A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2020 All Rights Reserved
Third Sunday After Pentecost/A
June 21, 2020
This weekend has so many themes associated with it, I hardly know where to start. There’s Fathers Day today and this is the weekend we normally wold be having the Pride Parade in Albany. So we’re celebrating that even though not by parading. Last Friday was Juneteenth, the day that commemorates the final freeing of the slaves in this country. In connection with that, I have been amazed to read the stories about what’s going on in Tulsa, Oklahoma, have you? I don’t mean political rallies. I mean the way the city is literally digging up its history and facing it. In 1921, Tulsa had become a center for Black enterprise, sometimes called the Black Wall Street. Then in three days of violence that year, whites rampaged through the streets, burning and killing. Now steps are being taken there to identify and honor mass graves as part of a wider community effort at reconciliation. And setting right what has been wrong is central to the story we read today in Genesis.
We read bits of stories every Sunday and try to understand God’s Word in them. It’s like understanding someone’s life from a dozen snapshots. One picture doesn’t tell a whole story, yo have to look at the whole group. It’s the same with these stories. So as we think about this story, let’s remember its context. Long before, Sara and Abram were called by God from their life in one of the first great cities of the ancient world, called to go forth, with the promise that God would give them a place to live and generations and that they would be a blessing to the whole world. They went, they traveled, and God confirmed the promise in a covenant that changed their lives: they became Sarah and Abraham and God covenanted to provide a child.
But like we often do, they became impatient with God’s pace. Just like us, they decided to act instead of waiting, so they used the best technology of the time to get a baby. That was buying a servant for Sarah, in this case an Egyptian woman named Hagar, and having Abraham have a child with her. Hagar was a kind of surrogate mother and the child was meant to be the inheritor of the promise and the family. He was named Ishmael, which means “God hears”.
Then, God’s Word came again, as we heard last week, promising a child within a year. Remember the story of the feast, and the announcement and Sarah laughing, laughing because she knew it was too late for her to have a baby. Yet she did, and she named him for that moment: Isaac, which means laughter.
That catches up to the story we read today. Ishmael is 15; Hebrew mothers often weaned children at about three, so Isaac is still a toddler. Once again, like the story last week, there’s a feast, this time in honor of Isaac. The story says the boys were playing but the Hebrew word means more than a good time, it also covers teasing. Whatever the event, clearly there is a problem: who’s going to inherit? Sarah has a simple, cold blooded solution: get rid of Hagar and her son.” Notice how she phrases it: “Cast out this slave woman and her son…” The first step toward treating someone is to depersonalize them. We strip someone of their name and label them with a group or a color. That’s what Sarah does. In fact, we should notice that in this whole story, Ishmael’s name is never mentioned once.
We all have greeting rituals and one of the hardest parts for me of the pandemic reality has been losing those. When we see someone we know, we smile, shake hands or hug and say their name—hi Joan, hi Eva, hi Arvilla; when we meet a stranger, we do the same thing. In fact, if you want to learn to remember names, one of the best techniques is to immediately say the person’s name—“Hi John, Hi Mary”—when you meet them. Now we need to wear masks, an important protection and something that says we care about others. And we can’t shake hands or hug. We will have to invent new rituals, new ways of personalizing as we go. But here in this story it’s quite striking that from the first moment, Hagar, the alien, the Egyptian but also the once upon a time partner in the goal of getting a child for Abraham is now just the unnamed slave woman.
But the part that’s always bothered me about this story is what comes next. We’re used to people acting selfishly as Sarah does and we know she is because even Abraham is troubled about it What’s strange here is that God gives the ok. Did you hear that when it was read? Did it startle you? Did you expect God to speak up for Hagar and say, “Hey, no way, you can’t just dump Hagar and Ishmael, they’re my children too!” But that’s not what happens. God says, in effect, do what Sarah says. Then God says don’t worry; I have a plan for the boy.
So Abraham does this awful thing: he abandons Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness, leaving them just enough supplies to help his conscience. Soon the water is gone, and Hagar, like every mother in every time who sees and fears the death of her child, weeps. Ishmael is a ways off and he may have been praying too, because suddenly in this scene of impending disaster, an angel is heard. God has heard the cries; an angel, which is a way of saying God in the world, asks her why she’s crying, telling her about God’s will and suddenly she sees a well of water. Was it there all the time but unseen? Did the angel make it happen? We’re not told. We only know that there, in the wilderness that can’t support life, there, in the wilderness of grief that can’t support hope, Hagar finds hope, finds water, lifts her son up and they go forward together. He grows up; he becomes the namesake forbear of a whole nation. Remember God’s original promise?—to make Abraham a blessing to all nations. Isaac may be the forbear of the Israelites but God’s blessing is too big, too huge, for just one people or one time.
This is astonishing in fact this whole story is full of surprises. Last week, we heard Sarah’s surprise in her laughter. Now we learn that people we thought could be disregarded and used for our own purposes have a place in God’s plan. The most troubling part of the story for me has always been God’s approval of Sarah’s plan to exile Hagar. Listening to this story today, I see that this was needed to get Hagar and Ishmael to a place where they could be heard. There’s another story of these same events and in that version, it’s clear that Sarah was already oppressing Hagar and making her life miserable. Now she is seen as the mother of a nation equally part of God’s plan, equally blessed. In fact, this appearance of an angel is the first time in the Bible an angel appears—and it appears in response to the cries of an oppressed, exiled, broken hearted people.
The first thing to learn here is that Black Lives Matter. Our history of racism is this country is built on the backs of slaves who labored to create wealth others used. They even pulled quotes from the Bible to justify this violence. What we learn here is that God is guiding the destiny of all people. Jessica Grimes writes about Hagar as an emblem of colonized people.
Hagar is sent away destitute, with a child, destined to perish. As a representative of how later colonized people were treated, she has been dismissed, dispossessed, humiliated…the dismissal is like experiencing divorce without any child support….
Hagar is free, free to pursue her own calling as a child of God.
The end of this story is a new beginning: Hagar, we’re told, got a wife for her son. This is the beginning of the next chapter of God’s plan for blessing all nations. It reminds s to notice something else in this story. The whole story results from Sarah trying to do for herself what God meant to do. But even though Sarah and Abraham didn’t follow God’s path in this way, God used their action to further God’s plan. That doesn’t justify wrong; it doesn’t mean it’s ok to sin because God will fix it. Sin, and the sin of violent oppression have consequences.
What we learn here, though, is that even when people make mistakes, God can weave their mistakes into God’s purpose. Like a potter fixing a clay vessel, like a weaver using the wrong color and then making a marvelous pattern, God’s purpose goes on. Our challenge is to understand that purpose and then, in God’s time, to have the courage to pursue it.
This story isn’t over. Ishmael will marry and become the patriarch of a new family. But things have changed. No longer will he be the son of that slave woman. From now on, when he meets someone, he will say, “Peace be unto you…call me Ishmael.”