It was all Sarah’s fault.
There is no other way to put this—if what the narrator of the book of Genesis says is accurate. It was Sarah’s idea that Hagar become her surrogate so that Abraham could have a male heir.
But let me back up and remind you of what’s happened so far. If you were watching a TV drama, today’s episode would begin, “Previously in Genesis” with a 20 second montage that’ll take a me a minute or so to retell. In Chapter 12 God calls Abraham at the age of 75 to leave the land of his ancestors and to head out to the place God would show him, telling him that he would become a great nation. A number of years later, Abraham questions God’s promise as he doesn’t have any children and his wife Sarah is barren. God re-ups the promise telling him that his decedents would number greater than the stars in the sky, and that they would indeed be his own flesh and blood.
In Chapter 16 about a decade since that first call, Sarah decides to take things into her own hands. She’s still barren and way past child bearing years. But, we read, “she had and Egyptian slave named Hagar, so she said to Abraham, ‘The Lord has kept me from having children. Go sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.’” So Abe does what Sarah suggests, and about 40 weeks later, Hagar gives birth to a son and names him, Ishmael, the name spoken to her by God meaning “God hears.”
But, as you might imagine, there’s animosity between the two women. Hagaar, young and fertile, is despised by Sarah. So God shows up again 13 years later, promising Abraham that Sarah would indeed give birth to a son, and upon overhearing this she mockingly laughs. But it happens. About 23 years after God first promised an heir to Abraham, Sarah bears a son and names him Isaac, meaning “Laughter.”
Which gets us to the words we heard today. A few years have gone by, and Isaac is weaned. Since that little one survived the fragile first years of his life, Abraham threw a great party. With a drink in her hand, Sarah happens upon the two sons of Abraham—Ishmael and Isaac—together. Now scripture is a bit ambiguous as to what’s going on. We heard this morning that Ishmael, the teen, was “playing” with the toddler. The Hebrew uses the word for “laughing”—clearly a play on Isaac’s name—but it’s unclear if this was derisive laughing with Ishmael picking on him, or if the boys are enjoying themselves and laughing with one another. No matter, really. Sarah’s seen enough, and now with Isaac clearly healthy and strong, she lets it rip.
Which is not unlike extended family gatherings in our day and age when tensions can run high. Perhaps someone has a bit too much to drink, and words get spoken, and shouting ensues. On this great day of celebration for Abraham and his family, Sarah storms up to him and tells him he needs to send away, and I’m quoting here, “This slave woman with her son.”
Happy Father’s Day.
As you might imagine, Abraham is greatly distressed. But God tells him to follow through with Sarah’s plan, and that Ishmael himself would become a great nation because he’s also included in that initial promise to Abraham. And so, after a long and tear-filled embrace with his son and with Sarah looking on from the shadows, Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael off with some bread and water out into the wilderness to fend for themselves.
Phyllis Trible in her book Texts of Terror explains how many have come to find a connection with Hagar. She writes,“Most especially, all sorts of rejected women find their stories in her. She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male, and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the welfare mother, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others.” Their stories, along with the stories of minority people in general, often become too painful to hear. It is too much to bear the thought of the trauma they’ve experienced along the way. Our recent conversations on racial justice in this country have exposed many such stories that don’t often get told, or at least not told from people of color to those of us who are white.
The Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, Bishop of the Diocese of Indianapolis and an African-American woman, shared a small piece of her story recently with a gathering of bishops and other church leaders. Bishop Jennifer spent her earliest years living in a diverse community in Brooklyn, New York. She writes, “[However, w]hen I was ten, we moved to Staten Island, and I’ve never gotten over it. We were now living in a segregated space. White kids took the yellow school buses to our junior high school, and black and brown kids mostly took the city bus or walked the seven blocks to school. Many days, as I walked home alone, there were older white kids and adults who would spit at me and call me the n-word. Each Friday there would be reports of the ‘race riots’ at one of the local high schools—meaning, blacks and whites fighting after school, every week.” Her words are hard to hear. We know a bit more as she now serves as a bishop, but those teen years greatly impacted her.
Thankfully, the narrator of the Book of Genesis doesn’t leave us hanging when it comes to the story of Hagar and Ishmael. We heard a little bit of what happens next. After a few days in the wilderness, after the last of the water is gone, Hagar thought all hope was lost, fearing her teenaged son was about to die. That’s when God spoke to her, the outcast, the seemingly used-up slave woman. “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.” While the biblical narrative will move on from them to the main storyline of Isaac and his son Jacob, God promises things to Ishmael too. As my good friend and priest Rich Simpson writes, “God doesn’t leave human beings discarded by the side of the road. Even when we do.” Rich continues, “In today’s story, God takes care of Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness—just as one day God will care for the Hebrew people in the Sinai Desert. The text seems… to be suggesting that God can do things beyond the scope of the Bible. That God does do things beyond the scope of the Bible. There are story-lines that will continue in different directions than the story we tell. We have every right to tell our own story, but we needn’t limit God’s grace to this one particular narrative. ‘God was with the boy. And he grew up….’”
We’ll get one more glimpse of Ishmael’s story in Genesis. It’s in Chapter 25 after Abraham dies at the age of 175. We’re told that Abraham’s sons Isaac and Ishmael together bury their father in the tomb he had purchased when Sarah died. And then in the next verses, we are told the names of the twelve sons of Ishmael a generation before we’ll hear about the twelve sons of Jacob. Genesis describes them as twelves princes among their tribes.
God kept God’s promise to Hagar and to Abraham. Ishmael and his descendants became a great nation.
I think it’s too easy for us to write off people and their stories as somehow being outside the story of God. To think that in some way they’ve displeased God by their actions—or by actions taken against them, or by the changes and chances of this life that have impacted them. Yet God continued to work in the life of Ishmael who of course became the forebear of those who follow the way of Islam. We must see that God doesn’t leave people by the side of the road. God is full of compassion and mercy, bringing redemption to situations that we humans unnecessarily complicate.
And that is such good news. God takes all the messiness of this life, and keeps creating new life from it. God takes the times and circumstances that we think have brought us to a dead end, and God creates something wonderful. If this story tells us anything it is this: God never gives up on us or on any other human being but keeps the story going, beginning a new chapter when all feels lost. As the old song from Sunday School put it, the Triune God loves all the children of the world, no matter the color of their skin, for they are precious in God’s sight. God loves you.
So do not lose heart or give up. Know even when you might feel discarded or forced out in life, that God is there hearing your cries. And let us share that good news with others who’ve heard far too often that they are not wanted or just a problem that needs to be dealt with. Let us proclaim the deep and abiding love of God to them, because God has compassion on us all. Amen.
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