(A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost June 22, 2008 Genesis 21:1-21)
I was born in 1961, at the back edge of the baby boom, and I spent my childhood watching reruns of those classic 1950’s TV shows, with the perfectly coiffed mothers running vacuum cleaners in high heels, and the fathers who came home from the office in time for dinner, praising the smells of good cooking and disciplining and guiding the children with kindness and fairness and just the occasional burst of righteous anger when they did something *really* wrong.
In that TV version of the 1950’s, everyone was white and middle-class, with the occasional rich family thrown in as a point of tension. Where were the people of color? Where were the poor? The gay and lesbian people? Where were the families broken by divorce, disease or death? They were there, just not on TV. Television portrayed a fantasy land of intact nuclear families, freezes in our memories an economy so robust that it was sufficient for one person to work outside the home and the associated limitations for women, a time when children played outside until they were called for supper and no one worried about where they had gone because nothing bad happened to anyone.
And I think we are all a little brainwashed about those times, because they are the first times in our human history for which there is a video record of the mundane aspects of life: going to school, cleaning the house, disagreeing with a friend, ordering things through the mail. Even the problems were only just so bad: when Beaver and Wally hid the alligator in the bathroom, you knew Ward and June would eventually get things straightened out for them.
The story of Hagar and Ishmael and Sarah and Isaac and Abraham is more like a soap opera than “Leave it to Beaver.” It’s the story of a family in distress. And this is just the concluding act of the marriage drama of Sarah and Abraham. In obedience to God’s commands, Abraham, then known as Abram, uprooted his wife and his household and wandered in the wilderness with his herds and flocks, seeking the land God promised him. At that time they were still called Abram and Sarai; they would later change their names as part of a covenant with God. During a famine, they went into Egypt, and there Abraham passed off his beautiful wife as his sister in order to stay out of trouble himself. In Genesis 12 we read:
When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, ‘I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, “This is his wife”; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.’ When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.
Sarai became a concubine in Pharoah’s household in order to protect her husband. It was Pharoah who returned her after learning she was really Abram’s wife, Pharoah the polytheist polygamist who did the right thing.
Sarai’s life did not improve. She continued to wander with a husband who received promise after promise from God, talk of descendants who would inherit the earth, and yet they remained childless, and they were aging, and it seemed impossible that this could ever happen. Have you ever been in a position so uncomfortable that you felt you had to do something, anything, just to change the situation? Sarai wanted to make things happen; probably she blamed herself for her infertility. She did something that would have been common among the wives of her time, based on the stories that are passed down to us.
If I were Sarai, I might have done the same thing. It was a culturally acceptable practice, a family value that placed creating new life above her own pride. She considered the possibilities and took matters into her own hands. I imagine her contemplating this possibility over and over, perhaps imagining the smile on Abram’s face as he dandled the baby on his knee. I imagine her envisioning a relationship with her slave, who would give the child physical care but regard Sarai as its mother. It seemed like a pretty picture, one in which everyone could be content, and surely a scenario that would be pleasing to God.
Hagar was an Egyptian slave, part of the bounty of their time under Pharoah’s protection. She went because she had no choice; her life depended on pleasing her mistress, not just the quality of her life but the continuation of it. She was dependent on Sarah for her survival, so she obeyed.
In Genesis 16, we have the story surrounding the conception of Ishmael, and in verse 4 we get the key to the rest of this dysfunctional family drama:
He slept with Hagar and she got pregnant. When she learned she was pregnant, she looked down on her mistress.
That was Hagar’s big mistake. Even though Sarai had engineered the encounter, she was wounded by it. What wife wouldn’t be? And Hagar had now added insult to injury, glorying in what she must have assumed would be her new-found status as mother to the master’s son.
But just as in this morning’s passage, Abram goes along to get along. When Sarai complains, he capitulates.
5Sarai told Abram, "It's all your fault that I'm suffering this abuse. I put my maid in bed with you and the minute she knows she's pregnant, she treats me like I'm nothing. May GOD decide which of us is right."
6"You decide," said Abram. "Your maid is your business." Sarai was abusive to Hagar and she ran away.
Now running away was no small thing. It almost certainly meant dying. But Hagar hadn’t gone too far when she met up with an angel of the Lord beside a spring in the desert. The angel advises her to go back and put up with whatever Sarai might hand out to her, for the sake of her child and the descendants he will give her. Yes, there is another promise of a great family; the angel says: I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude. (Genesis 16:10)
And the angel tells her about Ishmael:
Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;
you shall call him Ishmael, (which means “God hears”)
for the LORD has given heed to your affliction.
He shall be a wild ass of a man,
with his hand against everyone,
and everyone’s hand against him;
and he shall live at odds with all his kin.’
This all proves true, most of it in the passage from Genesis 21 we heard a short while ago. But in it, he is not much of a wild ass, or as a modern interpretation puts it, a “bucking bronco of a man.” He is a young man, or even just a big boy, and he weakens from thirst and hunger and his mother fears watching him die so misunderstood and abandoned.
When you think about your own lives, do you identify with the characters in the story? Or does your life feel more like that of June and Ward and Wally and “the Beave?” Even if we haven’t experienced drama of the magnitude of this particular story, surely, like Sarai, we have lived through dark or gritty times, times when we wished we could solve the problem no matter what it took, just to put an end to the feeling of uncertainty, just to resolve things.
And surely, like Hagar, we have grieved when we couldn’t set things right for our children or ourselves.
If I were Hagar, I wouldn’t want to see my son fading from life, dehydrating to death. He’s no little boy anymore, that Ishmael. He’s a teenager, maybe even as old as the boy I sent off to camp yesterday. Snowman has traveled to Mitten-Shaped State alone many times now, but every time I worry and wonder, and nearly every time there is a weather delay, as there was this time. That means re-scheduling, and advocating for himself, and I am glad he is capable, but I can’t help seeing him alone and identifying with Hagar. If you are a mother, you may know what I mean. We remember them as babies, and we remain the mothers pledged to protect them no matter how grown-up they may seem to the rest of the world. And when they are misjudged or misused, as sometimes happens in the worlds of school and playground, you feel you would fight with the energy of a tigress to protect them from injustice.
We don’t know exactly what Ishmael did to Isaac that irritated Sarah. The word in Hebrew has two very different translations, as varied as “playing with” and “mocking.” Was he playing with Isaac, or teasing him, or actually poking fun at him and mocking him? And where is that line drawn between brothers? I have seen my two boys, when they were younger, roll around on the floor together like lion cubs, and I have heard teasing that bordered on unacceptable pass between brother and sister, but I have also seen the protective rage rise on one of their faces when they suspect a threat from outside the family.
Family life, now and then, is marked by passion, intensity, feelings so deep we cannot name them or distinguish them easily.
Nobody comes off well in this story. Ishmael is mighty passive for an adolescent boy who will become a noteworthy archer, weeping under a bush. Sarah is selfish and murderous, if passively so. Abraham is also passive, giving in to Sarah and not taking the part of the son he has raised and loved. Even God doesn’t seem so appealing in this passage, not so much the champion of family values. Oh, sure, the angel turns up and points Hagar to a well, but we may well wonder why things had to go that far. After all, can’t God straighten these people out and help them to live together? If God can’t do that, how will God help us?
If I were God, I’d like to think I would have set things right, but I recognize that my idea of “right” might not be the same as God’s. God will set things right, but it might not be in the way you expect. If I’ve learned anything about God, it is that God’s ways are not our ways. The one reassuring lesson from this difficult text is that God is present for us even when we are outcast. God is present, and God is directing us to life-giving water, no matter how outside the bounds of society or family we may find ourselves to be. God is watching over us, present, speaking to us, never abandoning us.
But listen closely to this: God is not promising Hagar that things will be easy. Ishmael is going to be a wild, contentious man. They will not return to his father’s house. They are on their own and will need to use their wits and their will to survive. God’s intervention doesn’t set them up in a villa, or buy them the car that everyone needs to have, or get them hooked up to cable internet to make their downloads speedier or guarantee Ishmael a full scholarship to the college of his choice.
God cares about Hagar and Ishmael. God opens Hagar’s eyes and points the way to what they need to survive. A well comes from a spring, a spring that is the source of life in the desert. God shows them the source of life. The rest is up to them. God cares. And as it was for Hagar and Ishmael, so it is for us. God does not prevent us from being hurt or from causing hurt to ourselves and others, but God cares. God does not show favor by rewarding us with money or success or security, but God cares. God may not answer our prayers the way we wish they would be answered, but God cares. God shows us favor by being always with us, and that presence is the ultimate value for all of us in God’s family. When it feels we are most alone, we have only to do what Hagar did: to see that God was there all along, even in the desert, even in our thirst, even when things don’t turn out the way we hoped and planned. Always and everywhere, God is with us. Amen.