By The Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
The Lectionary, the schedule of lessons we read in worship, is set up in an interesting way and has a couple of guiding principles.
• sometimes three lessons and psalm are tied together by theme
• sometimes lessons follow a narrative sequence over the course of several weeks
• of course sometimes, as well, we are left scratching our heads over why the lectionary designers chose for us to hear a set of lessons on a particular day.
During the summer months in this first year of the three-year cycle, the Matthew year, we follow the longest sequence that appears at any point in the lectionary – over the course of several months we follow the sweeping story of the tribal ancestors of Israel -
• we began last week as we peered into the tribulations and triumphs of the household of Abraham and Sarah;
• we will continue through mid-August, tracing adventures of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and their families;
• at the end of August we’ll continue the narrative by plunging into the Exodus story through September and October, and then finish up with snippets from Joshua and the Book of Judges in November.
We are following the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, the most sacred texts in Judaism, the faith of Jesus.
I LOVE THIS MATERIAL
• Not only is it wonderful storytelling, with all the characteristics of great literature,
• It also provides the foundation of Jesus’s faith, and ours as well
Genesis and the rest of the ancestral stories convey Israel’s knowledge of a loving God who creates the world who is passionately engaged with and faithful to God’s people, seeking to redeem the world through drawing God’s people into relationship with God’s self.
Ancestral Narratives are mythological in nature –
- They’re not “myth” as in “fiction”, as in “5 myths you should know about nutritional supplements”,
- They are “mythological” in the literary sense – like the childhood stories of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln that Americans tell, stories that are told to convey truths and values that are important to a people
- Myths may or may not have a basis in objective fact – what is important is not their historical accuracy, but the truth they transmit.
The story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar probably does not have basis in historical fact.
- If they did live, as particular people, it would have been around 1800 BCE.
- For many, many generations their stories existed in oral tradition, being handed down and teaching community of Israel about origins of their covenant with God.
- The stories took written form during and after Babylonian Exile – about 1300 years after Abraham, Sarah & Hagar would have lived.
But Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar are our spiritual ancestors – whether we understand them historical or symbolic figures.
According to sacred text we share with Jews and Muslims, Abraham and Sarah were the first to know God as we know God and to enter into covenant relationship with God –
- recognizing God as creator and protector,
- struggling to understand and follow God’s will, for the sake of redemption of the world
Their stories, and stories of succeeding generations, tell us who God is and who we are.
Today’s look into the story does not start at beginning, with God’s call to Abraham, but rather, picks up in moment of painful domestic discord.
Let’s look back at what came before -
When God first established the covenant with Abraham, the covenant involved three promises:
- the promise of relationship: “You will be my people and I will be your God”
- the promise of the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession,
- the promise of descendants – according to two different texts in which the covenant is made and repeated, descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, or as grains of sand on the beach.
There offering of the latter promise is what creates great tension, and therefore drama in the story, as Abraham and Sarah live through their prime and into their old age without bearing children.
Abraham and Sarah are imperfect people, as are all of the Bible’s human protagonists, and the plot thickens as Abraham and Sarah age without the awaited offspring. Sarah, unable to trust God’s promise, decides to take matters into her own hands, and she hatch an alternative plan. Sarah sends slave, Hagar the Egyptian, to have relations with Abraham, hoping that offspring will provide family for her; in due time, Hagar bears Abraham’s first son, Ishmael.
As anyone might have predicted, Ishmael’s birth introduces new strains into household:
Sarah, grieving own infertility, is raising son of her husband with her slave;
Hagar is mother to the son of head of house, but has no standing or authority, herself, in the household;
Abraham undoubtedly loves his son, but finds himself at mercy of the difficult dynamics between women in his home.
And so the story, of course, takes a new twist. In time, miraculous news is received (in last week’s text) that Sarah, in her old age, is to bear a son. She laughs, when she hears it, but the promise is fulfilled and she bears Abraham’s second son, Isaac.
Which is where our story picks up today -
As Sarah’s son, Isaac, becomes a toddler, she grows intolerant of Ishmael and Hagar’s presence in household and seeks to have them banished. The text tells us that she reached her conclusion as she watched the brothers play, and hints that Sarah’s concern may have had to do with inheritance rights.
It is surely a painful situation for all, including Abraham, but God provides assurance to Abraham that God will provide for Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham sends them forth – with tenderness and with provisions – into the wilderness.
Again a plot twist! The water in Hagar’s skin does not last, and she faces what she believes will be her son’s death by dehydration.
Hagar places the child under a bush and retreats far enough away she cannot hear his cries, and will not have to watch his end from close quarters.
But as Hagar weeps, she receives a message of God’s compassion, that God is looking out for her son, and that God will make of him “a great nation”.
When she arises, Hagar’s eyes are opened to the presence of a well and God’s pledge of protection is fulfilled.
There is a lot going on in this story.
As I remarked earlier, the story shows us who we are, and the things that it reminds us about ourselves are not very pleasant to see. The story reminds us:
• How hard it is for us to believe that God can be trusted and that we do not need to find our own shortcuts.
• How much we are willing and able to treat others as objects to fulfill our own needs, and then to dispose of them when they become inconvenient.
• How susceptible we are to feelings of petty jealousy and how frail we are in giving in to our own anxieties.
• How readily we accept easy answers rather than holding out for what we know is right.
• How quickly we give in to feelings of defeat.
But what is more important is what the story teaches about the One who continually invites us, beckons to us, provides for us, and always is available to us to show us the way.
We all have our Hagar moments – times when we are just parched and feel like we have hit the end of the road.
• when things have been completely unfair
• when we are exhausted from trying to make our way through, and our circumstances just seem hopeless
• when we can’t face what we’re sure lies ahead, and wish we could crawl under our own bush and give up.
The story tells reminds us that is there, in those moments, that God tells us to hold on, and to lift up those things that we were sure were beyond hope.
It is so often in those moments God directs us to look again, to see in a new way, and to discover the life-giving water that in our despair we had overlooked.
That’s the thing:
God’s answers for us are pretty regularly not the answers we have wanted.
God’s way forward for us often involves possibilities we hadn’t considered.
Before I finish, I want to observe another piece of the story that I think is terribly important.
In this story of redemption, it is Hagar - the slave, the foreigner, the immigrant, the non-person - who is of such little regard to Abraham and Sarah that they are willing to put her out like the trash, who is the one who God sees, who God hears, who God delivers.
Could we ever doubt that God watches over us?
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