There’s a big lead-up to today's scripture passage. Without it, some of what we are about to hear will be lost on us. So here’s a quick background summary …
Abraham is called by God, out of the blue it seems, to GO! To leave his homeland for another … he’s not really given to know where. What he is given to know is God’s promise that “I will be with you” and “I will make of you a great nation … descendants more numerous than the stars. Yes, you and your wife Sarah --even in your great age-- will give birth to a son.”
So Abraham and Sarah go. Trusting.
But time passes, and there is no son. In fact how could there be?
Every so often they get a sign, or are visited by strangers … reassured that the promise still holds. But, more time passes. And finally taking the plan into their own hands, Abraham has a child with their servant woman, Hagar.
It is after that, that along comes the child that was promised to Abraham and Sarah.
The passage we read today picks up with the birth of this child, Isaac.
Text: Genesis 21: 1-21
In what Sue has just read to us, we’re hearing a story from a cultural context in which to not bear children is to bear great shame. But shame is not the only thing that is relieved by the miraculous birth of Isaac. There is the doubting of God’s faithfulness that is relieved. And so there is for Abraham and Sarah not only the experience of a promise kept, but the assurance that God’s life-giving power is very near … at work in their lives. So there is cause for celebration … for thanksgiving. Which is where we enter the story today … amidst the air of celebration. It’s been a huge journey getting to this point.
You’d think from the way this part of the story begins, Sarah is all about doing something for Abraham’s sake …“Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son.” Then we hear Sarah in her giddiness: “who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son his old age.” … as though Isaac’s birth was for Abraham, relieving his shame and making his joy complete. And maybe that’s indeed how she saw it -- until the day she sees her boy, no longer a baby, playing with Hagar’s son. And a whole other thing kicks in.
Perhaps a few things kick in all at once, the way it sometimes happens.
Her stated thing is the inheritance … “there’s no way my son should have to share the inheritance with the son of a slave woman.” That’s what comes out of her mouth. But it’s Hagar too that’s a problem. It’s possible isn’t it, that until now Sarah has ceded her place to Hagar. Hagar’s the one who bore Abraham a child … and so Sarah comes down a notch or 10, in the order of importance, at least in her own perceived value. But now with her own son, wait a minute! Hagar is just the household servant. In fact we don’t hear Sarah call her by name; only ‘this slave woman.’
While her stated thing is the issue of the inheritance … her bottom line is they both have to go. And it’s up to Abraham to send them on their way.
It’s a complicated life. As it is for most of us.
So now we have Abraham … between a rock and a hard place … or at least that’s the place he assumes. You see it was Sarah who insisted Abraham have a child with Hagar, when it seemed she herself would never give birth. And now it is Sarah who is insisting Hagar be sent away, along with her son --who is also Abraham’s son. Such a tangle of loyalties. Such an impossible predicament.
Rightly or wrongly --and of course there is no rightly or wrongly where blame is of no use-- it’s given to Abraham to settle, which he accepts.
So then we see it play out … Abraham rose early the next morning, took bread and a skin of water, gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder and sent her with the child away.
There’s another piece to that part of the story, isn’t there.
There’s the way God speaks to Abraham in the night of his distress … assuring him “the offspring of Isaac will be named for you, AND I will make a nation of Ishmael too, because he is your offspring.”
In other words this will not be the end of Ishmael. This is what Abraham is given to trust when he says goodbye to Hagar and Ishmael in the morning.
You can’t tell me that made the sending away any easier.
A flask of water and some bread … “away you go.”
That flask of water and some bread -- it comes in all forms doesn’t it.
An airline ticket to get back “home” cause there’s no way we can make it work here.
The tuition for boarding school in another part of the world -- we’re sorry things couldn’t have turned out better as a family.
Here’s a grocery voucher and a few bus tickets … take care, eh?
That flask of water and some bread -- it comes in all forms.
“Away you go” … they are some of the hardest words we’ll ever say.
Who is the Hagar in your life? … the one sent away out of guilt … out of fear … out of cost …out of impossible complexity … or the consequence of your mistakes.
Who is the Hagar in your life?
Perhaps you are Hagar … the one sent away … out into the wilderness.
It happens, that what at first seems an unbearable experience, opens into unimagined Mercy. It happens that beyond that terrible threshold of goodbye, that beyond our reach or sight, Mercy shows up. Quite beyond our doing, Mercy arises --it does happen! … and a way is made … a future opens up beyond what we could have worked out for ourselves or the one we cast out. It happens.
It even happens that because of that unbearable experience more grace flowed into our life … not less. I hear it often … you may have even heard it out of your own mouth: “I would have never thought it at the time, but it turns out my life is the richer for it.” That experience of unimagined, life-giving Mercy … it happens with stunning frequency.
In Hagar’s case her cry was heard, and she was given to see a well of water that in her desperation had eluded her. It happens … Mercy meets us in the most unlikely places, in unlikely ways.
It makes me wonder what difference it would make to our experiences of desperation if we had eyes for Mercy … if it was already written in our hearts “where can I flee from your presence? … if I ascend to heaven you are there … if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there … if I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, your right hand shall hold me fast … even the darkness is not dark to you for the night is a bright as the day.” It happens … Mercy meets us in the most unlikely places.
Before we leave this story, it would seem not just odd but in a sense unacceptable to ignore the significance of Hagar’s son Ishmael as the one back to whom Muslim people trace their ancestry. Ishmael is the one of whom God says “I will make a great nation of him.” Not only do we have God promising this to Abraham and Sarah through Isaac … but here is God‘s promise to Abraham and Hagar through Ishmael. In our Jewish/ Christian scriptures, there it is … the honouring and authorizing and merciful preserving of another people through whom God is at work. Not just one people but another people.
What we’re seeing in this story is how in the face of anxiety and jealousy, the kind of energies that move us to tighten our grip and become smaller, God’s way is to enlarge-- to widen not narrow--the avenues for grace. It turns out that though this tangle of relationships and loyalties that we are kin … Jews and Muslims, and by adoption, Christians -- all of us sons and daughters of Abraham … so Spring and Ahmad (whose last name is Ibraham) … they aren’t just our janitors, they’re our brothers!
So here we are living in a time when there is such potential for us to replay the Sarah response … the response that arises from anxiety and jealousy, from fear and greed and suspicion -- the desire to cast out and keep out. There’s not just the potential for such a replay … we’re already seeing it in action around the world. And, in the face of the terrible atrocities that have happened, where ISIS has claimed responsibility, it’s not hard to understand the fear. Except that there’s been this identification of ISIS with all Muslims, the demonizing of an entire people, when what we’re talking about is radicalized individuals who are claiming to act for Allah (for God) in ways that the vast majority of Muslim people see as a hideous betrayal of their faith.
We’re living in a time when the challenge is to resist being drawn into the fear, the hysteria, the demonizing. And there’s no better way to do that than to come to know and befriend real actual Muslim people. The challenge for all of us -- for Jews, Christians and Muslims-- is to each know our own stories, to each of us mine the depths of our own Tradition, and so to discover there the strength and the mercy, the grace and wisdom of God … such that we are invigorated to work together to build the kingdom of heaven on earth … that vision of peace and plenty for all.
We all have a role to play in resisting the spread of hatred and violence, right here in our own city, our own nation. Wherever we notice the inclination to harden our hearts, may we make ourselves all the more susceptible to God’s way of enlarging -- of widening not narrowing-- the avenues for grace.