Scripture Reading: Genesis 21:8-21
The Message Interpretation
The baby Isaac grew and was weaned. Abraham threw a big party on the day Isaac was weaned.
One day Sarah saw the son that Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham, poking fun at her son Isaac. She told Abraham, “Get rid of this slave woman and her son. No child of this slave is going to share inheritance with my son Isaac!”
The matter gave great pain to Abraham—after all, Ishmael was his son. But God spoke to Abraham, “Do not feel badly about the boy and your maid. Do whatever Sarah tells you. Your descendants will come through Isaac. Regarding your maid’s son, be assured that I will also develop a great nation from him—he is your son, too.”
Abraham got up early the next morning, got some food together and a canteen of water for Hagar, put them on her back and sent her away with the child. She wandered off into the desert of Beersheba. When the water was gone, she left the child under a shrub and went off, fifty yards or so. She said, “I cannot watch my son die.” As she sat, she broke into sobs.
Meanwhile, God heard the boy crying. The angel of God called from Heaven to Hagar, “What is wrong, Hagar? Do not be afraid. God has heard the boy and knows the fix he is in. Up now; go get the boy. Hold him tight. I am going to make of him a great nation.”
Just then God opened Hagar’s eyes. She looked. She saw a well of water. She went to it and filled her canteen and gave the boy a long, cool drink.
God was on the boy’s side as he grew up. He lived out in the desert and became a skilled archer. He lived in the Paran wilderness. And his mother got him a wife from Egypt.
Rev. Thandiwe Dale-Ferguson, Preached on June 28, 2020 at First Congregational Church, Loveland UCC
Will you pray with me? Holy God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Darkness has descended on the earth, the only light cast by a sliver of moon and twinkling pin pricks of stars. It has been a long day for the slave woman — a day of heavy toil in the fields and now, finally, she is able to lay down her head and rest. Insects hum a gentle lullaby outside of her hut. Just as she begins to drift off, the sound of footsteps jerks her awake. Fully alert now, her body tense, she listens. The footsteps approach. The door creaks open, and in the doorway she sees the shadow-dark outline of a man. As he approaches, she recognizes him, her owner, Abraham.
We do not usually tell the story of Hagar this way — Hagar who is ethnically Egyptian, a foreigner, a slave, an “other”. We usually hear and tell this story from the perspective of her owners: Abraham and Sarah. The childless couple who have been promised as many descendants as stars in the sky. Sarah, in a desperate bid for a child, sends Abraham to Hagar in the hopes that through their slave, the couple can finally have the child they have been awaiting.
We usually hear the story told to make Abraham and Sarah look good. After all, Abraham’s faith in God is the bedrock of all three Abrahamic traditions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The story’s narrator even tells us that God condones Abraham and Sarah’s actions, though this doesn’t sound like the God I know. It sounds more like a human need to justify harmful action and make this story’s hero and heroine just that.
Fear. What are you afraid of? What makes your heart pound? Your skin crawl? Spiders? Snakes? Thunder? A stranger appearing in the night? The loss of status? Judgment? Rejection? Disappointing the people you love? Not belonging?
Over and over as this family saga unfolds, we see Sarah ruled by fear. Fear drives Sarah to suggest that Abraham have sexual relations with Hagar. The Bible does not call it rape, but it is hard to imagine that a slave woman was asked for her consent.
Fear and perhaps guilt cause Sarah to blame Abraham when Hagar loses respect for Sarah. And let’s just be clear — Hagar’s loss of respect for her mistress could be because of Hagar’s new-found status as mother to Abraham’s heir apparent or it could be because Sarah betrayed her. Because Sarah instigated violence against her.
Fear and profound discomfort move Sarah to become harsh, even abusive, towards Hagar.
Fear and perhaps jealousy stir within Sarah’s spirit when she sees Hagar’s son Ishmael poking fun at her own son Isaac. But maybe Ishmael is simply teasing Isaac as siblings do, or laughing with delight at his younger brother’s antics.
Stirred by fear, Sarah implores Abraham to throw Hagar and Ishmael out of their household.
What is it that she fears?
That Ishmael will hurt Isaac?
That Isaac will have to share his inheritance?
Or simply that Isaac might grow to love Ishmael, his brother and the son of a slave?
Sarah’s fears are rooted in discomfort and insecurity. In her inability to make room for difference, to share power and prestige. In her inability to trust that there can be room in her family for herself and Hagar, for Ishmael and Isaac. In her discomfort at being reminded every time she sees Hagar and Ishmael of the violence that she instigated. Perhaps this, as much as anything, is what moves Sarah to reject Hagar and Ishmael — the reminder of the harm she has caused.
And let’s just be clear that Abraham is not without fault here. Sarah is not the one who has a child with Hagar. Sarah is not, ultimately, the one who casts Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness — Abraham does that! What is Abraham afraid of? His wife’s displeasure? Her anger? A potential rivalry between his sons? Or is he, too, afraid of facing each day the violence and harm he has perpetrated against Hagar?
Whatever it is, Abraham and Sarah allow fear, allow their discomfort to get in the way of right relationship. Abraham and Sarah allow their fear to jeopardize another person’s life. They value their emotional comfort over the physical safety and well-being of Hagar and Ishmael — members of their household and family. And so they cast them out. They send a woman and her son into the wilderness. They choose fear over love, comfort over reconciliation.
This story — of a slave woman stripped of her dignity and humanity, a salve woman whose body is used by her masters for their own purposes and then cast aside — is a familiar one. This story could have been taking out of a hundred history books of our nation. This is our story. The story of those in power choosing fear and comfort over what is right and good and true.
Today, as I prepare for a second intensive seminar of Sacred Conversations to End Racism, this story hits close to home. I see so much of Sarah in myself — in my discomfort around talking about racism. In the guilt, the shame, the self-loathing that I feel for my complicity in a system that is literally killing God’s children. And I find myself getting so caught up in alleviating my discomfort that I miss or perhaps I reject opportunities for humility, reconciliation, healing, and wholeness.
What are you afraid of? What makes your breath quicken and your nerves stand at attention?
What conversations are you afraid of having?
Who are you afraid to welcome and include — fully and with celebration and affirmation?
If you’re like me, your first answer is: “No one” of course.
But then I would ask, as I ask myself: what are you afraid of seeing in you?
What bias? Probably implicit and well-concealed but still there.
And this bias exists not because you’re a bad person, because you are NOT, but because we ALL live in a society of deep-seated divisions, of deeply embedded racism and xenophobia, of homophobia and transphobia, and fear of people who are different.
What are you afraid of seeing within yourself? What are we afraid of seeing within ourselves? Within our community.
And what relationship, what healing, what gift is our fear getting in the way of?
Beloved of God, I do not ask these questions to invite you to guilt or shame. I invite you to ask these questions so that you, so that we might be open to God working in and through each of us.
Because there is profoundly good, profoundly hopeful news for us in this story. Even our fear cannot separate us from God’s love. Even our fear cannot stop God from working through us, from using us. There is no need for shame or guilt, because God’s love and God’s work do not depend on our worthiness.
Father Richard Rohr puts it bluntly: “God always uses unworthy instruments.” This is not about guilt or shame. This is about humility —
God always uses unworthy instruments so we can never think that it is we who are accomplishing the work.” We can never think that the transformation of hearts and minds is OURS to achieve — it is always God’s. It is always the work of the Spirit.
Right now, in this time of great social upheaval, we are beginning to awaken “to a new level of awareness of systemic injustice in the world, the suffering it causes, and the role each of us play in perpetuating these systems—predominantly by those of us with privilege and power” (Richard Rohr). And right now there is great need of unworthy vessels. There is great need for us to show up, not in guilt or shame, but in humility.
We equip ourselves, we prepare ourselves for God’s call by naming our fears, by uncovering our biases — especially those that are implicit, by learning our nation’s history — and not just the history that makes us feel good, and by practicing listening — to one another, to the wisdom within ourselves and to the Holy Spirit.
We have everything we need to participate in God’s work of transformation. We are the ones we have been waiting for. And no, the work of dismantling systems of injustice, systems of oppression, systems of white supremacy is not easy. It is frightening, deeply uncomfortable work. But it is also the work of moving towards right relationship. It is courageous work. It looks like engaging in difficult conversations. It looks like stepping out of the seat of knowing into a stance of learning. It looks like asking questions and holding onto hope.
Beloved of God, our work around healing our nation of systemic racism is just beginning. Our work around questions of inclusion, welcome and affirmation are in their early stages. May we boldly step into those spaces of discomfort. May we not allow fear prevent us from choosing right relationship. May we not choose our comfort over the safety and lives of others. And may we trust that God sees and hears. May we trust that God is always working through us — however unworthy we may be. Amen.
© 2020 Thandiwe Dale-Ferguson, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
Watch a video of the sermon here.
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