Posted: Jun 23

Ishmael and the Path of Stewardship

By Bishop Dan Edwards

Proper 7a.13 – St. Patrick’s

I cannot think of a more poignant story than Ishmael’s.

Abraham cast Hagar and her baby out into the desert

            with nothing but a loaf of bread and a skin of water.

When the water ran out, Hagar laid the child

            under a bush and left him there alone

because she could not bear to watch him die.

But God heard the baby’s cry,

            sent Hagar back to her son, gave them water,

and made Ishmael’s descendants a great nation.


I stand in awe of that moment when baby Ishmael has lost everything

-- father, mother, food, water, shelter – all gone.

He has nothing – absolutely nothing – but the grace of God.


Then my mind leaps from Ishmael to his opposite

–       Willy Loman in The Death Of A Salesman.

In Thomas Dumm’s recent book, Loneliness As A Way Of Life,

            he describes Willy Loman as lonely, alienated

-- cut off even from himself.

-- trapped in the ceaseless struggle to acquire,

            to succeed by amassing possessions, to have, have, have –

because the alternative to having is to be had.

We trust owning things to insure our well-being and our freedom.

We want to be people “of independent means.”


But Dumm says that the life of having is empty.

As Wordsworth put it,

            “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.

             Little we see in nature that is ours.”

It’s like Citizen Kane dying with the word “Rosebud,”

            the name of his boyhood sled, on his lips

He had built an empire but died longing

for the simple innocent humanity he had lost.

Psychoanalyst Eric Fromm wrote in his book, To Have Or To Be.

that Western culture had gone off track,

            promising happiness through material possessions,

            but that life of getting, spending, having, and clutching

had failed to make us happy.

It had drawn us away from authentic experience.

It had cut us off from our real selves, cut us off like Citizen Kane

            and Willy Loman from our humanity,

            reduced us to  jumping through economic hoops.


But Fromm says there is another way.

It is possible to live deeply and happily

            through participation in the whole dance of humanity.

He calls that experience “being” and says we develop the capacity for being

            -- the capacity for life -- through letting go of possessions

            in order to connect with each other.


Fromm’s compelling  diagnosis of our psychological malaise

            seems to grow out of an older book by French philosopher

            Gabriel Marcel, Being And Having.

But Marcel says the problem isn’t just material possessions.

It’s how we relate to everything.

It’s treating the world, even our own bodies and ideas,

            as something we can watch, dominate , possess, manipulate.


That’s what Gabriel Marcel means by “having.”

We can have our families as well as having our homes.

The problem, according to Marcel, is that we stand back

one step removed from everything,

using it instead of celebrating it.


So the vegan yoga-practicing purist in patched jeans

            can be just as caught up in having his spirituality

            as the investor is in having his mutual fund.

“Having” is about control and credentials.

The opposite of “having” is what Fromm and Marcel call “being.”

It’s the real life that comes from participation, from joining the dance.

It happens when we give ourselves away.

Being is as vulnerable as baby Ishmael under the bush.

Authentic life is vulnerable precisely because

it is engaged with others, participating rather than controlling,

                        giving our money, our time, our attention, and our hearts

                        to a life that often doesn’t go our way.

It’s surfing. We don’t control the frothy waves. We ride them.


In between Ishmael, homeless and alone in the desert

but surviving by the grace of God,

and Willy Loman, dying in a car wreck

on the very day his house was paid off,

there was another character – Jesus.

Jesus’ disciples had left everything follow him.

They left their jobs, their homes, their families, their communities.

After awhile they asked Jesus,

“Now what will we get? What’s our reward?”

Jesus told them they still had more to give.

They’d have to take up their cross.

Then he said, “Whoever finds his life will lose it;

            but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.”

The word we have translated as life is actually psyche.

It means the very core of a person, their identity,

            what makes them get up in the morning.


It’s in the ballpark of what Buddhists mean

            when they talk about surrendering the ego.

I used to be a Buddhist talking about surrendering my ego ad nauseum.

I was pretty proud of how much ego I had surrendered.

Then I ran across God who wanted me to surrender real stuff

            like money, time, emotional energy

-- and I discovered I  still had some attachments break loose.


Jesus invites us to let go of what we cling to most tightly,

            because those things are our chains.

The more we give away, the less we have,

            but the more fully alive we become.

If we give our money, our time, our attention, our labor

            for Jesus’ sake, it opens up a place in our souls

                        where we can breathe.

We get light enough to join the dance, to surf the waves.


Everything we do in the Church is about getting free

from the prison of having

            so we can plunge into being

-- that spontaneous flowing state of appreciation and gratitude.


We place our offering of money, bread, and wine

unconditionally on God’s altar.

These tokens represent all we have and all we are.

We give it all to God.

Then our gifts are blessed, broken, and shared with one another.


Holy Communion is the ritual of giving up what we have

            in order to participate in life.

It is the exchange of having for being.

In Holy Communion we recall Abraham leaving his land and people

            to follow God; then Moses; then Jesus; and the followers of Jesus.

Like them, we do not come to Church to “get something out of it.”

We come to Church to give ourselves to God

            and open our hearts to life.


Meister Eckhart, one of the greatest spiritual masters of the Middle Ages,

said, “The person who is full of things is empty of God;    

            but the person who is empty of things is full of God.”

He also said,

            “No one ever gave so much of himself away

            that he did not have more to give.”


So think today on what you have given away for the love of God.

Then ask what you have left that you might yet give.

Maybe it’s money, maybe it’s time, maybe it’s attention.

What might you give that would set you just a little freer,

            that would give you a bit more peace,

            that would open your heart a little wider to life and joy?

Giving ourselves away, giving away even a little of what we have,

            is a risk, a leap.

It is also godly action.

The word for God, theos, comes from a root that means “to leap.”

God leaps into our lives when we make a space for him.


John 3:16 recounts that godly leap of love,

            “For God so loved the world that he gave . . . . – he gave.”

We love the world and we love God when we give back.

That’s what eucharist means a thankful giving back in love.

It is the love puts a heart in our life.