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Sunday, June 21, 2020
Scripture: Genesis 21:8-21 & Matthew 10:24-31, 37-39
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
There once was a woman who carried two large pots every day to fetch water. Each pot hung on the end of a pole that she carried across her neck. One pot was cracked, and the other was whole and never leaked a drop of water on her journey. The cracked one lost half of its water on every trip. Every day the woman carried her water pots, returning home with one full pot and one half-full. The perfect pot was proud. “I do exactly what I’m made to do. I always deliver a full pot of water,” it boasted. The cracked pot was sad because it knew it was a failure, only bringing home half of what it should have.
After two years the cracked pot spoke to the woman. “I am ashamed. I cannot do what you want me to do. All this time I only deliver half of my load because this crack causes the water to leak out all the way back to your home. You do so much work, and I let you down.”
The woman felt sorry for the cracked pot, and she said, “Pay attention on our journey home. I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.” As they went on their way, the cracked pot noticed all the flowers blooming on its side of the path. The flowers made it happy for a moment, but then the shame came back strong, for half of the water leaked out of the cracked pot once again.
The woman saw the pot was dejected. “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path?” she asked. “I’ve always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these flowers and bring them home. Without you being the way you are, I would not have had these flowers to make my home beautiful.”
We’re all cracked pots, aren’t we? Flawed, but able to contribute to the world in different and surprising ways. Still, it’s easy to buy into the myth that we have to be the best or we have to put it all together just right in order to be what God wants us to be in this world. The cracked pot thought it was a failure because it lost half of its water on every trip. Yet, the woman saw the cracked pot’s uniqueness and used it in a way that the other pot could not be used. Beauty bloomed because of the combination of this uniqueness and someone who noticed that difference and knew how to use it.
In this fable, the woman could certainly be a stand-in for God, couldn’t she? She sees what sets each pot apart, and she maximizes those things to make life full. The perfect pot is perfectly good at carrying water without spilling a drop, which the woman used to enhance her household. Because of that pot, there was water for cooking and for cleaning. The cracked pot is perfectly good for its purpose – carrying some of the water and sprinkling some of the water along the path to cause flowers to spring forth from the good earth. Neither pot is better than the other. They are different for sure, but they both enhance life in the world.
We’ve been following the lectionary, which means my choices for Scripture are narrowed down for me. Sometimes those readings make a ton of sense and are easy to preach from, and sometimes I stare at them and wonder why anyone would have included them in the lectionary. This week’s texts are in that latter category. The story of Hagar and Ishmael is painful and hard. The words of Jesus to his disciples are hugely challenging. And yet, when I wrestle with ideas and texts that are hard, I find that there is often blessing to be had. There are unexpected gifts present that take God’s help to realize. As I read about Hagar and Ishmael, I was the cracked pot talking to God and saying, “I’m sorry that I am going to let you down this week. I have no idea what to do with this.” And God said back, “Let me show you the gifts to be found even here.”
Hagar and Ishmael’s story is a cracked pot story. It’s a really hard story to digest. To summarize what led up to our text, God calls Abraham to leave his land and family and to start a new nation. The problem is that nothing seems to be working out. He and his primary wife, Sarah, can’t have children. How can you become a nation when you can’t even have one child? So, Sarah decides that God’s path just might be different than their expectations. “Have a child with your Egyptian slave girl, Hagar,” she says. So, Abraham does, and his name is Ishmael. For well over a decade this plan continues, until Sarah and Abraham get a message from God that she’ll bear him a son named Isaac in their old age. Suddenly, Hagar and Ishmael are not essential to this plan, and now Sarah grows jealous of them, instructing Abraham to send them away. It’s a tragic story. It reveals the worst in humanity, and yet what I started noticing this time is that when the humans take matters into their hands, things get messy, but when they trust in what God is up to, things settle into place.
Like the woman understanding the purpose of the cracked pot, the Lord looks down on this and determines what is possible and best for each involved. Notice how the decisions of all lead to dead ends in the story. Sarah says, “Send them away!” to Abraham, and he does. He supplies Hagar and Ishmael with provisions for starting, surely an act of compassion, but really, to whom will they
go? They are leaving the closest thing to family they have. It’s not like there is a homeless shelter a day’s journey away. Trusting only in her own strength, Hagar uses all she has and then gives up. She puts Ishmael under a bush, so she won’t see him die. She’s at her end, but before she totally gives up, she cries out and weeps. God hears her desperation and shows her the way. A messenger sent from God comes to her and delivers the promise. “Hagar, God has heard you. God has heard Ishmael’s cry too. Go to your boy. Take care of him and yourself. You see a dead end, but God is making a way. God will make of you a great nation too, just like Abraham.” God sees her. God hears her. Like the cracked pot, God shows her that she has her own unique value, something that she no longer believed in for herself.
On its surface, this is a really troublesome text, but shining through the cracks comes the light of God that brings water to the thirsty and hope to the hopeless. This is in the very nature of how God chooses to operate in the world, and I suspect that many of us have stories where we thought all was lost only to realize that God was there the whole time working things ultimately for good.
I see a lot of connection between this story about Hagar and Jesus’ hard words to his disciples. Jesus is direct with his disciples. They should not expect that following him will lead to the sweet life. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be filled with hard decisions and even discouragement. Jesus experiences it, and it stands to reason if Jesus faced it, then so will those who try to follow in the steps of Jesus. “A disciple is not above the teacher….It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher,” he says.
One of the finest people alive on this earth is Dr. John Perkins. Prior to seminary, Jess and I took a crew of Michigan students to his ministry in Jackson, Mississippi, to learn from him and to serve with him. Perkins was born in 1930 on a cotton plantation in Mississippi. His mother died from malnutrition when he was a baby, so his paternal grandmother raised him. He grew up as a sharecropper, dropping out of school in third grade. In 1947, his older brother Clyde who had earned a Purple Heart in World War II was shot and killed by a local police officer after not responding to the officer’s derogatory commands. Perkins wanted to get away, so he moved to Pasadena, California. He worked in a foundry before serving in the army for three years.
He planned never to return to Mississippi, but God had different plans for him. In 1960, he and his wife returned, where he spoke in segregated schools, organized children’s ministries, and founded several organizations. His civil rights work eventually led to his being arrested and beaten to the point of death in jail. He survived that beating, and he doubled-down on shining the light of Christ in community development. He co-founded the Christian Community Development Association, a network of Christian ministries that are committed to serving long-term in under-served neighborhoods. Decades later, this man with a third grade education from the middle-of-nowhere Mississippi has received sixteen honorary doctorate degrees. My alma mater, Calvin, began the John M. Perkins Leadership Fellows in 2012, an opportunity for students to learn how to address issues like poverty, racism, and materialism in a way that leads to renewal of communities.
Jesus says, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” That’s such a weird saying, but when I look at the life of a person like John Perkins, I begin to understand what Jesus meant. John didn’t become a Christian until adulthood, after his son, Spencer, invited him to church. Following Jesus led John down this hard path back to Mississippi, but it also taught him how God was going to use him. John Perkins is a cracked pot, and he found his life’s meaning in bringing hope and reconciliation to all people in his community, for he understood that racism is destructive both for its victims and those who victimize others with it.
It’s all about perspective. Hagar felt all alone, but God heard. Jesus doesn’t promise that life will be easy for us, but he does promise that God sees and knows us better than we know ourselves. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” he asks. “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs on your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
There’s a song by a band called Over the Rhine, whose lyrics could have been written right into the Bible for these texts. It goes, “If grief is love without a place to go, well then I’ve been there, you’re not alone. And if a song is worth a thousand prayers, we’ll sing till angels come carry you and all your cares.”
God sees. God cares. We are all cracked pots, but God knows what makes us unique and special and knows how to use us best to bring grace into the world.