06/25/23 – All in the Family – Laura Van Riper


June 25, 2023
4th Sunday after Pentecost
Gen. 21:8-21; Ps. 86; Rom.6:1-11; Matt.10:24-39
Sermon written by Rev. Denise Clark-Jones 2017, read by Laura Van Riper

Families. You can’t live with them and you can’t live without them. They are the source of much drama and comedy of books, stage and screen. Our Old Testament reading is a family drama infused with tragedy, irony and paradox. Families can be our greatest comfort and our greatest threat. In our biblical texts, the concept of family goes beyond the biological or nuclear family. Families are tribes, communities both faith-based and societal and nations. The story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar – that unstable family triangle – is also a much bigger story that encompasses both history, theology, sociology, psychology and probably more “ologies” than I know anything about. This scene in the Abraham saga is multi-layered and universal. Read with the Gospel, it becomes a narrative that traverses the secular world and the kingdom of God. There is fear and trust, compassion and cruelty, threat and salvation, rejection and salvation.

Last Sunday we read about God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah that they would have the son, for which they had given up hope because of their old age. This part of the drama features the tension in the family created by two sons. One, Ishmael, is Abraham’s first son. In the custom of the time this was the favored position in the family. However, Ishmael was not Sarah’s son who, as the first and favored wife, had a position to protect. After Ishmael, the son of Sarah’s slave girl, Hagar, Sarah had a son with Abraham named Isaac. It would not have taken a prophet to figure out this situation was going to cause trouble.

It is mystifying that God agreed to allow Abraham to have a child with Hagar. God had already assured Abraham and Sarah they would have a son. Surely, God knew the trouble it would cause. As we would expect, after Sarah bore her own son she felt that Ishmael was a threat to Isaac. Then she became a threat to Hagar and Ishmael. And, as we well know, when people feel threatened peace, justice, and love of neighbor often are thrown out the window regardless of their religious values. Trusting God in the face of a perceived threat is a test of faith we struggle, and often fail, to pass.

Hagar was from a different ethnic group, one descended from the Midianites who were enemies of the Hebrew people. Hagar’s people were Semitic, like the Hebrews, but their language, though very similar, was different. An odd twist in Hagar’s story is that her story is also the story of Israel. Just like the Israelites in Egypt, Hagar is a slave. And, like the Hebrew people became a threat to the Pharaoh when they produced too many Hebrew babies for the Pharaoh’s comfort, Hagar becomes a threat when she had a son. Just as the Hebrew people ran away from their cruel master, the Pharaoh, Hagar runs away from her cruel mistress, Sarah. And just as Moses met God in the wilderness, so Hagar meets God in the wilderness. Just as God promises Abraham that Israel will become a great nation, so God tells Hagar that Ishmael will also be a great nation.

Israel experienced in her own history both exodus and exile. And just as it became for the nation of Israel, exile for Hagar was both a time of great pain but it was also redemptive. When Ishmael grows up and marries an Egyptian woman, his family becomes descendants of Abraham just as Isaac’s descendants.  This is the scriptural basis for Jews and Christians to claim Abraham as their father in faith through Isaac and Muslims to claim Abraham as their father in faith through Ishmael.

Tragically, the story of Hagar and Sarah is also the long saga of relations between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East.  Sarah sets Isaac and Ishmael at odds against one another because Sarah could not bear any comparison or affection between her son and Hagar’s. The writer and preacher, Dr. Samuel Wells has noted that there is an ironic twist to this story: “The force behind the establishment of the State of Israel is that the Jews of history have felt less like Sarah and more like Hagar. It is because they’ve been thrown into slavery, subject to cruelty, forced to flee and frequently cast out that they came to long for a home to call their own; and it is because in the middle of the last century they sat powerless, like Hagar, watching their offspring die, that they came to see a homeland as an unmitigated necessity and its preservation as an absolute good that continues to justify a number of things that are less than good.” In a strange paradox, both Israel and the Arab nations now see themselves as Hagar. From the Muslim perspective, one might also see Western Europe and the United States as Abraham. The one who took matters into his own hands and foolishly sired a son with Hagar, setting up a conflict between Ishmael and Isaac.

The family drama played out in the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar is complex. We can feel empathy for each of these three characters. At the same time each of them displayed behaviors that were less than exemplary. Abraham asked God to allow him to have a son with Hagar, which was Sarah’s idea, because he did not fully trust God’s promise of a son with Sarah. Sarah was jealous of Hagar and treated her cruelly. Sarah felt threatened by Hagar and, in turn, threatened Hagar. Hagar taunted Sarah with her smug superiority she claimed by having Abraham’s first son.

We can relate to these human foibles displayed in this story. Haven’t we all doubted God’s promises at times? Haven’t we all had occasions of looking the other way when injustice stands before us? Haven’t we all experienced Schadenfreude, that delightfully wicked German word, which means feeling pleasure at another’s misfortune? Haven’t we all blamed others, or even God, when we were to blame for the consequence of our actions.

Now let’s look at this story from the perspective of the New Testament. We can see that Jesus’ disciples demonstrated all of these flawed behaviors. They were jealous of one another. They delighted in the misfortune of people who had scorned them. Jesus had to point out suffering and injustice to them, and even then they sometimes wanted to pass on by because they were tired or felt demeaned by having to be nice to the unclean or unworthy. If we look even farther, we see that Hagar was despised and rejected. In the moment of her deepest agony she wondered why her God had forsaken her. In Matthew’s gospel was this not what Jesus experienced as he hung from the cross? If we think about it, Jesus was a lot more like Hagar than Abraham. Jesus placed himself among people like Hagar. Some of the downtrodden even contributed to their own pitiable state by their actions. Jesus offered freedom and salvation through faith, regardless of personal merit.

In our gospel reading from Matthew today Jesus admonishes his disciples for failing to trust God when they felt threatened by Roman and religious authorities, and even their own families and friends because of their association with Jesus. The Apostle Paul assures his congregation in Rome not to fear death and encourages them to not let sin hinder their living in the newness of life as Christ’s disciples.

Redemption and salvation of humanity has always been God’s plan and promise. Christ calls us to extend our idea of family for the sake of the common good. Jesus exhorts his disciples, and that includes us, that it is the family of God that needs our greatest attention, our time, our resources, our love. In a society, a world that is deeply divided by self-interests and fear Christ calls us out into the world to reconcile, to feed, to heal, to work for justice and pray for those who we see as threats until we fear no more.

May it be so. Amen.




© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2023, 2017, All Rights Reserved
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