Throughout this summer our services will focus on the theme: God in Unexpected Places. Some of you may remember that as we prepared to leave our Meeting House, we shared together the story of how the Israelites created a beautiful traveling place of worship for their time in the wilderness. They made a tabernacle and a tent of meeting for their time of Exodus. Wherever they went, God was present with them, and they worshipped God. This summer we are taking our tent of worship here to Concord Children’s Center, and to TriCon, and back here, and back to our transformed meeting house. So it’ s a good time to be especially alert to the unexpected places and ways that God can show up in our lives. Our texts from this summer, from Genesis and the Gospel of Matthew, also happen to be rich in stories of surprise.
We start the series this week with the story of Hagar and her son Ishmael. We meet Hagar earlier in Genesis as the Egyptian slave of Sarah. Hagar’s role in the story of Genesis becomes more visible to us when Sarah despairs of producing a child. It was so important in that time for a woman to produce children, and for a couple to produce helpers and heirs. Sarah is getting on in years, and there has been no child. So, finally, Sarah asks Abraham to impregnate Hagar. Because Sarah owns Hagar, a child born to Hagar would legally belong to Sarah. This strategy, though it may sound strange to us, was not unusual in that time and place. You may remember it also happens with Bilhah and Zilpah, the servants of Rachel and Leah, the wives of Jacob.
Sarah comes up with a plan to address her barrenness, and Sarah’s plan works: Hagar conceives. But as soon as she is successful, Sarah realizes that this outcome isn’t — exactly — what she wanted. Hagar’s pregnancy changes Hagar’s role in the family, and Sarah’s role, as well. Sarah wants to put Hagar back in her place, so she treats her harshly, establishing her own greater power in their family system. Hagar is so distressed by her mistreatment that she runs away. But an angel of the Lord encourages Hagar to return, to survive: to bear the son she carries, Ishmael.
In time, Ishmael is born. And, miraculously, Sarah also conceives, and bears Isaac. One might think, then, that the problem Sarah perceived in this family is resolved. But once Isaac has survived infancy, Sarah is discontented. Seeing Ishmael at play, watching him laugh, she becomes uneasy. Sarah is afraid that Ishmael might inherit a portion of Abraham’s wealth. She says to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son.”
Abraham is distressed, the scripture tells us, on account of his son. But God promises to care for the child. So Abraham rises early in the morning, and takes bread and a skin of water. Abraham gives the bread and water to Hagar, along with the child, and sends them away into the wilderness.
By this point in the story, I just want to say… what? What has happened to our holy ancestors? What has happened to Father Abraham, and Mother Sarah, models of integrity and faithfulness? So many things are wrong in this story. Our ancestors had slaves. Hagar is forced to become a surrogate, without any indication that she has a choice in the matter. We don’t know if she was raped. After this injustice, she is mistreated again, in order to force her subservience. Finally, she and her son are sent out to die.
There is plenty of blame to pass around for all the things that go wrong in this story. We could blame the ancient society, for prizing women only for their childbearing, or for favoring eldest sons. We could blame Abraham, for ducking out of all the moral questions along the way. We could blame God, who gives some dubious advice in this story – lots of conflicting commentary about that. I keep coming back to Sarah’s sins. They seem so painfully familiar. In a difficult situation, she makes a terrible choice, not once, but over and over again. She chooses to protect her own interests by taking cruel advantage of someone she has power over. A woman from a different culture. A woman, perhaps, of a darker skin color. A woman who is her slave.
In Sarah’s actions, we can see the justifications that white and wealthy and Christians and otherwise privileged people in our society so often make to excuse our mistreatment of others. We’re just a little too worried about our own place in the world. We’re just a little too worried about the advantages that our children will receive. Even though we’re already so far ahead of the curve, we are still willing to sacrifice the wellbeing and even the survival of others to get an extra inch of protection.
We see this self-protective instinct when people segregate suburbs and cities by wealth and by race. We see it in debates over school funding. We see it when we decide who can vote, and how hard it is to exercise that right. We see it when we make decisions about the minimum wage. We see it when a group of white men of wealth make a plan for our country’s healthcare that does not require universal coverage, or even maternity services. We see it when we place the importance of industrial profit above the importance of a healthy planet for us all to live on. We see it when we send immigration agents on a raid at a humanitarian water station in the desert. We see it when the very presence of a Muslim person, or a dark-skinned person, represents to our mind a deadly threat to our way of life. Our margin of privilege, our margin of power, is just too precious to let go of — despite injustice, or destruction, or death for God’s children and God’s creation. Even when it is ultimately in our own long-term interest to make room for others, too often, we just can’t bring ourselves to do it.
The story of Hagar and Ishmael is particularly important to many African American Christian women, because for all the differences in time and culture, this story just rings true.
Hear is the good news: when Hagar goes into the wilderness, God is with her. God hears her, and offers her words of comfort, saying “Do not be afraid.” God sees her, and helps her to find water to survive. God abides with her, and helps her discern a path towards the future. God accompanies her and her child along that path.
Ishmael’s childhood is not the same as Isaac’s. He is not sheltered in a family compound. He does not marry an Israelite woman. He does not inherit wealth from Abraham. But, there are blessing to his upbringing all the same. Raised in the wilderness, Ishmael becomes an expert with the bow. Away from the compound, he is not raised in the ways of slavery. In time, he finds a wife from the land of Egypt, a wife from his mother’s people. And we know that somehow, he does find a way to connect with his father: when Abraham dies, Ishmael works beside Isaac to bury him.
The promises that God makes to Hagar come to pass. Eventually Ishmael has twelve sons: Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. These sons have villages, and tribes, all known as the descendants of Hagar. Ishmael lives to be 137 years old, and when he dies, he is gathered to his people. According to Muslim tradition, the well that saved Hagar and Ishmael in the desert becomes the water source around which a city is built: the city of Mecca. Hagar and Ishmael are honored as founders of that city, and they are buried in the most holy part of Mecca. As a pastoral colleague of mine often says, God is such a show off.
Summer is not a quiet season so far this year, as least as it concerns politics and world events. But don’t be pulled down by the undertow. Remember, when you witness injustice, that God hears, and God sees. Remember that God abides, and God accompanies. God is there with those of us who suffer and with those of us who struggle to put aside our power and privilege. God is working among us, showing up in the most desolate moments. God is working around our failures and even with them, for justice, for peace, and for joy. Thanks be to God.