October 21, 2018
Let’s start with our cast of characters: the women, Hagar and Sarah; the patriarch, Abraham; and the sons, Ishmael and Isaac. And they are in a very complicated, messy, and human story together. Many, many years earlier in this story, God had made a promise to Abraham: God promised that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky or as the grains of sand in the desert, and these descendants would inhabit the land of Canaan. To make this happen, God promises a son to Abraham and Sarah – but they get older, and older… and older… and no son appears. So Sarah and Abraham do what we all do when we are afraid and can’t find any faith left: we take matters into our own hands.
Sarah brought her maid, Hagar, to Abraham, and says: “Here. I am barren, but Hagar could yet bear you a son.” And Hagar does indeed bear Abraham a son, and he is named Ishmael.
In the age of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, this is a really problematic story. Hagar, who is of a lower social class and different nationality, is being used by Abraham and Sarah, and gets no say in the matter. Does she want to have a son with Abraham? We don’t know: she’s never asked. There are so many problems here.
And this illustrates something really important: being close to God, even chosen by God, does not guarantee that we are going to behave well. People of faith lose sight of God’s will and act against it. And yet, today’s story is going to tell us, God is still present and working in the midst of our mistakes, our sins, and even – big breath – our crimes. There is both comfort and affliction in that idea, and it is what we are exploring in this story.
Eventually, Sarah does become pregnant, despite being well past menopause, and her son is named Isaac. This is where today’s story begins: we have two sons, two mothers, one father, and one inheritance. And not just any inheritance, but a weighty, cosmic inheritance: one of these boys will be the ancestor of the nation God has promised to Abraham. There is a lot at stake.
And because we have humans involved in this story, it’s messy. Ishmael is the older son, so technically he should inherit everything. The fact that he’s a surrogate would not make a difference in the culture of the day. But Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, is on a lower social and racial rung than Sarah. She is both maid and co-wife; a second mother and a foreigner.
Like I said, it’s messy.
And because it’s messy, Sarah does what we all do: she wants the mess gone. She wants the complications and potential fights and divided inheritance and threats to her security gone.
Now, we can’t blame Sarah here. In a culture where men are everything, Sarah’s importance and safety are bound up in her son. A son is her identity, her old age pension, her guarantee that she matters. If Isaac is safe, she is safe. If Isaac is threatened, she is threatened. Sarah is acting out of self-preservation. Even if there was no divine promise at stake, but just an ordinary livelihood, Ishmael would be a threat.
And because Ishmael is a threat, Hagar is a threat. Hagar is the mother of the oldest son. Maybe Hagar will have more sons. Maybe Hagar will take Sarah’s place as the first wife. Not only that, but Hagar’s presence upsets the social order: she’s a threat to a neatly ordered world of racial distinctions and class barriers. So Hagar and Ishmael have to go.
But Sarah can’t send them away herself, because she is a woman, and these kinds of decisions are made by a man, the head of the household. So she goes to Abraham, and tells him to send them away.
Abraham, of course, doesn’t want to. In a powerful understatement, the Bible tells us the matter was very distressing to him. But then God says, “Do not worry. Do what Sarah tells you, for I will make it right.”
I don’t know why God does that.
I don’t know why God doesn’t appear to Sarah and tell her not to worry, that Isaac will still inherit God’s promise. I don’t know why God doesn’t soften Sarah’s heart and take away her fears. I don’t know why God allows Hagar to bear the brunt of rejection. I don’t know why God lets Hagar suffer.
But I do know that God is concerned for Hagar and Ishmael the whole way through. God does not say to Abraham: “Don’t worry about Hagar, she’s outlived her usefulness, she doesn’t matter.” God does not say: “You don’t need Ishmael anyhow, because you’ve got Isaac.” Ishmael was never part of God’s plan to begin with, and is a living, breathing sign of Abraham and Sarah’s lack of faith, and yet God is going to make another great nation of him.
No one is expendable in God’s world; no one is outside God’s realm of care. We don’t even know whether Hagar and Ishmael worshipped the God of Abraham and Sarah, and yet God cares for them.
When Hagar wanders out into the desert to die with Ishmael, alone, outcast, discarded, God hears the cry of her child and responds. God’s angel speaks to Hagar, a foreigner and a woman, and calls her by her name. God sees Hagar and speaks to her in her despair. Water is provided, life is provided, and Ishmael grows to be a strong man and the father of his own nation. And through him, Hagar is secured a future. Sarah’s fear and Abraham’s banishment do not have the final say: God makes something good out of pain and rejection.
God is at work within our choices, even when we act against God’s ways. We may reject, but God does not. God treasures those who are not the first-born, the elect, the inheritors. God hears the cries of those who do not have it all, whose future is not assured. God searches out the unwanted and hopeless.
God is also present in diversity. We see divisions that God does not: we see divisions of race, of class, of nationality, of gender; God does not.
I said earlier that God is active and working even among our mistakes, our sins, and our crimes. We live the Hagar and Sarah story in our personal lives and in our corporate lives. Many of us have been both Sarah and Hagar in our personal relationships; but on a bigger level, our church has been complicit in a Sarah and Hagar story in its participation of the residential school system. We have believed that white people are better, and that European Christianity was better.
This story tells us that our poor choices do not have the final say, thanks be to God, but it isn’t intended to let us off the hook. We cannot assure ourselves that it’s all good because God is around. God’s healing work is not a get out of jail free card.
But it is an assurance of grace. Because in any system of inequality, both the perpetrator and the victim need healing. Sarah does not get much air time in the rest of her story, so we know nothing about her feelings about Hagar’s departure. We do not know whether she repented or felt sorrow. We do know that God never left her and Abraham.
Being close to God does not guarantee an easy life. It does not mean we will always feel God’s presence or understand God’s will. But the God of this story keeps God’s promises. And one promise of God, uttered again and again in both testaments, is that God will not forsake us.
So my friends, whether we are afraid and lashing out like Sarah, or whether we are rejected and lost like Hagar, know that God is with us. Whatever the state of our faith, God will never abandon us.
Thanks be to God.