our faith. I’ve always wondered why Abraham got that title instead of Adam – the first human; or Noah – the one chosen to start the world over again after the flood; or even David – the harp player and king. Why Abraham?
The way the story goes is that God had promised Abraham and his wife Sarah that they would be parents of a great nation. But as time went by and no child was born, life became very difficult for them. How could the promise be fulfilled that their descendants would number more than the stars in the sky if they were past the child-bearing age and no children had been born to them? For heaven’s sake, they even had to pay other people to farm their land because they had no children to help them. (The good news was that it appeared there would be no family squabbling about the will!)
So, Sarah and Abraham did what anyone of their culture would have considered – they took matters into their own hands. Sarah had a young Egyptian slave girl named Hagar. Sarah arranged for Abraham and Hagar to have a liaison so that Hagar could birth a child for them. It’s important that we don’t put our 21st century values onto them at this point in the story. Because Hagar was a slave and a woman, she was considered property in that time – specifically Sarah’s property. Any children born to her must be sold, (with Sarah getting the profit) or used as Sarah saw fit. Hagar has the baby and the child is named Ishmael, which means “God hears”.
Another thirteen years passed. God visits Sarah and Abraham again. God reminds them of the promise that they will be the parents of a nation. Sarah lets out a toothless laugh. But a miracle occurs. Hope and a baby are born. They name the baby Isaac, which means “laughter”.
Now, Hagar the slave and her son Ishmael have no place in this family. They are sent away with only the most meager supply of food and water. Hagar had no ability to support herself or her child. Once the food and water were gone, Ishmael cried out with thirst. Hagar placed her child under a bush and goes a distance away, because she cannot stand to see him die. But Ishmael means “God hears”. And God heard the voice of the child. An angel – who represents God – opens Hagar’s eyes to see a well of water, and Hagar is promised that her son will not die, but will become the father of a great nation. And from that time on, the text says, God is with Ishmael. In fact, Ishmael became the forbearer of the nomads who herded cattle and lived in the southern part of Palestine.
Back at home, Isaac grew into a young man and also became the father of a great nation. Genesis 21:1-21 NRSV
The LORD dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac. ”The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But 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. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
I think this story is very significant in the way we understand God and the role of parenting. God made a promise and even though Sarah and Abraham gave up believing that God would ever get around to keeping the promise and meddled, God still found a way to keep the promise. In fact, God took the mess that Sarah and Abraham made and created two nations.
There are hundreds of sermons in this story….
The times we get tired of waiting and take things into our own hands, making matters worse…
The times we have used other people to make our own dreams a reality…
The times we have acted without thinking about the ultimate consequences…
For our purposes today, I want to talk about how God treated Ishmael and Isaac. It is obvious from the story that Abraham and Sarah didn’t find a way to raise both sons as their heirs. They thought they had to choose; that it was an either/or proposition. After raising Ishmael for thirteen years as their own child, they chose their son Isaac over Ishmael. The neighbors and family friends probably knew that Ishmael was an illegitimate half-breed, in modern vernacular. Yet God gave Ishmael an honored place and created a great nation from him. When Sarah and Abraham sent Ishmael and his mother into the desert to die, God provided for them. When Hagar was hopeless and thought she and her son were going to die, God created a way out of that hopelessness.
Isaac grew up and became the father of the Israelite nation. God found a win/win situation for Ishmael and Isaac. The tradition held by all 3 of the Abrahamic traditions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – is that Ishmael became the father of the Ishmaelites, or Arabs.
How many times do we think in either/or ways? Either this way or that way is right – but not both. Either I’m right or you’re right – not both of us. Either Republicans or Democrats are right – but certainly not both. Either Christianity or Islam or Judaism is right – but we can’t all be right.
When Abraham was ready to send one son into the desert to die, God’s plan was expanded to include both of Abraham’s sons. God shows a radical new way of thinking. Many things are not either/or and win/lose. God chose both Ishmael and Isaac. Is it possible that God intended diversity so that we could find wisdom in two or three opposing voices? Is it possible that God is not an either/or being but a both/and being?
I was struck by many voices this week since the massacre in Orlando. Jimmy Fallon’s opening comments on the Tonight Show were among the best, I think. He said, “As you certainly know by now, early Sunday morning there was another senseless shooting, this time at a dance club in Orlando, Florida. A dance club.
I know everyone is angry right now and doesn’t know how to react. This is a time when people are looking to us as a country and how we will react. This country was built on an idea that we don’t agree on everything; that we are a tolerant, free nation that encourages debate, free-thinking, believing, or not, in what you choose.
Maybe there’s a lesson from all this. A lesson in tolerance. We need to support each other’s differences and worry less about our own opinions. Get back to debate and away from believing or supporting the idea that if someone doesn’t live the way you want them to live, you just buy a gun and kill them. Bomb them up. That is not OK.
We need to get back to being brave enough to accept that we have different opinions and that’s OK, because that is what America is built on. The idea that we can stand up and speak our minds and live our lives and not be punished for that, or mocked on the Internet, or killed by someone you don’t know. Keep loving each other. Keep respecting each other. And keep on dancing.”
When Eric (one of my favorite fathers) and I were having our second and third child, we talked about how astonished we were about the dynamics of love. When our first child was born, she was absolutely perfect. We fell in love with her immediately. We didn’t know our hearts had that capacity. When we found out that a second child was on his way, we actually worried that we would not be able to love him quite as much – it seemed impossible – until he was born. Then, we learned that there is not a limited supply of love. Your heart grows with each child.
Good fathers believe in a both/and kind of love. Their hearts expand and grow with each child born, including children who are not biologically connected to them. They become mentors, father figures, adoptive fathers, step-fathers, foster fathers, role models and advocates for all children. They find a way for people of all different sorts to be welcomed, given a chance and a reason for hope. These are the men in our lives whose vision is not limited and whose love is not limited. They see win-win solutions in their work, in their homes, in the church, and in the community. These are men who see and nurture children and find a place for them in this world.
These are men who see the world through God’s eyes, opening the future for people of different races, nations, genders, wealth, power and prestige. I thank God for these men of wisdom and grace.
Nbc.com Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon