What You Want for Your Children
A message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Arlington Congregational Church
June 21, 2020
Genesis 21: 8-21 NRSV
8The child [Isaac] grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10So 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.”
11The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son.
12But 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 for you. 13As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”
14So 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. 15When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16Then 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. 17And 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. 18Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19Then 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. 20God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
Imagine your child is the “outcast,” the “despised,” for no other reason than to whom she or he was born. Such was the situation for Hagar and Ishmael. Such is the situation for many black parents. Today is Father’s Day and I wish you a happy one if you are a father; and I wish you a happy one if you ever had a father – no matter what that relationship may have been. I am mindful that we fathers are not all as cool as “Father Knows Best,” or “Leave it To Beaver.”
But I want to focus this morning on your compassion for the children of “others.” I want to invite you to set aside your resistance to all the politicized slogans and weaponized arguments in this moment in which we live. I want you to try to imagine being Abraham, or Hagar, or even Ishmael, or Isaac, and yes, even Sarah, cast as the “evil witch” of this story in some ways. And then I want to talk about what our faith and the Bible tell us about God. From that gumbo of ingredients I hope you might gain some new insight, some new way to understand God and some new way to live more faithfully in “such a time as this.”
This story invites us to think about Biblical figures and remember they were not all “heroes.” They were just as limited in their humanity and brokenness – what we used to call “sinfulness.” I also hope we can think about God’s providence – God’s love for and loving provision for ALL people, regardless of human hatred, prejudice or sin. On this Father’s Day hear the story of Abraham’s other son, Ishmael.
Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, [www.workingpreacher.org, June 14, 2014], reminds us that Ishmael, the first born of Abraham’s sons was, “the son of a slave woman, born out of Abraham’s and Sarah’s understandable doubt that God’s promise will be fulfilled. (“God helps those who help themselves” isn’t a new concept.) The second, a miracle child, is born to them in their old age against all odds.
“In Genesis 18, we hear the story of God’s impossible promise that Sarah would conceive a child in her old age. She laughed till she cried when she heard the promise, but sure enough, she conceived and bore a son and they named him ‘Laughter.’ In this week’s reading, the miracle child is now old enough to wean, and Abraham throws a party to celebrate the occasion.
“But all is not well. ‘Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac’ (Gen. 21:9).” In some interpretations, Jewish rabbis, “perhaps to soften the blow of Sarah’s and Abraham’s subsequent actions, ascribe sinister motives to Ishmael;” they suggest Ishmael “is jealous of his little brother and torments him. The biblical phrase, however, has no such connotation. In fact, the word translated ‘playing’ is a pun on Isaac’s name. Ishmael is simply laughing, enjoying himself at the feast.
“But Sarah does not want to see this son of a slave woman, this reminder of her own long sorrow, to inherit along with her son. Her disdain for Hagar and Ishmael are apparent in the way she refers to them: ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac’ (21:10).” Note that Hagar is Egyptian, a different race, nationality, and probably religion from Abraham and Isaac. But the Scriptures tell us that Sarah herself gave this slave woman to her husband to bear his child, for Sarah had been barren until her 99th birthday and the extraordinary intervention of God.
Rev. Dan Clenendin, [“Ishmael: God Hears and Sees,” JourneywithJesus.net, June 19, 2005], comments on this backstory reminding us that, “After God promised Abraham a progeny with his wife Sarah, they both laughed in disbelief, then took matters into their own hands. When Sarah remained barren she insisted that Abraham father a child with her slave Hagar.” The Biblical story tells us Hagar got a little “uppity” with her mistress-owner when she became pregnant, perhaps with a look, or a word of “See, I may be your slave, but I am the one who can give him a son.” The writer of Genesis tells us Sarah ordered Abraham to “banish Hagar to the desert. Yahweh found her there, told her to return, and gave her a promise almost identical to the promise made to Abraham, that He would make her descendants ‘too numerous to count.’” So our story today is Hagar’s second banishment to the desert. Rev. Clenendin also reminds us that, “The child to be born would bear a special name, [just as Isaac’s name had special meaning], Ishmael, which in Hebrew means ‘God hears," for ‘the Lord has heard your misery.’ In turn, Hagar named Yahweh El-Roi, ‘the God who sees me,’ and in a delightful play on words she exclaims, ‘I have seen the One who sees me.’ (see Genesis 16:1–6).”
In our story today God promises Hagar that Ishmael will live, and will become a great nation, just as God promised Abraham his son, Isaac would live and become a great nation. Ishmael is considered to be one of their great prophet Mohammed’s ancestors. Clenendin adds, “He is cousin to Jews and Christians (all three trace their ancestry to Abraham), bears a name that signals a promise to every human being. God is not deaf, dumb or blind. God is not …, impersonal, or impassible, without feeling or emotion. God is not an absentee landlord deity. No, Christians believe that God sees every human misery, and that God hears every painful sob. As the Hebrews would learn after four centuries of slavery and exploitation under Egypt, ‘God heard their groaning’ (Exodus 2:24). Knowing and believing that was the first step in their transformation and liberation from bondage. The same is true for us today: God hears.”
The question for us is will we believe and will that begin our transformation from enslavement to racism, to injustice and to the suffering of the sons and daughters who are of a different race, nationality, or religion than those who have the power and who control the systems of justice and economics and politics? Some read Scripture and hear that the Jewish people are God’s “chosen” people, but they ignore the fact that God’s choosing was a choosing to bless “all the nations.” When the leaders and people of Israel forgot their calling to be a blessing to all people the outcome was their enemies came and took them off into exile, and they suffered. There are those who claim Christians are God’s chosen – somehow replacing and even eliminating God’s love for Jewish people, an exclusivism that the Apostle Paul himself denies in his Letter to the Romans.
Kathryn M. Schifferdecker reminds us that, “it must also be noted that election, according to this story, does not entitle one to exclusive claim on God’s care or on God’s presence. ‘God was with the boy.’ Jon Levenson, a Jewish scholar, puts it this way, ‘Ishmael is read out of the covenant but emphatically included in the promise that is larger than the covenant and preceded it.” God cares about and provides for this son of Abraham, too. God was with the boy.
“It is easy to overlook this story of Ishmael, set as it is between the story of Isaac’s miraculous birth and the story of his (near) sacrifice. Yet, it is worth pausing and considering what Ishmael’s story tells us about God’s care and providence. As the old hymn reminds us, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” We cannot limit God’s mercy. God hears the cry of the abandoned. God hears the cry of the outcast, and God saves.”
So ask yourself, what do you believe about your God? Does your God hear the cries, not just of the privileged, but of the powerless? Does God challenge you to be part of transformating what is unjust, what is evil, what is wrong? The God of the Bible cared enough about the “other” child to make sure he was not only cared for, but became “Father of a great nation,” just like the “chosen” one. Do you hear God calling out to you and me to work for the blessing of the sons and daughters of all people, not just those who belong to us by birth or by blood? I’m talking blessing, not just “opportunity,” that really isn’t a real opportunity. We are better than that. We must be better than that or the danger is that we all will be destroyed.
In the movie, “Remember the Titans,” based on the true story of a black high school coach in Virginia at the time of desegregation, the team goes to Gettysburg College to prepare for the season. The racial hatred between players and even between coaches is destroying the team’s ability to play well. Finally, in the middle of the night the Coach Boone drags everyone out of bed, out of the dorms, and runs them from the college to the battlefield at Gettysburg where tens of thousands were wounded or killed. He says to them, “Hear their voices men, calling out, killing each other with malice in their hearts. We are fighting the same battle they fought… And if we don’t come together, right now, we too will be destroyed.” Ultimately, they did come together, learned to trust one another and play for one another and they won.
The Scripture this morning, on this Father’s Day, reminds us that a Father can have more than one son – and love them both, and God’s love demands we love those “other” children as God loves us; without conditions, reservations, or limits. It is what any parent would want for their child. It is time we started treating all people as children of God – sacred, not sacrificial. AMEN.