A now-retired Presbyterian pastor once got into trouble for preaching a sermon on the story of Hagar and her son Ishmael--the story from our Old Testament reading today. He remembers the event in this way: "I was invited to preach at the installation of a friend of mine and she asked me specifically to preach on this story. So I did. It is a big church in the South, the kind of southern Presbyterian institution where on the wall of portraits of past session members and clerks and pastors you can find a few Confederate Generals. It is also the kind of institution that reflects the genuine hospitality and graciousness of its culture. Now I know it’s a regional stereotype, but it has been my experience that Yankees are particularly receptive and responsive to Southern graciousness. We love it. After all, we’re not often told how wonderful we are and how lovely it is that we came to the party and how fascinating and interesting we are. So I preached a Hagar and Ishmael sermon for my friend and afterward I was utterly enjoying greeting the people and being told how wonderful and fascinating and interesting I was. I noticed a woman who seemed to be waiting until the line was gone. When she greeted me, she took my hand in both of hers and smiled and said with sweetness and sincerity, “It was lovely of you to come all the way down here to be with us this morning. I just wanted you to know that I hated your sermon.” She squeezed my hand, smiled sweetly and walked away."
What was it about his sermon that got him into trouble? I can't say for certain, but there are many ways in which preaching on this story could raise concern.
The passage itself really is an unsettling story, one that some might argue is not fit to be read in the context of worship. There are many stories like that in the Bible, actually. Take the story of Noah and the ark, for example. Thanks to the way the story is portrayed in picture books and in Sunday school, we tend to remember the story as a cute one, with nice rainbows and happy animals going for a nice month-long cruise on the ark, relaxing on deck and eating too much food. We forget that the reason for the flood was because God--the same God whom we claim loves the world--God decided to "make an end of all flesh ... and to destroy [all humans] along with the earth." Indeed, according to the story, God did just that and killed everyone on earth, except for Noah and his household. The story of the flood is a troubling passage.
The same might be said for our passage from today, though the trouble is more subtle.
Abraham and Sarah, ones whom God had chosen to become a great nation, have been blessed with wealth and riches and power. What they do not have, however, is a son, someone to carry on the family name--which is quite a problem if your family is supposed to multiply and become a great nation of many people.
And so, Sarah suggests that her slave, Hagar, become the mother of Abraham's son, so that the family might continue on. Hagar bears a son and names him Ishmael.
Problems arise, however, when Sarah herself conceives and bears a son named Isaac.
One sunny afternoon, Sarah sees Isaac and Ishmael playing together and realizes that Ishmael is Abraham's son. He, therefore, is the one who is entitled to the family inheritance. Her son, Isaac has no claim on this inheritance. So Sarah decides that she has to get rid of Ishmael. So she and Abraham cast out Hagar and Ishmael, throw them into the desert with only a little bread and water.
The water eventually runs out and Hagar realizes that they both will soon die of thirst.
Hagar lays the infant under a bush and walks a hundred feet away and sits down and waits for the end to come.
Thankfully, the story has a happy ending. God hears the cry of the child and intervenes. Hagar finds a well of water, and both are saved.
The story itself is an unsettling story, one that some might argue is not fit to be read in the context of worship.
But there is another element to this passage that may upset us even more. Embedded in this passage from Genesis is the foundational yet radical claim that God cares about all of God's children--not just the chosen and powerful and mainstream children, like Isaac, but also those children who have been rejected, deprived of basic necessities of life, and glossed over in an attempt to deny their existence and thereby remove them from the public concern--children like Ishmael.
The claim of this passage is that we are our brother's keeper. We are to be concerned about the welfare of those who are not our own. We are to be concerned about our neighbor in need.
This may not sound so troublesome--we say it a lot in the church, and it sounds familiar to us. But if we are to take is seriously, it will cause problems.
This claim is, after all, what got Jesus into so much trouble with the authorities of his day. He reached out specifically to those people whom society pushed to the margins, those people whom society tried to exclude. Jesus *touches a leper, and sits at table with tax collectors and allows a prostitute to pour oil on his feet and talks with women in broad daylight and heals on the Sabbath, welcomes the children.* If we were to name those in our society today who have been shoved to the margins and scapegoated blamed for all our troubles, and if we, like Jesus, were to embrace those people, who would they be and what would it mean for the church to embrace them like Christ did?
As the story of God's people goes on, it takes a rather ironic twist. The descendants of Abraham--the descendants of Sarah's son Isaac--they themselves become the outcasts--they receive the treatment that they gave to Hagar and Ishmael. The Israelites, the people of God, the descendants of Abraham were conquered by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. They were forced to leave their land and to wander as people without homes, people searching for a place where they could find safety and shelter for their children. It was the Israelites who had been sent out into the wilderness to die, just as Abraham and Sarah sent Hagar and Ishmael into the desert to die.
But, as we know, in both cases, despite the threat and gravity of these situations, God intervenes, and proves to be more powerful still. This is, after all, what our passage from Romans proclaims: that life in Christ is even more powerful and even more pervasive than the power and pervasiveness of death.
So what do we do with this passage about Hagar and Ishmael and the way that the ancestors of our faith left a woman and a child to die in the wilderness?
One option, of course, is, on the way out of church this morning, to shake my hand, smile warmly and kindly, and then tell me that you hated my sermon. That is an option.
But should we take another option, what do we do with this passage? We have come here this morning seeking God's word for our lives. Seeking some divine wisdom to lead us as we navigate through life's joys and challenges. So what is that wisdom? What do we do with these texts?
Two things come to mind.
First, there is a radical claim here that no matter what we face, the power of God will see us through. From the perspective of Hagar, life was terrible, people were strikingly cruel, fear was overwhelming. And yet, God was still there. God provided. God delivered.
Some of us here today need a reminder of this truth. The weight of the darkness that many of us face is so overwhelming. On this day, some of us need to hear of hope. We need to be reminded of the light that will guide us and the presence of God that will be with us. As God delivered a woman and a child who had been left in the desert to die of thirst, so too will God deliver you. Some of us here today need a reminder of this truth.
Second, there is a radical claim in this text that God chooses the side of those whom the world pushes aside, and if we want to be on God's side, then we are to be on the side of those pushed aside.
Some of us here today need a reminder of this truth. It is easy to turn inward, to protect what is our own, to turn way those who are not like us or to say we will welcome them but only if they change and become just like us. It is so easy to get swept up in the rhetoric of us versus them, win at all costs, get all you can grab, do not give of your own. Some of us here today need to be reminded that Christ loved the unloved, welcomed the stranger, brought in and cared for the outcast, and that we the church, the body of Christ, we are called to do the same. It is an easy concept to agree to, but to actually go and do it--that's where it becomes painful. Some of us here today need a reminder of this truth.
This is an unsettling passage. We must decide what we will do with it.
May God continue to call us. May the light of Christ lead us. May the Spirit of God sustain us.