The Rev. Scott Summerville
So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. Genesis 21:14-16
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from God’s knowing. And even the hairs of your head are all counted.
So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. Matthew 10:29-31
When Mary Ellen I were appointed to serve the Bay Ridge church in Brooklyn in 1983, we had the pleasure of meeting a remarkable retired couple, Lorraine and Roland. They were the first African Americans who joined that previously all-white church. In fact they were among the first African Americans to purchase property in Bay Ridge.
Roland had been a labor leader and Lorraine a homemaker and singer. She sang for many years with the Jeff Samaha Singers. Knowing that she had a singing background, I thought it natural to ask her to sing a solo one Sunday. Roland thanked me privately and said, “Pastor, she has never been asked to sing before in the church.” She chose to sing His Eye Is on the Sparrow. “I sing because I’m happy. I sing because I’m free. His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.”
A few years later Lorraine suffered a catastrophic stroke. She lived for a number of years completely immobilized in a nursing home. Sometimes there would be tears in her eyes, but she never regained the capacity to move any part of her body or even to speak. When I visited, I would always picture her singing, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” I would remind her of that day and how beautifully she sang, never knowing whether she could hear or understand what I was saying.
In the long course of human history and in the present state of human affairs the mass of humanity has struggled for dignity and survival. Countless millions of human beings have lived and died anonymously knowing only suffering and want. When Jesus spoke of the value of every individual human life down to the hairs on his or her head, he was saying something that was audacious and apparently absurd. He was addressing himself to the masses of his own time, exploited, living at the margins of survival, and having no rights as we understand them whatsoever.
Imagine what it meant for them to hear the words: Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from God’s knowing. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
Our gospel proclaims this audacious and seemingly absurd thing: that there is intrinsic God-given value in every human life, and that the eye of God that is upon the falling sparrow is all the more focused upon the conditions of human life, especially the condition of those who suffer. Every Christian is called to participate in the divine compassion and to live her or his life in such a way that the world may know that the eye of God is upon us all and especially upon those who suffer.
The second of our Scripture texts for today concerns a child who is thrown away – a child who literally is thrown away. The child is Ishmael, the first child born to Abraham. His mother is not Sarah, but Sarah’s maid, Hagar. Because of Sarah’s jealousy and her desire to promote the position of Isaac, her son by Abraham, she insists that Hagar and Ishmael be cast out into the wilderness. And so they were – cast out with only a piece of bread and a skin of water. When the water was gone, as it soon was, and the sun beat down upon them, Hagar – knowing that her child would die and in despair – tossed him under a bush and walked away. This harshness of this moment is highlighted by the fact that she does not set him gently under the bush – no – she cast him under the bush and walked away.
It is one of the most pathetic scenes in the entire biblical story. Abraham was grieving, because he loved this child, Ishmael. Hagar was despondent, knowing her child was to die. She threw him away, unable to bear the thought of watching him die. She cried out, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And she wept loudly, as she listened to the cries of her son.
Then we read beginning in the 17th verse of the 21st chapter of the book of Genesis:
21:17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and
said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy
where he is.
21:18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”
21:19 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.
21:20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.
21:21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
We live in a world that throws people away. So many of those the world throws away are so young. So many childhoods lost to poverty and hunger, to child labor, to lack of medical treatment, and to exploitation in the sex trade. The Methodist Church from its earliest beginnings has emphasized the connection between the gospel of God’s love and direct action on behalf of human beings who are forgotten, exploited, or abused. The first Methodists were involved in prison reform, opposition to child labor, opposition to slavery, and other causes affecting the human condition.
In our own time we cannot separate our worship of God from our action on behalf of those who suffer deprivation and injustice. Even though the current economic crisis may affect many of us, we as a congregation need to do more, not less, to address suffering and inequality. It is wonderful that we met and went beyond our initial goal of raising approximately $3,500 for the roof of the clinic in Yipalla in Ghana. There is more that we can do, and will do, and must do.
The great crisis that has suddenly come upon the world, with fuel and food prices skyrocketing, is something that is way beyond the power of individual Christians and congregations to affect.
We need to let our elected representatives know that while we are concerned about our own mortgages and health care and the cost of gas, we as a people, we as a church, and we as a nation want concerted international action on behalf of those who are devastated by the food and fuel cost crisis and who struggle just to survive. This is a test of our basic humanity.
And closer to home, as I read the story again this week of the child Ishmael who is thrown out of his home and then thrown away under a bush, I could not help but think of how many young people even in our own country are homeless, many of them literally thrown out of their homes.
One of the reasons why I believe passionately that the church must speak out on behalf of gays is that a large percentage of our homeless youth in New York City and elsewhere are homeless because they are as gay. As gay youth they were thrown out of their homes – literally thrown out of their homes in childhood.
Some studies suggest that when gay youth come out to their parents, approximately half of the parents are supportive, and half are hostile. Of those who are hostile, half kick their child out of the house. So if these studies are correct, something like a quarter of gay youth who disclose their sexual orientation may end up homeless. These young people are at greater risk for violence, sexual exploitation, mental illness, and physical illness. Homeless gay youth are some of the most vulnerable and abused people in our entire society. Who will speak up for them?
One of the reasons why participation in the Gay Pride Parade is a real Christian ministry is that lining those streets in Manhattan will be thousands and thousands of human beings who were kicked out of their homes by their flesh and blood, because they were born with a sexual orientation that their parents found unacceptable, and usually their parents’ negative attitudes were shaped by the church. Because that is so, the church has a special responsibility to correct this wrong and to bear witness to these young people that they are not rejected by God, rather that they are loved by God, whose eye is on the sparrow and even more upon them.
I sing because I’m happy. I sing because I’m free. God’s eye is on the sparrow, and I know that God watches me, and you, and abused young people, homeless youth – gay and straight – and the hungry of this earth, and all human beings struggling for their dignity, their survival, and their right to be treated as children of God.
Grace and peace to you.