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A Sermon On The First Reading For Ordinary 12 - Proper 7 - Year A
Genesis 21:8-21
"What About The Losers?"
- by Robert U. Ferguson Jr. -

READING: Genesis 21:8-21 SERMON : "What About The Losers?" Robert U. Ferguson, Jr. High Point, NC 27262 This sermon was written by Robert U. Ferguson, Jr., Ph.D of Emerywood Baptist Church in High Point, North Carolina in 2002. It has been edited and reproduced with permisson. We live in a culture dominated by the idea of winning. The patron saint of professional football, Vince Lombardi, once said: "Winning isn't the best thing, it's the only thing." We accept that as truth as if it were from the lips of our Lord Himself. We have to win at our sports, win at our business, win in our relationships, and even win in our religion. We are a people obsessed with the idea of winning. So we see mottoes like: * Second place is first loser. * Win at all costs. * Life is like a dog-sled team. If you're not in the front the view never changes. Our culture has become so obsessed with winning that we idolize athletes who play dirty, who take drugs to enhance their performance, live highly immoral lives, and who engage in the now sacred art of trash-talking. Cities and counties are often asked to mortgage their financial future for the sake of having a professional sports franchise all in the promise of enhancing their image and sense of well being. Coaches can be at the top of the heap one year and at the bottom the next depending upon their won- loss record. Go ask former or current coaches at major universities about our cultural obsession with winning. This obsession has affected our understanding of religion. We exalt those who have had transforming experiences wherein their lives were miraculously saved or turned-around. We revel in the miraculous tales of how God took us from worst to first. We compare our churches and sermons on Monday at the water cooler, coffeepot, or lunch table and woe be to that preacher who continually comes out on the bottom! What about the losers? What about those who never come out on top? What about those who will never win the big game, who never received the big promotion, who never had the great and awe-inspiring experience from on high? Does God care about the losers? Does God only care about winners? Ishmael is the son of Hagar and Abraham. Hagar is Sarah's slave obtained from the Pharaoh during their brief sojourn there. Jewish tradition says that Hagar was very beautiful: tall, elegant with the broad shoulders and narrow hips of Egyptians. Somehow Sarah decided that since she was barren that Abraham should take Hagar so that he could have children. Abraham leaps at this decision and voila, Hagar becomes pregnant with Ishmael. The problem with this is that now Sarah becomes very jealous of Hagar. She thinks Hagar is a bit too cocky – and complains to Abraham. Being a smart man Abraham stays out of this catfight and tells Sarah to do whatever she wishes with Hagar. So, Sarah makes life as miserable as she can for Hagar, so much so that Hagar flees to the desert. In the desert God comes to Hagar and tells her to return, promising that God would bless her son and make of him a great nation. Hagar returns and for thirteen years Sarah watches as Hagar raises Ishmael. For thirteen years she sees Abraham enjoy and revel in Ishmael as his son. The furor and rage continue to boil. No matter how miserable she tries to make Hagar's life she cannot get beyond the fact that Hagar has borne Abraham a son and she has not. Can we imagine how that fact affected Sarah? Can we comprehend her sense of worthlessness? Can we see how she would have taken that out upon Hagar in as vindictive a manner as possible? Then the miraculous happens: Sarah becomes pregnant. At last God vindicates her! When Isaac (he laughs or he makes me laugh) is born she gives him his name because her anger is replaced by laughter. No more will she have to endure those snide looks from Hagar over her barrenness. Sarah has borne a son—she is now worthy! However, all is not well in paradise. When Isaac is about three (he is weaned) Sarah's anger comes back. Ishmael – who is about 16 – and Isaac are playing together and evidently Ishmael laughs at Isaac in a condescending manner. Sarah cannot stand it – she will not put up with this child of the slave girl being equal to her beloved Isaac, much less him mocking Isaac. Sarah demands that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away – much to the chagrin of Abraham. He loves Ishmael and Hagar and does not want to lose them. However, God comes to Abraham and reiterates the promise God made to Hagar concerning Ishmael. So Hagar and Ishmael are sent into the wilderness, the desert, with a skin of water and a loaf of bread. Soon they face death from dehydration and starvation. Hagar places Ishmael under a bush because she cannot stand to watch him die. However, God has not abandoned them but leads her to a well of water. Ishmael then grows up in the wilderness under the care of his mother and becomes an expert hunter and marksman with a bow. When he is older Hagar goes to Egypt and gets Ishmael an Egyptian wife. Ishmael eventually has twelve sons who are later divided into twelve tribes – and yes, a great nation comes of them. For Ishmael's descendents are the Muslims, the largest non Christian religious group on the face of the earth—about 1 billion by latest estimates. The modern day Palestinians and many Arabs trace their lineage back to Ishmael. God did indeed fulfill the covenant with Hagar and Ishmael just as God did with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Do we understand this text for what it is telling us? Hagar and Ishmael were losers—they were not the chosen. However, God blessed them just the same. Though God had other plans for them than to be the ancestors of the Messiah God did not abandon them nor cast them away. One of the ways of reading the Bible is from the point of the loser, the underdog, the oppressed. Time and again God takes the side of the oppressed, of the underdog. In a society which gave almost all the property and rights to the first born time and again God chooses the second born as the mode of blessing. * In a few hundred years Israel, the descendents of Abraham through Isaac, would find themselves in slavery in Egypt. God hears their cry and sends Moses to liberate them. They have become the outcasts, the losers, but God does not abandon them. * Rachel is the second wife of Jacob but becomes the one through whom the lineage continues. * Jacob supplants his older brother Esau. * Joseph is a younger child of Rachel and Jacob. * Moses has an older brother, Aaron, but it is Moses whom God chooses. * David is the youngest of his brothers but through God's anointing he becomes the King even to where his ragtag outlaw band is able to defeat the mighty army of Saul. * Solomon is not the first born of David's sons, but becomes the heir. God, it seems, looks upon the last, the least, and the lost as the ones who are in need of God's blessing. Jesus spent most of his time with the peasants, the anawim, which is Aramaic for the poor and homeless. These were the ones to whom Jesus promised the kingdom of God, the meek and humble of heart, the powerless and disaffected who lived from hand to mouth and had little or no choice in life. These, Jesus proclaimed, are the least of these—the ones who provide the opportunity for our service to the Christ. So, is that it? Is that who losers are: the poor, the poverty stricken who can do nothing about their plight? Though this is what society says— our theology is quite a bit different. Losers are those who fail, who do not achieve or live up to what they believe they should be and do. According to the Bible we are all losers: "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God." All of us fail at one time or another. So, if we are all losers are there any winners? Let me share a revelation from, of all places, the golf course to help us understand losing and winning. Golf is a very unforgiving game when played according to the rules. No mulligans, no overs, you have to play every shot as it is found – even your "foul balls" as we say. Further, in a tournament you play the course – not each other. You can play the best that it is possible for you to play and not win because someone else played one shot better. Unlike team sports where you can play bad and the team still wins in golf you are on your own – you can play good and still lose. In a conversation with Jay Haas, professional golfer, I asked him about this and how he handled it from a psychological perspective. He said that this was the toughest part of professional golf and that one had to set different standards for success. Success comes not in winning every week, but in doing your best with what happens that week. If you play your best and someone else plays better – you accept it and go on. Another professional put it this way: "You must focus on the process and not the results." In other words: play your game, hit every shot as good as you can, and let the chips fall where they may. This, I believe, is a much better understanding of winning and losing. All of us have different gifts and abilities. Some of us started low on the educational and economic ladder – others began much higher. Someone once said of an unnamed President, "He was born on third base and thought he hit a home run." It seems to me that winning and losing should be determined not by where we finish – but by where we began and how far we rose during our lifetime. * Were we faithful to our Lord and our Lord's church? * Were we faithful to our family and our responsibilities? * Did we do the best we could with what we had? * Did we try to help or hurt others along the way? * Did we use our gifts and resources primarily for personal gain or to help others? Some of us this morning may feel like losers. We haven't given our best, we've failed in being faithful, and we've even stepped on others along the way. I've good news for you: God is in the business of using losers. Ted Turner, media mogul, once said "Christianity is a religion for losers." He was right…this is a religion for losers – for if the standard is perfection then we all are losers. In fact, Jesus, by the world's standards, was a loser. When you find yourself crucified by the powers that be it is hard to call yourself a winner. God, however, stepped in – and the rest is history. The resurrection was God's sign that our notions of winning and losing are all messed up. How did Paul put it: "While we were yet sinners Christ died for us." Or, in the language of today, "While we were yet losers Christ died for us." God makes winners out of losers in the only game that counts – the game of eternal life. For God will have the final say – and through Jesus Christ we will all be winners – regardless of who wins the US Open, the World Series, or the Super Bowl. Robert U. Ferguson, Jr., Ph.D. Emerywood Baptist Church 1300 Country Club Road High Point, North Carolina 27262 January 23, 2002 copyright - Editing and Page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2005 please acknowledge the appropriate author and source if citing these sermons.

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