Sunday, June 21, 2020
Third Sunday after Pentecost
"Just a Bowshot Away"
Rev. Dr. Scott Landis
And so, the plot thickens in our story of Abraham and Sarah. Just when you thought we were bound for a happy ending – human jealousy takes over and the story makes a dark an unexpected twist.
The occasion was the weaning ceremony of Isaac.
Just a few years earlier, all seemed copacetic between Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac – Hagar (Sarah’s slave), and Ishmael (her son fathered by Abraham). In fact, Sarah even said, “God has brought me ‘laughter,’” a play on the name Isaac – which means to laugh. Now she could laugh with God, and with others since she had been blessed with a child. She was, indeed, happy. Her child would be the one who would initiate the great constellation of descendants promised by God, and they would be blessed by God.
It was a miracle that she gave birth to a child at her age – a miracle for which she was overwhelmed with joy. But, I suppose, even a miracle was not enough to KEEP Sarah happy. Given some distance – and time – and the possibility that her status might be diminished (or her inheritance might be compromised) if Hagar and Ishmael remained on the scene, Sarahʻs jealousy consumed her.
The tipping point was the day she saw Ishmael playing with Isaac. We don’t know anything about their relationship. Perhaps the boys had become good friends, but they were getting just a little too close for Sarah’s comfort. She wanted no part of it. Isaac would be the only heir, and the only way for that to happen would be to get rid of Ishmael.
So, she convinced her husband to send Hagar and Ishmael away – out into the wilderness all alone with nothing more than a flask of water and a few loaves of bread. “They’ll be all right,” she said with a wink – a request to which Abraham yielded reluctantly.
But God spoke to Abraham saying that he should not be distressed – in essence telling him, “Don’t worry. I’ve got this. Let them go – for both you and Sarah AND Hagar and Ismael will be blessed. Both of your families will become great nations.
The next day, against his better judgment, Abraham did exactly what Sarah requested, and which God assured would be okay. But it wasn’t without drama. And here’s where the story gets interesting if not heartbreaking.
Not long into their journey the bread and water ran out. There was no help in sight, and Hagar saw that her son was already beginning to dehydrate and there was not a darn thing she could do to save him. She couldn’t bear to hear his cry. Imagine her pain. Nor could she bear to watch him die. So, facing the inevitable, she decided to separate herself from the painful reality and place him in the bushes a “bowshot” away from her so she would not physically be able to hear his cry for help, and, I suppose so they could both die in peace – at a distance from one another.
A bowshot away – as I read that – I wondered – how far might that be? And, how far would I have to be from my child who was dying so that I could not physically hear him or her.
The only experience I have ever had in dealing with a bowshot was during my one and only week at Boy Scout camp. Did I mention the fact that I hated Boy Scout camp? While I have grown to love camping – I hated camp. Mostly because of all those silly “organized” activities we were forced to do like braiding plastic string to make lanyards, finding sassafras tea in the woods and then brewing it for what was supposed to be a delicious beverage, cold showers, and tents with mattresses you had to shake to chase the mice away before bunking. I just never got the appeal.
And then there was target practice (a term I use loosely) with a bow and arrow. First of all, it felt like the bow was twice my size making it almost impossible to hold correctly, and even after a few attempts (unsuccessfully, of course) I began to get blisters on my fingers. I was a Tenderfoot to be sure. Try as I might, I could only get the arrow to go about 15 or 20 feet as I recall – rarely, if ever, hitting the bail of hay with the target let alone one of the colored concentric rings – and not a snowball’s chance of hitting the bull’s eye.
My bowshot, I thought, had to be very different than the biblical reference. And, indeed, it is. A little research reveals that the typical bowshot is about 2-300 feet. Far enough away for Hagar to convince herself that her son was not in any pain – certainly far enough away not to hear the cry of a dehydrating child. And far enough away so that she could cry out to God herself – and not be heard by anyone, or so she thought. But as the story unfolds, it says that God heard the cry – not of Hagar – but of Ishmael – which, yet again, is a word play on his name for Ish-ma-el means, “God listens” or “hears.”
God visited Hagar and invited her to return to Ishmael and to lift-up the boy, and when she did, the scriptures say, “God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.” In other words, when she walked toward what she perceived as the source of her pain, a pain she thought she could not bear, it was then that she saw the way forward.
Fascinating, isn’t it? Those things from which we try to shield ourselves. Those sources of pain that we don’t want to hear or see – they are just too devastating. And so, we try and keep them, at least, a “bowshot” away from us – which begs the question – what is a bowshot for us? 300 feet? A mile? Or on the other side of the tracks?
Or is our bowshot even more painful than that? Is it an imposed distance that we cannot cross in order to ensure our health – that infamous“6 feet” that we now refer to as the proper “social distance?” [Pause]
The other day I was on another Zoom call with pastoral leaders in the Hawaiʻi Conference. We were discussing the issue of whether to sing whenever we return to in-house worship. I’ve been reading and listening to all the medical evidence which makes perfect sense to me that singing has become an easy means of transmitting viruses – more specifically the dreaded Corona virus. But as I looked into the faces of clergy on that call as we with sober hearts heard it yet again – no singing, no hugging, no handshakes or holding hands – my heart sank. The bowshot suddenly seemed much further than 6 feet.
I thought of our kūpuna. I thought of my dad who just celebrated his 89th birthday on Thursday. And I thought about the work you have called me to do as your interim pastor – andI became very sad. I know there are more than a few of you who must be wondering, “Will I ever be able to return my church, and if so, what will it be like?” Couple that with the grief the pandemic has interrupted following the retirement of your former beloved Kahu and, well, it makes for a pretty dismal outlook. Like Hagar, it feels like something is dying – just a bowshot away – and there’s not a darn thing any one of us can do to prevent it.
But, then it hit me. Like Hagar eventually realized, God is NOT encumbered by a bowshot of any distance. I could only see what was dying right in front of me. A reality made more palatable by trying to hide it in the bushes covering it up with Facebook Live virtual worship – WiFi hookups – and the like – but God got my attention and invited me to move toward my pain – my sadness – to see instead the possibility that exists if I only open my eyes and discover the well of water that is right before me.
I have no doubt – things WILL be different – and perhaps for quite some time – and we will need to allow space to grieve that which we may deeply miss, but it may also open up the possibilities to that which we have never had eyes to see before. [Pause]
We worship a God who is far less than a bowshot away. A God who hears our cry and knows our deepest pain. A God who invites us to participate in the new creation which is unfolding before us AND which we have the opportunity to shape. It may not be what was, but it just might be even better.
So I encourage us all – each one. Let us move forward into the new day that God is opening and walk expectantly toward a future that is bright with hope – alive with renewal. One that invites us to a well of living water to refresh our spirits and offer new life. It’s all – just a bowshot away.
Thanks be to God.