Saturday, August 23, 2014

Sermon for August 24, 2014; Numbers 22:21-38

Rev. George Miller
Numbers 22:21-38
August 24, 2014

How many people have pets? How many of you talk to your pets?

How many of ya’ll say things to your pets like “Look at how pretty you are?” or “Who’s my handsome boy?” or “Where’s my best buddy?”

Of course we do. Know why? ‘Cuase it feels good to say all that stuff.

Truth be told when we talk to our pets aren’t we really talking about ourselves and saying what we want to hear someone say to us?

Watch, better yet, listen to how people speak about and to their pet and you’ll get extra insight into who they are.

Why? Because words have power; power beyond just their dictionary meaning.

Words have ways to bring people together and to keep others apart. Words have a way to heal and to hurt, to bless and to curse.

Last year I spoke about my experience playing Uncle Beau in “Auntie Mame” and what it was like to speak in a slow, southern drawl using positive and affirming words.

It’s hard to be a jerk when you spend months saying words like “Ma’am” and “fine”, “Mama” and “fortunate.”

But for the last few weeks I’ve been noticing something: how the Internet has brought a new kind of energy into our existence.

Social Media has made it acceptable and easy to publicly state hurtful comments. People are quick to express what’s on their mind, to criticize and to condemn.

When not handled properly texts and e-mails can become spiteful epistles in which keystrokes of exclamations points and capital letters seem to yell off the screen and create cyberspace confrontation.

Without the input of body language and vocal inflection that come with a face to face conversation, one can never be sure that what they’ve written has been understood the correct way or if they are correctly understanding the writer’s intention.

Currently, with FaceBook and tweeting, texting and e-mail we’ve become so surrounded with words that we are forgetting just how powerful words can actually be…how powerful words actually are.

As children we were taught “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”

That is one of the biggest lies we’ve been told, because words do hurt; they hurt very much, and all of us can recall a time when somebody said something that bruised our psyche in the worst possible way.

Words are powerful; if they weren’t…well you wouldn’t be here listening to me today.

Words can curse, and words can bless. Words can destroy and words can create.

So let us use our words to recap where we are in today’s tale.

About 463 years ago God gave a blessing to the Israelites: they would be vast, they’d bless the world, and they would have land.

And oh! the journeys, the heartbreaks and the adventures they’ve been on. From bareness to children, slavery to freedom, mountains to wilderness.

Through this all, the only things they’ve really had to hold onto is the presence of God and the Lord’s promised blessing.

40 years ago they were on the verge of entering Canaan, but due to fears and unfaithful leadership they were made to wander.

The first generation has passed away and the new generation is ready to cross the Jordan and to see, taste, feel, hear and smell how good a land flowing with milk and honey can be.

But unbeknownst to them, there is a threat: King Balak of Midian has heard about these mighty Israelites and he’s afraid of them; he is worried that they will destroy his nation.

So he comes up with a plan: he will call the great and mighty Wizard of…well, he’s not really a wizard; he’s a gentile seer named Balaam; a pagan who has the gift of words.

Balaam is able to use his words to bless those he wants to bless and to curse those he wants to curse. It’s an unusual talent; one he makes his living off of and is hired to do.

So King Balak calls upon Balaam to take away the one and only thing the Israelites have: their blessing from God.

Here’s where today’s story picks up. It’s a story rich with irony and wit.

While the Israelites are going about their daily business, unaware of the danger at hand, big bad Balaam rises early in the morning and gets on his…donkey, a she-ass.

Although Balaam is a professional seer, it is the donkey who sees the threat up ahead- an angel of the Lord with a sword pointed at her master.

Three times the she-ass saves Balaam from danger; three times she is struck by him.

The Lord opens her mouth and the donkey says “Yo, Balaam- what’s up with the abuse? Why are you hitting me, man?”

To which Balaam says “Because you’ve made a fool of me.”

Now let’s pause here for just a moment- earlier I asked how many of you talk to your pets. Now, how many of you have ever had them talk right back?

Sure, they may bark, meow or chirp in response, but none of us here, as far as I know, ever had our dog or cat say “Right back atcha- you’re a pretty handsome boy too!”

Yet we’re told that out of nowhere this donkey began to speak, and this is Balaam’s response?

Not “What the heck?” Not “Holy Mother of Moses?” He doesn’t do a double take or clean out his ears? What kind of world does Balaam live in that donkeys can talk?

And did you note the play on words here?

Balaam says to the donkey “Because you made a fool of me?” Hmmm…I wonder if there is another word we could have used here that also means “fool”?

Wait a minute: are you trying to tell me this story is funny? Are you trying to tell me that it’s possible for the Bible to have bits of humor?

Are we saying that not everything in scripture is so dire and serious but it can have moments of levity and comedy too?

Thank God, because for the last 3 weeks of worship things have been so serious, with story after story about people being cast into the wilderness, innocent children being killed and the after-affect of bad leadership.

We’ve been in a wilderness of narrative turmoil and inner-conflict so long that it’s good to encounter an oasis of fable-like fun in which a donkey gets to make an ass-ertive declaration against her bull-headed owner, and all for the glory of God.

Why this now? Why this break in the story to make us smile, to add whimsy?

Because sometime we just need to get away from the harsh realities of life, and if we can’t do that with God, who can we do that with?

Doesn’t God deserve to laugh too? Doesn’t God deserve to hear a good story?

Doesn’t God enjoy a fun turn of events in which the wise are made foolish and the foolish are made wise?

And isn’t this story just a bit too familiar? Anyone know someone who is uppity and high on their donkey that they can’t see the truth of what’s in front of them?

Is it safe to say we have all encountered a talking donkey from time to time? Aren’t some of you thinking “Sure- I’m looking at one right now?”

Of course you are; of course we all have.

This story teaches us some valuable lessons about the people of God- that between the sun in morning and the moon at night, what we have is the promised blessing of God.

A blessing that is designed for us to have a life that is as whole and as healthy as possible with people we care about and a place to call our own.

Another lesson this story teaches us is that we can never know for sure where that blessing can come from, and that anyone and anything can be an avenue of that blessing if God so chooses.

A foreign pagan who is paid by a local leader? Sure, why not?

A humble donkey traveling along the road with a nincompoop on her back? Sure, anything with God is possible.

A homeless Jew who likes to drink wine and talk with wary women at a well? Been known to happen.

Two pieces of wood forged into the shape of a cross and a tomb made to hold a dead body? Now that is deep…

Words that are spoken into the air, invisible and weightless? Words written on paper, typed across a screen, sent via text?

Why not?

Wasn’t it words that were used to speak the world into existence? Wasn’t it the Word that was in the beginning, through which life and light came into being???

…Today I am not going to ask you which biblical character you are. Instead I am going to invite you to be one of the characters we have learned about either today or all this month.

And I am going to ask that we are mindful of the words we say this week; the words we use.

Into a bruised and bleeding world where so many swords are already being pointed at others’ necks, do we use words that further curse and kill, condemn and contain?

Or can we find words that offer blessings; words that speak of justice and peace, love and kindness, of welcome and paths ready for the journey?

Are we called by God to use words to curse another, or are we called by God to use words to help usher others into the Promised Land and into the Kingdom of God?

Ask me no more questions; tell me no more lies: teach me, O Lord, your holy Way. Speak to us so that we may speak.

Amen and amen.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Sermon from Aug 17, 2014; Numbers 13:17-21, 25-14:4

Rev. George Miller
Numbers 13:17-21, 25-14:4
August 17, 2014

Good morning to our Miriams and Moseses, our midwives and mothers, our princes and princesses and various servants of the Lord.

Today, in this oasis of space and time, after roving down the river and crossing the sea, we stand in the wilderness, as spies scout out the Promised Land, waiting to hear what the leaders will say.

Being a leader is an incredible honor and a difficult task. A leader will do everything for the sake of the people, trying their best to unite, to protect and to encourage others to reach their full potential, to try new things and to achieve what others consider to be the unachievable.

In essence, a leader guides people into an unexplored promised land where they can flourish and live to their full potential.

Leaders are only human. They learn through both their success and their failures. Anyone who leads knows that they run the risky reality that they may develop few fans, some enemies and many naysayers.

Like parents who set boundaries for their children: don’t cross the street, be home by 11, never take candy from a stranger. It may not make your children happy, but it keeps them safe and alive.

There are numerous kinds of leaders; today we’ll focus on the two kinds we encounter in our reading: leaders who use the currency of fear and those who embrace the promise of possibilities.

But first, let’s do 423 years of story in two minutes. God promised Abraham and Sarah a beautiful land and a large family. Despite trials and tribulations, the second of these promises came true. Trouble is their descendants have been enslaved in Egypt by the Pharaoh.

But not to worry: thanks to the bravery and cunning nature of women like Miriam, Moses’ mother and Pharaoh’s daughter, the people survive and thrive.

Moses grows into an adult, is called by God to free the people, and then there is the whole business of the plagues, the Passover and the parting of the sea, which Miriam celebrates with a song, a tambourine and some fancy footwork.

Moses, along with Miriam and their brother Aaron, leads the people through the wilderness towards the land promised so long ago to Abraham and Sarah.

On their way there they experience bread from heaven, water from a rock. At Mt. Sinai they receive the Law and the 10 Commandments.

They are given the gift of Sabbath rest and experience the glory of God which appears to them as a cloud by day and fire by night.

26 months into their newfound freedom, they are called to leave behind the magnificence Mt. Sinai to journey through the wilderness into the Promised Land.

God provides plenty of quails for food and in the midst of spring they arrive at the land of Canaan. God’s promise of land is on the verge of finally becoming real.

The Lord tells Moses to send his best leaders to take a look at the land they are about to be given. So the best of the best leave the wilderness behind and in the fertile season of spring they enter the southern part of the land and they travel far north.

40 days they spend there, amongst the hills, in the vineyards where giant grapes grow. There are pomegranates and figs and the land flows with milk and honey.

Let’s pause here for a moment. You’ve heard the term “milk and honey” used so much before. Do you know what it means?

Let’s think about it for a moment:
Where does milk come from?
What do cows eat to make milk?
What does grass need in order to grow?
What does good soil need?

Who or what makes honey?
What do the bees need in order to do so?
What do flowers need in order to grow?
What makes the soil so good?

So here we are, it’s spring. Moses and the people are waiting to hear a good report so they can enter the Promised Land.

The leaders come back: the land is lush and green, grapes galore, flowers blooming, milk and honey abound.

And yet…fear creeps in: the people there appear to be big and strong and their cities are large.

Caleb refuses to let this news sway his excitement. He knows what the Lord has promised; he’s ready to embrace the possibilities.

Filled with blessed assurance Caleb says “So let’s go, it’s time to step into our future!”

But the other leaders, the ones who had also seen the giant grapes and green grass, say “There is no way we’ll succeed: we’re too weak.”

So failing to believe God’s promise of possibilities, they return to the wilderness and tell the people an unfavorable report full of lies: the land is no good and they are inferior to its inhabitants.

That’s all it takes for the people to break into weeping and crying, to move from success to failure, from possibility to fear.

So they turn to Moses and Aaron and complain. “We should have died in Egypt. We should have died in the wilderness. We want to go back to the way things were; we want to go back to being slaves...”

This scene is so heartbreaking. It is so sad: they are literally on the cusp of entering the Promised Land during the height of its fertility, so filled with promised possibilities that it is flowing with milk and honey…

…and yet they are easily swayed by the currency of fear placed upon them by a few unfaithful leaders.

Never mind that this is what God had promised them. Never mind that God had parted the Sea. Never mind they were well fed in the wilderness with water from a rock, manna from heaven and quails in abundance.

Never mind that on Mt. Sinai God had given them the Law, the 10 Commandments and the gift of Sabbath rest.

Never mind that God was always present to them in a cloud of glory and a burning blaze.

They act out of fear and refuse to enter into the land filled with pomegranates and promises, figs and a future.

Fear wins out. They fail to honor their part of the covenant they made with God. As a consequence, they’re told to turn around and head back into the dessert by way of the Red Sea.

Sadly, because of the lies of their leaders and their willingness to act out of fear, none of them, except for Caleb and Joshua, will ever enter into the Promised Land.

Sadly, they are now left to wander the wilderness for 40 years and it won’t be until they die out and their children are grown that God’s promise will be fulfilled.

It’s a sad, sad story about how fear can fly in the face of faith.

And one has to wonder, why were the leaders so quick to lie? Why were they so quick to give a bad report about a land so, so good?

Why would they prefer to hold the people back from reaching their full potential?

Perhaps some mistrusted God; perhaps others were afraid of the extra work.

Perhaps some were worried that once they were there no one would have need for their leadership.

Why were the people so willing to be led astray?

Perhaps they were so used to being slaves they couldn’t imagine anything else.

…Why do people do what they do?

Why do some leaders use the currency of fear when others use the promise of possibilities?

We can make some educated guesses. There are those who like to keep people in their place, so they use real or fantasized fear or the threat of harm to keep others in line or dependent upon them.

There are those who are afraid of success and the added responsibility that comes with it, so they feel fine with failure and keeping everyone else around them down.

There are those who are uncomfortable with change, no matter how filled with promise it is. So they believe it’s better to stick with what they know then to journey into the unknown.

Then there are those who like to be the savior, the one to care for and rescue others. Trouble is, you can’t be a savior without making or keeping someone a victim.

All these leaders got to see with their own eyes just how good the land is. And all except Caleb choose to act out of fear.

This won’t be the last time in the Bible that hope is extinguished, promises are parlayed and fear rules.

Look at Jesus: he certainly offered the promises of possibilities. Jesus also talked about another kind of Promised Land- the Kingdom of God.

Jesus lived out that promise in his actions: the way he sat with everyone at table, when he defended the helpless.

Jesus was a man of hope who spoke about wholeness to the broken, community to the lonely and healing to the sick.

He dared to dismantle the ways of death and offered possibility after possibility.

But look how much that scared the leaders of his day. Look at how Jesus suffered on the cross for his promise of possibilities.

Sadly, the Israelites would wander the wilderness for 40 more years, never getting to see, feel, taste, smell or hear what a land flowing with milk and honey was like.

So, which biblical character are you today?

Do you relate to Moses, discerning the call of God, inviting other to be bold?

Do you relate to the leaders entering the land, seeing with your own eyes just how good things can be, but also aware of the things to be wary of?

Do you relate to Caleb, leader of hope, embracing the possibility of promises, fully trusting in God and ready to go, go, go!

Do you relate to the leaders of fear, thinking its best to give unfavorable reports and to portray yourself as grasshoppers amongst giants?

Do you relate to the people, living between what came before and what’s up ahead, unsure, unsteady and more willing to go back than to move ahead?

Is it possible to be any or all of these, depending on the circumstances?

What more does God need to do in order for us to trust and believe, to seek and to enter, to move forward and to taste just how good milk and honey, pomegranates and figs can be?

The currency of fear; the promise of possibilities: when is it best to trade in one? When is it best to give up on the other?

What kind of life is it that Christ is offering?
Are we being guided by the Holy Spirit? Is God still speaking?

Are we still listening? Are we willing to follow? What do we gain for moving forward; what do we gain by going back?

There are still many rivers to cross, many mountains to climb, many deserts to survive, and many crosses to bear.

But today, in this holy space, in this holy time, can we trust and proclaim that God is here, God is victorious?

That God is the Lord of the wilderness. God is the Promiser of Possibilities yet to be realized?

If we are just willing to see, to hear, to trust and to act: God is there.

Amen and amen.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sermon for August 10, 2014; Exodus 2:1-10 and 15:19-21

Rev. George Miller
Exodus 2:1-10 & 15:19-21
August 10, 2014

At this beautiful oasis of time and space I say “Good morning” to all of our Abrahams and Sarahs, Isaacs and Ishmaels, Hagars and other servants of the Lord.

Today we are going to leave behind the well of water in the wilderness to visit a river in Egypt and a Red Sea that leads to freedom.

But first, we need to recap about 420 years in 2 minutes time.

Last week we heard how God promised Abraham land, and a large family that would bless the entire world.

We witnessed the understandable impatience of Sarah, the birth of Isaac and the casting out of Hagar and her son.

Eventually Abraham and Sarah die, Isaac has two sons named Esau and Jacob.

Jacob tricks his brother, deceives his father, wrestles with God and is renamed Israel. He becomes the father to many daughters and sons, gives a Technicolor dream coat to his beloved child Joseph.

Joseph is sold into slavery, saves the Mid-eastern world from starvation and is reunited with his family in Egypt decades later.

Flash forward about 300 years. God’s promise of a large family comes true as Abraham’s descendents multiply rapidly in Egypt, but so much so that it scares the Pharaoh.

Fearful of these people with a different skin tone and beliefs, the Pharaoh enslaves them, increases their tasks and limits their supplies.

But this doesn’t stop them from giving birth to many children, so the Pharaoh demands the midwives to kill the 1st born sons, which they refuse to do, coming up with a comedic excuse to taunt the King.

So next, he announces another decry- every Hebrew boy is to be tossed into the river, but the girls can live.

The threat of death abounds, but hark!- into this story enters love and marriage and a baby carriage and the tale of how a group of women figuratively shake their fanny at the Pharaoh in delightful acts of defiance.

So in this air-conditioned oasis, let’s explore who’s who and the story that unfolds.

We already talked about Pharaoh and the midwives; now let’s talk about the mother. In the midst of oppression, in the midst of violence, in the midst of a world gone wrong, she dares to marry and start a family.

She has a daughter, who I believe is called Miriam. But then she gives birth to a baby boy. Although she does not name him, she must love him very much for she hides him for three months, knowing full well the peril she has placed herself and her family.

When she can no longer hide her first born son, she wickedly, wisely does just as the King says- she tosses her son in the river. But not until she makes a water-resistant floating basket for him to be placed inside.

This child floats along the Nile until he comes to the place where the Pharaoh’s daughter is having her bath. Knowing full well that this child is perceived by her father as different and dangerous, she adopts him

Then there is Miriam, the baby’s sister. How old is she? We don’t know. But she watched over her brother, following him into the Pharaoh’s territory.

Even though she’s on the bottom of the social ladder: she’s a female, she’s a child, she’s a slave, she still has the audacity to address the Princess and finds a way to reunite her family, even if only temporarily.

Then, decades later, as she assists her brothers in fleeing their captors and crossing the Red Sea, it is Miriam who sings a song of triumph, a song that scholars believe is the first song of the Israelite people to be written down.

But did you happen to notice something about Exodus 2:1-10?

Funny thing: the Pharaoh is so afraid of the boy babies becoming the threat but it’s the female folk: the midwives, the mother, the daughter, the sister, and the servants, that have outsmarted him every step of the way.

Did you notice something else? Where are the men in this narrative?

Pharaoh is a cold-blooded buffoon. The father disappears after the first verse. Moses is a passive participant in his own story, just a floating, crying child.

And where is God? Seriously: where is God?

Because in these 10 verses there’s a lot of action being accomplished by the women but there is absolutely no mention or allusion to God. None.

…and yet, God is there, present throughout the story, isn’t God?

In the defiant actions of the midwives who refuse to kill innocent children…God is there.

In the ability of two people to meet, marry and start a family even as so much chaos unfolds…God is there.

In the creation of new life in the face of so much death…God is there.

In the wily and wise trickery of the wife who does her best to keep her family intact and to protect and her son…God is there.

In the fearless young girl who refuses to abandon her baby brother and speak to the political power of her day…God is there.

In the compassionate, death defying actions of the Pharaoh’s daughter who sees, hears, takes pity and cares for the baby boy…God is there.

In the servants who pull Moses from the water and into the princess’ sheltering arms…God is there.

Decades later in the tambourine Miriam takes hold of as she and the women sing and dance , celebrating the Lord’s glorious triumphant…God is there.

Even- even amidst the wreckage of the oppressor’s horse and riders cast into the sea, we have to believe God is there to comfort their grieving families…

God does not have to always be mentioned because God is always there, always seeing, always hearing, always caring.

God does not have to always be mentioned because God is always there, like the act of love, like the bond between parent and child, like the protective care of an older sibling, like the rambling of a river, like the expanse of the sea.

Like the sound of music.

God is there.

So, following the theme of the next 2 months, which Biblical character are you?

Pharaoh: afraid, ego-centered, and brutal?

The father? There, but not there- absent?

Moses: A passive innocent caught in a life & death situation you have no control over, surviving simply by the grace of God and care of others?

The mother: foolish and brave enough to believe in life and love even when death is all around; able to use your wits to buck the system; willing to do whatever it takes for the sake of your child?

Pharaoh’s daughter- benefitting from the current power structure, yet still able to see, hear, and have pity on the cries of an innocent; who uses your position in life to provide compassionate care for another?

The servants- faithful, willing to help anyway you can; unnamed and not seeking glory for the good you do?

Miriam, the girl- scrappy, smart, unafraid to address those more powerful than you, doing whatever it takes for the sake of your family?

How about Miriam, the woman- a prophet who knows the acts of God when you see it; who helps lead God’s people to a better place; who cannot contain your joy over what God has done, believing that God is triumphant even over the most insurmountable aspects of life?

Or…perhaps you identify with the horse and riders, fighting on the side that is clearly in the wrong.

Or maybe someone here today can identify with God- working behind the scenes, able to do the impossible.

Last week, we spent time at an oasis. This week we encountered a river and crossed a sea.

Still there will be many rivers to cross, many mountains to climb, many deserts to survive, many crosses to bear.

But today, in this holy space, in this holy time, let us trust and proclaim that God is there, God is victorious, that God is the Lord of the rivers; God is the Lord of the empty tombs; God is the Lord of songs sung in victory.

If we are just willing to see, to hear, to take pity and to act: God is there.

Amen and amen.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Sermon from August 3, 2014 Genesis 21:8-21

Rev. George Miller
Genesis 21:8-21
August 3, 2014

When I was called to Emmanuel, an image came to mind: that we were an oasis: an oasis in the middle of the road, in the middle of the city, in the middle of the state.

Emmanuel UCC: a spiritual, social, physical oasis; an oasis to look forward to, to find rest, to end one week and to prepare for another.

A place for folk to go where one can be refreshed and fed on numerous levels.

Four years later, I still feel the same way, but now with a deeper vision- an oasis in which our many hands work together to do our part to make the Kingdom of Heaven a bit more real.

An oasis in which the spiritually deaf can hear the voice of the Still Speaking God, the spiritually blind can see Living Water that is Jesus Christ and the spiritually hungry can be revived by the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

In essence, Emmanuel is to be a place where all journeyers can be cared for, ministered to, and experience a taste of just how good Christianity is when judgment is stripped away, compassion is shared and when the body of Christ is truly the hands of Christ.

No small order, yet our Shepherd’s Pantry fed 39 households and our Vacation Bible School enriched the lives of 26 children.

Today we are back again, each having had our own journeys filled with sadness and joy, bad plumbing and refreshing vacations, hopelessness and hope.

We are here in this oasis, some to find God, some to share God, so it is good that today we kick off our 2-month sermon series with the story of Hagar and the well of water.

If you’re familiar with FaceBook you know that there are a series of quizzes that are all the rage, quizzes that ask such burning questions as “What Gem Stone Would You Be?”, “How Floridian Are You?”, or “Which Golden Girl Are You?”

For the next two months we’ll ask “What Biblical Character or Story Are You”?

Since we’re all so complex, there will be no pat answer, but this will offer an opportunity to explore the scriptures in a fun way.

Today we start with Genesis 21, but first we’ll need to cover 27 years of back-story in about 2 minutes.

Once upon a time, God, said to Abraham “Get up and GO! Leave behind everything you’ve ever known for I’ll give you land, many kin and your family will bless all the families of the world.”

Small problem: Abraham is 75, Sarah is about 69 and they have no children. But Abraham says “OK” and off he and Sarah go, traveling from place to place.

10 years pass. They go to Egypt, survive a famine, meet a pharaoh, rescue a relative and are blessed by a king. But no land, no baby.

Tired of waiting for God to act, Sarah takes matters into her own hand. She gives her slave girl, Hagar, to her husband in hopes that a child will be conceived. Which is just what happens.

Wouldn’t you know it: Sarah gets jealous, Hagar runs away, God convinces her to go back and Hagar gives birth to Ishmael.

But God says “Oh no, this wasn’t part of the plan. Abraham-you will have a son with Sarah.” So, they wander some more, Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed, they meet another king and Ishmael becomes a teen.

And then, just a mere 27 years after God’s original promise, when Sarah is a youthful 94 and Abraham is a spry 100, they have their promised son, Isaac.

Three more years pass, and one day during a party Sarah notices that Hagar’s son Ishmael is playing with Isaac, and Sarah does not like it one bit.

She demands that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away, which he does, giving them nothing more than a canteen of water and a loaf of bread.

So much for loving justice and doing kindness.

So much for traditional family values. This intergenerational, interracial family is like a soap opera, laced with sex, jealousy and cat-fights.

Hagar and Ishmael are left to wander the wilderness until their supplies run out. Facing certain death, she places her son under a bush, and too overwrought to even look at him, she cries out to God, she weeps.

Just when it seems all hope is lost, just when it seems like she and her son will die…she hears the voice of the Still Speaking God who calls her by name. Who asks what is wrong. Who tells her “Do not be afraid.”

Who opens her eyes so that she may see: a well, with water, water for living, is there.

She and her son are refreshed. Renewed. Empowered. Ready for what lays ahead.

When all else seemed lost, she found an oasis in the middle of the dessert, in the middle of their journey, in the middle of their lives.

And their story is forever changed.

Of course, we have to ask ourselves: where did this well of water come from?

Did it just magically appear when God heard her cries, a parlor trick for a pitiful person?

Was it a lesson she needed to learn that sometimes in order for God to do miraculous things we have to be so broken down and desperate that we have nothing but the Living Lord to rely upon?

Was the well of water always there, but Hagar was too immersed in her own grief and fears too see it?

Does it matter if the point of the story is that even at our lowest, most desperate moments, God sees, God hears and God is capable of acting, no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey?

Is it safe to say that Hagar, a Gentile, becomes the spiritual prototype of the Samaritan woman at the well who will meet Jesus, the Living Water, roughly 1,000 years?

And for those here who tend to be social justice minded, is it safe to say that Hagar represents all those find themselves in unfair and unfortunate situations: those who are enslaved, those forced into the sex trade, those abused by employers, homeless on the streets or unable to care for their children?

If God saw, heard and responded to Hagar’s cries back then, does God see, hear and respond to their cries now?

As we can see, though today’s scripture is only 13 verses long, it contains the themes of family, jealousy, hard choices, survival, wandering, hopelessness, assured death, not having enough, and an uncertain future.

And yet it also features or points to themes of perseverance, hope, new beginnings, self-sustenance, love, thriving, “enough” and the presence of God.

Desert and oasis, death and life.

Like what we had at VBS, what we have at the Shepherd’s Pantry; what we’ll have in September’s Global Mission Fair.

What we encounter every time we gather to worship and get to be the many hands that make ministry happen.

So, which Biblical character are you today?

Abraham: caught in the middle, with difficult choices to makes, unsure what’s the right one when both have negative repercussions?

Sarah: insecure, protective of your family, willing to do what you think must be done, not sure if God is trustworthy or if God is capable of blessing both you and someone else?

Ishmael: an easy target for another’s wrath and insecurity, a child of circumstances on the verge of disaster?

Isaac: an innocent completely caught in something you don’t understand, something you have no control over, who has lost a playmate, a friend, a family member due to one of life’s unfair situations?

Hagar, who knows what it’s like to be unfairly treated, to be cast into the wilderness, to know what it’s like to watch a child needlessly suffer?

Are any of these characters all good? Are any of them all bad?

Or perhaps you’re one of the other servants, watching these events unfold, knowing what Abraham and Sarah are capable of doing, wondering if you’re next?

Could you even be God, whatever that may mean in the context of this family’s story?

Rich, complex, real. Wildernesses and deserts of hard choices and harsh realities.

Which makes the oasis we come across via Hagar and Ishmael that much more refreshing, that much more necessary, that much more vital.

Because everyone knows what it’s like to be lost, everyone knows what it’s like to be different in some way, everyone knows what it’s like to thirst, everyone knows what it’s like to face a hopeless situation and wonder:

Does God see? Does God hear? Does God even care?

Which is why this time, why this place, why this oasis, in the middle of Hammock Road, in the middle of Sebring, in the middle of the state of Florida is so important.

Because with our many hands, because of our many hearts, we are capable of finding our own unique way of saying “Yes, yes, and yes.”

God does see, God does hear, God does care, and God still speaks. Let us share with you how...

Amen and amen.