Ishmael, Immigrants, and I: Modeling the God who hears our cries

Photo of children in Arizona customs center, photo by Ross D. Franklin. Click for original post.
Photo of children in Arizona customs center, photo by Ross D. Franklin. Click for original post.

One of my favorite experiences as a preacher is when God moves a sermon in a way I hadn’t intended. Like a sudden change of wind hitting a ship caught in the doldrums, I arrive somewhere far better and richer than I could have gotten on my own. As I struggled to prepare for this week’s sermon, a change in the weather was already developing, months before I realized it. I turned to the lectionary in the hope that it would provide at least a reminder of another text, if not the text itself. The designated texts for the day all revolved around God’s faithfulness to hear when we cry out to him, but Genesis 21 stood out, grabbing my heart.

In Genesis 21, we are told of Hagar and Ishmael’s ordeal in the wilderness. Ishmael, the son of Abram and the servant Hagar, is only conceived because Sarai waivers in her faith in God’s promises of progeny and offers her servant to her husband Abram as a surrogate mother. As soon as he is conceived, Ishmael becomes an object of jealousy and ire for Sarai, eventually leading Sarai to request that mother and son be sent out into the wilderness. With no home behind them and probable death in front of them, they set out as strangers in a strange land, hoping that somewhere out there lies a hope and a future. When their meager supplies run out, Hagar lays her son, her own flesh and blood who grew inside of her for nine months, under a bush out of sight because she can’t look on the slow death of her child. It seems the fruit of and living monument to Sarai’s selfishness and impatience will leave the earth before his life can offend anyone else.

Until God hears his cries.
Until God reaches out.

It would have been easy for God to take the same approach as Sarai, letting the results of sin simply disappear under the desert sun. But God refused to hold Ishmael’s origin against him, sending life-saving water to Ishmael and promising that he and his progeny will succeed.

We live in a world filled with people whose back stories are choked with pain, many through no fault of their own. Children of sexual violence. Children with broken families. Children caught in poverty. Children surrounded by violence and hatred from the moment they take their first breath. Children who, both as children and later as adults, we as a society disregard and dismiss. “That’s just how it is,” we say. They’ll always be poor. They’ll be just like their parents. They’ll get divorced, too. They’ll hurt you. They’ll take advantage of you. They’ll never be anything.

But when they cry out, God hears their cries, not our condemnation of their origins. Because he, like Hagar, cannot stomach the sight of His children dying. And He expects us, His church, to reach out, helping to build a hope and a future for those discounted by the world.

In the days before I preached this sermon, a developing news story delivered the culmination of a change in the wind. Over the last several months, a seemingly endless tide of unaccompanied children have attempted to cross the southern border of the United States. Children barely old enough to attend school. Children with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Children beset by the dangerous, broken humans who patrol the lonely places of this planet. Children convulsing with fever. Terrified. Alone. They set out as strangers in a strange land with nothing but violence, drugs, corruption, and poverty behind them and probable death in front of them, crossing through hundreds of miles of desert and danger in the search for a hope and a future in front of them. Though their parents know chances are slim, they can’t stand to look on the slow death of their children where they are. Many likely die on the way, as evidenced by the discovery of yet another mass grave, filled with stacks of human beings whose cries went unheard. Others may reach the US and are left to wander our streets. But many are caught, rounded up, and are being housed in makeshift camps, warehouses of humanity while politicians, talking heads, and armchair policy experts debate whether or not the blame rests on Barack Obama. Yes, there is a political conversation that needs to happen regarding the overall reality of immigration and what to do with the US border. But there is also church conversation that needs to happen about viewing these immigrants as human beings, regardless of where we stand on the political issue. And it is far, far more important.

Because we are and were strangers in a strange land, separated from God. Many of us are beset by the failures of our origins, and even more have been sent out into the wilderness by our own failures. We cry out for hope and a future. Instead of seeing us a mess to be disposed of or ignored, God sees as as human beings, as His children slowly dying as thirst clenches our throats. And God heard us. And God reached out.

As Hagar knew, our God hears and reaches out to those caught in the wilderness, whether or not their own decisions sent them there. Our God heard the cries of Ishmael, born of giving up on God. Our God even heard the cries of Paul, once committed to the destruction of the church before doing so much work to define its future. And today, he still hears cries. He hears the immigrant dying in the desert. He hears the selfish, broken and cut off by the weight of their riches. He hears the first dark realization when the violent and lawless find only pain in their actions. He hears the pain as our failures eventually catch up to us, sending us out with no home behind us and probable death in front of us. When a fellow human being of any race or stature or origin story, whether crossing the border on foot, or born of a broken family or even no family, or raised in poverty or violence, or raised imprisoned by their own wealth and privilege, or even caught in prisons of their own failures, cries out alone, may we the church be a people who hear their cries. May we be a people who reach out.

-Geoff Davidson

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Ishmael, Immigrants, and I: Modeling the God who hears our cries

Yelling at the TV: Four lessons I hope the SBC remembers

When I’m home during football season or a major soccer tournament, I feel bad for my parent’s cats. My involuntary reactions to the recent history of stalwart Alabama defensive stops, scorching Baylor touchdowns, and sublime USMNT goals have left them well-acquainted with the dark, safe hidden corners of the house and a likely elevated blood pressure. Is it a bit silly to react that strongly to a game being played hundreds, even thousands, of miles away which I can in no way influence? Of course. Does it feel good to get worked up, gnash my teeth, or celebrate? Absolutely. Because I have cast my lot with those colors and hope to see them succeed. While it is a very small way, yelling at the TV is still a way to participate in the success or failure of the larger whole.

I feel that way about the annual blood pressure exercises in blogs, pulpits, and meeting rooms that accompany the Southern Baptist Convention every summer. I’m a millennial and an unmarried young professional, groupings that often come up in the handwringing. So although there is already a great deal of volume, perhaps I can in my own small way participate and contribute because I hope for the success of the SBC, and more importantly the church universal. Therefore, from where I stand, here are four lessonsI hope my fellow Southern Baptists, regardless of station, will remember as SBC2014 comes to a close today and they return home to their local churches.

1) America is not Israel. And it never will be. Old Testament criticisms of Israel’s infidelity to God were aimed at Israel, the people of God. And yet we are drowning in leaders who use these verses to talk about America. I’ve loved a lot about Fred Luter’s presidency of the SBC, but even he unfortunately made the comparison between problems in America and the Kingdom of Israel. Through Christ, today all can join God’s people, the church; but until you are, you aren’t. Yes there are Christians in America, but doesn’t make America the church. Seeing America as Israel or using verses about Israel’s failings in criticizing America makes about as much sense as calling America “Russia” simply because Russians live here. If you want to preach verses condemning cheating on God by Israel, the people of God, use them to criticize the people of God, the church. And we’ve had our fair share of cheating, sadly.

2) Those outside the church aren’t our enemies. Christians are often offended when atheists describe Christians as dangers to society or when speakers and TV shows make easy jokes at our expense. Does it make you want to join the ranks of atheism or any other religion? Of course not. Then why do we do the same thing to non-Christians and react with surprise when they don’t come running into our churches? God created them and loves them just as much as you and I. Even if there is some vast atheist and LGBTQ conspiracy to destroy the church and burn America to the ground, we are to love them, period. If Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of the men who killed him while they were killing him, I’m pretty sure our neighbors should receive just as much love when they simply disagree with us. Let’s focus our energy on poverty, hatred, pain, loneliness, and death, for our struggle is not against flesh and blood.

3) Our churches are full of people who, at best, remember the famed Conservative Resurgence in the SBC as a dusty old war story. Amongst all the worry and consternation over my generation’s future and role in the SBC, it’s disappointing that there has been so little conversation on how the Conservative Resurgence affects my generation (for those who don’t know, this term describes a roughly decade-long movement beginning 35 years ago but originating earlier during which conservative elements in the SBC wrested control of the denomination’s major agencies). And that parenthetical proves my point. I’m just old enough that I remember the final shouting and aftermath. For years, the only thing I knew about the Conservative Resurgence and the SBC/CBF split was an alphabet soup of pain and suffering. Leaders ruined, families confused and hurt, regular Christians tired of attending church and seeing more fighting. I’ve been to seminary and thus have studied the history, but most my age haven’t. Many of them only remember the ugliness, forming a seemingly insurmountable turnoff to truly engaging a local Southern Baptist church. And our youth groups are almost 100% comprised of growing minds that don’t even know it happened. Living in the aftermath of world-altering conflict that no one remembers makes for a fun scifi movie but awful church life. We need to talk about the conflict, and not just in celebratory terms. We need to mourn the pain, even in the pain in those on the other side, even if we still think we’re right. We need to talk to young adults and youth about the history of the SBC, and not be afraid of questions. If we do this, we can turn the page on this chapter and move forward in a Christlike way. If not, we’re doomed to the same eternal jingoism and antagonism plaguing America’s major political parties.

4) A century from now, everyone who knows about our theological conflicts will probably laugh at them. If you’ve been to seminary, you’ve probably heard someone laugh at how ridiculous the fervency of ancient conflicts seems in hindsight. But in the end, they have been forgotten, relegating to dusty books and introductory seminary classes. If our youth are already forgetting the Conservative Resurgence, this trend will continue. I’m sure during every crisis it seemed like the very fate of the church hung in the balance, but despite our best efforts, the church goes on. Just like Jesus said it would. I know today it feels like today’s fights threaten our entire world, but the church will go on. This may sound dismissive and negative, but I mean it as an encouragement. The survival of the church doesn’t hinge upon your sermon, resolution offered at the SBC meeting, or political vote. The survival of the church hinges upon Jesus. In Him, find the freedom to struggle, wrestle, and dream as the Kingdom comes.

For most of us mere mortals, the closest we’ll ever get to major athletics is yelling at the TV. The great thing about being a Christian, particularly in the Baptist tradition, is that our role isn’t limited to such. The things we hope to see can should start with us. I hope, as they return home, that the messengers of this year’s SBC will be energized and ready to build the corner of the Kingdom granted to them. And I hope that those of us who hope the SBC remembers these four lessons will remember them and live them out as well. -Geoff Davidson

Yelling at the TV: Four lessons I hope the SBC remembers