‘Growth from adversity’ – 21st June 2020 2nd Sunday after Trinity

The Readings

Genesis 21.8-21

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’ The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named after you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.’ 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. 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. 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.

God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

Matthew 10.24-39

‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

The Sermon

By Kath, a Reader at St Mary's

Growth from Adversity (or doing the best we can with what we’ve got)

This may not be the easiest message to contemplate at the moment given that we are still in the throes of the COVID 19 pandemic with all the pain and loss and disruption that it has caused to so many people, but sometimes it is the adversities we face and the things that go wrong in our lives that can cause or enable us to grow in ways that wouldn’t otherwise have happened.

In our story from Genesis we hear of a situation where there is obvious pain and distress and sadness for all the people mentioned in it. Having been childless until his late nineties, Abraham is now the father of two sons. With the encouragement of his wife Sarah, he had Ishmael with Hagar, one of his household slaves and sometime later, in answer to long and heartfelt prayer, he and Sarah had Isaac. This might appear wonderful but it seems that following the birth of her own son, Sarah has a change of heart about the presence of Ishmael; she doesn’t want Ishmael to inherit from Abraham and tells him to send the boy and his mother away. I don’t know how this would have been viewed by people at the time but to me it seems hard hearted and unjust, especially given that it was Sarah who suggested that her husband try to have a child with her slave girl who she offered to him. Who knows how Hagar felt about that part of the arrangement but having provided a longed for child, who Sarah initially regarded as her own, she and her child are being sent away with nothing but some bread and water for a journey to who knows where. So Sarah is unhappy about the presence of Hagar and Ishmael, who she sees as a threat, Abraham, we are told, is very distressed by Sarah telling him to cast them out, (what loving father would want to do such a thing), Hagar has lost her home and security and is in despair at the prospect of seeing her son starve to death in the wilderness and Ishmael has lost his home, his father, his possible inheritance and his brother & playmate. Isaac seems to be the only one probably too young to have an opinion on all this loss and unhappiness. How on earth, you may wonder, does good come out of this complicated and unhappy state of affairs?

Well if it had been purely an earthly situation then at the very least Hagar and Ishmael probably would have starved to death and Abraham’s distress would have been compounded. But God is at work here. Much as he is upset at the prospect of sending Ishmael and his mother away, Abraham trusts in God when he tells him to obey Sarah’s wish and that with regard to Ishmael he says “I will make a nation of him also”. We then hear that when Hagar has run out of food and water and puts her son under a bush so that she won’t have to watch him die, she is visited by an angel telling her too that God will make a nation of him, and water is provided to sustain them. By the end of the passage we are told that they both survived, that Ishmael lived in the wilderness and eventually married. In time he does indeed become the founder of a nation. Had he stayed in Abraham’s household he would probably not have done this and likely have remained resented by Sarah and of lesser status than his brother Isaac. Growth came out of adversity!

Life was complex in Abrahams’s day and it still is for us here and now, it probably always will be. There are seldom, if ever, any concrete answers or solutions to the problems we face and rarely only one absolutely right way to do something or one clearly right path to follow; most of the time they are complicated by multiple factors and what ifs and maybes and if onlys. We may not want to be the one who has to sort out some particular problem or situation, especially if it’s not of our making, but instead of automatically feeling fearful or resentful or negative about it we can view it as an opportunity to serve and in so doing we can learn and grow.

Last week I was listening to the autobiography of a police officer who said that in the early part of his career, domestic violence was seen as an area of policing that nobody, including himself, wanted to deal with because it was so complicated and difficult. However, he was put in charge of a unit where he had to face this and he described how over time he had learned to understand a great deal, particularly about the psychology of victims and the circumstances and attitudes that made them into victims and kept them there. He went on to have a long career as a police officer where he witnessed some of the worst effects and consequences of violent crimes, which along the way took a serious toll on his own mental health, but ultimately he described how police attitudes to these crimes have changed over the years and while there is still a very long way to go, they have improved. He had not shied away from a difficult job that no one wanted; he had stepped up and made a difference. I never cease to be amazed and heartened by the stories I hear of other people who have done likewise.

It’s tempting to assume that such people are extraordinary, and in some ways they are, but not because they are uniquely qualified or skilled or confident in the knowledge that they can do whatever task has come to them. They are extraordinary because they take it on regardless and do the best they can with what they’ve got. Jobs or tasks or services or whatever we see them as don’t have to big or spectacular to be of worth. Indeed, it’s often seemingly small things that can make a big difference to those on the receiving end, kindness, patience, listening respectfully, believing someone or believing in them. Using our own experience of adversity to help others see a way through theirs can be both encouraging and empowering for them and us.

Only this week we have seen how Marcus Rashford has used his own experience of going hungry when he was a young boy to persuade the government to make free school dinners available throughout the summer holidays. This will make a big difference to a lot of people’s wellbeing in more ways than just filling their stomachs. Something good has grown out of adversity.

One of the things I’m learning (very slowly) is to stop expecting that there is any such thing as a once and for all answer to problems. In the past I’ve thought that if I looked hard enough and tried hard enough and for long enough I would find these answers and in finding them, all would be well and I’d have arrived at a place of safety and security. Of course it didn’t happen. Instead, for much of the time, life felt like a long, complicated, often painful, winding road that was nearly all uphill. Each time I got to a bend in the road and | could see round it, instead of the hoped for easy bit or respite or desired result for all the effort, there would be just be more uphill. Depressing, or so I thought!!!

I’m now learning to see things differently. I’m slowly realising that the adversities and mistakes, the disappointments and losses that I have experienced, just as many people do, and sad and awful as some of them have been, they have caused me to grow and to become far more capable than I otherwise might have been and enabled me to be there for others with greater understanding and empathy when needed. I really do believe that God is always there for us and with us, especially in the difficult times, helping us to bring growth from adversity if we are open to it.

One final thing, just in case you thought I’d forgotten. Happy Father’s Day to all the dads, granddads, Godfathers and father figures out there, especially those of you who have brought good things out of difficulties in your own childhoods and those of you doing your best with difficult situations now and teaching those in your care how to do the same. Enjoy your special day.

The Prayers
Prepared by Hope

In the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ, let us pray to the Father.

O God the creator and preserver of all, we pray for people in every kind of need; make your ways known on earth and your saving health among all nations. Be with us as we pray in faith for the lessening of the grip of the coronavirus, on our country, and all around the world. Grant wisdom to all those who are carrying heavy responsibility for safely reducing the lock-down in the UK.

We think especially today of the children who have lost so much schooling since March, especially those who are being most damaged of all by lack of education, basic nutrition, and peer group fun and company. We know that every child matters to our Father in Heaven. Our reading from Genesis reminds us that Ishmael as well as Isaac was within God’s care. So, grant wisdom Lord to those who are working hard to make the best use of all funds available, to implement the great national Catch Up, in every way, for our children and young people. We remember locally those at St.Mary’s Primary School in Walkley.

Grant wisdom and skill to all those who are starting to work to implement the outcomes of the many reviews, studying the injustices suffered over the years, by black and ethnic minority (BAME) members of our society. Bless all creative initiatives at grass-roots level, including the start to teaching ‘Black History’ in a school curriculum in Leeds. We pray especially at this time that all that has been learnt about the causes of BAME people’s increased likelihood of severe illness and death during the pandemic, will lead urgently to preventing avoidable suffering and death.

Grant wisdom and inspiration to us all in our daily lives, so that we may be able to protect others, by our behaviour, and support our families, neighbours and communities as best we can and as you would have us do.
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

We pray for your church throughout the world; guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians, may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace and righteousness of life. We ask your blessings, Lord, on all those who are working harder than ever for their churches, in order to provide spiritual support and opportunities for shared worship in this time of social distancing.

Bless all the members of St. Mary’s own worship and leadership teams, and our wider worshipping communities of St. Mark’s Broomhill and St. John’s Ranmoor. Bless the churches of all denominations and around the world, especially their leaders, as they cope with the struggles of living and with the virus, and leading communities in worship. Send your Holy Spirit to be with us all, especially to those in settings more isolated, more risky or simply less equipped with digital technology. We thank you Lord, that we and our families are not alone in this time of sadness: that you are with us always.
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

We commend to your fatherly goodness all those who are in any ways afflicted or distressed, in mind, body or estate: comfort and relieve them in their need, give them patience in their sufferings and bring good out of their troubles. We ask your blessing on all those thousands of people who are suffering from the coronavirus itself or from dangerous illnesses that are made even more dangerous, due to delays in care.

We pray for all those known to each of us who are suffering from financial pressures, illness, bereavement or simply fear, for their families and future. Be close to us all at this strange time. Help us to grow in grace and understanding.
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

We remember those who have gone before us in the Peace of Christ. We give you praise for all your faithful ones, with whom we rejoice in the Communion of Saints, thinking especially of Kath Gratton and John Browning and their grieving families and friends.
Merciful Father,

Accept these prayers
for the sake of your son,
our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England, material from which is included in this service, is copyright (c) The Archbishops' Council 2000.