“Creating Promise out of Pain”
A Sermon on Genesis 21:8-21 for the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A; preached June 25, 2017, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
Most people, including—arguably—most Christians, do not understand what the Bible really is.
[Have I gotten your attention?]
Yes, indeed, when it comes right down to it, people’s misconceptions about what the Bible is are as wide-ranging as can be. And this is as true—perhaps, even, more true—of Christians as it is of anyone else.
For example, have you ever seen that bumper-sticker-style slogan that claims “Bible” is a simple acronym for what it supposedly contains: “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”?
Indeed, an instruction manual of some sort is one of those things people often take the Bible for being. Are there instructions in the Bible? Sure! Although a whole bunch of them have to do with things like what to do with the blood of the bull you just sacrificed as a sin offering (Leviticus 4:5-7), for example, or other such things that haven’t been put to much use since the temple was destroyed nearly 2,000 years ago. Ok, I am being a little facetious here… there are actually other sorts of instructions, too. Admittedly, though, they tend to span from the lofty-but-vague—like “Let mutual love continue” (Hebrews 13:1)—to the very concrete-but-seemingly-unrealistic—like “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor” (Luke 18:22).
But, anyway, if the Bible is simply an instruction manual, it is one badly in need of an editor, since the vast majority of the text is not instruction at all.
The same could be said if you were to take the Bible as a textbook of some sort, whether in history or science or some other field. There’s a whole lot of different stuff that doesn’t fit and, on top of that, there are different versions of so many of the stories that simply don’t match with one another. Good luck studying for the final exam in that history course!
I could go on with some other examples of what the Bible is not—those of you who’ve taken my 6-session “Bible 101” class have heard some of that. Instead, though, I’d like to offer an image, a metaphor, for what the Bible may actually be more like… and it is this: a family scrapbook. If you imagine a scrapbook put together about a family—yours or someone else’s—you can visualize a collection of all sorts of different material: a photograph here, a love letter there, a cherished recipe, an award someone received. And all these different pieces taken together, it gives you—or at least begins to give you—an impression of who the family is, where they come from, how they understand themselves and their identity. All of the different pieces come together to form a narrative of some sort or another, even as any one piece may not give the whole picture, or even as some of the different pieces seem in places to contradict each other.
I say all of this today because it is easy to see in such a scrapbook the reality that most families are complicated, multi-faceted, even confusing and contradictory in their self-understanding. Even as such a scrapbook is probably assembled to embody and convey one story, one particular way of understanding the who’s and what’s and why’s, there almost inevitably it seems a piece here or there that challenges the predominant story or image or understanding. “Oh, I didn’t know that great uncle Carl spent 10 years in prison.” “I didn’t realize that Sally had a child out of wedlock—whatever happened to that child?”
The story of what happens to Hagar and Ishmael is just such a story. The Hebrew scriptures—and the New Testament which finds its primary home base within them—they form the family scrapbook of a people of God descended from Abraham-and-Sarah’s son, Isaac—and in particular, the ones descended from Isaac’s younger son, Jacob, whom we’ll meet in the story in a couple of weeks from now. The overall story of who this people is, and where they come from, and what their relationship to God is… it comes out of that lineage, and most of the material reflects that.
But flipping back through the pages, we stumble upon the old photograph where we see another child, one named Ishmael, hanging out there in Abraham’s tent, and his mother Hagar standing there in the background. And we wonder: what’s the story there? Somehow, even though the story is supposed to be about Isaac, we can’t seem to ignore that old picture and its seemingly “extra” characters.
And in seeing this story about Hagar and Ishmael, we discover—in the Bible itself—the truth that “God has other stories.”
Now, I know that some of us may not be all that familiar with what’s going on here with Hagar and Ishmael, so permit me a moment here to bring us all up to speed. After all, this is another one of those times that, because of the way the calendar falls, we’ve been plopped down in the middle of a scene already in progress. Those of you who were here last Sunday will remember that we heard the story of 3 divine visitors coming to Abraham and Sarah with the promise of a child from Sarah, even though she was already into old age. And we heard that, indeed, soon enough, she gave birth to Isaac. The story goes back further, though, as God had promised to them many descendants—a great nation by which all the peoples of the earth would be blessed… God had promised them this much earlier on. As time passed, though, Sarah continued without child and they began to assume she was barren. So, Sarah herself told her husband Abraham to try having a child with Sarah’s servant, the Egyptian woman Hagar. Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. But as the story is told by those who have handed it down to us, the promise was still for Abraham and Sarah to bring forth descendants… and so we get the part we heard last week, ending with the birth of Isaac.
We pick up with today’s scene, then, and Sarah’s jealousy, if you will, of Ishmael and Hagar—her worry that, in a culture where the oldest child receives the primary inheritance, her own son Isaac was going to be disadvantaged.
Now, this part of the story—really, the whole of the parts having to do with Hagar and Ishmael—it is disturbing to our modern ears on many accounts. And lest we presume ourselves so, so much superior to those who have gone before us, I like to imagine that it probably was at least a little disturbing to them, too.
As we hear it today, many (if not most) of us are taken aback by the casting out of Hagar and Ishamel… and also at the claim that God God’s-self condoned and corroborated in it. It’s valid to ask whether that’s factually what happened, or whether it’s a reflection of the ways Isaac’s descendants told the tale. In any event, we should be careful, too, though, not to overlook the reality that Hagar herself gets so used and abused. She most likely had no choice about having Abraham “go in to her,” as the Bible euphemistically puts it, and so her being cast out is but the latest in a much longer line of indignities and dehumanizations.
When you look at a family scrapbook—or any other way family stories and histories are told—one of the fascinating, and at times profound, things is how what they show and tell about the past, about origins and roots, how often it casts a revealing light on how things are today. Patterns of values and vices, graces and dysfunctions, they have this uncanny ability to continue playing out from generation to generation. There’s that saying from the Bible about the “sins of the parents being visited on the children and the children’s children,” and I think there’s some truth to that—not because of some vindictive will of God to keep punishing, or because of some fatalistic consignment to “fate,” but because of the way these patterns and dynamics that play out have that tendency to keep playing out in the relationships and systems of our lives. At least that so often happens, unless we make a concerted effort to truly change the system.
And so, part of the power of scripture—part of the way it does convey the “word of the Lord” to us, even as it remains also something of a family scrapbook of those from whom, in faith, we come—is that it functions almost like a mirror to us and our own lives. As we are confronted by a story like that of Hagar and Ishmael, a faithful grappling with such a story is going to ask challenging questions about what it may reveal about what is still the case among us today.
For instance, I at least, am quite troubled by the fact that the story claims God’s support, and even permission, for the casting out. But do we ourselves not still claim divine approval, and even motivation, for many a questionable thing? If you don’t believe me, perhaps you’ll want to look up some of the images from a few years back in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, where weapons were inscribed with God-referencing messages and codes referring to Bible verses.
Of course, many of us are disturbed also by the use and abuse of Hagar throughout this story. But is it not the case that all around the world today, and even in our own country and our own communities, that women are still robbed of their agency, even at times by other women? Or that plenty of people of African descent—remember, Hagar was an Egyptian—bear the brunt of situations that trace back to their past abuse and dehumanization by others? That is, they bear they bear the negative consequences of a system that wasn’t their fault in the first place. Hagar is cast out because of her child, but she wasn’t the one in control to create that situation in the first place. We still live in a world where people of African descent are punished, and even killed, because we who are white fear them… and yet we fear them because of what we ourselves did to them over these nearly 500 years of European colonialism and American slavery.
Stories like today’s from the Bible should disturb us. Bot so too should the stories of our own times that the Biblical witness casts its revealing light upon. We can’t change what happened to Hagar and Ishmael, some 3 or 4 thousand years ago. But we can change what happens to people like Philando Castile, or the young teen women forced to marry their rapists because (you know) you’re not supposed to have a child out of wedlock, or the children who are cast out into the street simply for being who they are.
As I said a few moments ago, God has other stories. This scene with Hagar and Ishmael is but one of myriad places in the Bible where these “other stories” peek their head into the dominant narrative. In this particular “other story” we hear God’s promise to Hagar and Ishmael that they would live, and that a great nation would come of them as well. Many of us know that our Muslim sisters and brothers, who as we are speaking are celebrating the end of their month-long fast, trace their heritage to Abraham through Ishmael. We would be alert for where God still speaks through the stories of others. And… the Bible is full of places within the main story where God is at work writing other stories: bringing light into the shadows, wrestling life out of death. After all, as the famous 20th century preacher William Sloane Coffin once said, “We may be able to kill God’s love, but we cannot keep it dead and buried.”
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever. Amen.
 This phrasing is attributed by Rolf Jacobson and Matthew Skinner of Luther Seminary and WorkingPreacher.org as a favorite oft spoken by one of their Old Testament professors, Patrick D. Miller of Princeton Theological Seminary.