Today our story of Abraham and Sarah continues as they celebrate their son, Isaac being old enough to ween—a toddler, laughing as he plays with his older half-brother Ishmael, who was born to Sarah’s Egyptian slave, Hagar. Ishmael was actually Sarah’s doing—not trusting God to keep his word after several years, she came up with her own plan to give Abraham an heir using her slave. I doubt Hagar had a choice in the matter, as slaves never did—and she gave birth to Abraham’s first-born son, Ishmael.
As Sarah watches the two boys playing it seems that her joy at God fulfilling the promise to heal her barrenness in her old age has turned to jealousy, since Isaac is not technically Abraham’s oldest child. This should not matter, because God has begun to make good on the promise of descendants and land, and Sarah herself is a recipient of God’s faithfulness. Surely Sarah can now trust God’s word.
But Sarah is as human as we are, and that kind of trust is hard for all of us. Abraham’s inheritance and blessing are at stake here. Ishmael is still the oldest son—what if he makes the claim of the oldest brother? He would get the double portion of the inheritance and Isaac would get the leftovers. What would happen to God’s promises then?
It was Sarah’s impatience that brought Ishmael into the world and now her distrust that will cast him and his mother out.
Has this story not been repeated over and over throughout history? The one who is on the margins becomes included in blessing, income, status, access. They forget what it is like to be at the margins, and in order to maintain their newly acquired status, they step on the next marginalized person. It is part of our own slave and immigrant history. First the Irish were oppressed, then the Italians, then the Jews, then the Latinos, then the Asians, always with the goal of keeping those of African descent on the bottom.
Like Abraham forgot about Sarah when he had a son in Ishmael, so also, Sarah, once she has Isaac, forgot to look to the person next to her on the margins and include her in the benefits of God’s abundance. The same pattern has been true in Christian biblical scholarship. For centuries this story was only told from Abraham’s perspective. Then white female scholars entered the academy and they pointed out that male scholars had neglected Sarah. In recent decades female scholars of color have chastised white women scholars because they have neglected Hagar, the Egyptian slave who was sexually abused.
African and Asian female scholars have looked at their white scholars, and pastors and said, “Hagar needed Sarah to be a sister who would extend her inclusion, and protect her and rejoice that their sons each had a brother, and instead she found an oppressor.” How many times, Lord have we failed to be that sister or brother—as individuals, as the church, as a neighborhood, as society? How many times have the those who are on the margins looked to us, and instead of finding a sister or brother, found an oppressor, a judge, an excluder, someone kneeling on their neck?
Even if, in our discomfort, we put the most positive spin on this story, and say that Sarah was simply protecting her self-interest and did not intend for Hagar and Ishmael to die of thirst, we are left with the uneasy awareness that our own interests blind us to the needs of those beside us.
The saving grace of this story is God’s providential care for those who are cast aside—care which is extended over and over and over again throughout the Bible, to those at the margins. This is where the story gets really interesting. Hagar and Ishmael are sent away reluctantly by Abraham who gives them some provisions, but they soon run out of water. Hagar is convinced they are going to die, so she puts Ishmael under a bush, so she does not have to witness her own son’s death. She cries out to God for help. But the narrator reports that “God heard the voice of the boy”—but it was Hagar, not Ishmael who was praying. So why does the Bible say that God heard the voice of the boy rather than the voice of Hagar? The answer lies in his name, “Ishmael” which means “God hears.” God hears the prayers of the mother. God hears the needs of her child. God hears the pain of those who dwell at the margin.
Hagar is one of the few Old Testament women who has a conversation with the angel of the Lord who repeats the promise that Ishmael, too, shall be the father of a great nation. God has made a covenant with Abraham to create the chosen people, yet it seems like this is not an exclusive claim, nor the only God-project, or nation-building plan on God’s horizon. This story is a reminds us that our sense of chosen-ness and election by God are not exclusive—we have not cornered the God-market; God’s care, presence and plan is not limited to us.
Our story portrays Abraham and Sarah, warts and all, in all of their humanness, so we cannot miss recognizing our own flaws and sins in their jealousy and mistrust. God sees their limitations, their troubling choices, and yet continues the covenant with them, continues to fulfill the promise with them and builds a great nation through them. God continues to love them. God continues to love us.
Right next to them is Hagar and Ishmael—an Egyptian slave and her son on the verge of death in the wilderness and God hears their cries. God makes a covenant with them, fulfils the promise with them and builds a great nation through them. God continues to be present and to love them, too.
God’s presence with all of God’s people is not in question. God’s love for and desire to be in relationship with all of God’s people is and has been clear from the very beginning of our story of faith. God’s willing to work with us in our limitations and sinfulness is evidenced throughout Scripture. The desire of God to hear the cries of hurting people on every margin is as true today as it was centuries ago for Hagar and Ismael.
This story asks us today “Are you ready for God to bless as one nation, as one people?” The Hagars and the Ishmaels today are asking us to be their sister and their father, to be their brother and their mother, who will include them in the blessing and bounty of this nation’s abundance. Can we ask God to heal us of the jealousy or fear that we will not get what we need if everyone has access and is treated fairly and instead, really trust God’s promises? Can we admit that we are flawed and trust that God can work wonderful things anyway as God did through Abraham and Sarah? And then are we ready to hear like God hears, to listen to others and to resist the urge to cast people out and push them aside?
For when we hear what God hears and we come together as one people, wonderful things happen. We connect with one another around our common human experience; we lift up one another in our sorrow and laugh with one another in our joys. We learn from one another and share perspectives, stories and experiences and expand our hearts for compassion by viewing life from another person’s vantage point. We taste and see how great and good our God is in all the diversity, flavors, colors, languages, experiences, cultures of this amazing life while at the same time transcending all of that diversity with similar hurts and hopes, disappointments and dreams, hearts and love. We see difference as a gift and an opportunity for learning. We do this by noticing the people who are beside us wherever we go and engage in 6’ conversation. Who do you hear today that you might otherwise overlook? What are you learning? What kindness are you showing?
Our member, Eileen Bottolfson noticed someone near her in the Walmart and I asked her to write it up for the Weekly Word this week: Here’s what she said:
Small, simple kindnesses can go a long way, during this stressful time of Covid 19.
A simple ‘thank you’ can be so much more important and powerful than we realize sometimes. Recently, I was at my local Walmart doing some shopping. As I wended my way through the aisles, there was a Walmart employee stocking the shelves. As I approached her, I took a moment to stop, and simply said, “Thank you very much for being here. I really appreciate you, and everyone else who is working so hard during this time.” The lady stared at me for a few seconds, and then tears came to her eyes. She said, in such a heartfelt manner, “Thank you for saying that. That means so much to me. You have just made my day. You have made my whole week better.” She proceeded to tell me that she had been at work every day since the stay-at-home order had been issued. She had been in Customer Service, but eventually requested to be transferred out to the floor because people were being so incredibly rude, and how mentally and emotionally exhausting it was to face nasty customers every single hour of the day. She explained that she really needed her job – thus why she was there still. I thanked her again, and we gave each other distanced, arms-outstretched hugs. This brief moment made my whole week better too.
Eileen heard was God was hearing from this Walmart employee and that’s the beginning of a new community—of Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael living and thriving together. Eileen offers the most profound insight of all—thriving together makes everyone’s life better.