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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In 1834, two British Methodist ministers Andrew Reed and James Matheson were visiting their sister congregations in the United States to promote peace and goodwill. A year later, a report of their travels was published and said, “America will be great if America is good. If not, her greatness will fade away like a morning cloud.” Over the past century and a half, authors and scholars have added to that observation, most notably, the French political scientist and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, who is attributed in writing, “I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers – and it was not there . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there . . . in her rich mines and her vast world commerce – and it was not there . . Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” Obviously no one was preaching on Hagar and Ishmael in any of those settings. If they did, they might have had a whole different experience of America and her history.
This morning, I would like us to meditate on the painful and heartbreaking story of Hagar and Ishmael and God’s ultimate deliverance. I believe it offers a powerful testimony of how we are called to live and care for those who are often belittled and oppressed, and just as poignantly, on how we may discover God’s strength and provision when we ourselves are feeling alone and unnoticed.
American satirist and writer Mark Twain once quipped, “Adam was the luckiest man: he had no mother-in-law.” It seems that whenever two women are vying for a man’s attention, there is misery- and frankly, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a wife and a mother-in-law, or in the story of Abraham, with his two wives. Two women in close proximity with the same man can bring out the worst in each other. British comic Les Dawson once said, “I can always tell when the mother-in-law’s coming to stay; the mice throw themselves on the traps.” In the movie, “Man on a Flying Trapeze, W.C. Fields secretary suggested, “It must be hard to lose your mother-in-law.” To which he replied, “Yes, it is, very hard… it’s almost impossible.” The tension begins at an early age. A young man was newly engaged, and he was excited to show off his future bride. “Mom,” he said, “I’m going to bring home three girls and I want you to guess which one is my fiancee.” Sure enough twenty minutes later, the young man walked into the room with three girls following behind him. “It’s that one,” said his mother, without blinking an eye. “Holy cow,” he exclaimed, “How in the world did you know it was her?” His mother responded, “I just don’t like her.”
Abraham should have known the potential tension between two women. The story, however, begins simply enough. In hopes of a child being born to them in their old age, Abraham and Sarah abandoned the comfort and beauty of the city of Ur to live a life in a tent in the desert. Almost as soon as they crossed into Canaan, a great famine came over the land, and so they were forced to become refugees in Egypt. It was in Egypt that the slave girl Hagar was introduced to Sarah. The name Hagar comes from “Ha-Agar,” which means foreigner or the reward. According to the Hebrew Midrash, Hagar was the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt and when Hagar saw the wonders which God performed for the sake of Sarah, to save her from the hands of the Egyptian Pharaoh and his court, she said: “It is better to be a slave in Sarah’s house than a princess in my own.” Or so she thought. And so when Abraham and Sarah returned to Canaan, Hagar accompanied them. Now after 10 years of living in their promised land, and one failed pregnancy test after another, the aging couple wondered how the promise of a family would ever come to be. Finally, Sarah said to Abraham, “Look, the LORD has not allowed me to have children, so take my slave girl as your wife. If she has a child, maybe I can have my own family through her.” And Abraham did just what Sarah said. He took Hagar as his wife.
Unfortunately, when the slave girl was discovered to be with child, it brought unexpected suffering to Sarah. Clearly, the struggle of fertility was not Abraham’s problem. Sarah rebuked Hagar and reminded her that she was the mistress of the household, and that Hagar was nothing but her maid. Sarah dealt so harshly with Hagar that the slave ran away into the wilderness. There, an angel of the Lord, appeared to her and ordered her to return to Sarah and to submit to her. The angel also told her that she would bear a son, and she should name him Ishmael. She herself would be mother to a multitude of descendants. So Hagar returned reluctantly and bore Abraham a son, and he named him Ishmael, which means God’s hears.
Thirteen years later, when Abraham was ninety-nine years of age, God declared to him once again, that he would be the “father of many nations” through Sarah. And true to his word, nearly 25 years after he had first spoke this promise, became pregnant. And a year, later, Sarah gave birth to Abraham’s son. And they named him Isaac which means laughter.
Regrettably, the rivalry between two women, Sarah and her slave girl Hagar persisted. One day Sarah saw Hagar’s 14 year-old son Ishmael playing with his half-brother Isaac, and she ordered Abraham to cast him out and his mother, for no son of a slave would inherit Abraham’s treasure. Abraham was greatly distressed, but God came and reassured him, “Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. But I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”
Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar, and then he said farewell to Ishmael, the only son he had known for 13 years. Mother and son wandered off into the Desert of Beersheba. When the water in the skin was gone, Hagar put the boy under one of the bushes. She couldn’t bear to see him die. And as she sat there, she began to weep. Then we read, God heard the boy crying, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, “Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy as he grew up. Ishmael lived in the desert and became an archer.
Now you may be wondering: So why was it so important for Sarah to banish Hagar and Ishmael from her home? After all God had been faithful to his promise to Sarah, and granted her the birth of a son. Time and again, she had been told that the Lord’s covenant would become a reality through her son, Isaac, but still she couldn’t bear to see that other woman Hagar and her son Ishmael. Sarah may not have wanted them dead, but she certainly wanted them out of sight. But why?
I rather suspect that it is the same unforgiven and hidden pain that our country is wrestling with in this time of national reckoning over racial injustice and inequality. We are struggling with our conscience of how to be great and good in the present age and how to make amends with attitudes and actions of the past. We trust fully in God’s promise for the future, but every once in a while, we believe like Sarah and Abraham that it is our right and our privilege to take things into our own hands. We don’t need to look upon our neighbors as our equals. Certainly, not as equals in God’s sight.
That is why Sarah needed Hagar and Ishmael to be gone, all because they stood as a constant reminder of that time in Abraham’s and Sarah’s 25 year journey with God when the old couple tried to live by their own strength and greatness and not live and walk in the shadow of God’s grace and mercy. Instead of humbling themselves and trusting God for patience, they took matters into their own hands. And what a complicated story their lives became.
This passionate story of God tenderly hearing the voice of the crying Ishmael in the wilderness and his pleading mother teaches us one of the most important lessons about God. Our loving God does not discriminate against people- and neither should we. Sometimes we get the idea or we have been taught that one person’s feelings are more important than another person’s. This story, however, utterly destroys every notion of discrimination. Hagar was not of the tribe of Abraham, God’s chosen people. But God was with her. And so we read, that God would be with her son Ishmael in the future as well.
My friends, there is a second lesson to this story. Perhaps that is the message you need to hear, for I know that not all of us do live exceptionally, fruitful lives. Your journey may be hard with few resources available to you. Your choices are few and you feel burdened by the expectations of others. You are feeling alone, overwhelmed and unnoticed.
It is in that desperate hour, when God often comes to us. Why, you may ask? Because, perhaps, it is only in that hour that you are truly ready to receive hm. And his one word, of recognition, that you are alive, and in need, changes everything. “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid.” Comfort came first, when the angel asked her to reveal the reason for her tears. And then came the provision of the water that was so needed. And here’s the thing to notice: The well probably existed all along. But Hagar couldn’t see as long she felt alone and neglected. God didn’t make the well appear out of nowhere. God’s presence and comfort, opened her eyes so that she could see everything that there was in front of her.
My friends, that is the good news you and I have been called to share freely and indiscriminately with this world. As we drink deeply from the well of provision in front of us, let’s be a voice of comfort for those around us. Let us be good and great to all to those in need, to those who are struggling, and to those who are hungering for righteousness. For as those Methodist ministers visiting America observed 160 years ago. “America will be great if America is good. If not, her greatness will fade away like a morning cloud.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.