Do Not Be Distressed
June 19, 2005
The Rev. Dr. Anthony J. Godlefski, Pastor
Montgomery United Methodist Church
Genesis 21: 8-21
Hagar and Ishmael Sent Away
8 The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. 9 But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, 10 and she said to Abraham, "Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac."
11 The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. 12 But God said to him, "Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. 13 I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring."
14 Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the desert of Beersheba.
15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went off and sat down nearby, about a bowshot away, for she thought, "I cannot watch the boy die." And as she sat there nearby, she began to sob.
17 God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, "What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation."
19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.
20 God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. 21 While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, good morning! This morning I would like to talk with you about this: Do not be distressed. It’s the word of the Lord. Do not be distressed.
It is Father’s Day, and to all who are celebrating Father’s Day, I say “Happy Father’s Day.” We salute you, we admire you, we bless you. And we hope that being a father has its blessings and its encouragement and its joy.
But the one thing I’d like to acknowledge this morning, on Father’s Day, is this: it is not easy to be a father. Amen? Amen! It is not easy to be a mother. Amen? Amen! It is not easy to be a parent.
In our Old Testament reading this morning, we hear the story of Abraham, father of the Hebrew nation, having his problems. Here’s what happened: This fellow, Abraham, lived thousands of years ago, and he got a magnificent idea. You see, God was tapping on his shoulder. He said, “Abraham, into this world of primitive religion, into this world where people don’t really understand who I am, I want to let people know who I am, and I want to let them know how beloved they are. So I’m going to send you on a mission to be the father of many, many people, of a great nation.”
And Abraham said, “Well, Lord, I don’t know how this is all going to work out, because I am not a young guy; I’m a pretty old man. And my wife Sarah, she is not young either.”
And God said, “Abraham, you just stick with me, and I’ll work out that detail.”
So Abraham said, “Whatever you say, Lord.” I think you know what happened. Abraham and Sarah were told that they were going to have a little baby, and so it was. They had a little baby named Isaac, and they were very happy.
Now, there was a complicating factor in all this, you see. Since Abraham and Sarah were advancing in years and Abraham had no offspring, the two of them said, “This is a problem.” Sarah said to Abraham, “You’d better have a child through the servant girl,” whose name was Hagar. And so, Abraham and Hagar had a little baby, and his name was Ishmael.
In this morning’s Old Testament reading, you can see that they were having a celebration. It was like a baptism party. And in the midst of the celebration were Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Ishmael and Hagar. Ishmael and Isaac were playing together, and Sarah caught sight of this and said, “I don’t like it. This is not good.” She went to Abraham and said, “You must send Hagar and Ishmael away.”
Abraham had a problem, and this is where the rest of us, perhaps, can key in to what’s happening. He had a tough problem, and he did not know how to solve it. Ever been there? I sure have, and I’m sure you have, too. Whether you’re raising up children or raising up churches, whatever your calling is, when it comes to those entrusted to your care, I’m sure you’ve come up between a rock and a hard place. That’s where Abraham was.
Right now I’d like you to look at that scripture, printed at the top here, and read verse 11. “The matter was very distressing to Abraham.” Underline that – you may have matters that are very distressing to you. And then let’s look for the Word of God: “But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed.” That is what God said to Abraham: “Do not be distressed.” And so, dear friend, if you’re between a rock and a hard place and you don’t know which way to turn, listen to the Word of God. The Word of God is “Do not be distressed.” The scripture goes on to say, do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatsoever Sarah telleth unto you, sayeth unto her, “Yes dear” – or something like that. “As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”
The point is, this is a metaphor to say that it’s in God’s hands. God is taking care of it. Our part is to have faith and not be distressed, not to let our distress and our worry and our upset get in the way of God’s blessing. That’s the Word that comes to us from the scripture today. “I’m going to take care of it,” says the Lord. “You just have faith.”
And so, Abraham went to Sarah and said, “Yes, dear, the Lord said it’s okay.” He took a skin of water and some bread, gave it to Hagar and Ishmael, and I’m sure to the core of my being that his heart was breaking as he said goodbye to them. Hagar and Ishmael went off into the wilderness, to a place called Beer-sheba. Pretty soon, supplies ran out. The water was gone. And in the most heartbreaking part of the story, Hagar placed Ishmael under a bush. And as she did, she said, “I can’t look at this.” God sent an angel, a messenger of God, to Hagar. You know why? Because motherhood is not easy; nor is fatherhood. Parenthood is not easy.
The angel said to Hagar, “What troubles you, Hagar?” You see, there’s a catharsis here; there’s a question of care. “Do not be afraid.” You can substitute your own name for Hagar’s. “What troubles you, _____? Do not be afraid.” It’s interesting – the angel says, “God has heard the voice of the boy.” God hears children’s prayers. God hears children’s prayers before they can even shape words. God knows the needs of all of us before we’re even able to speak them. Maybe we sigh and groan too deeply for words, and maybe the troubles afflicting your heart are too deep to even pray about, but the Spirit knows. God heard the cry of the boy.
“Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand.” That’s the first instruction: Be loving. You’ve got love to share, Hagar. Don’t forget about that. Lift that child. Share love.
“I will make a great nation of him.” And then God opened her eyes. Isn’t that interesting? Fear and worry and trouble close our eyes to opportunity and possibility. God opened her eyes, and lo and behold, she saw a well of water. If you go to Ocean Grove, there is, in a little gazebo, a fountain called Beer-sheba. It was the first well ever dug in Ocean Grove. You can still get a good drink of water from that fountain. And now you know why it is called Beer-sheba, because of the miracle of Hagar and Ishmael.
“And she gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.” You might want to underline that. You see, Abraham fathered the Jewish people through Isaac, but he fathered the Muslim people through Ishmael. So both the Jews and the Muslims claim Abraham as their common ancestor.
The point is, be not distressed. No matter what we’re facing, no matter how hard the trial, no matter how much against the wall we think we might be, the Word of the Lord is: “Be not distressed, Father; be not afraid, Mother. God is still in charge.”
Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to tell you about a time when I was extremely distressed – one of the times. But God sees us through. Twenty-some years ago I was sent to be pastor of the Christ United Methodist Church in Piscataway. We had a lot of property, and a very tiny building that was shaped like half a boat. Back then, they thought that churches should look like anything but churches. And in that little half boat sat a congregation, and that congregation was out of money. The pastor who preceded me was on something called “conference subsidy.” You can figure out what that means. The church paid so much, and the conference had to come in and pay the rest of the pastor’s minimal salary. They had given nothing to shared ministries, the disciplinary apportionment, for years. They gave little or nothing to missions. They were talking seriously about closing the doors and uniting with the church in Bound Brook, just throwing in the towel. The church was sparsely populated; the membership was not very large.
In that rather sullen group that I greeted that first morning in summer, folks looked very sad. We got to know each other, and I asked about what the needs were. They said, “It is hard to be in this room. It is hard to invite others to participate with us. If only we had comfortable seating and not these cold metal chairs. If only we didn’t have a gritty tile floor. If only the sanctuary looked pretty, what a difference that would make.”
There were others who said, “Oh, no, you can’t spend any money on that. Whatever money we raise we have to spend on outside missions.”
Welcome to my world! A few folks got together and said, “Let’s have a fundraiser and see if we can have some comfortable chairs for people to sit in.” I brought the idea before the Administrative Council and the Board of Trustees, and they said to me, “You’ve got six months to raise half of that $10,000. If you don’t raise it in six months, you must give any of the money you’ve collected back and forget about the idea. Don’t bring it up again.”
We put a little campaign together. And they said, “Oh, by the way, we think that if you do this, giving is going to go down in the plate. If it does, you’re going to hear about it.”
We started the campaign anyway. Would you like to guess what happened? In two weeks, we were over-subscribed. We thought, “Wow! This is great. What a step forward.” The chairman of that committee, at that wonderful moment, said, “I don’t think we should give this money for chairs. I think we should send it all out the door for missions.”
The reply was, “If this church is not a mission, please tell me what it is!” It got straightened out. The congregation got its comfortable chairs. Do you know what happened to the Sunday giving? It went up! We had more money than we needed. Someone said, “I will give some more money so that we can have a nice carpet, a dense, low sound-reflective carpet in the sanctuary.” And so it was.
Someone else said, “These pieces of pastel plastic in the window look like the bottom of a tray. Can’t you do something?” So we built some stained glass windows for a little part of the sanctuary.
People began to invite their friends. The church grew. We started a handbell choir. We started a youth choir. We had so many people, some had to sit in the coat closets. A friend of mine helped have air conditioning installed in the sanctuary. The church grew and grew. The budget quadrupled, and the attendance tripled over the years. We eventually put up a sanctuary and fellowship hall. And to this day, if you go riding down Hoes Lane in Piscataway, you can see what that building looks like.
The best part? The best part is that the church is filled with people for two services. It gives tens of thousands of dollars to missions every year. Why? Because they built on the foundation, and they built it up strong.
But you see, from the heartbreak and the disillusionment and the question of not knowing where to turn, God provided and built up and built strong. And so, dear friends, if you’re facing a hard thing, if you’re facing a distressing situation, hear the Word of the Lord: “Be not distressed. Be not afraid. The Lord blesses, and the Lord provides.”
God loves you. I do, too. Have a wonderful week. Amen.
© 2005 Anthony J. Godlefski