By The Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
The Lectionary, the schedule of lessons we read in worship, is set up in an interesting way and has a couple of guiding principles.
• sometimes three lessons and psalm are tied together by theme
• sometimes lessons follow a narrative sequence over the course of several weeks
• of course sometimes, as well, we are left scratching our heads over why the lectionary designers chose for us to hear a set of lessons on a particular day.
During the summer months in this first year of the three-year cycle, the Matthew year, we follow the longest sequence that appears at any point in the lectionary – over the course of several months we follow the sweeping story of the tribal ancestors of Israel -
• we began last week as we peered into the tribulations and triumphs of the household of Abraham and Sarah;
• we will continue through mid-August, tracing adventures of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and their families;
• at the end of August we’ll continue the narrative by plunging into the Exodus story through September and October, and then finish up with snippets from Joshua and the Book of Judges in November.
We are following the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, the most sacred texts in Judaism, the faith of Jesus.
I LOVE THIS MATERIAL
• Not only is it wonderful storytelling, with all the characteristics of great literature,
• It also provides the foundation of Jesus’s faith, and ours as well
Genesis and the rest of the ancestral stories convey Israel’s knowledge of a loving God who creates the world who is passionately engaged with and faithful to God’s people, seeking to redeem the world through drawing God’s people into relationship with God’s self.
Ancestral Narratives are mythological in nature –
- They’re not “myth” as in “fiction”, as in “5 myths you should know about nutritional supplements”,
- They are “mythological” in the literary sense – like the childhood stories of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln that Americans tell, stories that are told to convey truths and values that are important to a people
- Myths may or may not have a basis in objective fact – what is important is not their historical accuracy, but the truth they transmit.
The story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar probably does not have basis in historical fact.
- If they did live, as particular people, it would have been around 1800 BCE.
- For many, many generations their stories existed in oral tradition, being handed down and teaching community of Israel about origins of their covenant with God.
- The stories took written form during and after Babylonian Exile – about 1300 years after Abraham, Sarah & Hagar would have lived.
But Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar are our spiritual ancestors – whether we understand them historical or symbolic figures.
According to sacred text we share with Jews and Muslims, Abraham and Sarah were the first to know God as we know God and to enter into covenant relationship with God –
- recognizing God as creator and protector,
- struggling to understand and follow God’s will, for the sake of redemption of the world
Their stories, and stories of succeeding generations, tell us who God is and who we are.
Today’s look into the story does not start at beginning, with God’s call to Abraham, but rather, picks up in moment of painful domestic discord.
Let’s look back at what came before -
When God first established the covenant with Abraham, the covenant involved three promises:
- the promise of relationship: “You will be my people and I will be your God”
- the promise of the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession,
- the promise of descendants – according to two different texts in which the covenant is made and repeated, descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, or as grains of sand on the beach.
There offering of the latter promise is what creates great tension, and therefore drama in the story, as Abraham and Sarah live through their prime and into their old age without bearing children.
Abraham and Sarah are imperfect people, as are all of the Bible’s human protagonists, and the plot thickens as Abraham and Sarah age without the awaited offspring. Sarah, unable to trust God’s promise, decides to take matters into her own hands, and she hatch an alternative plan. Sarah sends slave, Hagar the Egyptian, to have relations with Abraham, hoping that offspring will provide family for her; in due time, Hagar bears Abraham’s first son, Ishmael.
As anyone might have predicted, Ishmael’s birth introduces new strains into household:
Sarah, grieving own infertility, is raising son of her husband with her slave;
Hagar is mother to the son of head of house, but has no standing or authority, herself, in the household;
Abraham undoubtedly loves his son, but finds himself at mercy of the difficult dynamics between women in his home.
And so the story, of course, takes a new twist. In time, miraculous news is received (in last week’s text) that Sarah, in her old age, is to bear a son. She laughs, when she hears it, but the promise is fulfilled and she bears Abraham’s second son, Isaac.
Which is where our story picks up today -
As Sarah’s son, Isaac, becomes a toddler, she grows intolerant of Ishmael and Hagar’s presence in household and seeks to have them banished. The text tells us that she reached her conclusion as she watched the brothers play, and hints that Sarah’s concern may have had to do with inheritance rights.
It is surely a painful situation for all, including Abraham, but God provides assurance to Abraham that God will provide for Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham sends them forth – with tenderness and with provisions – into the wilderness.
Again a plot twist! The water in Hagar’s skin does not last, and she faces what she believes will be her son’s death by dehydration.
Hagar places the child under a bush and retreats far enough away she cannot hear his cries, and will not have to watch his end from close quarters.
But as Hagar weeps, she receives a message of God’s compassion, that God is looking out for her son, and that God will make of him “a great nation”.
When she arises, Hagar’s eyes are opened to the presence of a well and God’s pledge of protection is fulfilled.
There is a lot going on in this story.
As I remarked earlier, the story shows us who we are, and the things that it reminds us about ourselves are not very pleasant to see. The story reminds us:
• How hard it is for us to believe that God can be trusted and that we do not need to find our own shortcuts.
• How much we are willing and able to treat others as objects to fulfill our own needs, and then to dispose of them when they become inconvenient.
• How susceptible we are to feelings of petty jealousy and how frail we are in giving in to our own anxieties.
• How readily we accept easy answers rather than holding out for what we know is right.
• How quickly we give in to feelings of defeat.
But what is more important is what the story teaches about the One who continually invites us, beckons to us, provides for us, and always is available to us to show us the way.
We all have our Hagar moments – times when we are just parched and feel like we have hit the end of the road.
• when things have been completely unfair
• when we are exhausted from trying to make our way through, and our circumstances just seem hopeless
• when we can’t face what we’re sure lies ahead, and wish we could crawl under our own bush and give up.
The story tells reminds us that is there, in those moments, that God tells us to hold on, and to lift up those things that we were sure were beyond hope.
It is so often in those moments God directs us to look again, to see in a new way, and to discover the life-giving water that in our despair we had overlooked.
That’s the thing:
God’s answers for us are pretty regularly not the answers we have wanted.
God’s way forward for us often involves possibilities we hadn’t considered.
Before I finish, I want to observe another piece of the story that I think is terribly important.
In this story of redemption, it is Hagar - the slave, the foreigner, the immigrant, the non-person - who is of such little regard to Abraham and Sarah that they are willing to put her out like the trash, who is the one who God sees, who God hears, who God delivers.
Could we ever doubt that God watches over us?
Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
This morning’s reading from Acts offers us a scene from Paul’s missionary work in Greece, in which Paul is preaching to the citizens of Athens about the one God who has created all things and is at the center of all things, the God in whom “we live and move and have our being”. One of the key observations Paul offers in his sermon is that God “does not live in shrines made by human hands.”
In this Easter season we have been worshipping with contemporary elements of the liturgy, rather than out of the BCP. Our service includes not only contemporary Prayers of the People and Eucharistic prayer, but modern translations of the Lord’s Prayer and Nicene Creed as well. You may be shocked to hear that Heather and I have heard observations from quite a few people letting us know that their preference is for the more familiar or traditional forms of these prayers. In the context of those sentiments (that I think are probably shared by many,) Paul’s words about God living in shrines prompts me to invite you to reflect with me, this morning, about the very nature of liturgical language.
I want to begin by reading you one of my favorite books that I read with my grandchildren – What is God’s Name? (written by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, illustrated by Phoebe Stone, pub. Skylight Paths, 2014)
(After God created the world all living things were given a name.
But no one knew the name for God.
So each person looked for God’s name.
The farmer called God “Source of Life”.
The man who tended sheep called God “Shepherd”.
The tired soldier called God “Maker of Peace”.
The womwn who took care of sick people called God “Healer”.
The young woman who nursed her baby called God “Mother”.
The young man who held his baby’s hand called God “Father”.
And the child who was lonely called God “Friend”.
All the people called God by different names.
Each person said “My name for God is the best.” But no one listened.
The one day all the people came together.
They knelt by a lake that was like a mirror, God’s mirror.
They looked and saw their own faces.
They saw the faces of all the others.
At that moment, the people knew that all their names for God were good.
All at once, all together, they called God “One”.
God heard and was very happy.)
This wonderful little volume illustrates two fundamental ideas about all of the language and all of the ways in which we speak about God.
The first is that all of our language about God is symbolic – it “points toward” the reality of God.
The second thing is this - while our language points toward the reality of God, nothing we can say about God – because all language is based in the world of our own experience – will ever be able to do any more than point toward God, because our words can never begin to capture or adequately represent the complex and incomprehensible reality of God.
We call God “Father”, “Mother”, “Healer”, or “friend” and not only is God all of these and many more: God is a father, a mother, a healer and a friend unlike any we will ever know in this world.
Liturgy – including the language we use in worship - is the expression of our relationship with God. In it, we gather to express our thanks, our concerns and hopes, and to encounter God through the sacrament of the Eucharist, so that we may be spiritually renewed to more fully live our lives as God’s people throughout the week.
The language we use for liturgy doesn’t just express what we believe; as we speak it and listen to it, it shapes the way we think and understand. It can reinforce and deepen the understandings of God that we already hold, and this is often what we want and what we need from worship.
The language of our prayers can also open us up to new understanding of what God is, who we are, and who we are called to be. If we are to continue to grow in our faith, we need for our worship to challenge us to move beyond what we already know and understand, whether we like it or not.
The part of most of us that resists change is the part that wants spiritual comfort food – like those in What is God’s Name? who are convinced that their names for God are just about perfect.
But if we avoid encountering new ways of praying, we deny the breadth and complexity and oneness of the Holy One, and risk making our familiar prayers into our own Golden Calves. As Paul teaches – “God does not live in shrines made by human hands.”
A second important reason to vary our liturgical language is to make our worship accessible and comprehensible for those for whom language of the traditional BCP may be archaic and foreign.
We are the “village” raising Logan and Lucas, Liam and all of the little girls whose names I don’t know yet into the life of Christ, and we hope that the Spirit will blow some other seekers into our midst to be nurtured in the life of faith. They need to learn about God’s love in language that makes sense to them.
The changes in the contemporary versions of familiar prayers are not only about making our language more consistent with the way we actually speak. In a number of cases, they reflect what we now know to be a return to earlier, more original forms of those prayers. This next part is for those who love history.
There are two clear examples in the Nicene Creed.
1.) You’ll notice that the part of this version of the Creed that is most changed is the part referring to the Holy Spirit. The changes eliminate gender in reference to the Spirit. In fact, in the early Church, there was a very strong tradition associating the Holy Spirit with the figure of Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures, which is, strikingly, always referred to in the feminine. In removing masculine pronouns referencing the Spirit from the translation we grew up with, we are actually moving closer to the way the Church of the Apostles understood the Spirit.
2.) Similarly, we’re also going back to the original in dropping the words “and the Son” when we say from where the Holy Spirit proceeds.
At the 3rd century Council of Constantinople, from which the creed comes, there was a profound and bitter difference of theological perspective over the nature of the Trinity.
The first formulation of the creed stated that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father”. The latin phrase “filioque” – “and the son” – was inserted into the creed in the Roman Catholic Church sometime around the 6th century.
In currently-emerging liturgies, we’re going back to the original.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with liking familiarity in the words with which we worship: it’s OK to prefer familiar forms. I think there IS something wrong if we make those words into untouchable shrines, if we convince ourselves that the familiar are better, or more legitimate, and that we don’t need to vary our liturgical “diet.”
The tradition here in Greenfield – for the good reason of making the work of printing the bulletin more manageable – has been to choose a liturgy and stick with it throughout a liturgical season. I suspect that it’s the experience of living with contemporary forms for six weeks in a row that has many folks longing for the traditional.
Beginning with the season after Pentecost, we are going to adopt an approach that I think will provide a good compromise that is acceptable to everyone. On the first through third and fifth Sundays of each month we will worship from the Book of Common Prayer, alternating between Eucharistic Prayers. Each fourth Sunday we will use a contemporary liturgy.
I believe that embracing new forms of prayer may continue to feel like work, but it will provide us new discoveries – new opportunities to notice, to stop and think, to expand our vision.
It is my hope, as well, that praying these new texts will lead us deeper into the mystery of God.
And, as in my little book, God will hear, and be very happy.
Rev. Heather J. Blais
On the day of Resurrection, most of the disciples were gathered together in one house. They were still mulling over the news that Jesus’ body had been removed from the tomb, when Mary came bursting in, announcing she had ‘seen the Lord’. Yet instead of rejoicing, the disciples got up, and locked the doors. They were afraid. Maybe they were afraid this was some cruel power move by leaders at the Temple, in order to finally put an end to the Jesus Movement. Maybe they were afraid that Mary, in her grief, had completely lost her mind. Maybe they were afraid that it was true. What does it mean to see the dead rise? What were the disciples supposed to do now? This information overwhelmed them, terrified them. Like children afraid of the shadows moving in their room at night, they closed their eyes, and pretended nothing was happening.
We can likely all relate to that feeling. Being so afraid of the unknown, of the possible effects of change, that we long to calm down our hearts and minds by simply locking the door and pretending this isn’t really happening. Yet when we are overwhelmed by our fear, Christ comes to meet us where we are. The resurrected Jesus appeared in the house, walking thru walls to get there. In order to help the disciples overcome their fear, he greets them ‘Peace be with you’ and then shows them his hands and side. In that moment, the disciples knew they no longer needed to be afraid; they rejoiced. Jesus responded to their joy by starting the conversation again, greeting them a second time, ‘Peace be with you’. He then commissions the disciples to go and be the Jesus Movement, breathing the Holy Spirit upon them, giving them new life in the process.
When we are unsure, and afraid, Christ comes to meet us where we are. Thomas missed meeting the resurrected Jesus, doubted it was possible, explained to his friends that the only way he would believe is if he touched Jesus’ wounds for himself. A week later, the resurrected Jesus shows up, just so Thomas can touch and see for himself. With God’s help, Thomas overcame his fear and doubt. With God’s help, we too, can overcome our fears and doubt. Because two thousand years ago, Jesus spoke to future Christians, by blessing us. He said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29).
It is so easy to let fear and doubt overwhelm us, to keep us stuck in place, or even behind locked doors. Take a widow and widower who find one another after losing their respective spouses. It might have been easier to never love again. The widow and widower will always have a lifetime of memories and love for their former spouses that they will bring into their new marriage. Yet for it to be a joyful marriage, one that is life-giving and loving, neither the widow or widower can expect their new spouse to simply fill the void of their deceased spouse. They will have some things to work out as they live together and love one another.
The widow may have spent the last sixty Christmas Day’s at the family farmhouse, surrounded by her large extended family, while the widower may have been accustomed to a quiet morning with his former spouse. The widow may have kept the coffeemaker in one place, and the widower another. The widower may have used Scotch toilet paper, and the widow may have used Charmin.
The longer we have lived, the more likely we are to become stuck in our ways. So you might imagine, a couple that marries later in life, after having each lost a beloved spouse, has a few more things to sort out as they learn to share a home and make a life together. Yet there is no doubt in either of the couple’s minds, that this marriage is for the better. They know in their heart of hearts that they will be better together, loving one another until the very last.
As our two communities come together to become the people of Saints James and Andrew, we too must overcome our fears of leaving our former lives to create a new life together. A new life where, we too, will be better together. Just like the disciples gathered in that room, I believe the Holy Spirit is breathing on us as a beautiful new life unfolds for us this Easter. Just like the widow and widower, we will have to sort out what toilet paper we use, where the coffee maker goes, and how we celebrate Christmas. There will be unanticipated bumps, that we will work out as we learn to live together.
At nearly every wedding ceremony, the couple chooses 1 Corinthians 13 to be read because it beautifully captures just what love is supposed to look like. Yet Paul was not writing to a couple in love, he was writing to the church. He was telling us, the body of Christ, that love is patient, that love is kind. He was calling on us to be generous with one another, hospitable, showing one another kindness, love, and respect as we create a life together.
Only God knows what ministry, mission, and spiritual growth will unfold as we come together to become one new parish. Yet, I assure you, I have never felt more joyful, more hopeful for our future than I do today. I have never felt more respect, and admiration for your faith and courage as the people of God.
As we begin our life together today, let us remember Paul’s words for the church: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).
Meet our preachers
Rev. Heather Blais,
Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm,
Rev. Deacon Ann Wood,
Coffee with Clergy
Do you want to get together to talk about your spiritual life or learn more about our community? Contact us and we will find time to get together.