What Do They Know? Genesis 16: 1-14



There is a really good, really logical, really appropriate question we could ask about worship this weekend:


It is World Communion Sunday. We continue our series on friendship. So why in the world would we read an awful story about slavery and exploitation?

The short answer: It has something important to say to us.

For the longer answer…let’s look at the text.


Genesis 16:1-14

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, 2and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 3So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife.

4He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. 5Then Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!” 6But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.

7The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8And he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.” 9The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.”

10The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.” 11And the angel of the Lord said to her, “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction. 12He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin.” 13So she named the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” 14Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered.

Abram and Sarai’s lives were turned upside down when God showed up, promising to bless them and to make them a blessing. Key to that: the promise of offspring. But years go by and they have no children and they are getting frustrated.

(Sidebar: as someone who has struggled with fertility issues, I sometimes really hate this aspect of Genesis).

They are getting frustrated so they take matters into their own hands, availing themselves of a solution offered in their patriarchal milieu: Abram conceives a child with Sarai’s slave girl Hagar.

So this is a story about slavery, sexual assault and human trafficking. But to describe these elements of the culture and the family is not to condone them. Put it another way: not everything in the Bible is good, even from the Bible’s perspective.

Back to the story: Hagar as a son, Ishmael. And, perhaps predictably, Sarai is jealous. So much so that she “deals harshly” with Hagar and Hagar runs away.

But it is the next part of the story that captures my imagination. In the desert, in desperate circumstances, Hagar encounters God. God encourages her and makes a promise to her. And in response, Hagar gives God a name: “El-roi,” the One who sees.

Hagar is the first person in the entire Bible to give God a name. Hagar is our first theologian.

So why are we reading this text?

Well, we continue our fall focus on friendship. And this is World Communion Weekend –a weekend set aside to experience the way going to the communion table unites us with Christians all over the world. And we like to think, explicitly, about our friends at Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Havana Cuba on this weekend.

Hagar’s story shows us why friendship is important. She knows something about God. She knows that God is El-roi, the One who sees. When we invest our time and energy in getting to know other people—particularly people who are different from us—we get a new perspective on ourselves, on the world, on God. We are blessed with insight we would otherwise miss.

There are people out there who are not like us. What do they know?

There is only one way to find out.





This blog post is brief and a bit behind schedule. Last week the Mardis-LeCroy family was able to get away to the YMCA of the Rockies and it was fabulous.

But it meant returning to 254 unread emails. So my Monday has been fun!

With the emails answered and a bunch of meetings scheduled, I can finally turn my attention to the topic of the week.

Conflict! Is it always unhealthy? Does it always mean the end of a friendship?


Maybe not.

This week we explore an important aspect of friendship, one from which the church is not immune. This week we are talking about conflict.

Acts 15:26-41

36After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Come, let us return and visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. 39The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. 40But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord. 41He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches

If you grew up in certain church circles, you may have been taught that that the early church was a conflict-free zone; a time when believers were united in the work of spreading the word about Jesus.

The New Testament does not bear this out.

Our text is rarely heard in churches. I do not know of any lectionary that includes it. But it offers an important insight: Even the early church was susceptible to sometimes bitter conflicts.

Paul was restless. He always wanted to get to the next place; to preach somewhere else. (Paul is the guy at the cocktail party who does not give you his full attention because he is thinking about the next person to whom he wants to speak).

In this passage, Paul—typically twitchy, eager to be on the move—Paul proposes a return visit to churches he has planted. Barnabas is in –but Barnabas wants to take John Mark along. Paul says no.


The story is briefly told back in Acts 13:13

Then Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. John, however, left them and returned to Jerusalem;

John Mark abandoned Paul on an earlier journey. We don’t know why. The tradition has speculated that he was young (it seems his mother was prominent in the Jerusalem church), he may have had misgivings about Paul’s desire to preach to Gentiles. Perhaps, as the great theologian Origen of Alexandria (c. 184 – c. 253) suggested, he simply missed his mother.

But Paul did not want to give him a second chance. So they parted ways.

Can we learn anything about conflict and friendship from this story? Here are two quick thoughts to get the ball rolling:

  1. Conflict is inevitable. Even the early church struggled with personality clashes and different opinions about the best path forward. Like a lot of ministers, I tend to be conflict-averse. It is helpful to be reminded that conflict is a normal part of life, not necessarily a sign that everything is hopeless.
  2. Conflict is an opportunity. Paul missed his opportunity by refusing reconciliation; Barnabas modeled a different and better path by giving Barnabas a second chance. What would our friendships look like—what would our church look like—if we were more like Barnabas?

See you in church!


Welcoming Allen Hilton to Plymouth Church



I am very excited to welcome the Rev. Dr. Allen Hilton to Plymouth this weekend! Here is your preview of what he plans on doing. Don’t miss worship this weekend!

Saturday Night/Sunday Morning Sermon


A House United – How the Church Can Save the World

Jeremiah 29.4-7; John 17.20-23


You and I live in a land divided by increasingly vicious political tribalism with record levels of polarization. To bring those statistics closer to home, almost half of American parents would be deeply concerned if their child were to marry someone from the opposite political party. Our nation needs help, and you’d think that we Christians are the least likely source of help, with a rap sheet that includes the Inquisitions, the brutal religious wars of modern Europe, and a Fundamentalist vs Liberal battle that gave birth to the American culture wars and persists into our present time.


What if God could change the church? Jesus commanded his disciples to “love one another as I’ve loved you” and prayed “that they all may be one.” (John 13.34-35 and 17.20-21) How can Christians come together across our differences and help our republic learn to be “a more perfect union”? On Sunday, Sept 22, come hear our guest preacher, Dr. Allen Hilton, help us imagine partnering with God to heal our polarized land.


Sunday Class

Being Christian During a Presidential Campaign


During in an election season, tensions rise in a family, neighborhood, church, city, and nation. We all need strategies that bring us together across our differences, but our emotions run hot when the subject turns to politics. Join Dr. Allen Hilton after worship on Sunday, Sept 22, as we look straight at our American problem and learn how to love one another despite our disagreements – even to make our differences an asset rather than a threat.


Finding Fierce Friendships Ruth 1:1-22



Our friendship series  continues. And this week we will take on a big question: Why does friendship get harder in adulthood?

We have some help imagining adult friendships from the story of Ruth and Naomi

Ruth 1:1-22

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. 2The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, 5both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

6Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. 7So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” 14Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” 18When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

19So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 21I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” 22So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

A little context goes a long way toward understanding this story. It comes from the time of the judges in Israel’s history. After Israel entered the Promised Land but before the rise of the monarchy, the 12 tribes of Israel functioned less like one nation and more like a decentralized network of 12 small nations. And, at least as portrayed in the Book of Judges, this left people vulnerable both to enemy armies and to various kinds of agricultural failures.

Case in point: there is a famine in the land. A man named Elimelech lives in Bethlehem (future birthplace of King David and, eventually, Jesus). But the famine means a depressed economy –no work, no food. So Elimelech does what desperate people often do –he migrates to another country (neighboring Moab, which is in modern day Jordan) in search of work. And he takes his family with him.

But then Elimelech dies in this foreign land. And that leaves his wife in dire straits. He two sons marry Moabite women –and the sons die, leaving Namoi and her two foreign born daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth.

Naomi hears things are better now back home and she wants to return. She implores her foreign daughters-in-law to stay. Orpah does. Ruth does not.

I find it interesting that Ruth’s declaration of loyalty to Naomi is often read at weddings: Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” We tend to associate that level of passion and commitment with romantic love.

But can we imagine bringing a similar level of passion and commitment to our friendships? Particularly as adults?

Can friendship be fierce?

That is what we will be exploring this weekend. See you in church!

Blog News

I Have Called You Friends (September 7 & 8 at Plymouth Church)



It’s here! It’s finally here!

Around the weekend of September 7-8, a lot of the things I love best about Plymouth Church come back from the summer hiatus. Choirs return. Church school resumes. Confirmation kicks-off. 9 to Dine begins again And, this year, we will see some new things: a Wednesday noon class on friendship, a Wednesday 7 pm adult Bible study, meals on Wednesday nights, new programming for older adults and so much more.

All of that is pretty exciting.

But wait! There’s more!

This weekend will also witness the start of our fall focus on Friendship. From September 7-8 right through Thanksgiving, our worship will explore the spiritual practice of friendship.

It all starts this weekend with Jesus.

John 15:12-17

12“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

The setting here is the Last Supper –Jesus telling the disciples what they will need to know as they prepare for life without him. And in this section of the discourse, he is teaching them something important about the nature of their relationship with him and with one another.

“I have called you friends.”

Last week I did something I do not often do. I pulled a couple of volumes of Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament off my shelf. (It was pretty dusty). And I consulted a couple of entries to formulate what follows.

The passage opens with the most fundamental commandment: that the disciples “love one another as I have loved you.” The Greek word for love in this verse is ἀγαπᾶτε, the Greek word denoting the highest and most selfless form of love. To make that even more clear, Jesus gives content to the concept by appealing to the example he is about to give them. There is no greater love than “laying down one’s life” for one’s friends.

Does that make you cringe? It makes me cringe a little. To “lay down one’s life” sounds like an invitation to self-sacrifice. Feminist theologians like Rita Nakashima Brock have rightly warned us of the dangers of construing love as self-sacrifice. That kind of rhetoric too often authorizes victimized and oppressed people to “lay down their lives” by continuing to suffer.

But this is where Kittel’s Theological Dictionary was (surprisingly) helpful. To “lay down one’s life” is an expression unique to the Johannine literature (the Gospel of John and the three epistles of John). But if you look at similar phrases in non-biblical literature, you start to see, not a connotation of self-sacrifice, but rather self-risk.

“To hazard one’s life for one’s friends.” Does that sound different? To me it does.

And then we have the Greek word for “friend”: Φίλοs. It is related to the word for “kiss.” But the original root may have meant something like “to regard and treat somebody as one of one’s own people.”

On his last night, Jesus founds a new community –a circle of friends who know that they belong to each other, are defined by Jesus’ example of love and who freely risk themselves for each other and for the advancement of that love.

And Jesus means to make that happen. There is a little conjunction in v.17 that does a big job:  ἵνα (“so that”).  Jesus does not merely set out some vague wishes for how we will be together as a church; he means to make it happen. He tells his disciples about so that it will happen.

He has called us friends.  And he means to make it so.

Plymouth Church, this weekend we start something special. Please don’t miss it. Jesus called us friends. And we’re going to start figuring out what that means –for each of us, for Plymouth, for the whole world.