Sermon Sunday 25th June 2017

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET

SUN 25 JUN 2017

PREACHER: Revd Angus MacLeod

Listen here: https://youtu.be/GlQHoysjQpE

 

“Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand,

for I will make a great nation of him.”
Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.

She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. Genesis 21:18-19

Last Sunday this congregation responded very generously

to the opportunity to donate towards those caught up in the Grenfell Tower fire.

Following the advice of a local ecumenical colleague,

we chose to direct that work towards the Anglican parish in which the tower block sits.

It was chosen with that sense, that long after the TV crews have departed

and the donations have been given to the big fund(s),

it is the parish and other local groups that will remain.

And support to them would I hoped be a small encouragement for the long road ahead.

At the time, little was known about St Clement’s & St James

Perhaps it is a name you have heard/read of a little more now.

 

Its vicar was quoted this week.

When asked how the parish had been able to step in so quickly –

becoming a centre for donations, cups of tea, waiting, prayer and support – he replied:

“I was woken up at 3am by a priest who lives in the tower,

and so, I came down to the church,

opened the doors and turned the lights on,” he said.

It all began from there.

 

A local GP offered his own experiences. (BMJ 24 Jun 17)

Fearful of what he would find when he arrived at the rescue centres.,

but discovered to his surprise:

“I didn’t see or feel any despair or terror.

The overwhelming feeling was of love, unity and solidarity.

 Every corner of St Clement’s Church and Rugby Portobello Trust, a youth charity,

was taken over by agencies there to help.”

Due to the number of volunteer medical staff he felt slightly redundant.

“I sat down on the floor and played with some children.

I may not have used my stethoscope those hours I was at the centre

but I still felt I was acting as a doctor.

I think that sometimes empathy and witnessing someone’s grief

are as important a part of our role as procedures or prescribing.” Ahmed Kazmi, GP

 

Revd Cameron Collington – known to some of us

as the Chaplain who hosted our visit to Queen’s Park Rangers last September.

“I stood with as many as I could.

Words were sometimes right; silence was even better;

 prayer was always accepted, as were arms around shoulders.”

 

The GP: “It was striking how all the usual prejudices and divisions

that so often surface among us were suspended.

People from all walks of life were empathetic and loving to one another.

For a period at least people stopped being black, white, Muslim and so on

and were just “human.”

If this unity is possible in times of tragedy,

I think it is realistic to aim for it all the time.”

 

Yet as there were glimpses of beautiful humanity

in the same days, we have had the attack on worshippers leaving night prayer outside

the Muslim Welfare Centre in Finsbury Park.

Muslims preparing for the festival of Eid which begins today.

 

It is perhaps timely that the reading set for this morning

gives us the story of the step brothers, Ishmael and Isaac –

from whom we trace the families of faith –

Isaac father of Jew and Christian – Ishmael, father of Muslim.

Ishamel and Isaac – both sons of Abraham.

Both inheritors of the promises of God.

 

Their story is wild, sometimes shabby;

full of insecurities and jealousies, prides and weaknesses,

but also, faith, trust and perseverance.

 

Prologue to what we read this morning:

Abraham, called in old age to be a wanderer for God;

with Sarah his wife; bearers of the Divine promise:

“I will make of you a great nation – descendants, as many as the stars of the desert night.

For those descendants – one day, a Promised Land.”

 

To their credit – they go.

Somewhere along the line, Hager joins the travelling caravan.

Female, Egyptian by birth, an outsider, a slave –

about as peripheral to power as you can imagine.

 

The years and the miles add up –

no promised progeny.

Sarah takes matters into her own hands.

The servant girl will bear Abraham a child.

Hagar acquiesces – was there any choice?

Yet the arrangement held its own advantages.

Few in the camp would cross her now – mother of Abraham’s little one.

 

It doesn’t take long for things to unravel:

“When Hagar saw that she had conceived,

 she looked with contempt upon her mistress.”

Sarah, infuriated, confronts Abraham:

“May the wrong done to me, be on you!

I gave this slave girl to your embrace, now this.

May the Lord judge between you and me!”

 

The old hero will not fight this battle:

“The girl is yours, do as you please.”

The mistress dealt harshly with the girl

and like an unhappy adolescent, she runs, from the place others call home.

 

Out in the wilderness the pregnant runaway encounters God’s angel:

 “Go back. Retake your place. Your offspring will greatly multiply.

And this child, that stirs within you.

Call him “Ishmael” which means God Hears,

because God has given heed to your afflictions.

 

In turn Hagar gives a name to God who spoke to her:

“You are the Living One who sees me.”

In a Hebrew play on words Hagar exclaims,

“I have seen the One who sees me.” (Genesis 16:1–6).

Hagar returns.

 

So to today – fourteen biblical years later;

the upstairs-downstairs drama heads for a second defining moment.

“The Lord dealt with Sarah, as the Lord had promised.”

The crazy dream, becomes a reality crazier still.

Isaac, a boy called “Laughter.”

 

On the day of his weaning, Abraham declares a feast.

The celebration turns sour.

Who knows what ghosts still haunted Sarah?

Hagar’s continued youth, her unforgotten contempt,

the unspoken threat from that wild colt, Ishmael.

The new matriarch cannot permit his continued presence.

 “Abraham cast her out; the woman and the boy.

Ishmael must not inherit. They are not equal.”

 

For a second time Abraham faces the prospect of losing his own flesh and blood.

Then the Holy One:

“Do not fear. Do as Sarah commands. Isaac is the one.

Ishmael too will beget, will become a nation.”

 

So, Hagar is sent out, Ishmael with her.

The water skin, the wrapped loaf – shockingly final, leaving gifts.

Perhaps deep-down Hagar always knew this day would come.

 

When the end approached the mother could not face the final agonies.

Under a meagre shelter she laid the boy –

And beneath a pitiless sky “Hagar lifted up her voice and wept.”

 

 A second desert angel: “What troubles you?”

“Hagar, why do you fear, knowing what you know?

Remember the child’s name – Ishmael – God hears.

Remember the name you gave – God sees.

Take the boy’s hand. Hold him fast. He is still to be a great nation.”

 

And in the reminder of the promised names – God sees, God hears,

Hagar’s world is changed.

She re-crosses No Man’s Land, the bow shot’s distance,

embraces the child’s suffering,

discovers life-giving water near at hand.

 

Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael – is not a pretty story.

It is certainly not about stained-glass window saints.

It is however about how flawed humans meet God.

In a time when those acting in the name of God

are prepared to target others of a different faith –

it is reminder that according to our Scriptures,

we are cousins in the faith – a common ancestry, a common Divinity.

 

And in a time when the discrepancies between rich and poor

are so starkly portrayed by a civic tragedy,

it is reminder that those, like Hagar.

who appear ostracized by the powerful,

are not abandoned by God. –

the God who sees and hears,

and despite what we do to each other,

continues to care,

asking us to go and do likewise.

 

 “I came down to the church,

opened the doors and turned the lights on.”