Pillows of Stone, Pillars of Praise

JacobsLadderReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Genesis 28:10-19a given on July 19, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas 

Sorry for the gap in postings--I had computer problems and then we moved! I am 10 minutes from church now, and Dan is 15 minutes from his, and we love our new home. Grateful for blessings in the midst of COVID!

Our house in Frisco was on the market so we could move to the house we just purchased in Richardson, getting my husband and I closer to both churches we serve. We had to leave the house looking as if no one lived in it—walls, countertops and floors all bare. We even put the pillows we sleep on in the linen closet. I hated doing this with Dan’s pillow because it is this big, heavy, gel, memory foam thing that weighs a ton and it was hard to shove it onto the top shelf. Every time I did this, I repeated what comedian Jim Gaffigan says about futons—that pillow is "stuffed with anger!" I do not know how he sleeps on that thing.

Out in the middle of nowhere, far from home, Jacob uses a stone for a pillow—talk about a pillow stuffed with anger! How uncomfortable. What an apt metaphor for our life during this pandemic. We are not far from home, in fact we spend more time there than ever before, however, these last few months have been so disorienting, we are in a wilderness far from anything familiar or comfortable. It feels like all we have is a stone pillow making any sense of rest, support or solace difficult to come by.

We need to take a step back and recall how Jacob got into this godforsaken place to begin with. You might recall that Jacob bargained with his older twin Esau to give him his inheritance in exchange for a bowl of lentil stew, but there was still the matter of the blessing from Isaac. He was getting old and blind and it was time for Isaac to give Esau his blessing, so he asked Esau to go hunting for some game and make him a dinner.

But Rebekah wanted Jacob to receive the blessing. So, she instructed him to steal a couple of goats from the herd and make Isaac dinner while Esau was out hunting. Then she took the goat skin to make sleeves for Jacob so his arms would feel hairy like Esau’s arms. In his blindness Isaac was fooled, and he gave the blessing to Jacob instead of to Esau. When Esau returned from hunting and learned Jacob had tricked him out of what was rightfully his again, he became incensed and vowed to kill Jacob.

Which catches us up to our story today. Jacob sets off on a long journey to escape his brother’s wrath and to find himself a wife. On this long, perilous journey Jacob is far from home, security, community, and anything familiar. There is no protection or creature comforts. I can feel the crick in his neck and the pressure on his head as he uses a stone for a pillow. It sounds much like our experience of this global pandemic. Many nights we lay our head on a stone pillow.

• For some of us it is the stone of fear. We live with a gnawing dread that we or someone we love will catch this awful virus. For the first couple of cases in Texas were few. But now it is all around us. For people we know who have contracted it--it is as bad as they say. Masks are helpful, but there is no surefire way of avoiding it if you need to go out.
• For others, our stone pillow is exhaustion. Parents are having to juggle jobs while being homeschoolers and now providing summer camp. Many workers have transitioned to work at home, which has some advantages, but if you are like me, you find that it frequently takes twice as long to get half as much done.
• Some of us lay our heads on the stone of uncertainty at night. We have largely accepted that this is how we will live for now--and then we ask ourselves, “But for how long?” Nobody knows the answers to these questions and uncertainty is our constant and unwanted companion.
• And for many of us, the stone pillow of this pandemic is loneliness. We miss church, book clubs, card groups, family gatherings, and going out to eat. So many simple pleasures have been denied us.

There has been no greater time when we can identify with Jacob’s experience of being alone in the wilderness with no protection or anything familiar to bring comfort but a hard rock under our head.

We may think that Jacob is getting his just desserts. But remarkably, when he is a trickster on the run, in a place that seems completely devoid of God, this is where God most powerfully shows up. When Jacob is at his most vulnerable—asleep—he cannot argue, wrestle, trick or bargain, God gives him an amazing, vivid and clear dream of heavenly messengers moving up and down a staircase connecting heaven and earth.

It does not matter where Jacob is, or what situation he finds himself in, the blessings of heaven, the guidance of God, the mercies of grace are with him, within him, beside him, and always available to him. God is not far off, rather God is closer than you can imagine and the blessings of God’s power are offered here and now on earth, to him—no matter what he’s done, and which piece of earth he’s sleeping on.

The vision is a powerful message in itself—angels descending who bring from above, echoes of mercy and whispers of love—but it is also a signpost that a bigger Word is coming. Jacob then hears God speak directly to him: I am the LORD, Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.

God gives the details of the resources of heaven that are available to Jacob in his daily life, even though he is not terribly deserving. For those of us who have not been able to hear a God of grace in the Old Testament, here it is in spades!

God will abide with Jacob, God will protect Jacob, and that God will fulfill God’s promise to Jacob: to bring him back to this land that was promised him.

These promises of God are as true for us today in this time of pandemic, as it was for Jacob—God abides with us, God keeps and protects our life-eternal wherever we go, God fulfills the promise to be with us to the end of the age.

The blessings and resources of heaven are available to us now. God came to Jacob when he was most available—when our defenses are gone, when the familiar is absent, when our routine is broken, that is when we are most open to hear God as God appears to us and as God speaks to us. God is not limited to those times, but that is when we are most ready, most expectant, most vulnerable. And so, while we may hate this time of pandemic with its stone pillows, this can be a rich and deeply spiritual time for all of us—a time when God startles us with the message that the blessings of heaven are available to us, and that God is with us, will protect us, and will make good on God’s promises to us!

For some of us that may come through the regular rhythm of spiritual practices of prayer, and worship, and fellowship, and Bible reading. And for some of us, God will appear as God appeared to Jacob--in a dream or moment that disrupts our stuck thinking, in a vision or conversation that fills us with hope, in an unexpected word or insight that brings us back to God.

After God’s revelation and blessings, Jacob turns his stone pillow into a monument—Bethel—house of God. Jacob knows that God is real. That God’s promises are sure. That the blessings of heaven are available on earth. This is why Jesus is called Emmanuel--God with us--because he is the living embodiment of the blessings of heaven being available to us on earth. Through Christ, God turns our stone pillows of fear, exhaustion, uncertainty, and loneliness turn into testimonies and monuments of hope, energy, confidence, and community as we experience God bringing us through!

Rick Rodriguez gives us a wonderful example of this in his testimony, shared today. Rick had a Jacob’s ladder experience, where the resources of heaven became available to him in the middle of a crisis—a violent crowd in a foreign country, lost from friends and all that was familiar. As he prayed for help, the blessings of heaven—God’s presence, peace and protection—descended through the human connection and prayers with a stranger.

Indeed, angels descending who bring from above, echoes of mercy and whispers of love. With Jacob, with Rick, we open ourselves to heaven’s blessings as God turns our stone pillows into pillars of praise.

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Calling and Conflict

JacobandEsauReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Genesis 25:19-34 given on July 12, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

I had just graduated from college and my parents drove me and all my stuff to Chicago and moved me into a student apartment at the Lutheran School of Theology where I would start seminary and prepare to become a pastor. I had visited the seminary before, but my parents had never been there, so we signed up for a tour. A student in his second year gave us the tour around the school and we paused outside looking at the green space where students walked their dogs. My dad looked at our tour guide, a guy he had never met before that afternoon and asked, him right in front of me, “are you worried about women taking your job?” The tour guide chuckled awkwardly at being the object of my dad’s concern over me, and commented that he thought there were enough churches for everyone.

Jacob’s story is a potent reminder that God’s claim on our life often creates conflict. Jacob, who later wrestles with the angel, begins life by wrestling with Esau in the womb and it is so uncomfortable, Rebekah would almost rather die than see this pregnancy through. God’s claim creates an ordeal. God’s blessing makes life a struggle. Faith is both/and. Living out a holy calling in a fallen world is hard, there is no other way. God tells Rebekah right away that conflict is part of the plan—her sons are the leaders of two nations and the younger, not the firstborn, will be the stronger one. God is upending business as usual.

Business as usual in the ancient family structure, was that the oldest son received 66% of the inheritance, took on the family business, and received the blessing of the father—in this case, God’s promise to Abraham of descendants, land and becoming a blessing to all nations. The second son received 33% and had to make their own way from there, unless they had a generous older brother and a good relationship with him.

That was not Jacob’s situation. He and Esau were not the kind of twins who had a secret language, shared a special bond, and displayed a fierce devotion to each other; rather, they were completely different—each one favored by a different parent. Once again, we see in the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs, a flawed human family with personality conflicts and favoritism as God’s larger purposes somehow get worked out through their limitations.

Isaac, who has grown very prosperous by the time his sons are born, favors Esau who is a man of action—a hunter who provides and lives off the land. Rebecca favors Jacob who grasped Esau’s heel as they were born, and who cooked and spent more time in the tent. Neither of them comes off very well in our passage today. Jacob is conniving, taking advantage of his brother’s hunger after he provides meat for the family. Before we are too hard on him, we must recall our own manipulations to get what we want or need from others. Esau is impulsive and short-sighted, unable to forego immediate gratification for the long-term benefit his inheritance. Before we judge Esau too harshly, we must remember how often we choose to eat high-fat, high-sugar, processed convenience foods or skip wearing a mask, all of which can sacrifice our long-term health.

Esau gives up his birthright and eats the lentil stew. The brothers steal and threaten and remain mortal enemies for the next several chapters. It is the opposite story of Abraham and Sarah who receive the promise from God and then struggle for ten chapters for the promise to be realized in the birth of Isaac. For Isaac, Rebekah, Esau and Jacob, the blessing of pregnancy comes immediately—it all happens in one verse—21, and then for nearly ten chapters, the blessing is the cause of the struggle. Either way, God’s claim on our life can create an ordeal.

God is not interested in business as usual, in maintaining human power structures and traditions and in making sure everyone feels comfortable. For a second time, God is working through the younger son rather than the oldest. It’s not that Esau will go without blessing—he will be provided for by God, just like Ishmael was—and Edom becomes a strong nation.

But God keeps upending the traditional practices, over-turning the power structure, working through the underdog, choosing the unlikely person, a trickster, even. Working through the underdog always creates conflict, and listening to God will always set us against the powers of this world. We see this over and over again.

• The divine revelation about Jacob and Esau comes to Rebekah, not to Isaac;
• Joseph, one of Jacob’s youngest son’s, is the one who ends up in Pharaoh’s court with his older brothers bowing down to him,
• David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons, defeats Goliath and becomes Israel’s king,
• Deborah, the female judge, leads the people into battle against the King Jabin and the Canaanites,
• Samuel was called to be a prophet when he was only a boy, and
• Esther, a woman, saves her people from slaughter at the hands of a Persian king.

So it should not surprise us that when the Savior is born, he comes to a young unwed mother from a backwater region of Galilee who said that, “God has brought down the mighty from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty...”

• and that Savior calls uneducated fishermen and a reviled tax collector to be his disciples,
• and that he promised that the meek shall inherit the earth, and the last shall be first and the first shall be last,
• and that he lifted up enemies like the Samaritans as models of faith,
• and that choses what is foolish in the world to shame the wise,
• and that brings life by conquering death.

God might as well start sending women to seminary, and saying that Black and Brown Lives do Matter and we better start structuring our society that way, and that LGBTQ people shall inherit the kingdom of God!

When God starts working through the underdog it often creates conflict, and listening to God will set us against the powers of this world. If God is not interested in upholding the male inheritance system of ancient Israel, what makes us think God likes any of our systems any better? God works through the flawed person, the outsider, the underdog, the powerless, the downtrodden which makes clear that we do not put our trust in human tradition and institutions, but rather, we put our trust in God’s power even in the midst of struggle. We have to do our work and trust God to do God’s work.

Right now the church feels like the underdog, downtrodden, powerless younger brother who is getting a small pittance of what we are accustomed to during this global pandemic. Jacob’s story assures us, this is when God does the best work! God calls us not to trust in our traditions or even our in-person worship, but rather to cling to the blessings and promises of the Spirit that are with each of us every day to be the body of Christ active in the world.

• With Rebekah, we listen for God’s divine guidance for us each day.
• With Jacob, we forego immediate gratification and embrace the long-haul commitment to God’s divine purposes which are not going to be fulfilled overnight.
• With Esau, take action that benefits others, that provides for others, that feeds others, that is always mindful of the needs of the larger community around us.

COVID-19 lays bare the conflict God’s claim on our life creates—our faith must be active in love and lived out in our daily choices—because that is the church right now. This is not a time of waiting for the church to come back—it is the time we are most active—doing our work, asking God daily how we are to serve right now, while we trust God to do God’s work.

While conflict is part of the story, it is not the end of the story. Later, in Genesis, after Jacob marries Leah and Rachel and has 11 of his 12 sons, Jacob returns to meet Esau, who himself has been blessed by God and become prosperous. Jacob is so afraid that Esau is still angry with him and will kill him, but when they meet, Esau runs up to Jacob, throws his arms around him, hugs and kisses him. Jacob did his work, struggling through the conflicts that arose in his life and let God do God’s work, blessing Esau.

My parents had never seen nor heard of a female pastor before I went to seminary, so it was new for all of us. When God’s claim disrupts our systems and traditions, we enter an ordeal where we have to struggle through our own work and allow God to God’s work with others. And that’s what we did. I am blessed with amazing parents who were willing to engage in the conflict my calling created for them. By the time I was ordained four years later, they had flowers on the altar of their Missouri Synod congregation, and my dad was telling the pastor how much they were missing out by not allowing women pastors. They bought champagne for my ordination brunch, and they eventually joined the ELCA.

Blessing and battle, calling and conflict, promise and pain-- Living out a holy calling in a fallen world is hard, there is no other way. As we do our work, God always does God’s work. In the end, there are hugs, kisses and champagne—with Jesus, you always get a happy ending and we end up where God wants us to be.

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God Provides

RamintheBushReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Genesis 22:1-14 on June 28, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

I just cannot bear this passage. Dan knows if he is picking a movie on Netflix, it cannot be about kidnapping or violence against children –I cannot watch them. I was an on-call emergency room chaplain at a children’s hospital briefly when I first started to stay home with my children full-time, and it did not take me too long to figure out this was not my gift. Watching a 10-month old die from drowning in the bathtub. Standing over a small coffin, repeating my own son’s name at a funeral for someone else’s child. Standing by in support while the nurse cleaned and dressed a deceased infant.

I found the frequent injury, illness, and death of children in the hospital nearly unbearable. I find this passage of Scripture just as difficult. Why would God ask such a thing of Abraham—to sacrifice his son? There have been decades of promises of him becoming the father of a great nation, finally the birth of Isaac in his very old age, and then the sending away of Ishmael, his first son by the slave, Hagar. This leaves Isaac as the only heir of this long-standing, often-repeated promise, and now God wants to take it all away? Why would God ask this?

And why would Abraham comply without even a single protest? When God wanted to destroy Sodom in Genesis 18, Abraham made a bargain with God to spare the city if 50 righteous men could be found. Then Abraham argued God down from there to 40 men, then to 30 and finally he got God to agree to spare the city if 10 righteous men could be found. Abraham argues with God to spare Sodom, but here, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son and he does not put up a fight, not even a peep, before heading up Mt. Moriah?

In Hebrew this is even more poignant and painful: “Abraham,” which means father of nations, “take your son, your only son, whom you love and offer him there as a burnt offering….” How can Abraham be a father of nations if he gives his only son as a burnt offering for the Lord? The passage makes clear that God is testing Abraham. But testing him for what?

Perhaps the answer is in his name and the promise—"Abraham, father of many nations.” God has put all his eggs in the Abraham basket. Is he up to the task? Is Abraham finally ready for this kind of role and responsibility? Can God trust him with his ultimate plan? This theme of providing Abraham with an heir has been consistently complemented by Abraham’s wavering faith. He has not always proved to be a trustworthy partner for God.

If you know Abraham’s story well, you will remember that out of fear, Abraham twice tried to pass off Sarah as his sister, landing her in the bedroom of a foreign ruler. He did not trust God then. Abraham did not trust God when he went along with Sarah’s plan to create their own heir with Hagar. Abraham laughed in God’s face when the promise of an heir was repeated when he was older. Now that Isaac was born and Abraham experienced the fulfillment of God’s promises, did Abraham really trust God? Had he really changed his wavering ways? Was he a worthy partner for God’s vision of blessing the earth?

So, God asks Abraham to demonstrate his faith by trusting God with his hopes, his future, his deepest longings, his only son whom he loves. While the story is not clear why God commands Abraham to sacrifice the son that he loves, it is clear that God wants Abraham to face his own conflicted and divided loyalties, his own lack of trust.
Isn’t that what God wants from all of us? Our whole heart rather than a divided one? Full-bodied faith, and whole-soul trust that does not waver when we think we have a better idea or when we too easily forget who it is who made the foundations of the earth?

Right now, we may feel like Abraham does, standing on Mt. Moriah alone with everything and everyone precious to us hanging in the balance, ready to be sacrificed in a moment to a pandemic that is worsening around us. We want to ignore the reality and do what we please anyway, but that will put ourselves and those we love at risk. We want to create our own solutions, but we only have to see the news to be reminded that there is so much over which we have no control. COVID-19 has become a mountain of testing. Like Abraham, we must ask ourselves if we are going to rely on our own failed solutions one more time, or will we, in this crisis, cast our life and everything we love into God’s hands?

Maybe that’s why Abraham complied with God’s request without argument. He was finally old enough to see that his own solutions brought heartache, and fully trusting God with everything he held dear, was the only path to life and peace.  

As it turns out, the test serves its purpose and changes the relationship for both Abraham and God. Abraham finally, fully trusts God—his words to Isaac that God would provide the sacrifice became true—God did provide the lamb. Not only that—God will provide everything he needs. Abraham now knows, in the profoundest of ways, that life with God is a gift, and God’s blessing is freely given as a gift of grace. Abraham does need to do anything except trust—God will provide—generously, bountifully, wondrously.
All Abraham does is look up and notice that God has been there all along, guiding his steps, directing his paths, and creating a future for him. Abraham now is free to give up his fears, his schemes, his lack of trust—God is the Lord of life and death—his, Sarah’s, Isaac’s, and everything he holds dear. The only way to abundant life is to put all that he treasures into God’s hands. God can be trusted with everything he loves most. That is why Jews call this story Akedah. God provides.

God is also changed that day: God learns that Abraham not only trusts him, but fears him—not in a paralyzing way, but in an “awesome, holy respect, you-are-the-Lord-of-life-and-death” way. Now God sees that Abraham has moved from simple obedience to an awe-filled, fearsome, deep trust, giving God a true human partner in fulfilling God’s dream for building a nation of faithful people through whom he will bless the whole earth.

God is still faithful to this promise made to Abraham to bring life-saving provision for God’s people. While Abraham’s son was spared, God sacrificed his own, only begotten Son, giving him up to death for love of the world, and all of its children, costing God dearly. Here too, Akedah: God provides. Today God fulfills what God started in Abraham—the blessing of the whole world in a sacrifice of love and forgiveness that makes all of us one with God for eternity.
And this Son, God’s only Son, whom God loved, who was sacrificed on our behalf, teaches us to pray a prayer that strengthens in us, the deep faith and trust that finally came to our ancestor Abraham—

• A deep faith and trust built on holy awe and respect—Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
• A deep faith that trusts God’s plan rather than our own schemes—thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
• A deep faith that trusts that God will provide—give us this day our daily bread.
• A deep faith and trust that is aware of its failures—forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
• A deep faith that trusts so much it does not need to be tested—lead us not into temptation.
• A deep faith that trusts the hand of the Lord will protect us—but deliver us from evil.
• A deep faith and trust that recognizes that God is sovereign and almighty—complete and holy, that God is the Lord of heaven and earth, our life and death, and all that is precious to us—so we are free to live at peace –for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.

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Forming New Community: Hearing What God Hears

SarahandHagarReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Genesis 21:8-21 on June 21, 2020 for St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

Today our story of Abraham and Sarah continues as they celebrate their son, Isaac being old enough to ween—a toddler, laughing as he plays with his older half-brother Ishmael, who was born to Sarah’s Egyptian slave, Hagar. Ishmael was actually Sarah’s doing—not trusting God to keep his word after several years, she came up with her own plan to give Abraham an heir using her slave. I doubt Hagar had a choice in the matter, as slaves never did—and she gave birth to Abraham’s first-born son, Ishmael.

As Sarah watches the two boys playing it seems that her joy at God fulfilling the promise to heal her barrenness in her old age has turned to jealousy, since Isaac is not technically Abraham’s oldest child. This should not matter, because God has begun to make good on the promise of descendants and land, and Sarah herself is a recipient of God’s faithfulness. Surely Sarah can now trust God’s word.

But Sarah is as human as we are, and that kind of trust is hard for all of us. Abraham’s inheritance and blessing are at stake here. Ishmael is still the oldest son—what if he makes the claim of the oldest brother? He would get the double portion of the inheritance and Isaac would get the leftovers. What would happen to God’s promises then?
It was Sarah’s impatience that brought Ishmael into the world and now her distrust that will cast him and his mother out.

Has this story not been repeated over and over throughout history? The one who is on the margins becomes included in blessing, income, status, access. They forget what it is like to be at the margins, and in order to maintain their newly acquired status, they step on the next marginalized person. It is part of our own slave and immigrant history. First the Irish were oppressed, then the Italians, then the Jews, then the Latinos, then the Asians, always with the goal of keeping those of African descent on the bottom.

Like Abraham forgot about Sarah when he had a son in Ishmael, so also, Sarah, once she has Isaac, forgot to look to the person next to her on the margins and include her in the benefits of God’s abundance. The same pattern has been true in Christian biblical scholarship. For centuries this story was only told from Abraham’s perspective. Then white female scholars entered the academy and they pointed out that male scholars had neglected Sarah. In recent decades female scholars of color have chastised white women scholars because they have neglected Hagar, the Egyptian slave who was sexually abused.

African and Asian female scholars have looked at their white scholars, and pastors and said, “Hagar needed Sarah to be a sister who would extend her inclusion, and protect her and rejoice that their sons each had a brother, and instead she found an oppressor.” How many times, Lord have we failed to be that sister or brother—as individuals, as the church, as a neighborhood, as society? How many times have the those who are on the margins looked to us, and instead of finding a sister or brother, found an oppressor, a judge, an excluder, someone kneeling on their neck?

Even if, in our discomfort, we put the most positive spin on this story, and say that Sarah was simply protecting her self-interest and did not intend for Hagar and Ishmael to die of thirst, we are left with the uneasy awareness that our own interests blind us to the needs of those beside us.

The saving grace of this story is God’s providential care for those who are cast aside—care which is extended over and over and over again throughout the Bible, to those at the margins. This is where the story gets really interesting. Hagar and Ishmael are sent away reluctantly by Abraham who gives them some provisions, but they soon run out of water. Hagar is convinced they are going to die, so she puts Ishmael under a bush, so she does not have to witness her own son’s death. She cries out to God for help. But the narrator reports that “God heard the voice of the boy”—but it was Hagar, not Ishmael who was praying. So why does the Bible say that God heard the voice of the boy rather than the voice of Hagar? The answer lies in his name, “Ishmael” which means “God hears.” God hears the prayers of the mother. God hears the needs of her child. God hears the pain of those who dwell at the margin.

Hagar is one of the few Old Testament women who has a conversation with the angel of the Lord who repeats the promise that Ishmael, too, shall be the father of a great nation. God has made a covenant with Abraham to create the chosen people, yet it seems like this is not an exclusive claim, nor the only God-project, or nation-building plan on God’s horizon. This story is a reminds us that our sense of chosen-ness and election by God are not exclusive—we have not cornered the God-market; God’s care, presence and plan is not limited to us.

Our story portrays Abraham and Sarah, warts and all, in all of their humanness, so we cannot miss recognizing our own flaws and sins in their jealousy and mistrust. God sees their limitations, their troubling choices, and yet continues the covenant with them, continues to fulfill the promise with them and builds a great nation through them. God continues to love them. God continues to love us.

Right next to them is Hagar and Ishmael—an Egyptian slave and her son on the verge of death in the wilderness and God hears their cries. God makes a covenant with them, fulfils the promise with them and builds a great nation through them. God continues to be present and to love them, too.

God’s presence with all of God’s people is not in question. God’s love for and desire to be in relationship with all of God’s people is and has been clear from the very beginning of our story of faith. God’s willing to work with us in our limitations and sinfulness is evidenced throughout Scripture. The desire of God to hear the cries of hurting people on every margin is as true today as it was centuries ago for Hagar and Ismael.

This story asks us today “Are you ready for God to bless as one nation, as one people?” The Hagars and the Ishmaels today are asking us to be their sister and their father, to be their brother and their mother, who will include them in the blessing and bounty of this nation’s abundance. Can we ask God to heal us of the jealousy or fear that we will not get what we need if everyone has access and is treated fairly and instead, really trust God’s promises? Can we admit that we are flawed and trust that God can work wonderful things anyway as God did through Abraham and Sarah? And then are we ready to hear like God hears, to listen to others and to resist the urge to cast people out and push them aside?

For when we hear what God hears and we come together as one people, wonderful things happen. We connect with one another around our common human experience; we lift up one another in our sorrow and laugh with one another in our joys. We learn from one another and share perspectives, stories and experiences and expand our hearts for compassion by viewing life from another person’s vantage point. We taste and see how great and good our God is in all the diversity, flavors, colors, languages, experiences, cultures of this amazing life while at the same time transcending all of that diversity with similar hurts and hopes, disappointments and dreams, hearts and love. We see difference as a gift and an opportunity for learning. We do this by noticing the people who are beside us wherever we go and engage in 6’ conversation. Who do you hear today that you might otherwise overlook? What are you learning? What kindness are you showing?

Our member, Eileen Bottolfson noticed someone near her in the Walmart and I asked her to write it up for the Weekly Word this week: Here’s what she said:
Small, simple kindnesses can go a long way, during this stressful time of Covid 19.

A simple ‘thank you’ can be so much more important and powerful than we realize sometimes. Recently, I was at my local Walmart doing some shopping. As I wended my way through the aisles, there was a Walmart employee stocking the shelves. As I approached her, I took a moment to stop, and simply said, “Thank you very much for being here. I really appreciate you, and everyone else who is working so hard during this time.” The lady stared at me for a few seconds, and then tears came to her eyes. She said, in such a heartfelt manner, “Thank you for saying that. That means so much to me. You have just made my day. You have made my whole week better.” She proceeded to tell me that she had been at work every day since the stay-at-home order had been issued. She had been in Customer Service, but eventually requested to be transferred out to the floor because people were being so incredibly rude, and how mentally and emotionally exhausting it was to face nasty customers every single hour of the day. She explained that she really needed her job – thus why she was there still. I thanked her again, and we gave each other distanced, arms-outstretched hugs. This brief moment made my whole week better too.

Eileen heard was God was hearing from this Walmart employee and that’s the beginning of a new community—of Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael living and thriving together. Eileen offers the most profound insight of all—thriving together makes everyone’s life better.

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