June 21, 2020
Back on Mother’s Day, I warned Mothers that the sermon that day wasn’t going to be about Mother’s Day. Today being Father’s Day… I want Fathers to know that I treat each day equally and this is not going to be a special Father’s Day sermon.
This week we stay in Genesis and the stories of Abraham and Sarah. In last Sunday’s reading, we heard Sarah laugh when she was told she was going to have a child in her old age. She had long given up believing that such a thing would happen even if it was a promise God had made. The facts before her were just too great to believe otherwise. She was too old. Abraham was too old. They would never have a child of their own. Sarah had given up on that promise so much so that she had previously convinced her husband Abraham to have a child with her Egyptian slave Hagar. The boy Ishmael was already in their lives. For Abraham… Ishmael was his son… he loved him and he cared for him… for years in his heart Ishmael was going to be his heir through which God would act… and these promises be fulfilled.
However, the relationship between Sarah and Hagar was never good. Even though it was Sarah’s idea… and a socially accepted way for a child to be born when a woman could not conceive… Sarah quickly turned on Hagar as soon as Hagar became pregnant. Sarah treated her so badly that at one point Hagar ran away, but an angel of the Lord convinced her to return.
Now that Isaac… Sarah’s son has been born… there is no place for the child Ishmael as Sarah sees him and his mother more and more as a threat… and so in our story today Sarah convinces Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away once and for all. So I invite you to listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you today from the book of Genesis.
READ Genesis 21:8-21
It’s all a bit soap opera-y isn’t it. A lot of these family stories in Genesis are.
Many years ago when I was still up in Sparta, I was teaching Old Testament at the local community college campus. And it would never fail that as we learned these stories in Genesis and elsewhere in the Old Testament… that my young students would be shocked… shocked that these people in the Bible were not perfect… that they did not always do the right thing. The majority of them had gone to a church as a child and now as young adults that’s the only view they had of these characters… the view that comes through a child’s Sunday School lesson. Abraham and Sarah were supposed to be perfect… always doing the right thing. That’s why God had chosen them… for their perfection… for their absolute goodness. That’s what they had learned… whether that was the intention or not… that was the working theology they came away with. Most of them had never read the stories themselves… never questioned that these biblical heroes being placed before them could be anything other than 100% perfect. Cartoon Abraham and Sarah always looked like such a nice old couple… always smiling and loving… like the best grandparents you could ever hope to have. But here I was telling them something different. Pointing out their moral flaws… showing them where their actions were not perfect especially to the tenets of the faith that espoused in the scriptures in which their stories are to be found. These are not stories about perfect characters, but seriously flawed characters.
Then I would observe something else with my young college students when faced with the flaws of these Biblical heroes. Even as they learned something different… even as they had that moment of shock where the stories didn’t go like they were supposed to… they were also quite happy to default back to their childish image of Abraham and Sarah and leave it there. They were okay not to wrestle with the problems these stories raised… with the questions that might lead to deeper thoughts. Isn’t better to keep the stories of Genesis as happy fairytale like stories, where there may be wickedness… but the bad people are bad and the good people are good… and the good people can really do no real wrong?
I’m not sure that’s the wisdom we should be taking from Genesis. Abraham may have been chosen by God, but Abraham did some bad things. He made mistakes. He is not to be imitated in every way. Sarah may have been chosen by God, but Sarah did some bad things. She too made mistakes. She is not to be imitated in every way. We are to learn just as much from their mistakes as we are to learn from when they get it right. In that way Abraham and Sarah are just like us… or we are just like them… whichever way you want to look at it. Perfection isn’t realistic. Perfection or striving for perfection usually leads to self-deception… to covering up or keeping those things that are less than perfect… keeping those things secret and in the dark. Believing that we are chosen or called by God based upon our merits isn’t good theology. But we tend to fall back into it… especially if we’re being confronted by something we would rather not see… something that makes us uncomfortable about ourselves.
This whole story with Hagar… we ought to be disturbed by it. But again… how often do we find ourselves skipping over the uncomfortable aspects of the story and perhaps being too quick to emphasize that God was able to make something good out of this bad situation. After all… it all works out in the end for Hagar and Ishmael doesn’t it? There is a happy ending. Doesn’t that sort of make up for everything else in the story? Why try to diminish what God does?
Because God shows grace in the story. God acts in a way to take this story to a different place than what Sarah intends… that’s for sure. As far as Sarah is concerned… Hagar is property. She is a non-person. When Hagar first becomes pregnant Sarah becomes angry and can’t stand the sight of her… even though it was her plan to use Hagar in this way. In these stories Abraham is quick to remind her that Hagar is her slave-girl and she is in her power; that Sarah can do to Hagar as she pleases.” Now when Sarah has a son of her own… this non-person becomes more than an annoyance… more than a reminder of what she has been able to do… this non-person becomes a threat. The child of this non-person needs to have his humanity taken away. Ishmael has grown up with the love of his father Abraham. That needs to change. Sarah needs that love to go away so that fatherly love will be bestowed only upon her child. From Sarah’s point of view, that is the just course of action. And you have to wonder… if Sarah thought Hagar taking the one skin of water and some bread with her into the wilderness was giving her too much. Look at how much we have given already. All Hagar does is take take take.
We know all this is wrong. We know all this is not just… no matter how much Sarah might delude herself into believing it so. We know that there is something wrong here with Abraham who can send Ishmael… the son he has loved all these years… there is something wrong with him sending him off with his mother into the wilderness with a skin of water and some bread. We know there is something wrong here that we ought to be giving voice to… but again… God acts. God gives us a good ending out of a bad story. And the preacher in me wants to focus on that goodness making of God. I want to be able to talk about the goodness of God and how God is on the side of the Hagars and the Ishmaels who out there… which God is. This is the theology that undermines our understandings that God prefers the Abrahams and Sarahs because of their perfection… because of their shown goodness… because they deserve God’s favor. God acts and there is a good ending… is that enough for me to let go of what I know is so wrong… so wrong about this story?
I don’t know. I’m just struggling with this story this week. And I’m having a hard time putting that struggle into words. Or at least I feel like I am. Maybe… maybe it’s because Sarah and Abraham aren’t changed by this story. In the end… I don’t think they ever see that they did anything wrong. Maybe that’s what’s bothering me. God’s grace surrounds Hagar and Ishmael… but I feel like that’s lost on Abraham and Sarah. And I know… I know I’m dragging all these other thoughts from this week’s news cycle and what’s happening in our country into this story and I’m asking it to do things that it’s not going to do. But I can’t shake this feeling… if Abraham and Sarah aren’t changed… if they don’t recognize their own sin… if they can’t see how the light of God’s grace reveals the darkness they are carrying in their hearts… then these good people will keep acting in ways that are unjust. Outside of our fairytales where it is clear that the wicked are the wicked and the natural villains of the story… I know of many true stories of atrocity where the villain in the story is the good person who has deceived themselves into believing that the evil they do is right because they are the good person and the other is deserving of what is coming to them. And I know there are many stories of atrocity out there that I don’t know… that have been forgotten by good people… but eventually the lie does come to the surface… eventually the truth of actions will find the light of day… and I wonder… I wonder if that will be lost on good people who have deceived themselves into think they can do no evil.
There’s a line in one of my favorite movies that has gone around and around in my head while I’ve tried to put this sermon together. It comes from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”… an old John Ford western. Most of the movie is told in flashback… the telling of the truth of a story to some newspaper men… the truth that hasn’t been heard before. And so when they get to the end of the story and they come back to the present day in the movie… the editor of the newspaper takes the notes from his reporter… tears them up and says, “This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact… print the legend.”
Saints, printing the legend isn’t good enough anymore. Especially if that legend is covering up a truth we need to know about ourselves. God’s grace doesn’t let Abraham and Sarah off the hook… it doesn’t take away their responsibility in helping to create the unjust situation within the story of Hagar and Ishmael. God’s grace calls us to accountability. It shines an undeniable light on our unjust actions… what we have done to create or reinforce the world around us in ways that do not bring glory to God… in ways that deny grace. Let us keep growing together in Christ. Amen.