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Faith United Methodist Church

June 25, 2017

Third Sunday after Pentecost

Rev. Kristabeth Atwood

Scripture:  Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17

Prayer for Illumination (Unison):

Holy One, may we remember the stories of our ancestors.  May these stories become alive in us today, as we respond to your invitation to new life.  And may we be empowered to take up our cross and follow you.  Amen.  

Sermon:  Rewriting History

Family.  We’re in the second week of our “Family Stories” worship series and we know that family isn’t always… easy.  Recently I saw one of those decorative signs, the kind you might hang in your living room or entryway, which said, “Welcome Friends, Family by Appointment.”

Today’s Old Testament lesson offers us a glimpse into a family torn apart by jealousy and insecurity.  The story of Hagar and Ishmael isn’t one that we explore very often.  Even when it appears in our lectionary readings we tend to avoid it.  I looked back in my files and found that in 17 years I’ve only preached on this scripture one other time (and that was back before I knew better).  The reason we avoid this scripture is that it puts Abraham and Sarah, the mother and father of our faith tradition, in a poor light.  It is not a happy story.  Caught between Sarah, mother of Isaac, and Hagar, mother of Ishmael, Abraham makes a choice between his two sons.  One he holds close and the other he casts out into the wilderness with his mother.  Yet, as in all Biblical stories, there is something here we can learn.  It’s a story that conveys truth about humanity and family and gives us a glimpse at the mercy and justice of God.

The saga we explore today tosses us right into the middle of a complicated story, which actually started some 20 years before.  Last week we caught up with Abraham and Sarah in Cana just as they were celebrating the birth of their long hoped for baby boy, Isaac.  What we didn’t recall last week was that Abraham already had a son, Ishmael, with Sarah’s slave, Hagar.  Sarah, despondent about being unable to have children, had given Hagar to Abraham so she could have a child for Sarah.  As a slave, Hagar was considered Sarah’s property and Sarah would have authority over the child Hagar bore.  Sarah was hedging her bets.  If God didn’t follow through with the promise of children, at least they would have Hagar’s child.

But God did, as God tends to do, follow through on the promise and a few years after Hagar had Ishmael Sarah bore Isaac.  This is when things started to get bad for Hagar and her son.  So, picking up with our reading for today, Abraham and Sarah were having a weaning party for their treasured son.  During the party Sarah looked over to find that Isaac, her beautiful baby, was playing with his half-brother Ishmael.  Instead of being overcome with thankfulness for the great blessing God brought to her life, Sarah was overcome with anger and jealousy.

Sarah couched her anger in concern about inheritance.  Isaac was Abraham’s second son, so Ishmael was set to inherit most of the estate upon Abraham’s death.  In Hebrew culture the inheritance went to all children, but a double portion went to the firstborn.  So Sarah called her husband over and demanded of him, “…cast out this slave-woman with her son; for this son of this slave-woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”  Denigrating both Hagar and Ishmael by not even calling them by name, Sarah demanded that Abraham chose between his two sons.  Sarah wanted Abraham to set the boundaries of who’s in and who’s out of the family.  She wanted him to rewrite history to make Isaac the treasured firstborn.

I can feel some sympathy for Abraham.   Presumably he loved both his sons.  And he knew that sending Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness would almost certainly mean death.  But Sarah was his wife, and Hagar was not.  In fact, Hagar was Sarah’s slave and Sarah could do with her whatever she wanted.  In his uncertainty Abraham consulted God and, surprisingly, God told Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away while promising that, “I will make a nation of you, also, because he is your offspring.”  Perhaps this promise made it easier for Abraham to send Ishmael away.  Abraham knew that God had a way of keeping promises.  He had even experienced it.  So with the assurance that Ishmael would not die in the wilderness he placed him on Hagar’s back and sent them off with a skin of wine and a loaf of bread.

This is definitely a part of the story we miss when we sing about Father Abraham at church camp.  “Father had many sons.  Many sons had Father Abraham.  I am one of them and so are you.  So let’s all praise the Lord.”  Hagar certainly didn’t have much reason to praise God.  She must have been terrified setting out into the unknown with her son on her back.  And angry!  How could her son’s own family do this to them?

We all know that family life can be difficult.  Disagreements arise and loyalties are tested in even the most functional families.  Sometimes this is complicated with extended families and blended families.  When questions of money or inheritance come up it can get even more complicated.  We’ve all head stories about Cousin Donny or Aunt Sarah being written out of the will.  Sometimes the family we want isn’t the family we’ve been given.  It’s sometimes tempting to try to erase history and finesse our family story to make it more, um, suitable.  My great-grandmother was Franco-American when being Franco-American was looked down upon.  So, instead, she told everyone she was Parisian French to class up her family tree.

The good news is that Hagar and Ishmael survived and even prospered.  The scripture tells us that God met with them in the desert and, unlike Sarah, God called Hagar by name.  God provided them with water and promised that Ishmael would, himself, become a great nation.  The scripture reads, “God was with the boy.”  Ishmael grew and lived in the wilderness and Hagar found a wife for him from her land, the land of Egypt.   To Sarah, Hagar was simply a slave-woman to be cast aside, but to God Hagar was a beloved child.

Just because God redeemed a potentially disastrous situation doesn’t mean that we should follow Abraham and Sarah’s example in this situation.  Yes, they are the father and mother of our faith tradition, but they were human just like you and me.  I believe that Sarah acted out of fear.  First she was afraid that she would not have the child that God promised.  Then, after she had her own child, she was afraid that Isaac wouldn’t get the blessing she thought he deserved.  Yet God shows us that there is enough to go around.

Certainly all of us have experienced jealousy or family rivalry.  Have thought someone else was getting what we deserved.  Have been tempted to sacrifice someone else’s rights to safeguard our own interests.   And I’m sure that we all know what it feels like to be pushed aside.  To be told we don’t belong.  To realize that no one is going to take a stand on our behalf.  This is the dark side of the human story and we can’t ignore it.

Yet, as God said to Hagar, God says to us, “Do not be afraid.”  While remembering his promise to Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, God also provided for Hagar and Ishmael.  He didn’t write them out of the story, but gave them their own place within it.  (I love the image on this slide.  No so much a family tree, but a cross made up of the children of God.)  God pushes no one aside.  In God’s family no one is ‘out.’  Everyone is ‘in.’  We all have our part to play, our story to write with each day of our lives.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

(Thanks to my colleague Megan Stowe who shared with me her seminary paper “The Characterization of Hagar)