This is based on the reading of Hagar and Ishmael – Genesis 21:8-21, and was delivered on the 37th Anniversary of the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia
This is an agonizing story, in just about every part of it
Difficult and painful family dynamics between two mothers, whose sons share a father
Difficult dynamics between the two children
A woman who dehumanizes and disconnects from those in her own household
A man who ends up choosing between his two families
A teenager who lies on the edge of death in the wilderness
and a mother who faces the prospect of seeing and hearing her child die.
It is more than agonising, this is a horrible story.
We can try to understand it in the context of the promise to Abraham and Sarah
We can try to understand it in the context of hope for the future, and ancient practices
But there is something that remains with me in this that feels,
despite the context, despite the setting,
that Sarah has lost her moral compass and has become abusive and manipulative
and that Abraham has become complicit in the abuse
And in the midst of this horrible story, the pain becomes too much for Hagar
she lays her child down under a bush and heads away so that she wont hear him die.
The original wording is that she went “about a bow shot away”
The Message translation talks about it being about 50 yards
Chatting to our congregation’s resident archer, he says that a bowshot could be 500m
Suggestions of other translations suggest that 100m is possibly intended.
100m is also about the distance that it seems is needed
to be able to move out of earshot of conversations or cries in an otherwise still setting.
Try it sometime
We tend not to measure in “bowshots” these days.
And maybe when it comes to getting our of hearing of cries of pain
“metres” isn’t right either
I wonder what the right measurement is for getting beyond the distance
where we can hear the pain of others.
Is it the distance from here to Manus Island?, or here to Nauru?
Is it the distance from here to remote communities in Australia?
Are distances across roads and oceans enough so that we wont be able to hear the cries?
Or are there other things that we will put in the way
so that the cries of pain are muffled or not heard?
Are there economic principles and ideologies?
are they the modern equivalent of a “bowshot”
Maybe it is the thickness of Budget papers.
Are there legal defences about “the good of the church”
that mean we cant or wont hear the pain of children?
Is it enough for us if we put a stereotype or a caricature.
In fact maybe with the right sort of stereotype,
we don’t need any physical distance at all – and we still wont hear the cries of pain.
And maybe even a dose of religion, or doctrine.
Maybe if we have enough bibles in the way – or at least certain pages of the bible –
we will be far enough away from the situation to hear the pain in life.
But the story tells us that God hears the cry of Ishmael and intervenes.
God isn’t too far away.
Way before the era of Jesus, in the foundational stories about the people of Israel,
God hears the cries of one who is supposedly not part of the covenant people.
Despite the heartless machinations and complicity of the leaders of God’s people
God hears the cry of the other. God doesn’t marginalize.
Isnt this a fantastic reading for UCA anniversary?
The Uniting Church is neither perfect, nor ideal, nor claims to be.
But for all its faults – and there are many –
I am delighted that it does not try to put itself a bowshot away from cries or pain.
A church leader in the US spoke of one of our partner churches
with words that I personally find resonate about the Uniting Church as well.
The vocation of the church is to walk the theological frontier
and to confront and eradicate those prejudices which are based
on stereotypical definitions of the past and frequently undergirded by words of scripture.
To fulfill this vocation, you have to be free of the theological answers of yesterday.
But there is a price to be paid for this,
and faithfulness to this vocation requires that you are willing to pay it.
No church that forces engagement with new thinking will ever appeal to the masses.
No church committed to social justice will ever be a majority denomination.
You should not aspire to serve those idols.
Your call is to be a faithful church, a witnessing church.
Yesterday, while I swanned around in Sydney at a meeting of the Synod,
this community – you – were being faithful to that call.
Living not a bowshot from the difficulties in life.
Not moving away to a position where you could avoid the painful engagement in reality,
But right in the midst of things.
Here today in the midst of our gathered worship,
we do not work out who is allowed in and who isn’t.
Or if you have the right theology (or are the right race or gender or sexuality)
to be able to take part, or speak, or lead.
Tomorrow morning as we continue to live out our calling
we will not be a bow shot, or a doctrine-break from the realities of life.
We will be working with families in stress,
we will be working with people without homes – whether or not it is their “fault”,
we will be advocating for changes to the way that our city, nation and world work
we will be continually trying to have the 1138 children removed from detention
simply because they are attempting to start a new life in safety.
And in this, we will be trying to be just that little bit like the God expressed in Genesis 21
discovering the living water of comfort, of life, of acceptance, of justice.
Will we be the biggest denomination in Australia in years to come – unlikely.
Will our membership shrink and the institutional expressions of who we are struggle – quite possibly.
Will we remain in the midst of hurting humanity
and resist the temptation to move a bowshot from pain? I hope so
May the grace of our inclusive, compassionate, just God
be very close to each of us today and always