Nobody looks very good in this Genesis story. Nobody. Looking at this story alone, Sarah comes off as the worst, willing, it seems, to sacrifice the life of Hagar the slave girl and her son Ishmael. She seems petty. Trapped in her zero-sum world in which there is only room for one winner. It is a desolate, cut-throat world. Do we think the same sometimes? I know I do.
She holds onto the promise of God that she would bring to life a nation like like it is the last cup of water in the world: “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”[i] She can’t even bring herself to say their names—Hagar. Ishmael—as if doing so, as if acknowledging that they too are people, beings deserving her deference and even her love might drain whatever justification she has manufactured for such an act of cruelty.
Abraham gets better treatment in the story. He comes across as a tired patriarch, weary in his well-doing, unable to manage the drama that swirls all around him: “The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son,”[ii] the story tells us. I’m not sure he deserves the deference. Especially if you back out to look over the whole story of Abraham and Sarah.
Frankly, God doesn’t look much better. This is not the all-Powerful, all-Knowing, all-Good God of Greek philosophy that shows up in our early Christian theology. This is a God who seems to be trying to figure it out along the way. And somehow God’s promise survives—both of Abraham’s sons become forebears of great nations—though the way through gets pretty messy if we throw open the doors and take a close look around.
It gets even messier if you look into the corners of our scriptures where readings that never make it into the lectionary, like Genesis 25 lie, gathering dust. There we learn that, after Sarah’s death, Abraham takes up with his concubine Keturah and sires a whole new tribe of offspring—Zimran and Jokshan, Medan and Midian, Ishbak and Shuah.[iii] —whom Abraham likewise sends off far from Isaac, realizing, along with Sarah, that we just may not be able to keep this thing together if we are together.
Distance, like fences, make good neighbors, I suppose.
Hagar seems to get that once the bread and water has run out, as Abraham knew it would, removing herself from her dying child so that she doesn’t have to hear his last pathetic cries.
But death is not the end, of course, even when it seems the most likely result. Hagar raises her voice, she cries out, and someone does hear. God shows up. I would have preferred God would act a little quicker. It seems to me we could dispense with some of the drama. But that just doesn’t seem to be the way it works with this God and with these people. Well, with people in general. With us even.
The thing is, a close accounting of any of us would reveal some pretty troubling stuff. We would prefer that much in our own stories would just gather dust, never to see the light of day. Our neighbors who sleep outside understand this. They don’t have the luxury of hiding all their stuff behind closed doors like those of us who live under a permanent roof. They can’t hide the six pack or the bottle they bring to their tent city dwelling to take the edge off. A tent flap 10 feet away across a bike trail from another tent flap doesn’t muffle an argument quite as well as the doors in our well-insulated houses do. And yet, if the opioid crisis quietly ravaging the world of white privilege tells us anything, it tells us we’re not managing our distress very well under the current plan.
Are Sarah and Abraham in their tents really much different from us in our homes? Jesus tells his disciples that his ministry will set people against each other. I’m not sure that’s even necessary. We’re plenty good at that ourselves.
I suppose that’s why this story is so important, even if it is unsettling. It invites us to be honest with ourselves. It invites us to live in the light rather than to hide in the darkness. It invites us to consider the power of a few choice words: “we’re having a tough time.”
We’re having a tough time. Things aren’t going so well for me. We’re not working out our stuff in quite the way we’d hoped. We’re not able to manage this in quite the way that it appears others are able to.
The Genesis story is tough, but its truth can set us free. I wonder if we understand this. What a gift it is to get to know these imperfect, troubling patriarchs and matriarchs, these ancient examples of faith, these carriers of hope and promise who look so much like us.
We’re having a tough time. Waters a little short in this wilderness. Family life isn’t going so well. I’m having a little trouble managing this unruly life.
Before saying those words, you are trapped in a prison of your own making, unable to work on what you can’t bring yourself to name, without the help of others who have been there. Once you name it, at least two things happen. Some will punish you for your troubles—probably not because you have the trouble, but because they do too. But they haven’t yet found the courage to acknowledge it themselves. So your honesty becomes a threat.
But the second result is more important. And it is this: love will reach out to you and give you what you need to be whole and well and comforted. In your cry of pain, in your call for fairness, in your admission of brokenness, God hears, and love reaches out.
Do not fear. God hears.
Do not fear, Jesus says. You are of more value than many sparrows.
What we do today, as we welcome Dan and Judy and Marie into new roles of leadership in our midst is to remember in yet another way that God hears. And, just like in ancient times, just like God has always done, God shows up and gives us what we need. Not perfect saviors who will fix everything for us, but imperfect and gifted, broken and blessed leaders, patriarchs and matriarchs old and young who will walk with us, who will listen when we say I’m having a tough time. I could use a little help. A friend to lean on. Someone to pray for me.
It is what it always has been. God in the mix. God in the mess. God and you.
[i] Genesis 21:10.
[ii] Genesis 21:11.
[iii] Genesis 25:1-7.