Genesis 21 and Matthew 10
The lesson from Genesis is an extraordinary one to read in church on Father’s Day. The teenage son of Abraham, the great father of the faith, is cast into the wilderness to die. Hagar, his Egyptian slave woman who is the childs mother, has run out of food and water. She lays the exhausted, parched and famished boy under a bush, and says, to no one, for there is no witness to this act, Do not let me look on the death of the child. She then cries aloud and weeps.
This could be a scene from contemporary Darfur, or from countless desperate places in our world today or right here in Richmond, where mothers and children are abandoned by fathers, by warring governments, by economic forces beyond their control, and sent out to many kinds of wilderness to suffer, or worse, die.
Jesus tells his disciples that when they go out to the mission fields they should not expect special treatment on account of him; as a matter of fact, they will be rejected and mocked and physically harmed. Suffering is not incidental to mission; mission brings tribulation. The good news is that the damage inflicted upon the disciples is only superficial. Do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul, Jesus tells them (Matt: 10:28a). God will not forsake you. Even the hair on your heads is accounted for. And the Lord even knows when a sparrow falls to the ground. So do not be afraid, Jesus tells them over and over, Are you not of more value than sparrows? (vs. 31). These words of comfort are fine and good, but in this Gospel passage Jesus is pointing to the afterlife – the Kingdom of God that awaits all those who suffer in the here and now. The reward, our peace, waits for us in heaven. Blah, blah, blah is what I have to say about that.
Worry? Yes, I worry. Yes, this is a comforting passage, in the end it all turns out well because we know that Jesus has our back. He will testify on our behalf before God in heaven. And, yes, God heard the pleas of Hagar, whose son, Ishmael, was abandoned by his father and left to die. An angel says to her, Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is (Gen. 21: 17). Yes, we need to surrender our trust to God, but meanwhile I know of people who feel abandoned by their loved ones and their God, and I have families calling me pleading for money so that they can pay their rent or their utilities. It’ s been hot these last few weeks and mothers have begged to have their power turned back on so they can have lights in the night, run their air conditioners and so the food in their refrigerators won’ t spoil. These are God’ s people who seem to have fallen between the cracks of these and every other comforting passage in the Bible.
A week ago Friday I received a call from a woman whose electricity had been disconnected. She and her husband needed to raise $814 to get it restored. They were on a payment plan but did not understand the consequences if even a month’ s bill went unpaid. She explained that they moved here from Florida last August and that her husband worked as a carpet cleaner. In Florida carpet cleaning is done year round, but in Virginia it is considered seasonal work and people who work in job that are considered seasonal do not qualify for financial assistance from Social Services. His paychecks during the winter months were barely enough to cover their food, rent, car payments and child support. She said she was not working because she is enrolled full time at Beta Tech earning her medical assistants degree. As I was talking to her on the telephone I could hear a baby in the background crying for her. She told me they have three children under the age of seven living in their home. It was Friday afternoon, hot, a long weekend ahead with no lights, no A.C., no refrigeration. It killed me. I didn’ t have the $800 to get their power back on. I kept saying to myself over and over, I can’ t save them.
I told her to call me back on Tuesday and hopefully I’ d have some funds. And I requested that she come in to meet with me since she did not have a social worker. Her husband came instead just off from work wearing his Service Master uniform. He explained their financial situation and obligations and their payment history (I was relieved that it jived with Dominion’ s). He kept apologizing for his situation and was embarrassed by it, but was relieved that I could give them $200. I was then able to raise another $300 from my partner churches and with his tips from the week he felt confident they’ d have their power reconnected in another week.
This family is more fortunate than most. It has two parents working to keep a roof over their head and food in their bellies, two parents to share the physical and emotional burdens of providing for children and keeping their family intact. Almost all of the people who call the church seeking financial aid are single mothers. But I’ m not going to shake a finger at absentee fathers this morning and the reason is not because it is Father’ s Day. For goodness sake we read how Abraham made the decision to cast off his first born, a son he dearly loved. The story of Hagar and Ishmael sounds crueler than it really is. Abraham was anguished by Sarah’ s demand to banish Ishmael. But God told Abraham to trust that he and Hagar would be cared for and that Ishmael would have a great future. Abraham would have to let go and trust God. Poor Abraham had to do this with both his sons. There are simply difficult times in our lives when we are forced to banish our children and loved ones to the wilderness for their own good. The pain is almost unbearable; the remaining option is to trust that God will care for them.
The more experience I have with pastoral care the more stories I hear of how a parent has disappointed their child or how a parent abandoned a child either physically or emotionally. I hear how parents did not live up to the expectations of their children or the role that they thought was normal for that particular parent. And when I say this, I’ m talking more about you and me than the people who call. My father certainly did not end up being the father-figure I expected. Far from it. I remember a time when I was home from college for the Thanksgiving holiday. My mother had asked my father to be responsible for their utility bills, but he had not, unbeknownst to her, because he was drunk most of the time. Well, we had no electricity or heat that Thanksgiving Day. My mother was livid. But then she quickly got over it when she realized we’ d have to go out to eat (without him) and she didn’ t have to cook or clean up. For all of the anguish and disappointment my father’ s alcoholism caused my family I never stopped loving him and he never stopped loving me.
That seems to be the way it is with children and their parents. It doesn’ t matter if a parent is a good provider or not. We still love them and they love us. What causes grave emotional wreckage is when a parent abandons a child emotionally; when a parent is incapable of love or the expression of love. That’ s a hard one to recover from. This is when we learn to depend on our Lord. On this Father’ s Day and every day we should remember that a wandering Galilean is our father. We have loved him without having seen him, as Saint Peter wrote almost 2000 years ago, and it is truer now than it was then. Jesus was demanding and his words still are, preparing us for difficult times. I know in my head and in my heart that while we may seem immune from the comforting passages in the Bible we’ re really not. We are safe because the God who created us and the God who died for us has never abandoned us.
Paul asks in his letter to the Romans: Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8: 35; 38-39).
When we wonder if our pain will ever cease, if our circumstances will ever change our Lord reminds us: we are the people who live by the grace of God alone, by trusting in God’ s providence and by remembering that we are more, far more than our bank accounts, far more than our addresses, far more than the superficial wounds a mission life prescribes, and far more than how our family situations may define us we are loved by the one person who really matters, Jesus Christ, our father.