— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ 3rd Sunday after Pentecost ~~~
The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.
But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”
So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And 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? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
Let me get something out in the open…I do not believe God told Abraham to abandon Hagar and Ishmael in the desert. I tend to think that Abraham, when he heard God telling him it was just fine to throw the mother and son out of the family, to abandon them in the wilderness, was hearing the voice of his own need for justification for making Sarah happy. I cannot and will not believe God would countenance such deathly harshness from Sarah or Abraham.
That moment in the story when Hagar ran out of water and she could not bear to watch her son die so she placed him under the bushes so she would not have to watch the child of her womb suffer and finally succumb to the harshness and indifference of the desert sun… that was a moment of extreme despair and grief. No mother or father should have to endure such excruciating agony, and to say that God somehow sanctioned such an event is to make God into something other than the God of love for all God’s children.
So, I tend to focus in this story on the family dynamics and the fact that God does indeed provide for Hagar and Ishmael. God, in fact, allows Hagar and Ishmael to become a great people – a great people often at odds with the people who trace their family tree through Sarah and Isaac.
I read this story in two directions. On the one hand this story is about God’s providential care – our help in ages past and our hope for years to come. On the other hand the story brings to our attention the devastation, hurt, and violent rending that is very much within our capabilities as human beings who live with a scarcity world-view that places all people, nations, religions in competition for limited resources – physical and spiritual.
Which leads to the first movement of this sermon which is a lament of our capacity to inflict harm on one another. As human beings we have an exceptional capacity for cruelty. I believe this cruelty is the bitter fruit of seeds of fear planted in the soil of selfishness.
Sarah sees her son Isaac playing with Ishmael, his older half-brother, and something in that scene germinated in the heart of Sarah a hatred and fear of this other part of the family. Sarah says to Abraham: Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac. Notice that Sarah cannot even call Hagar and Ishmael by name nor does she acknowledge that Abraham is the father of Ishmael because of an arrangement made by Sarah herself. Hagar and Ishmael, though part of Sarah’s family, are now seen as enemies to be vanquished. Sarah now has a player in the inheritance game, Isaac, and she must secure his abundance. That older boy, the one with no name, would have had the largest stake in the dividing up of the fortunes of Abraham; so, the issue had to be settled once and for all time. Sarah wanted them banished to the lethal desert.
It is hard to excuse Abraham for his acquiescence to this demand on the part of Sarah. Abraham who had done battle with kings and armies, Abraham who had dared to bargain with God for the lives of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham who was an exemplar of hospitality to strangers in the desert – this Abraham without a peep of protest put out his own child, Ishmael, and Ishmael’s mother, Hagar into the harsh and unforgiving wilderness. Even with the declaration of God to Abraham that Ishmael will become a great nation, this act of expulsion was severe.
The motivating fear, I believe, in the violent breakup of this family was the fear that there was not enough. Not enough money, not enough land, not enough God to go around. The way to deal with scarcity, in the minds and hearts of those who are guided by fear, is to destroy that which causes the fear. The way to make sure there is enough is to kill those who threaten to take your portion of the promised abundance. In a world of scarcity the other cannot be tolerated or loved or welcomed.
This story can remind us that we have to find new ways of thinking about the other lest we leave all the world a barren desert of our own destructive fearfulness. We have to learn new ways of being with those who are different and have as much a legitimate claim on the wealth of God’s good creation and as much a legitimate claim on righteousness as we have. We have to find a way to see one another as beloved children of the God of all creation. This ability to see the other as brother, sister, parent, child, cousin, aunt, uncle, grandmother, grandfather… as family could hardly be more important at this moment in our life together in this country and in this world… if we fail then our existence will continue to be a long lament of broken dreams and failing hopes.
Is there a way to have hope in this wilderness of division and hatred. Let us turn our hearts and minds toward God’s providential care. This story can be a reminder to us that God and God’s care become manifest even and especially in our deepest wildernesses. When all our relationships have been broken, when all our worldly security has dried up, when all our hopes have been buried in the hot sands of abandonment, God’s grace and care can bubble to the surface like spring-waters out of parched earth.
Like Hagar all of us live with the potential that our hopefulness will run dry. Like Hagar all of us will have times that feel like the water in our skin has dried up and all that is left to do is await the final surrender of that which is most dear to us. And this story holds out the hope that in just such arid broken-ness a spring of the sweet-water of God can gush and satisfy our thirst for hope and new life.
We can come to a place of hope for others as well as for ourselves. As we find ourselves helpless to protect or heal or shelter those who are near to our hearts – and this a wilderness as fearful as any – this story can bring comfort in the conviction that all of us are children of the one God, and God, as Heavenly Parent, will find a way to nourish the ones beyond our reach.
A few years ago I went on one of the yearly trips to Guatemala with Dottie Foster and a large group from our church. During one of our evening reflections toward the end of our week, a time when many of us were tired and missing home, we prayed this prayer which is part of the Book of Worship, part of the service for prayer at the close of day –
O God, you have designed this wonderful world,
and know all things good for us.
Give us such faith that, by day and by night,
at all times and in all places,
we may without fear entrust those who are dear to us
to your never-failing love, in this life and in the life to come;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
John Ames, the seventy-something year old Congregational minister writing to his young son in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, is struggling with the fact that he is dying and will not be around to provide for his young wife and son. He is troubled by his impending death not out of fear for his own well-being but regretting that he will not be available to teach and care for the young son that has become a balm in Gilead to his soul in the waning years of his life and ministry. So, he writes a long epistle for his son to read after he is gone. In that letter to his son, John Ames recounts his thoughts on this very passage – this story of Hagar and Ishmael. He writes:
The story of Hagar and Ishmael came to mind while I was praying this morning, and I found a great assurance in it. The story says that it is not only the father of a child who cares for its life, who protects its mother, and it says that even if the mother can’t find a way to provide for it, or herself, provision will be made. At that level it is a story full of comfort. That is how life goes – we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give them. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s. I need to bear this in mind (pages 118-119).
It is a point we might all bear in mind. It does not excuse any of us from our responsibilities to care for the children of earth – ours and others – but, as the psalmist declared so long ago – the earth is the Lord’s and all that is within it! There is no place that we can run or hide or to which we might be expelled that is outside of the realm of God’s compassionate embrace. Even the very habitation of the jackals, as the Reverend puts it, is the Lord’s. The message is strong and simple – there is enough and to spare of God’s care. There is grace sufficient even for the desert. There is healing balm even for the outcasts. There is gushing water even in the wilderness of our own meanness and enmity toward one another.
The way out of the wilderness of our cruelty to one another,
the way out of the desert of our fearfulness,
the way from scarcity to abundance
is the way of seeing in one another a reflection of the One God!
As we open our eyes to such beauty, we discover that
the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world and those who live in it (Ps. 24:1).
As we open our eyes to the beauty of one another,
as we come to know one another, we can live in peace.
As we open our eyes to the reflection of the divine in each one
we can learn to trust the gracious provisions
of the God of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Hagar, and Ishmael.
Thanks be to God. Amen.