Genesis 21: 9-19; Matthew 10: 29-31
Counting the Uncounted
In the documentary a people uncounted the story is told of the Roma people- Gypsies- as we know them. There are several reality shows that show the life, especially the wedding practices of the Roma people, especially in the United Kingdom and Ireland where they are known as Travelers. These reality shows give us all the stereotypes of gaudiness and drunkenness, but show that they are a people that remain a mystery. We know they came from India many centuries ago and that they are tight-knit, do not blend well into the societies where the find themselves and that they tend to stay on the move. Where the idea of a people uncounted really hits home is the reality that no one knows how many Roma Hitler annihilated in the Holocaust. It could be 100.000, it could be a half a million. No one knows. Possibly hundreds of thousands of people have disappeared.
The people of the Middle East these days more than ever, although they are always in the new, may feel like a people uncounted. The numbers of refugees from Syria is mind numbing, the number of children stuck in dirty and dusty camps is horrifying. Now the killing in Iraq has started up again. Back to the uncounted bodies in hospitals emergency rooms and morgues. Shiites need to be counted by Sunnis. Sunnis need not be counted by Shiites, The hatred goes back many centuries and is always re-remembered.
Perhaps it’s all too much for us. The bad news keeps coming. Conflicts light up the map all over. Brutal dictators oppress without abandon. Guantanamo Bay has counted militants, but we like to pretend they are not. And then when we finally do count our soldiers and bring one home from Afghanistan, we wonder if the Taliban count let go for his release was worth it. And Guantanamo is not the only prison we don’t know what to do with.
In the story of Hagar, mother of Abraham’s son Ishmael, Hagar feels uncounted, let go by her mistress Sarah, the one who laughed when she heard she was pregnant with Isaac at an advanced age. And here we find the roots of the resentment and hatred. The Jewish Isaac is favored over the Arab Ishmael. And so the tribalism is born and it is still with us today. And tribes quickly tend to feel undercounted.
Friends, what is hard for Americans, citizens of the most powerful country in the history of the world, to understand is how important the World Cup is to nations. It is a way for small nations and flawed larger nations to stand up and be counted, to mean something. Citizens of those countries measure the worth of their nation and their own worth by how they do in the World Cup. It’s silly, but it is fed by the tribal instinct of all of us. Former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in his book “Faith in the Public Square” writes about the church that Christianity challenges consumer pluralism and rootless invidualism; it upholds local communities and encourages other faiths and thus prevents faith being relegated to privatized fanaticism and exclusion (see the Christian Century, June 18, 2014). In other words without churches we get our values from commercialism and we retreat in our own exclusive tribal communities. This is becoming more and more obvious. We are getting more polarized because we all watch our own commercialized tv channels and echo the themes those channels present.
In Matthew Jesus talks about sparrows and hairs. Neither one are very unusual. Most people had hair at one point or another and sparrows are everywhere. But God counts them all. This is how Christian faith is the great counterweight to our world. God counts everybody, from the very young to the very old, the sex slave and the prime minister, the President and the child laborer, the prisoner and the powerful, the ugly and the beautiful, the strong and the weak, the brilliant and the challenged. With Jesus, with God we are by definition counted and accounted for, as much as we are aware so many people these days are discarded, dumped, pushed away, unaccounted and forgotten. God’s love is a response to the cruelty.
Friends, in response to God a congregation such as these, with its limited numbers and resources can counter the forced of tribalism and exclusivity. It can create a welcoming space where all people can be counted, the poor, the rich, the gay, the straight, the skeptics and the believers, the young and the old, the stranger and the familiar. The question is not just how we can make this a better place for us, but a haven for anyone out there who feels lost and uncounted and forgotten. May God bless what we do here. Thanks be to God for counting all of us.