The Well in the Desert

File:Adi Nes 004.jpg

Have you ever experienced rejection?

If you’ve ever been a sixth-grader at a school dance, chances are you have.

“Eww, I’m not gonna dance with you, you dweeb!”

It’s a hard thing to go through, especially when you’re a kid. Those painful memories stay with you forever. Those of us who have kids of our own or care for other people’s kids know that crestfallen look in their eyes when they come home from school. We remember what it was like to be that age and experience rejection. It’s like our body still remembers the feeling of that knot in the stomach. We didn’t know how to fix it then and we don’t know how to fix it now. The best that any of us can say is that, by the grace of God, we got through it. So, when we see the kids we care about going through it right now, our heart goes out to them. Knowing that we don’t have any way to fix it (or even answers as to why it’s happening), all we can do when we see that look in their eyes is put our arms around them and say, “I’m so sorry.” We know that it’s just puppy love, but it’s real to the puppy. We know that our love for them can’t take away the shame of rejection, but we hope that somehow, it will help them get through it.

If we’re honest, we grown-ups can admit that we still feel that same pain sometimes. It might not come from the same sources (e.g. a twelve-year-old calling me a dweeb today will not phase me much), but there are certain things that other people can say or do that take us right back to feeling like that sixth grader at the middle school dance. It’s like the worst kind of time-travel. People can say things to us like: “I don’t have room in my life for a relationship with you… We don’t feel like you are a good fit for this position… Not tonight, I have a headache.”

It hurts, doesn’t it? And even though we are now adults facing adult situations, the pain we feel is still rooted in that childhood experience of rejection. Our brains may know the difference, but our bodies and our hearts do not. That old pain is still with us: the pain of not being chosen or wanted.

In our first reading this morning, from the book of Genesis, we heard the story of Hagar and her son Ishmael, two of the Bible’s most famous underdogs. They were two people who understood better than most what rejection feels like; what it feels like to be “not chosen” in ways that really matter.

Hagar and Ishmael are not “main characters” in the biblical story by any stretch of the imagination. They are the supporting cast, they are “extras” in someone else’s story. In this part of the book of Genesis, Sarah and Abraham are the main characters; they are God’s “chosen people.” God appeared to Abraham and said to him, “You shall be called the father of many nations. I will bless you and make you a blessing to all the nations of the world.”

Now, there was a problem with this arrangement because Abraham and his wife Sarah were already too old to have kids. And Sarah, being a very rational and practical person, came up with a solution: “I have this slave-girl, Hagar. She’s young enough to bear children. Here, Abraham, you go ahead and have a baby with her, so that God’s promise can come true.”

And this is where things get complicated. At this point, the biblical story almost starts to look like a “reality TV” show. Jealousy and rivalry set in quickly. Hagar and Sarah never seem to get along after this point.

First, Hagar does have a baby with Abraham and names him Ishmael. And Sarah is jealous of Hagar for this. Later on, after Sarah does have a baby against all conceivable odds, she decides that she doesn’t need Hagar anymore, so she tells Abraham to break up with Hagar and send her packing.

It’s interesting to note that Hagar never has a say in anything that happens to her. She is Sarah’s slave: an object who just gets passed around and used like a piece of property that can then be disposed of when she is no longer needed. Sarah and Abraham were the chosen people, but Hagar and Ishmael were leftovers… afterthoughts.

Sarah comes across as pretty heartless in this passage. Abraham fares a little better, but not much. The text says that he is “distressed” (we might say “stressed out”) by Sarah’s demands. After all, Ishmael is his firstborn son. He loads them up with as many supplies as they can carry, but it’s not much: a loaf of bread and a bottle of water. And then he sends them out into the desert, knowing that he will never see them again and they will most likely die there.

Out in the desert, Hagar’s water runs out pretty quickly. And here she is: all alone in the desert with a baby and no water. She’s been used, abused, and eventually abandoned by the people who were supposed to take care of her.

She keeps going for a little while: as long as she can, which is obviously not long in a place like that. But eventually her strength gives out. She knows what will happen next: she and her son will die out here and their bones will probably never be found.

If there is anyone in this story who is lower-down and worse off than Hagar, it’s Ishmael. He is just a baby at this point. He owes his very existence to this twisted situation. He didn’t ask for any of this. You could say that he never even had a decent shot at life. The playing field of opportunity was never really level for him. And now, because Sarah and Abraham, God’s chosen people, were acting so petty and hard-hearted, he was going to die.

This is where Hagar reaches her breaking point. She can’t go on, so she gives up and throws in the towel. Above all, she can’t bear to watch Ishmael die, so she abandons him: she sets him down under a bush and walks away. She can hear him crying behind her, but she won’t turn around. It’s too late for them. It’s over.

And then… in that moment… the moment after all hope is lost, hope finally begins to dawn. That’s when God finally decides to show up in this morbid scene: not alongside the chosen people, but with the rejected ones; not in the city or the camp, but out in the desert; not with the rugged, faithful, positive-thinking overcomers who soldier on no matter what, but with those who have given up and given in to the worst parts of their humanity. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “It is only for those who hold on for ten minutes after all hope is gone that hope begins to dawn.”

God shows up in the least likely places. In this story, there is a definite hierarchy among characters: At the top there is Sarah, who just doesn’t care. Next you have Abraham, who is caught in the middle of his two wives and sons. The text tells us that he is “distressed” by what is happening. After that, you have Hagar, who is rejected, abandoned, and heartbroken. And finally, at the very bottom, there is Ishmael, who never asked for any of this. This baby is going to die because God’s chosen people are too hard-hearted to see past their own petty issues. (Sounds like the Church sometimes, doesn’t it?)

And where is God in all this? Sitting on heaven’s throne, objectively evaluating the situation? Does God make excuses for the chosen people, justifying their selfishness, no matter what the cost?

Whose voice does God listen to in the end? Not Sarah’s, not Abraham’s, not the chosen people’s, not even poor Hagar’s. Genesis tells us that “God heard the voice of the boy.” Ishmael. The voice that mattered least. The voice that no one else wanted to hear (not even his own mother, in the end). Ishmael was the least of the least in this situation, the one who even the rejects rejected. He didn’t even have words to form, much less a theology for calling out to God and arranging salvation. The only thing that came out of him was the wordless wail of a child who has just been abandoned by his mother.

Rejection. Ultimate rejection which, in his case, meant certain death. And God heard the voice of the boy. God shows up where the pain is greatest and the hope is gone. In spite of the sacred covenant established with Abraham and continued through Isaac and Sarah, God cannot help but reach out to be with these forgotten folk, particularly this baby boy.

God speaks to Hagar his mother and says, “Don’t be afraid. I’m here. I’m listening. Go, pick up your son and hold him close, because this kid has a future. I will make a great nation of him.”

And then, according to the text of Genesis, God opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw something: a well of water in the desert. Not just a bottle, like Abraham had given her, but a full-on well where she and her son could drink and drink to their hearts’ content.

According to the text and history, God made good on that promise to Hagar and Ishmael. They learned how to survive out in the desert. They made a life for themselves. Ishmael grew up, got married, and became a great bow-hunter.

He even became “a great nation,” as God promised he would: our Muslim neighbors trace their ancestry to Abraham through Ishmael, just as Jews and Christians trace their lineage through Isaac, Abraham’s son by Sarah.

What I take away from this story is God’s special love for the least of the least of the least. God really does seem to have a thing for underdogs. Church teaching has historically referred to this as “the preferential option for the poor.”

God is not neutral or objective when it comes to injustice. God sides with the poor and powerless people of the earth in their suffering. It’s not that God loves some people more than others; it’s that some people need God’s love more than others. God stands in solidarity with the oppressed peoples of this world, therefore we, as God’s people are called to do the same.

I believe the Church is called to be a safe haven for our outcast sisters and brothers. We’ve all heard stories of faith communities rejecting certain people, sending them packing, or kicking them out for one reason or another, perhaps sending them off with a single bottle of water to sustain their faith in the spiritual deserts of this world…

I believe the Church’s call in those moments is to be present with those rejected people, like Hagar and Ishmael in the desert. Rather than turning our heads and walking away because we can’t bear to see their suffering, I believe we are called to hold each other close in the darkest hours, to open the eyes that are blind, and inspire our hurting neighbors to believe in a future for themselves that they would not even dare to imagine.

We are not meant to pass out little bottles of water and then send people on their way. We care called to be that well in the desert, where exhausted travelers and fellow rejects can find rest and build a new life together out of the ashes of their rejection.

This is the kind of ministry that North Church has been doing for over a generation. We are the well in the desert. We stand together today, poised at the brink of an unknown-but-promising future, facing new challenges, ready to pursue new opportunities, and certain of this: that God is with us. We know this because we are the poor, we are the homeless, we are the addicts, we are the disabled, we are the mentally ill, we are often overlooked and outcast, we are the freaks and the geeks, we are the queer, like Hagar and Ishmael, we are the rejected ones: and that’s where God lives. Amen.

The Power of Love

Image is in the public domain. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Image is in the public domain. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

How do you know when you’re on a bad first date?

  • When you’ve been waiting at the restaurant for half an hour and she still hasn’t shown up yet.
  • When she pulls out a newspaper and starts reading it.
  • When she pulls out a cell phone and says, “Let me call my husband…”

Each and every one of these things happened to me at one point or another when I was still single.  Looking back, they’re kind of funny, but they didn’t seem so at the time (especially the last one).

There is something especially deflating about a first date that does not go well.  It takes the wind out of your sails in a way that few things can.  You put on your best clothes and your best behavior in an attempt to ultimately convince another person that you are worth loving.  When it doesn’t work out like you had hoped, it’s hard not to take that personally.  Your self-esteem usually needs some time to recover.

This doesn’t just happen in the dating world either.  Job interviews can be just as brutal in their own way.  You’re putting yourself out there, your future is on the line, but nobody wants to take a chance on you.  That kind of rejection stings to the core and leaves a mark on the surface.

Rejection is probably the most disempowering and disheartening experience a human being can go through.  It hits us right where we live and makes us feel like we aren’t worth anything.  No matter how old we are or how successful we appear to be in life, each and every one of us carries inside of us the pain of past rejection and the fear of future rejection.

This is true of everyone: from the washed-up wino under a bridge to the pop-star princess on TV.  I remember learning this as a teenager when I overheard a conversation one day with a girl who I thought was the prettiest and most popular girl in school.  She was telling someone how she would sometimes just sit in front of her mirror at home and cry because she felt so ugly.  I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  I thought for sure that this girl, of all people, must know what it’s like to be beautiful and loved by everyone, but I was wrong.  The pain and fear of rejection is universal among humans.

Saddest of all are those who experienced rejection so many times that they start to really believe that they’re not worthy of love or happiness in life.  These folks have started to internalize that message of rejection.  They think that’s who they are.  They think that’s what they deserve.  They think they’re nothing and that their lives are worth nothing.  So they treat themselves and others accordingly.

Personally, I can’t help but wonder whether this kind of broken heart might lie behind some of the many incidents of mass murder and random violence that have become so epidemic in our society?  If so, then I would humbly suggest that an effort to include the outcasts and befriend the loners might be more effective in preventing violence than our repeated (and unsuccessful) efforts to “watch out for those maniacs” or “keep an eye on those weirdoes.”  Internalized rejection is disempowering and dehumanizing to people.  There eventually comes a tipping-point when a rejected person becomes the kind of monster that others have made them out to be.

Rejection is powerful, but then again so is love.  Knowing that even one person cares is sometimes enough to make all the difference in the world.  It can even save a life.

I’ve seen what love can do in my life.  Having already mentioned some of my bad experiences in dating, I’d like to share one good one.  This single, ongoing good experience has been enough in my life to outweigh all those other bad dating experiences put together.  I’ve been married to an amazing woman for eight years.  We have laughed together, cried together, encouraged each other, and challenged each other.  Loving her and being loved by her has changed the way I live in this world.  I carry myself differently, I see myself differently, and even though Sarah and I might set each other off sometimes, we usually manage to somehow bring out the best in each other.  That’s what love can do.  That’s the power of love.

Jesus understood that power.  He had experienced it directly, in an ultimate sense.  When he was about thirty years old, he got involved with a radical movement started by his cousin, John.  Cousin John, who we all now know as John the Baptist, was a kind of revival preacher who lived a simple life in the desert and made extensive use of a Jewish practice known as tevilah (ritual washing).  Tevilah was (and still is) used for all kinds of religious and sanitary reasons in traditional Judaism.  John used it as a ritual sign of for Jews who wanted to recommit their lives to following the Torah.  John intuited that big changes were on the way for his people and he wanted them to be spiritually ready.

Jesus himself appears to have been attracted to John’s renewal movement.  Like many of his peers, he participated in the tevilah ritual (which our Bibles have conveniently translated baptism, from the Greek word for “immersion”).  But then something happened to Jesus that didn’t seem to happen to the others.  Luke tells us,

“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.””

This ritual washing seems to have been a significant spiritual experience for Jesus.  It was the catalyst that set the rest of his life in motion.  This is the point where Jesus’ work of healing and teaching really gets started.  In a sense, Jesus’ baptism was the moment when he was ordained and commissioned to his ministry.

The part of this story that really stands out to me is the voice from heaven.  This voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  This message is addressed directly to Jesus himself.  The voice calls him “Beloved,” which I take to be significant.

I think about those times in my own life when I faced a scary challenge and my wife said to me, “I love you, sweetheart.  I have faith in you and, no matter what happens, I promise we’ll get through this together.”  I can tell you that, when I hear that from her, I find an inner strength I didn’t know I had.  Love is empowering, no matter where it comes from.  Spouses and partners can affect each other in that way.  We can do the same as friends, family, parents, teachers, and bosses.  We encourage each other.  Have you ever thought about that word?  Encourage.  It comes from the Latin en (into) and cor (heart).  We “put heart/strength into” one another.  When Jesus was baptized and heard that voice from the sky saying “You are my Son, the Beloved,” I believe he was being en-couraged: the very heart of who he was and what he would do was being put into him at that moment.  I believe it was then that Jesus discovered the depths of inner strength that would allow him to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and speak such bold words of truth to power.  Whatever else we might believe about him, we can say that Jesus was a person who felt himself to be empowered by the ultimate Love that springs up from the very heart of reality: the sacred energy that we Christians name God or Holy Spirit.

The same Spirit that empowered Jesus also lives in us.  The same energetic force that catalyzed the Big Bang also animates our brains and bodies.  The flame that burns in a hundred million stars is also shut up in our bones, sparking our creativity and setting our hearts on fire to imagine what might be possible.  After 13.75 billion years of preparation, fine tuning, and evolution, the universe has finally given birth to us: you and me.  We have been gifted with unprecedented knowledge, opportunity, resources, and power to shape the future of the world.  Life itself has placed these gifts into our hands as if to say, “You are my beloved sons and daughters.  I made you, I love you, and I believe in you.”  No less than Jesus, you and I are empowered people.

We call it a miracle when we read about Jesus feeding 5,000 people with loaves and fishes, but we have that power too.  According to the World Food Programme, one dollar will feed four children for a day in a developing country.  This means that we could feed 5,000 people for only $1,250.  Even our little country church could manage that much miracle.  On Christmas Eve 2011, our congregation answered a cry for help from Thea Bowman House, an affordable daycare center in Utica whose funding was being slashed by the county government.  Closure seemed imminent.  This would have forced dozens of parents to leave the workforce and go on welfare because they couldn’t afford full-time daycare without assistance.  People from our church raised $1,000 that Christmas Eve and sent it to that program.  I ran into their director several months later, who told me that, thanks in part to our contribution, they managed to weather the storm without closing their doors.  What’s even more amazing is that they did it without having to drop services to a single family.  I call that a miracle!

We call it a miracle when we read about Jesus healing the sick, but we have that power too.  Our congregation recently finished paying off a $4,500 pledge to Presbyterian Homes & Services in New Hartford to help build the new Parkinson’s Residence.  We’ve been told that this program is the first of its kind and will lead the nation in the fight against Parkinson’s disease with state-of-the-art technology.  Just a few weeks ago, at our most recent Christmas Eve service, our little congregation took up a special collection of $1,420 that was sent to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) to help with the cleanup effort in New York and New Jersey after the devastation left by Hurricane Sandy.  Immediately after the storm, PDA set up emergency shelters and food distribution sites for the victims.  Since then, PDA has continued to work with churches and send down teams of volunteers to help with the long-term cleanup and recovery.  I call that a miracle too.

These are your miracles.  This is the power of what Love can do.  It causes us to think outside the box and reach deep down inside to find resources of strength and generosity we didn’t even know we had.  It’s true that the sharp sting of rejection and the dull ache of loneliness can be felt in all corners of this hurting world, but the caress of love can be felt as well.  The same Spirit that empowered Jesus’ ministry inspires ours as well.  The same voice from the heavens that spoke to Jesus still whispers in our hearts, calling us beloved children.  I pray that our lives will continue to echo the sound of that loving voice to this lonely world, saying to it: “I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Be blessed and be a blessing!

And I just couldn’t resist adding this video to the blog post:

Rejecting Rejection: An Easter Sermon

The Risen Christ by He Qi

My first Easter sermon at First Presbyterian, Boonville.  The text is Matthew 28:1-10.

Philip Gulley and James Mulholland tell a story in their book, If Grace Is True (HarperCollins: 2003), about a scene that is probably familiar to all of us (especially those of us who are parents).  It goes like this:

When I was about five years old, I demanded my mother buy me a certain toy.  She refused, explaining she didn’t have the money.

I recall flying into a rage and screaming, “I hate you!”

My mother was utterly unperturbed.  She didn’t spank me and send me to my room, though that would have been understandable.  She didn’t break into tears.  She didn’t drag me to a therapist.  She most certainly didn’t buy the toy.  She simply said, “Well, I love you, and your hate can’t change my love.”  (p.110)

I think most of us have been there, am I right?  If you haven’t experienced it firsthand, you’ve probably seen something like it in public.  As the father of a two-year-old, I’m intimately familiar with what goes through a parent’s head in a moment like that.  I worry about making a scene.  I wonder what other people must be thinking about me as a parent.  I’m scared that, no matter what I do, I might be psychologically scarring my child for life.

But when I see other parents dealing with similar meltdowns in public, I don’t judge them.  In fact, my heart goes out to them.  I don’t think they’re bad parents.  I see others like me who are just doing the best they can in a difficult moment.  The only parents I worry about are the ones who return the rage in kind.  You know what I’m talking about.  All of us lose our cool with our kids on occasion, but it’s pretty obvious when a parent in public crosses the line verbally or physically.  In the effort to maintain control of the situation, they lose control of themselves.  Those are the parents that other people tend to worry about.

Imagine what people would think if the mother in Gulley and Mulholland’s story had shouted, “I hate you, too!” and stormed out of the store, leaving this five-year-old little kid to find his own way home.  We would be horrified!  We would run to the child’s aid and probably call the police.  We would say that such a mother deserves to be locked up in jail.

Unfortunately, there are those among Christians past and present who believe that this is exactly how God behaves.  Those who turn their backs on God, so they say, are doomed for eternity.  Those who reject God will be rejected by God.  They claim that God, who is infinitely holy and righteous, must respect the freewill of these unrepentant sinners and allow them to receive exactly what they deserve.  Most Christians who believe this can quote lots of Bible verses to support their position.

What I can’t understand is this: if we would call the police on any human mother who abandoned her child in that way, then why wouldn’t we do the same for a parental deity who abandons even one of God’s children to eternal torment?  Why should we worship God for doing that for which we would incarcerate a human?  It doesn’t make sense.

Fortunately for us, that is not the God who we worship.  The God of love revealed in Jesus Christ is more like the mother in the first story from Gulley and Mulholland’s book.  When we scream, “I hate you!” at God, God responds, “Well, I love you, and your hate can’t change my love.”  This God rejects the rejection of the rebellious children.

This God would rather leave the ninety-nine sheep in the field to go search for the one who is lost.  Jesus tells us in Luke 15 that this good shepherd searches until that lost sheep is found and carries it home rejoicing.  Jesus teaches his followers to love their enemies because that’s what God does.  He says, in Matthew 5:44-45,

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Not only did Jesus teach us about God’s love, he showed it to us in the way that he unconditionally accepted the most messed-up and undesirable people of his day as members of his own family.

More than any other story in the scriptures, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection shows us just how far God is willing to go in order to reject our rejection.  Last Sunday, and then again on Good Friday, we heard the story of how the powers that be in the world rejected Jesus.  The political and religious authorities wanted to shut him up.  His closest disciples betrayed, denied, and abandoned him.  Last week, we also looked at the hard fact that you and I are really no different from the crowds who shouted, “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday and “Crucify!” only five days later on Good Friday.  The cross stands as a reminder of the lengths to which we, the people of this world, will go in order to reject Jesus.  Like five-year-olds throwing temper tantrums, we scream, “I hate you!” to God at the top of our lungs.  With all our pretended power, we lash out with the very worst torture and death that we can muster.  Intoxicated by our ability to inflict death, we delude ourselves into thinking that we’re so strong.  We can even make God go away… permanently!

But then, on the third day, on that first Easter Sunday, something happened.  It says in today’s reading from Matthew that there was an earthquake.  Matthew is the only one of the four gospels to record this fact.  What does it mean?  I like to think it means that something fundamental at the very heart of reality shifted in that moment.  The power of life overcame the power of death.  The very worst of human hatred was undone by the very best of God’s love.  In the cross, the world rejected Jesus Christ.  But in the resurrection, God rejected the world’s rejection.  This is what Easter is all about!

As if this weren’t enough, look again at what happens in verse 10.  Jesus appears to the two Marys and gives them a message for his “brothers” (meaning the twelve disciples).  Remember that the last time we saw any of them in Matthew was in 26:56, when they were all running away from Jesus in his hour of need.  They rejected him.  But the risen Jesus nevertheless calls them “brothers” and invites them to return to the mission they had begun together.  He rejected their rejection.

This is (very) good news for people like me who struggle with our loyalty to God.  If God were to respect my freewill and give me what I deserve (and sometimes ask for), I would be abandoned like a five-year-old in a department store with no way home.  I am thankful that God does not respect my freewill, but goes out of the way to seek after me until I am found.  I am thankful that God has rejected my rejection.

What does this mean for all of us?

Maybe you are a Christian, but you struggle with things like sin and doubt.  Well, the good news for you is that you don’t have to impress God with your morals or your dogma.  The only thing for you to do, in the words of the theologian Paul Tillich, is “accept the fact that you are accepted.”

Maybe you’re here today and you’re not a Christian.  Maybe you want to believe in something, but can’t wrap your mind around some theological point or maybe you’re sickened by the judgmental hypocrisy of those who call themselves Christians.  The good news for you is that the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ is not the cold-hearted and small-minded bookkeeper of conventional religion.  The God I believe in is not standing at a distance, waiting to burn you in hell.  My God is just as angry about the pretended piety of so-called “saints” to which you have borne witness.  Likewise, God is not threatened by honest questions on a quest for truth.

Whatever your individual struggle may be, what I want you to take away from this Easter is that, in the resurrection of Jesus, God has rejected your rejection.  Sure, you might kick and scream like a kid having a tantrum.  You might even deny God’s existence or yell, “I hate you!” to the empty sky, but in those moments, the God I believe in just holds you that much tighter with an eternal love that will not let you go.