Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, ‘If it is to be this way, why do I live?’ So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lordsaid to her,
‘Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.’
When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb.The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterwards his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
When the boys grew up, Esau was a skilful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.
Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, ‘Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!’ (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, ‘First sell me your birthright.’ Esau said, ‘I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?’ Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.’ So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
What Will You Share? Genesis 25:19-34
Our story begins with strong Rebekah, whom we met last week. She married Isaac and supported him through the grief of his mother's death. Like her mother-in-law before her, Rebekah found herself unable to conceive. For twenty years, she lived with her husband, knowing the promises of his God, their God, that their family would be the roots of a great lineage, and, yet, she never grew pregnant. Maybe Isaac remembered the stories Hagar had told him about her time in the wilderness, seeing and being seen by God. Maybe Isaac and Rebekah needed to be reminded that God could see them. So they settled in Beer-lahai-roi, where Hagar had once encountered and named God as she hid from Sarah's cruelty. Isaac prayed for Rebekah. We don't know how long he prayed but we do know that, eventually, she became pregnant.
As is true for many women, pregnancy was not easy for Rebekah. It becomes clear that she is carrying not one child but two, and it feels as though the children are battling inside of her. Rebekah was growing up in a time with poor pre-natal care, far from the women in her family who could have talked about the difficulties of pregnancy with her. It is not clear if she had a relationship with any women from Isaac's family who could have supported her this way. And, she would have known that pregnancy was easily among the most life-threatening experiences that a woman could go through. This pregnancy became so difficult that she wondered if it might be better that she died than live with such pain. So she prayed, because that's what you do when you're hopeless. Like Hagar and Abraham and the unnamed servant before her, God heard her and answered her. God tried to explain the turmoil inside of her.
It is not clear if God is simply describing the future or setting the future in action by speaking. God said that the two children inside of her will be as two nations who have always been at war. This may not be a surprise for her to hear. Siblings often fight, and fight hard. However, the next part of God's revelation would be more unusual. In their culture, the eldest son was the most valued. He would inherit twice what the next son would inherit. He would become the leader of the family if the father died. He would be expected to carry the family's legacy. His life would be privileged based on the accident of his birth order, not on his merit as a leader or devotion as a son. God told Rebekah that her sons would not follow the traditional path. In her sons' lives, the elder would serve the younger. Again, it is not clear if God is describing what will happen or making this strange relationship happen. But, in this vision from God, we learn, and Rebekah learns, that we should expect something unusual from these boys.
Esau was born first, red-faced, red-headed, a wild child who becomes a wild man at home in the field and on the hunt. Esau's name is connected to both the color red and the nation of Edom, a nation he will be said to found and with whom Israel will be in conflict. Jacob is born second, coming out gripping his brother's heel. His name is similar to the Hebrew word for heel. He was named for the circumstances of his birth, just like his father was named for his own mother's laughter. Jacob's name is also similar to the Hebrew word for supplant or cheat. Jacob, the boy who held his brother's heal and may one day replace him. I wonder if Jacob heard his destiny every time his mother called his name. Maybe he grew to be the trickster. Maybe he saw manipulation as his only way forward. He grew into the name, this quiet boy who stayed with the women among the tents, figuring his life and his part of God's promise could only truly be secured if he could outsmart the traditions that favored his brother.
As we will see throughout Jacob's life, he will have a sense that he has a part to play in God's plan for his family. However, it is not clear that he believes that God will actually follow through with God's promise. Jacob clearly believes that he must act in order to put himself into a more favored position where God can use him in his family. This is not an unfamiliar tactic for many people, especially people born into systems with rigid senses of social mobility or systems that really resist change. When it seems like the system can't be changed, you learn to work around the system. It's like that line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, when they talk about securing the father's blessing on his daughter's marriage to a non-Greek man. According to the mother, while the father was the head of the family, the women were the neck, figuring out how to move the head wherever they wanted it. Jacob is going to spend a lot of his life trying to be the neck moving a stubborn head.
While spending his time among the tents, Jacob learned to cook. The story tells us that he cooked up a rich, red lentil stew. Esau plopped himself down next to his brother's cooking fire, exhausted from his day in the fields, and demanded some of the red stuff. Now, Jacob is smart. Maybe he's being playful with his rough older brother when he says, "Really hungry, huh. Well, this meal is going to cost you. What could be an appropriate price? I know... your birthright." Or, maybe he's deadly serious, knowing his brother well, understanding that this wild man cares not for his future plans when his immediate need is so distracting. Maybe Jacob's been waiting for a moment of weakness to find a way to get what he really wants, and, this is the moment that his strong brother finally cracks. Esau says, "I'm about to die; what good is a birthright to me?" Maybe Esau didn't believe his brother was serious. Maybe the hunger in his belly was far more pressing than his future plans. Maybe he was actually near death. Whatever the reason, when Jacob demanded Esau swear to give away his inheritance, he said yes, and he swore. Then, he ate and drank at his brother's side and left. I sure hope the stew was worth it.
Part of me wonders if Esau really believed that Jacob would hold him to a silly bargain made over a bowl of soup. I mean, how many of us in this room haven't said, "I'd sell my right arm for a good hamburger right now," and counted on the people listening to us to understand that we were simply exaggerating to make a point? Or, maybe Esau counted on his brother being too intimidated by his physical strength to actually risk making him stay true to his word. Regardless, as we will see in the coming readings, Jacob will hold Esau to his word. The birthright, and God's blessing, as mediated through their father Isaac, will belong to Jacob simply because he will be wily enough to take them. I can't help but wonder, though, if the story had to be this way. What could have happened if Jacob had not felt like he had to resort to manipulation to secure his blessing?
Several articles I read in preparation for this sermon pointed out something important about Jacob's story. We will hear in the coming week's how Jacob's name is changed by God to Israel. His name will become the name of the whole nation. A whole people will understand themselves as being his descendants. When we remember their history and read this story of a wily, smart, small man who finds a way to thrive in the face of a bigger, stronger, more privileged brother, we are learning something about how this nation understands itself. They often found themselves at the mercy of stronger nations, nations that occasionally wanted to destroy them. They had to outsmart stronger people in order to survive. Jacob becomes the embodiment of this survival strategy. He is the one who makes sure he gets God's blessing, regardless of what the more powerful have in mind.
I can't help but wonder if the next part of God's kindom plan is to help create a world where the Jacobs don't have to work so hard to secure their blessings. I can't help but wonder if the next step that we are being invited to create with God is the step that dismantles the need for manipulation and trickery from smaller, weaker parties, a step where the powerful can learn to look at their privilege and decide to use it for the common good. Maybe God's kindom will be a place where a brilliant man like Jacob will see a future in God's blessing and be confident that his powerful brother will share that blessing with him. Maybe God's kindom will be a little more like this meal that we will share today in Communion, where all are equally welcome and all are equally called to share with the person next to them, rather than Jacob's meal with Esau. We are here, today, because of the wily machinations of a less privileged younger brother. May we help God make a world where such schemes are no longer necessary.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon:
Kathryn M. Schifferdecker: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3340
Amy Merrill Willis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2149
Juliana Claassens: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=967
Esther M. Menn: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=119
Melissa Tidwell: http://www.workingpreacher.org/print_questions.aspx?lectionary_calendar_id=712
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
So he said, ‘I am Abraham’s servant. The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys. And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. My master made me swear, saying, “You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live; but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.”
‘I came today to the spring, and said, “O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, ‘Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,’ and who will say to me, ‘Drink, and I will draw for your camels also’—let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.”
‘Before I had finished speaking in my heart, there was Rebekah coming out with her water-jar on her shoulder; and she went down to the spring, and drew. I said to her, “Please let me drink.” She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder, and said, “Drink, and I will also water your camels.” So I drank, and she also watered the camels. Then I asked her, “Whose daughter are you?” She said, “The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.” So I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms. Then I bowed my head and worshipped the Lord, and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son. Now then, if you will deal loyally and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so that I may turn either to the right hand or to the left.’ And they called Rebekah, and said to her, ‘Will you go with this man?’ She said, ‘I will.’ So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men. And they blessed Rebekah and said to her,
‘May you, our sister, become
thousands of myriads;
may your offspring gain possession
of the gates of their foes.’
Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way.
Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb. Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming. And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, and said to the servant, ‘Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?’ The servant said, ‘It is my master.’ So she took her veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.
I Will. Genesis 24: 34-38, 42-49, 58-67
One of the perks of going to the United Church of Christ General Synod is that I get to listen to some great preachers and worship leaders. Upon returning home and beginning my preparations for this week's service at our church, the reading from Genesis reminded me of a story that the Rev. Traci Blackmon, the newly elected executive minister of the UCC Justice and Witness Ministries, shared on Friday afternoon during worship. Now, she was preaching on a different text than ours today, but it's a good story and I think it has some interesting connections with the story of brave and strong Rebekah's decision to leave home and marry Isaac. I'd like to share it with you to see if you can feel those connections, too. The story Rev. Blackmon shared began on June 30, 1859, 158 years to the day before her sermon. It was the day a man named Charles Blondin would attempt to be the first person to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope.
Monsieur Blondin, whose given name was Jean François Gravelet, was a French acrobat. He had been waiting for months for the weather to be amenable for attempting such a dangerous feat. According to one article I read, he never used a net, believing that, and I quote, "that preparing for disaster only made one more likely to occur." Honestly, that sounds like a terrible way to go through life to me, but, I am not a daredevil. What do I know? It was just going to be him and 1300 feet of 2 inch diameter rope crossing the falls. The day he planned to walk, 25,000 people showed up to watch, many of whom assumed that they would be seeing him fall to his death. Remember, this was a very tumultous time in American history... only two years before the Civil War. Tension was high. I bet a lot of folks were looking for something to distract themselves from the greater conflicts at hand. And, as we all know, people show up to watch a disaster. I mean, isn't that why some people like NASCAR? They just want to see the crashes?
The US and Canadian sides of the falls quickly developed a fairground atmosphere, with bookies traveling around taking bets on Blondin's likelihood of success, vendors selling lemonade and whiskey, and journalists coming to record the spectacle for posterity. Blondin began his precarious journey wearing spangled pink tights and fancy, soft-soled leather shoes, carrying a 50 pound balancing staff. One witness stated that he looked like a rooster strutting across a barnyard. Halfway through, he stopped and hauled up a bottle of wine from the Maid of the Mist tourist boat that was anchored nearly 200 feet below him. He drank some wine and finished his walk across the falls with a flourish, greeted on the far side by a band playing a song called, "Home, Sweet Home."
What drew Rev. Blackmon to this story, and the reason I share it with you today, is that this one incredible traverse is not actually the end of Blondin's story. He walked back out across the tightrope a second time, this time carrying one of those giant daguerreotype cameras. He stopped partway through, pulled the heavy camera off his back, took a picture of the American side, hauled it back onto his back, and finished a second traverse. Then, he announced that he would do this all again in just a few days on July 4th. On the fourth, he, and the crowds returned and he walked back and forth across the tightrope again, this time walking part of the time backwards and, once, covering his whole head with a sack so he could not see. Then, on July 15th, he returned again to the falls, walking over to Canada and then returning to the US, this time with a wheelbarrow he pushed across the tightrope!
According to Rev. Blackmon, this is where the story gets interesting. Upon seeing Blondin safely crossing yet again, this time with a wheelbarrow in tow, the crowd roared with applause. Blondin called out to the crowd, "Do you believe that I could carry a person across the falls in this wheelbarrow?" The crowd responded back, "Yes! Of course! You are the greatest tightrope walker of all time! We believe!" Blondin turned and looked at the crowd and said, "Ok then... who wants to get in the wheelbarrow?" With the mist from the falls clinging to their faces and roar of the water roiling at their feet, the whole crowd, to a person, came to the same decision. Not one of them was going to get in that wheelbarrow. Sure, the trek would have been glorious, but that kind of glory is terrifying and totally not worth the risk. "Nope," they said, "We are just going to stay here on the solid ground thank-you-very-much." Blondin never ended up taking anybody with him in that wheelbarrow.
As I began to read today's scripture, I recognized something from Blondin's story. I realized that today's scripture is a story about someone choosing to get in the wheelbarrow. I mean, it's is not as glamorous a story as that of the acrobat's death-defying stunt, but it is just as surely a story of life-changing risk. Like the crowds on the edge of the falls, Rebekah stood on her own precipice and received her own wildly risky invitation. There seemed to be two options before her: on one side, a possibly glorious future in a land she did not know, with a family she did not know (but was supposedly related to), married to a man who she did not know and, on the other side, a more safe future at home in a land she knew, near her own family, married to a local boy with a family whom she actually knew and people her father trusted. Rebekah stood on the side of her falls, looking between an acrobat with wheelbarrow and crowd safe on dry land. Shockingly, she picked the wheelbarrow, and she stepped inside, certain that she would wind up somewhere worth being when she got to the other side.
We don't know much about Rebekah before she began her own tightrope trek, so it is difficult to know what gave her both the courage and the audacity to believe that she could survive taking such a risk. This story begins not with a recounting of her life, but with a command that Abraham gives one of his servants, an unnamed man who is charged with finding his son Isaac a daughter back in Syria, among Abraham's kinfolk. In fact, we know more about the servant's motivations for going on this trip than we do about Rebekah's. The servant was both loyal to Abraham and faithful to Abraham's God, praying that he would be able to find an appropriate wife for Isaac and that that woman would be willing to come back to Canaan with him.
I am intrigued by the criteria that the servant used to judge whether a woman was going to be suitable wife material. When he prayed for God's help in his task, he said, "Let the girl to whom I shall say, 'Please offer your jar that I may drink,' and who shall say, 'Drink and I will water your camels'- let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac." He understands a woman who values hospitality to strangers and care for the needy as the kind of person whom Isaac should marry. Remember, hospitality to strangers is at the center of Abraham and Sarah's faith. Hospitality to strangers will become a hallmark of their descendants' faith, too. We'll read more about it in later stories of Exodus, prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and into the parable of Jesus. This woman will need to value hospitality if she is to become part of this family. With her help, hospitality will become their greatest legacy.
Rebekah not only gave him water. She had the strength to draw up enough water for 10 camels, what would have amounted to 200-300 gallons of water. That is alot of hospitality. Surely this strong woman seemed like an answered prayer to the servant, who quickly asked her family for permission to take her to be Isaac's wife. To her family's credit, while they understood the servants story to be a sign of God's work in Rebekah's life and approved of the marriage, they asked her if she wanted to go with the servant, who wanted to leave quickly, rather than forcing her to go. Shockingly, she says yes, following the footsteps of a father-in-law whom she hadn't even met yet, into a land she does not know because she has decided to trust that God has something good waiting for her on the other side.
As I have already stated, I wish this story told a little more from Rebekah's side of the things. I wish I could hear from her what exactly gave her the courage to say yes. Maybe she recognized a set of values similar to her own at work in the faith of the servant. Maybe she was just ready to begin a new life, and the life that was possible with this family seemed as good a place as any to begin. Maybe she just had the same kind of foolhardy confidence that allowed Charles Blondin to believe he could cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope. I don't know why Rebekah said yes, but I do think it's worth asking ourselves, as Rev. Blackmon asked us at Synod last week, what will it take us to say yes when we are invited into God's wheelbarrow? What will we need to believe to move forward with God? When our turn comes around, how can we be more like Rebekah, and less like the people who watched Blondin. Because, let's be clear, our turn in the wheelbarrow is coming... is probably here right now. What will help us say yes?
Sources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Many thanks to the Rev. Traci Blackmon whom I first heard share Mr. Blondin's story at General Synod during worship on June 30, 2017. Here's an article about her election to lead the UCC's justice ministry: http://www.ucc.org/news_gs_traci_blackmon_elected_overwhelmingly_to_lead_uccs_justice_ministry_07022017
Two articles about Charles Blondin:
Kathryn M. Schifferdecker: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3281
* Many thanks to church member Margaret Imber for preaching on a very difficult text while Pastor Chrissy was traveling to General Synod.
Abraham to God: "Seriously?"
Today we heard the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. It is a strange, gripping tale, which has been the source of theological debate by both Jews and Christians for thousands of years. The story is strange from soup to nuts. God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering. That is weird. Abraham says yes. That is very weird. The purpose of the sacrifice is to test the faith of Abraham. This is also odd. Isn’t God omniscient? Wouldn’t he know what Abraham intended to do? Why indulge in such a cruel test?
Conversely, the passage from Matthew seems not strange at all. Jesus promises his disciples before they leave him to proselytize that those who welcome them will be rewarded. Traditionally, most Christians find the story of Isaac difficult to comprehend and feel somewhat reassured by the passage from Matthew. Traditionally, these readings are paired because of the similarity between Isaac and Jesus, each a sacrifice of a loving father. I’d like to suggest today that we should be comforted by the story of Isaac and unnerved by the reward Jesus promises. And while the parallels between Isaac and Jesus are clear, I think these reading belong together because each describes a test and each is about the problems of inclusion and exclusion. It is the test and the problems that make today’s Scripture passages eerily relevant to our own age.
Today’s reading from Genesis begins with the words “Sometime later God tested Abraham.” Later than what? Well, if you recall, the test of Isaac takes place after Abraham banishes his son Ishmael from the newly formed community of Jews that God has created from the man Abram’s family. Abram and his wife Sarai were not able to conceive children, so Sari sent her slave Hagar to lie with Abram. Hagar conceived and Ishmael was born. When Ishmael turned 13, the male members of Abram’s family made their formal covenant with God through circumcision. God, then promised Abram, whom he would now call Abraham, that Sarai, whose name became Sarah after the covenant was made, that though she was long past her childbearing years, Sarah would bear a child. She does and she calls him Isaac, which in Hebrew means, “laughter.”
Immediately, Sarah insists that Abraham drive Ishmael and Hagar from their community. Abraham is reluctant because Ishmael is his son. But God promises Abraham that Isaac, the son of Sarah, will be the seed of the Hebrew nation that God is creating in Abraham’s family. He further promises Abraham that Ishmael, too, will become father to a great, if different, nation.
This is the back story to today’s reading. Abraham is to be the father of a great nation. But he and his wife are old and barren. Abraham has a son whom he loves with his wife’s slave, with his wife’s permission. There is a son, therefore the promised nation can begin. Ooops. Wrong son. God promises Abraham another son, this time, a ‘legitimate’ son. Abraham rejects Ishmael, his first born. He doesn’t want to, but God assures him it will be ok. I always wonder if this is the first time that Abraham raised an eyebrow and said to God, “Seriously?” I’m 90. Isaac’s an infant. I’ve a perfectly fine son in Ishmael. Haven’t you ever heard of having a back-up plan? God, however, is God and doesn’t need a backup plan.
But if God doesn’t need a back-up plan, why does he need to “test” Abraham. I think it may have something to do with his Covenant. There is no back-up plan. God has bet the future of the Hebrew nation of the faith of a single man. If Abraham is not faithful, if he will not commit completely to God, well then it’s possible that the whole Hebrew project could be in danger. God must test Abraham because God has granted Abraham and each of us free will. It would have been fairly foolish of Abraham to reject his Covenant with God when things got tough. But free will means that Abraham and each of us gets to make foolish mistakes. So God tests Abraham by demanding that he sacrifice Isaac. Take your son, your only son, the one you love, he directs. Again, I imagine a quirked eyebrow on Abraham’s part here – “My only son? Thanks to whom, big guy?” In fact, Jewish commentators imagine the conversation went something like this: God said, “Take your son.” And Abraham said, “I have two sons.” He answered him, “Your only son.” He said to him, “Each is the only son of his mother.” God said, “The one whom you love.” Abraham replied, “Is there any limit to a father’s love?” God answered, “Isaac.” Abraham, like all the Patriarchs, argued with God. He argued until God explicitly stated what he wanted. Abraham wanted to be sure what God was asking of him and to be sure that God was sure as well.
I imagine Abraham muttering as he follows God’s directions. But there is no back up plan. Ishmael is now gone. He is no longer in Abraham’s family and he will not be a part of the Hebrew nation that God will make of Abraham’s family.
To me the most interesting contrast in this story is Abraham’s almost obstinate faith and God’s anxiety about Abraham’s faith. Whenever God calls, Abraham steps up and answers, “Here I am Lord.” He holds himself in constant readiness to follow God’s commands. Whatever God asks of him, Abraham will do. Abraham, as each of us, could have chosen differently, but instead acts as though once the covenant was made, it was inconceivable that he would break it. To Abraham, therefore, it was inconceivable that God would break the Covenant: “God will provide.” Abraham has more faith in God than God has in him. Abraham does not seem disturbed by the fact.
The next most interesting thing in this story is the shadow of Ishmael. He must be excluded both from his family and from his people. God loves him and promises him a nation of his own. But for there to be any nation at all, Hebrew or Muslim, acts of exclusion are required. Is the decision to exile Ishmael fair? From the perspective of Sarah, perhaps not. She resents the way Hagar acted after Ishmael was born, while Sarah was still barren. The mother of the only heir, Hagar, clearly lorded it over Sarah. Punishing Ishmael for his mother’s sins seems unfair. But Sarah is also worried about young Isaac’s claim on the family’s fortune. She must have wondered whether she could protect Isaac’s rights against what she perceived to be Hagar’s arrogance, and Ishmael’s age if anything ever happened to Abraham. To preserve the family, and the nation, Sarah thinks that Abraham must exclude Ishmael. That exclusion is complete and permanent. ‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love,” God commands. What about Ishmael? There is no denying that Abraham loves Isaac, but why most this love be won by cutting Ishmael out of his heart. In the Muslim tradition, Abraham visits Ishmael and gives him unasked for and unvarnished opinions about Ishmael’s wife. But in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the exclusion is complete.
Scholars, theologians and propagandists have made much of Ishmael’s exclusion. Ishmael the Arab, the Muslim. Perhaps the nation of Israel and the nation of Islam must ever be in opposition to each other, some argue - it is foreordained in the Bible. Or perhaps, there is something insufficient in the human imagination that we can only define nations by identifying the people the nation excludes? Who, for example, is a real American? Native Americans, the descendants of immigrants, or the descendants of slaves? Are we defined as a nation by the people we exclude or the peoples we embrace? Today we live in a moment of mass migration, caused by wars in distant lands. Many of these wars were initiated or exacerbated in my name and yours. Personally, I find the insistence some make on rigid exclusion odd. It does not seem to be the response of someone who believes, “God will provide.” I also think it would be churlish of me to insist upon standards of inclusion that my own ancestors did not face. There were no restrictions on immigration from Europe in the late 19th century when my father and mother’s parents came to the United States. I worry that we lack the faith of Abraham, that we can no longer say, “God will provide.”
When Jesus sent the disciples out on the first preaching mission, in the passage from Matthew that we heard this morning, he was counting on those that heard the Good News opening the hearts and homes to the first missionaries. But even here there was exclusion. Jesus told his disciples not to go to the Samaritans or to the Gentiles. The first community of Christians appears to have been as exclusionary as the first community of Hebrews. In fact, the early Church struggled with the question of inclusion and exclusion mightily. Many among the First Christians argued that only individuals in covenant with the Hebrew God could become Christian. For St. Paul, in contrast, the hallmark of Jesus’ new covenant was its inclusivity. In Christ, there is no East or West. St. Paul won the argument. Under the new covenant, the reward Jesus promises to those who recognize his disciples as messengers of Christ and of God, will be granted to anyone, whether Greek or Jew, man or woman, free or slave.
The story in Matthew announces two burdens put upon the shoulders of those who follow Jesus. We must, each of us, be messengers of the Good News. We must reach out to those who are different from us and embody the hospitality Christ and God will offer them. But we must also open and hearts to those who come to us. If we see Christ in the face of a stranger, we must welcome that stranger, feed and clothe them. For each of these persons is Christ in our midst. This is a heavy burden. What if you’re not a good cook, or your place is a mess or you have a home that lends itself to hospitality?
If we want the reward Jesus promises, it doesn’t matter. We must open ourselves to them, because in doing so, we are opening ourselves to God. How do we know the stranger is Christ? What if he is Ishmael? I think perhaps the New Covenant that God made with us, using Jesus as the sacrifice, challenges this distinction. There is a famous, heartbreaking picture of a refugee child, red shirt, blue shorts, sneakers and socks. He couldn’t be more than three years old. He lies face down and dead on a beach. Is he Ishmael or Jesus? I think he’s Jesus. In fact, I think, under the New Covenant, Ishmael is Jesus. And I think many, many people, myself among them, failed to welcome Jesus when they refused to welcome this child. Jesus said: “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” A cup of water would have sufficed. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees trying to move from war torn lands in Africa and the Middle East. It is often overwhelming to think of the effort required to see Christ in each of them. The thought of reaching out to offer all of them our hospitality is terrifying.
There are pundits and politicians, in every corner of the world, who seek to motivate us to important decisions through our fears. What Abraham would say to them? I think he’d raise an eyebrow and say, “Seriously? You only have to offer a cup of cold water? Talk to me when you asked to offer your only son whom you love as a burnt offering.” I think Abraham would assure us that we do not need to live in our fear of strangers or the limitations of our own hospitality. God will provide.
The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’ The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named after you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
Meeting You Where You Are- Genesis 21:8-21
She is the only person to name God in the whole Bible. Everyone else learns God's name by hearing it from the Divine. This woman gives God a name based on her experiences with God. The name came to her... well, God came to her during the first time that she was living in the wilderness. The wilderness is not the place that you'd expect a pregnant woman to be trying to live all on her own. She had run to the wilderness when she felt that her home, well, the home of the people who enslaved her, was no longer safe. You see, this woman, Hagar, was a slave and she found herself in conflict with the woman who enslaved her. Mind you, the event that incited the conflict was not an event that she had much control over. The woman who enslaved her, a woman who was called Sarai at that point in her life, had grown impatient waiting to have a child of her own. She gave Hagar to her husband, Abram, in hopes that Hagar might be able to become pregnant, ensuring the fruitful future that Abram had assured her God had promised him. Genesis does not record how Hagar felt about this new arrangement, probably because her feelings on the matter didn't really count. As a slave, she had little control of what happened to her own body.
Hagar did end up becoming pregnant, which was what Sarai had initially hoped for. Scripture records that this pregnancy did not make life easier for Hagar. Genesis states that Hagar looked upon Sarai with contempt, which, quite frankly, is understandable. Sarai grew frustrated with Hagar and instructed Abram to do something about Hagar's attitude. Rather than protecting Hagar as a second wife, Abram washed his hands of the situation, telling Sarai that Hagar is her property and her problem to deal with as she saw fit. So Sarai did. We don't know what all she did, but we do know that it was harsh, harsh enough that Hagar would run away into the wilderness to escape her.
Genesis tells us that this is where an angel of God found Hagar, residing by herself by a stream of water. A scholar I read this week, Delores Williams, notes that when these ancient stories say that an angel of God has visited a person, an angel isn't an entity separate from God. Instead, we should understand an angel's presence as the very presence of God, wrapped up and squeezed into a form that humans can comprehend. When we read this story, we can interpret it most fruitfully by understanding that God is present at the spring with Hagar, wondering what she is doing all by herself out in the woods. Hagar responded to God, explaining that she had to run from Sarai's harsh treatment. She seemed to be trying to return to Egypt, the country of her birth, because the place where God found her was right on the border.
God's response to her might be surprising to those of us who remember later biblical stories, like that of Exodus, where God frees slaves from their torment. In this story, God told her to go back to Sarai. Williams, whom I quoted just a moment ago, suggested that we read God's primary motive has finding the strongest way for Hagar to survive. In this case, her survival was mostly likely assured if she returned to Sarai. She could give birth with others to support her. There was even a chance that her child, if a son, would be granted the authority that came with being a first-born son, even though she herself was a slave. God promised her she would have son and that her children and grandchildren would not be enslaved as she had been. Instead, they would become numerous and as free as the stars, though her son's life would likely be marked by strife. Still, if she returned, she would survive, and her child would survive to be a free warrior.
With this promise in mind, Hagar returned to Sarai, but not before doing one more thing, the thing she will do that no one else in the Bible will do. She said to God, "You are El-roi," that is, the God of Seeing, or the God who Sees. The legacy of her encounter with God would be so powerful that the well that would be built at the spring where she talked with God would continue to bear her name for God long after she was gone. Generations would call the well "Beer-lahai-roi," the Well of the Living One Who See Me. God saw Hagar in distress and made a covenant with her, promising that she and her son would survive and making a way for them to survive. This would not be the last time Hagar would encounter God in the wilderness. God would see her and her son again. God would offer them survival again, too.
Our second reading from today is the recounting of the Hagar's second encounter with the God who sees. Between the first wilderness story in chapter 16 and this second wilderness story here in chapter 21, much has happened. Most important for our reading about Hagar and Ishmael are the following: Sarai and Abram are now known as Sarah and Abraham; They have also hosted God at their camp (like Hagar encountered God at hers); and Sarah has born her own promised son, Isaac. Also, God has had to save Sarah from a scheme involving Abraham trying to save his own skin by pretending she was his sister. Along the way, Isaac and Ishmael grow together as brothers, both beloved by their father. This family still lives in a system that prized first born sons over all other children. Ishmael is the first born. Sarah wanted her son Isaac to have that status and protection. To protect her own comfort and privilege, she did something unconscionable. She sent Hagar and Ishmael back out into the wilderness.
Abraham might have been able to stop her. The story says that God told Abraham not to, though. Isaac needed to be the first born son. But, God assured Abraham that Ishmael would be saved. Hagar probably could have done with the same reminder, because she seems terrified in this story. Abraham sent her off with minimal food and water. After running out of water, she becomes bereft and can no longer even look at her son, because she knows she cannot provide for him. In what I think is one of the saddest parts of the whole Bible, she lays her child down and steps away from him, unable to bear seeing his final moments in life. Her God who sees is also the God who hears. God hears her weeping and hears the pain of the child and God responds: "What troubles you, Hagar?" Then, God reminds her that her care for her son will not be squandered. "Go and hold him in your arms. Remember, I said I'd make sure he survives." As soon has she has her son in hand, she sees a well that will save them. She is able to give her son a drink.
God stays with them and helps them to create a new life in the wilderness. Hagar is able to raise her son into a strong man who can then provide for them both. Hagar eventually finds her son a wife, an Egyptian woman like her, and their family grows. They don't seem to repeat the harmful patterns of the family that pushed them away. They are confident in the God who sees, and who shows them how to survive in the midst of turmoil and conflict. The wilderness would become a place of growth and new life, a place where they could count on God's presence and providence away from a system that deprived them of safety, agency, and love. They may have found themselves outside of the privileged family narrative of Abraham and Sarah, but, they never find themselves outside of the reach of God's love. God saw them where they were and was with them.
I think we have a great gift in Hagar's story, even though it's a story that complicates any heroic portrayals of Abraham and Sarah, and maybe even complicates our ideas about a freedom-loving God. Many people have experienced something like Hagar did. They can hear their own stories of exclusion, grief, and abandonment in hers, and know that they, too, have a place in God's family. I bet they can also hear some of their story in her creativity and strength in creating a new life, with God and her son, in the wilderness. I mean, isn't good that we are reminded that wild places are often places of rebirth and renewal? And, isn't it powerful to read of this God who sees everyone, especially the outcast, and provides for them... This God who meets you wherever you are, but especially in the midst of the most dire of straits, and can show you a new way to sustain yourself and the people you love. Are you listening for this Wild God in your wilderness places? Are you ready to be seen like she was?
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon:
Kathryn M. Schifferdecker: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3259
Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2013).
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.