June 25, 2017

Pentecost 3   June 25, 2017   Matthew 10:16,26-33; Romans 4:13-18, Genesis 21:1-21

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When I moved back to Vermont to serve my first churches there, I couldn’t help but notice – how people would often remind me – “Be careful what you say about anyone here… We’re all related.”

Sometimes adding “Or we used to be… Or…we’re going to be.” And…

The story of the banishing of Hagar and Ishmael is a reminder – we, too, should be careful what we say about any of the characters in our biblical story. Because all of us who follow Jesus are children of Abraham. All part of one large, messy and complicated family… And perhaps quick review may be helpful…. As we rejoin our story in progress…

Abraham and Sarah are introduced without much ado (in Genesis 11), but next thing we know, here’s God, saying to Abraham – “Get up and go to a place to be named later. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you, and in you all the families of earth will be blessed.”

Abe and his wife Sarah leave home, ages 75 and 65, traveling into the land of Canaan. There God promises Abraham – all this land will belong to your descendants.

But then famine strikes – and Abe, Sarah and their entourage of extended family and servants go down to Egypt to survive. Sarah, we’re told, is a beautiful woman. (No details are given as to how she manages to stay beautiful into what sounds like well into her ’90’s, but…) Abraham fears he’ll be killed by someone who is after Sarah. So be puts the word out that she’s his sister. Her beauty then comes to the attention of Pharoah, king of Egypt, who takes her into his harem – giving flocks, herds, male and female slaves to Abraham in return.

Pharoah learns the truth about this couple when plagues break out in his household. He sends them back to Canaan, where they continue childless, in spite of God’s promise of offspring.

After many years have gone by, Abraham starts thinking the wait is taking too long. He complains to God “I still have no offspring, and my servant will inherit all I’ve got.” God takes Abe aside, tells him to look up into the heavens. “Count the stars, if you can count that high. That’s how numerous your descendants shall be.” Abraham believes. God reckons him righteous. Right with God.

But then in the very next episode of As the World of Genesis Turns Sarah also decides… all this waiting has gone on for long enough. ‘God helps those who helps themselves,’ she apparently thinks. (Everyone’s most popular bible verse that’s not in the bible.) “Here’s my Egyptian slave-girl Hagar.” (Given, most likely, by Pharoah as part of the deal for Sarah.) “You can have her as a second wife. We’ll adopt if you have a son.” (Surrogate mothering like this was not uncommon among those with in those times.)

We don’t know all the back-story. Perhaps Sarah is getting tired of her husband’s or her community’s disappointment (either expressed or implied) over her… not being able to have children… Perhaps she guesses – Abe, now in-his-mid-eighties, may not be able to father a child. (And…) If no child comes along, maybe now people will stop talking about her infertility… And talk about him instead.

Any of these possibilities are, of course, only speculation. These and other sensitive personal details are really not for us to know. What we do know is that Abraham turns out not to be too old to be a daddy. And when Hagar gets pregnant life gets more complicated. Hagar acts superior now towards Sarah. Sarah starts blaming Abraham – who tells her  ‘she’s your maid, you can do whatever.’ Sarah mistreats Hagar severely in return – who now runs away into the desert – where she encounters an angel of God, who sends her back to Sarah – after promising the descendants of her son will be too numerous to count – and he will be named Ishmael, the angel says, meaning “God Hears.” All this happens in Genesis 16 –  and Hagar’s intimate conversation here with the angel is remarkably similar to the most intimate conversations God has with Abraham. (And as intimate as with anyone else, other than Abraham, in all of Genesis.)

Abraham is 86 years old when his son Ishmael is born to Hagar. Sarah is 76, still beautiful, still childless…We can only imagine the family dynamics of this extended family living together in pretty close quarters… A metaphor for all the history of all the family of Abraham…ever since.

Fast-forward another thirteen years to last week’s reading from Genesis. God has another talk with Abe, promising again, a son to be born by Sarah. Abe laughs. And prays instead for a blessing for Ishmael, who now is 13 years old. God says ‘Ishmael too will be blessed to be father of a great nation. But it’s through your son to be born to Sarah that my promise will be fulfilled.’

God says ‘I always keep all my promises. But – if you take promise-fulfillment into your own hands – there’s no guarantees. And yes, I know it’s complicated. And yes,  I will always love and look out for Ishmael too. But the promise I made to you was about you and Sarah. A promise I’ll fulfill in my time. And you shall name him Isaac.’ (Which means laughter.)

Soon three men (who turn out to actually be angels) show up at the campsite of Abe and Sarah, who do right thing intuitively, showing radical hospitality, washing their feet and providing an excellent meal. One of the angels says “I’ll be back this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” This time Sarah laughs…

Again we fast-forward, one more year, to today’s reading.

A boy child is born to Sarah and Abraham. His parents, as instructed, name name him Isaac – laughter. Sarah and Abe are laughing now, finally, with joy… (But…)

When he’s two or three years old, Abraham hosts a grand weaning banquet for Isaac…And… Ishmael, hanging out somewhere near his younger brother, laughs aloud.  The Hebrew word translated laughter here is ambiguous – among other things, it can mean laughing with, or laughing at… (We’re still discussing, even arguing, over what exactly it was that was said…But…)

For Sarah, the laughter of Abraham’s other son is no laughing matter. It reminds her the eldest son normally get the lion’s share of the inheritance. (And she’s not about to let anyone but her own son get the last laugh.) She tells Abraham “Cast out the slave and her son. The slave woman’s son will not inherit with my son.”  Abraham is reluctant and unhappy, we’re told – but he does as Sarah demands.

The bible doesn’t directly raise the issue, but… We, as bible readers with eyes and ears open, are surely meant to wonder – why Abraham, a wealthy man, doesn’t send his banished wife and son off with more food and water, and an escort of servants to help them relocate safely. The telling of the story is obviously meant to arouse empathy – as we see mother and child, nearly dying of hunger and thirst, out in the desert. Ishmael is actually a teenager now – but the way the story is told encourages us to picture him as still a child. Rembrandt’s sketch on our bulletin cover captures both Ishmael’s youthfulness and his future destiny as hunter, chieftain, and ancestor of multitudes.

His calling is different from that of his younger brother – yet still the bible assures   us – God is very able to see us all as his little children – and as our adult selves – at the same time – as scripture tells us – “God was with the boy…”

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Fast forward four or five thousand years, to the present. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all trace our spiritual lineage through Abraham and his descendants – Jews and Christians through Sarah and Isaac – Muslims through Hagar and Ishmael…

Our family history is still complicated. No matter how much we to try to keep the messier details out of sight, every family on earth knows this story of the family of Abraham.  Somewhere in each of our family’s past or present there’s another woman, another man, another child… Someone who has been sent away, disowned, or banished… Someone we’d rather not talk about or know too much about… And God sees and knows all our history… All the details of our human condition… and…

The bible speaks to our human condition, as we really are. Yet another reason… why the bible still speaks so powerfully in our lives today.

Jesus tells us – be wise as serpents, innocent as doves. Look to Jesus. Look deep into the mirror of the bible. Remember who we are, where we’ve been, and where God calls us. Take time to pray, reflect, and consider all God’s story.  (For– )

This whole world now is all one small planet…

We’re all related.

May we take extra care – and be extra careful – in all we say….

Remembering to say often –

The peace of God be with you.

And –

Thanks be to God.

Amen.