A Quest for Greatness

Genesis 21:8-21

Matthew 10:29-31, 39

Do you remember  the wise words of Forrest Gump’s mother, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get!”  That’s how I feel when I look up the lectionary readings for each week.  Sometimes you get Godivas, other times lemons.  Today’s Old Testament reading has a lemony quality, but it may render lemonade, just right for a hot June day.

Although the lectionary doesn’t pay attention to special occasions, like Mother’s and Father’s Day, today’s reading is really a zinger and on Father’s Day, no less.  

We have a perfect case study of family dysfunctionality and  relational triangulation.  I am sure that Abraham felt a little like the person who penned the 70’s song “Torn between two lovers, feeling like a fool” as he found himself caught between his love for his two sons Isaac and Ishmael and the competition between his wife Sarah and Hagar the mistress Sarah had picked out for him.  He knows that he’s going to do damage regardless of what he does, so he cuts his losses, bends to Sarah’s will, and  sends Hagar and Ishmael away with just a paltry skin of water, knowing that they might likely perish in the desert.  

Lost in the desert, Hagar will do anything to save her son. Fearful at the prospect of his dying of thirst, she cries out to God, who provides water for Ishmael and Hagar to survive, and then gives mother and son the promise that from Esau, a great nation, the peoples of Arabia, will emerge.  

I am sure God did not put Hagar and Ishmael in danger, but God found a way out. God provided a way when there was no way and in all our struggles and imperfection, we can count on that too.

Divine protection in challenging times is at the heart of Jesus’ counsel to his followers, no doubt part of a collection of sayings aimed to give confidence to a church facing difficult times.  God cares for the sparrows, and God cares for you.  As the spiritual proclaims, “God’s eye is on the sparrow and I know he’s watching me.” The Infinite is also the Intimate.  God knows every detail of our lives and sees us through the eyes of love. God is the Good Parent and Loving Friend we yearn for. Trusting God, we can let go of our stranglehold on life and reach out to those in need.

The passage ends with the counsel that those who seek to save their lives will lose them and those who lose their lives for God’s sake will save them. This is not intended to tell us what to do in a time of pandemic.  We are not called to put our lives at risk unless it’s to protect another.  Jesus is not asking us to be martyrs or be foolhardy; prudence is also a part of faith. Jesus is telling us that we find meaning by enlarging our vision, going beyond self-interest, and caring for others with the same care that you care for yourself.  

Let me make clear – God is not the cause of pandemic nor did God put a knee on George Floyd’s throat.  The story of Hagar tells us that God was listening when George Floyd, the father of a young girl and four other children, cried out “Momma, I can’t breathe.”  God is there feeling the pain of family who has lost a parent or grandparent due to the Coronavirus. God hears our cries of grief, pain, desperation, and fear, and God mourns.  And God protests!

God heard Hagar’s cry.  God hears the cries of the poor.  Yesterday we participated online in the Poor Peoples’ March.  Kate and I had pondered attending this march against poverty, touching over 100 million Americans, and shaping the lives of the hundreds of thousands facing food insecurity in Massachusetts and the unemployed on Cape Cod. 

God heard Hager. God hears the cries of the poor, those who still suffer from 400 years of racism in the USA and the tears of our First Americans, receiving paltry government help and among the highest death tolls from the virus.  On this Father’s Day, God hears the despair of every father trying feed their child and protect them from unjust violence on our city streets. God hears the cries of everyone of us.  

It has been said that the difference between “ignorance” and “apathy” is “I don’t know” and “I don’t care.”  We know the pain of our nation, and God calls us to care, to let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Challenging times can call us to greatness.  We can become like Lincoln,  Mandela, or Gandhi, leaders who chose to embrace a larger vision encompassing friend or foe and friend alike, or we can become agents of alienation and polarization, focusing on our personal agenda and not the common good. We can demand that our leaders seek the same justice Jesus and Isaiah and Amos sought.

God wants us to flourish.  But God knows that  self-interest and narcissism, greed and bullying destroy our souls, while sacrifice gives us energy and life.  God knows that lies, incivility and polarization shrink our world and destroy our nation. 

Good leadership and good parenting look beyond what benefits us to the wellbeing of those put in our care.  Sacrifice is at the heart of parenting and healthy relationships and is needed now more than ever in personal relationships and national life.  Even though you may never meet them, be a loving parent, caring for other fathers’ daughters and mothers’ sons.

What if Sarah had gone beyond her jealousy to recognize that Hagar and Ishmael were not a threat to her?  What if Hagar could go beyond her need to prove herself and found a way to get along with Sarah? What if Abraham had the courage to affirm Hagar and Ishmael as well as Sarah and Isaac and took responsibility for doing the right thing and protecting both of his children?  What if we affirmed that black lives matter, gay lives matter, poor lives matter, along with the generic all lives matter?

It isn’t easy to sacrifice for the greater good. It is isn’t easy to let go of privilege.  It isn’t easy to see the pain of others and recognize the evils of systemic injustice.  It isn’t easy to recognize that we unintentionally benefiting from some of the practices that harm others and put the earth in jeopardy.

But, God wants us to lose ourselves in the quest for a greater good, a more perfect union, a world where everyone belongs and every child has enough on her plate, housing, good health, a positive environment  and the opportunity to grow.  This will require sacrifice, but in the willingness to sacrifice, our spirits soar, our souls   expand and our hearts will come alive in love.