Trouble in the Family, Genesis 21:8-21
First United Methodist Church, June 21, 2020
Pastor Toni Carmer
Last week we ended on a happy note, with laughter and joy because Sarah and Abraham, well beyond their child-bearing years, had given birth to Isaac, fulfilling the promise that God had made that their descendants would be many—more than the stars up above.
But now, there is this issue of Hagar, and she and Abraham’s son, Ishmael. “Issue” seems a bit understated: they are, after all, flesh and blood people. Hagar is Sarah’s former handmaid, now a wife to Abraham—given to him by Sarah herself! She—along with the young boy, the intended outcome of that union—are both constant reminders of the action she and Abraham had taken when it seemed that God had forgotten them and was never going to get around to doing what God had promised to do. Whether it was impatience, lack of faith, or an honest lack of expectation that at the age of 90 and 100 they would finally become parents…for whatever the reason, you can hardly blame their concern. Sometimes, you just have to admit that that ship has already sailed.
Sarah’s action of giving Hagar to her husband wasn’t something she had just came up with on her own. She was following a custom of her homeland, something a wife could do when she was unable to conceive. A woman could “give” her husband a child through a slave. Since Hagar was a slave, she had no say over the matter and had to obey her mistress’s command. But in Hagar’s homeland of Egypt, if one of the concubines bore their master an heir in advance of the wife, she would then become the principal wife and have authority over the others. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that after Hagar conceived that she began to despise Sarah. Further complicating matters, in this period in Chaldea, a husband had absolute power over his wives, even in the matter of life and death. So, Sarah appeals to Abraham, who meekly hands Hagar over to the jealous Sarah, who seeks revenge for Hagar’s haughty behavior.
Hagar had already run away once because of Sarah’s harsh treatment. At that time, an angel of God had come to Hagar instructing her to return to Sarah and to submit to her, and so she did. Hagar followed the angel’s instructions, and took to heart his promise that her offspring would be many. Now, in this week’s scripture, Sarah becomes enraged at a party that Abraham has thrown for her son Isaac and she insists Abraham send both Hagar and Ishmael away. She can’t take it anymore and she won’t. Abraham is understandably distressed about what to do. But God comes to him and tells Abraham to do as Sarah asks, and promises that a nation will be made of Ishmael as well as Isaac. So, Abraham sends them away with a flask of water and some bread. Into the desert. On their own.
It’s not a good story, is it? Speaking of “trouble in the family,” this trouble is as sad as any we might come up with in our world. Before long, their water is gone and Hagar leaves Ishmael at a distance away from her, under a bush, so she doesn’t have to hear and watch him die. She and Ishmael are both crying, and she calls out to the Lord, “Do not forget me, Lord. See me. Hear me, as I cry out to you.”
God doesn’t forget Hagar and Ishmael. God sees them, hears, and responds. An angel urges them toward a well where they drink, and we’re told that God remains with the boy, he grows up, becomes an expert archer, lives in the desert and marries and Egyptian wife.
It’s a story we’re familiar with, but it’s one that we’re accustomed to hearing told from the dominant culture, from the perspective of Sarah and Abraham. We usually don’t think a lot about Hagar, but I think it’s important for us to do that today. To consider the story from her perspective.
Sarah’s actions depersonalize Hagar. As she and Abraham discuss Hagar, they don’t call her by name, Hagar is Sarah’s “slave-girl.” She’s not spoken to directly, but she’s spoken “about.” Her value is only measured in how she serves Abraham and Sarah’s purposes.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by that. She was a slave, and that “was” her purpose. But I guess I’m thankful we live in a time when we’re more ready to consider the unique value of all people; where slavery—although it does still exist unfortunately—isn’t acceptable.
This story of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar has important lessons for us to consider today.
First, thinking of Abraham and Sarah, I’m reminded of the theme at last year’s Annual Conference, which was entitled, “See All the People.” I can’t help but wonder who I don’t see because I’m too focused on what I’m doing, what we as a church are doing, and populations and situations that I’m perhaps better familiar with and more knowledgeable of and have an idea of how to respond. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other needs, other people. If I keep my heart and eyes and mind open, perhaps I can see and learn about needs where I could—where you could—make a difference if only we could “see” and be aware. I do have to give myself some grace—we need to give ourselves some grace—because we can’t be and do all things for all people. And yet, even sometimes just seeing—and listening—and acknowledging is just the thing that needs to be done.
I was talking to a friend last week about a conversation I had with someone whose needs are so beyond my ability to respond. I listened to her talk and I tried to contribute but I just felt so helpless because I didn’t have any answers. Not one. I couldn’t solve her pain. Prayers and tears were all I had. Telling my friend about it later, she told me it was okay. I had listened. I’d acknowledged. I was there. And perhaps, for now, from me, that was just the right thing.
Thinking of Abraham and Sarah, I can’t help but think about our need for patience. There’s the old advice that the “slowest way is the fastest way.” You don’t put chocolate chip cookies in a microwave oven. You don’t turn up the heat of the oven twice as hot so the bread will get done in half the time. Maybe it’s the same thing as the carpenter’s rule to “measure twice and cut once.” Abraham and Sarah manipulated their situation to receive God’s promise, and they not only used Hagar but brought all those relationship issues upon themselves. How could they have expected anything other than trouble? And trouble is exactly what they got.
I’m reminded that patience is a good thing. Going slow, I believe, is a good thing.
How can I not think of the reopening of the church when I talk about patience? I want us to get back together. And I’m watching COVID numbers increase. I want us to open at the right time, in the right way, when we can do that without placing everyone at risk and having to start all over again. Patience, I think, is the correct path.
I’ve lumped Abraham and Sarah together in the first two things to think about, though it was Sarah who took the initiative each time. Abraham was this tribal leader, not a timid or foolish man, but he preferred not to deal with conflict. His preference was to just let Sarah do it, and she truly wasn’t capable.
Finally, there’s Hagar, abused, lost, unnamed. Though God sent Hagar back to serve Sarah the first time she ran away, perhaps a more appropriate strategy for us is suggested by the name “Hagar” which means “flight.” The first step out of an abusive situation may very well be to flee from that situation.
If you see yourself as Hagar, talk to someone that you can trust. Someone who will listen.
Finally—the main character of the story isn’t Abraham or Sarah or Hagar. It’s God. In this story we experience God as the one who sees and hears. Who seeks and finds.
When no one else spoke Hagar’s name, God did.
When she was cast out, alone, and in absolute despair, God came to her and showed her what she needed to survive.
This story is a reminder that we are each created in God’s image, and we are each designed to see, to hear, to seek and to respond. To “be with” those who have been cast out, to lift up those who have been oppressed. To be a part of what God is doing, accomplishing God’s purposes for God’s family, building God’s kingdom on earth.
That is our task. That is our call. Amen.