Another sermon from the first book in the bible today. Genesis. Which is good because it is very easy to flit over scripture and dip in for morsel here and a morsel there and not really stay with a story or a theme and follow it through in some depth so we will have turned a series on Genesis – one of the most influential books in the bible.
We love the story of the Abraham and Sarah, the elderly childless couple carrying the unfulfilled promise for so many years, we perhaps find we can relate to their doubts and even as we read last week their downright cynicsm. Oh and when the child is finally born we laugh with Sarah and Abraham and rejoice in the miracle of the birth of Isaac.
As with many family sagas there is a shadow side to the story. Someone whose name is not mentioned at family gatherings. Have you got someone like that in your family? The one no-one talks about, or when they do it is in hushed whispers.
I reckon if before you had heard today’s reading I asked who was the mother of Abraham’s first child many of us would have struggled to name Hagar. She is the mostly unspoken mother of Abraham’s first born.
Hagar and her son Ishmael are pretty shadowy figures in the scriptures and in Christian and Jewish tradition. Although I understand many African American Christian communities draw great comfort and strength from the story of the used and abused and dismissed servant/slave woman and her son. They relate to this story. “That’s us, that’s how it has been for so many generations for us” they declare. And also of course the story is paramount in the Islamic world where Ishmael is the person the line and the tradition is traced through. The division between Islam and Judaism (and through Judaism the Christian tradition) goes back to what we read of today.
Need it be so? Is the hatred and the conflict and the enmity between the three religions embedded in the story so it is inevitable?
I don’t think so.
It is a tough story, oh it can be dressed up when the emphasis is put upon God hearing the cries of Ishmael and Hagar; and that is a valid literary and theological point that should never be lost sight of. But it is also a concern that the father of the faith, albeit reluctantly , drives his son and mother of his child into the desert. And God is the one who insist he do this.
Twice in Genesis in chapters 21 and 22 we are told Abraham rose from his bed early. Once to cast out his son Ishmael, and his mother Hagar, into the wilderness. The other time is next week’s story – to sacrifice his other son, Isaac. I think in that family the kids would start to panic whenever they heard Father stirring before the sun was up. “We all have a sleep in tomorrow, shall we?” they were frequently heard saying by the neighbours. I think Ishmael and probably Isaac may well have problems with the father figure in his life from this point on. I don’t think this is the burden of the story in the scriptures but some of us still have unresolved issues with the parental figures in our lives. Many of them we will ourselves carry to the grave. It is an issue being able to forgive your parents, where that is needed. I don’t have too much to say on it except it is an important thing to do if it is your issue and remember your parents had parents. They also, like your parenting of your kids if you have them, were not perfectly parented themselves. Forgive them if you need to and if you can when the right time comes.
It all has the makings of a good soap opera – one man, two women, multiple children, jealousy, greed and murder. Just another day in Genesis land with this family whose story line we follow in the remaining chapters of this extraordinary, sprawling, warts and all, dramatic account of God’s dealings with humanity through them. Remember last week we were onto a clue as to how God (the universal power of love and mercy in our world) so often chooses to be present and make that love known and deal with the creation through a particular family or individual.
And the one chosen, Abraham and Sarah, for no good reason other than that is the way God chose to do it, has all the makings of TV reality series. It is a divine story full of both the mercy of God and the petty jealousies and idiocincratic behaviour of sinful humanity. That is what makes it so compelling and so much my story and your story and our story.
Story does seem to have some sympathy with Hagar. Single parent, woman with young child; cast out, no refuge to take her in. Sarah (and Abraham) put her in this situation to start with; it was at Sarah’s suggestion and Abraham’s compliance, that she bore Abraham’s son.
She was a servant girl, to be ordered to come and to go.
And when finally Sarah’s turn did come to have a child; it was as if they wanted to go back and undo what she had been instructed to do. Just disappear her and her son.
One child bears all the promise, the line of succession, the other is the outcast, the embarrassment to be sent away carrying all the shame and indignity.
Oh if it were only that easy to undo our past regretted decisions and actions. Just drive them away into the wilderness, be done with it and move on.
Not real fair. What we call today abuse of power, overstepping her authority
The huge issue, the dilemma can be put like this. It is OK for God to choose a particular family or people to bring blessings through; but what of the others. If you choose one person is everyone else the “unchosen”? And once you have made that step the next one becomes even easier – that is that the unchosen are the rejected. It is all too easy and all too common for anyone with a calling, a passion, a cause. And that is why this story has been preserved in our tradition. To caution us and to stop us going down that path.
It’s almost as if the Bible is arguing with itself here. The big story is Isaac. But from the very beginning the Bible keeps reminding us that God doesn’t forget about the ones who get pushed to the margins or pushed out of the big story. From the very beginning God is passionately committed to the very ones the traditions and customs and laws of God’s people exclude. God stands in judgment of the very religious tradition God has inspired.
You cannot claim the name of Jesus and ignore his embrace of those his own religion marginalized. We in the church don’t need any to criticise or critique us; our own tradition, our own scriptures do a far more thorough and elegant job of that than any current anti religious crusader could ever conjure up.
This is the surely most beautiful verse in the story:
“God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is”. (Genesis 21:17)
It reminds me very much of another word from God that appears a little further down the track of the Biblical narrative, where the descendents of Isaac ‘cried out to God because of their slavery’ in Egypt. And we’re told,
“God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.” (Exodus 2:24)
God, it seems, tends to have ears open to the cries of the vulnerable. As it happened in Exodus, so it happens here! God hears the cry of the boy and God remembers the promise, not to Israel this time, but to Ishmael!
In our Bibles, the story of Ishmael more or less finishes here. In the Koran though we read of Ishmael going on to Mecca and building a Mosque there. He becomes the physical father of the Arab peoples, and spiritual father to the Islamic community!
God did not and has not abandoned work of redemption. It is costly, difficult, sacrificial work that we are called to. God does not abandon the calling of this elderly couple, this plan that through their off spring they will be a blessing to the nations. But, and this is a huge but, this does not mean the rejection of the outsider. No outsider is scapegoated and sacrificed on the altar of religious purity. No other religion has to pay the price, nor gender, not ethnic group, nor sexual orientation.