Sermon preached June 22, 2014
Text: Genesis 21:8-21
Bob Marley, “Redemption Song”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrY9eHkXTa4
This is a redemption story. It is a very human story, with characters whose actions and feelings we recognize. It is a story, as well, about God.
The text we read today is only part of the story, so let me share more of what happens before and after. Our Scripture reading begins with the early years of Isaac, the biological child of Sarah and Abraham. What has come before (Genesis 16) is that Sarah, not conceiving any children of her own instructs Abraham to “go into my slave girl... that I shall obtain children by her.” The slave girls name was Hagar, and she was an Egyptian. “And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai” (Genesis 16:2) Hagar became pregnant, and the relationship with Sarah deteriorated. At one point, Hagar tried to run away from the harsh treatment of Sarah. She is met by an angel of God who promises her that her son, Ishmael, shall be the beginning of a great people.
Later, Sarah herself becomes pregnant, gives birth, and this child’s name is Isaac. Isaac grows and Sarah sees him playing with his half-brother Ishmael. The sight disturbs her and she tells Abraham to cast Hagar – “this slave woman” - and Ishmael out. Abraham is distressed, but senses the voice of God, and sends Hagar and Ishmael away, giving them some bread and a skin of water.
The water runs out, and Hagar is now the one distressed. Seeing little hope, and sure that her child is going to die out in the wilderness, she places Ishmael under a tree and walks away, because she does not want to watch her child die of dehydration. Hagar weeps, but apparently so does the child, for “God heard the voice of the boy” and God responds. God calls Hagar by name, she is not just the “slave woman” in God’s sight. God’s angel speaks words of assurance – “do not be afraid.” Water is found, and “God was with the boy.”
That is the end of our reading for today, but the story continues. When Abraham dies “his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him” (Genesis 25:9). We get a report about the descendants of Ishmael, and then we lose his story. But in Islam, Ishmael’s story has additional features. In the Quran, and in other Islamic sources, the story is told that Hagar and Ishmael end up in the vicinity of Mecca in Arabia. The story goes on to say that before he dies, Abraham finds Hagar and Ishmael in the area of Mecca, and that when they are reunited, father and son rebuild the Kaaba, a temple to the one true God said to have originally been built by Adam. (Esposito, What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam, 5-6. Also The Quran: 3:84, 4:163, 14:39; and especially 2:125-129). The annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Islam is rooted in this story.
This is a very human story. There is sex and childbearing and jealousy and relationship issues and slavery and surrogate parenting and death. This is also a story about God and about redemption. Theologian Frederick Buechner characterizes the Hagar story this way: The story of Hagar is the story of the terrible jealousy of Sarah and the singular ineffectuality of Abraham and the way Hagar, who know how to roll with the punches, managed to survive them both. Above and beyond that, however, it is the story of how in the midst of the whole unseemly affair the Lord, half tipsy with compassion, went around making marvelous promises, and loving everybody, and creating great nations, like the last of the big-time spenders handing out hundred dollar bills. (Peculiar Treasures, 52)
This is a story about God, about a God who may be characterized as “half tipsy with compassion.” It is about a God who acts to redeem. Redemption is an interesting word. It has something to do with exchange or purchase (redeem a coupon), with buying back or recovering ownership (redeem a ring from a pawn shop), with setting free or deliverance (redeem a slave), with restoring the honor or worth or dignity of someone (redeeming oneself). In this story it is a difficult situation - a poor, single slave woman and her young son out in the wilderness running out of water – that needs redeeming. Here redemption has to do with restoration, with freedom, with recovery. Out of this difficult, hurtful, horrendous set of circumstances God restores possibilities for life. God sets free for new life. God helps Hagar and Ishmael recover hope. God, half tipsy with compassion, redeems an ugly situation where Hagar has been treated horribly.
God as redeemer. It is a familiar phrase to those of us in the church, and we Christians often most associate God’s activity as redeemer with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This story reminds us that while there is something unique about God’s redeeming work in Jesus, God has been about redemption from early on. God does not simply become half tipsy with compassion in Jesus, that’s who God is. God’s creative love is always at work toward redemption – toward freedom, restoration, recovery. God is always at work taking difficult, hurtful, even horrendous circumstances and turning them so that some good can emerge. And God’s creative redeeming love is a responsive love, responsive to all the circumstances of human existence. Is even God surprised in this story, as someone in the Bill Moyers discussion group on Genesis suggested? Sarah acts, and not well, and God responds. Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away, and God responds. Hagar sets her son beneath a tree and walks some distance, unable to bear the slow death of her son, and God responds. I think human freedom is genuine, is real, and I think God’s creative love is always responsive to the circumstances we create. God’s response is always in the direction of redemption, and there is no situation beyond God’s redemptive activity. There is no situation beyond God’s redemptive activity.
So what do we do with this? We are invited to see God’s redemptive activity in our lives and in the world. We are invited to participate in God’s redemptive activity in our lives and in our world. See God’s redemptive activity. Be part of God’s redemptive activity. There are personal and social dimensions to this seeing and being.
One of the interesting moments in the story of Hagar which we read is that no one calls her by name until God does, and by the way the language of the angel of the Lord was a way that the ancient Israelites talked about God’s presence with a person. In Genesis 16, where an angel first appears to Hagar, she calls God “Elroi” – one who sees and says, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” So in Genesis 21, Sarah simply refers to Hagar as “this slave woman.” Even God, in speaking to Abraham, only refers to Hagar as “your slave woman.” Later, hearing the cry of Ishmael, God addresses her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid.”
Sometimes redemption in our lives comes with being known, trusting that God knows us, knows us by name, and cares for us. Where have you had those redemptive moments in your life? Where have you heard God call your name and speak those wonderful biblical words, “Do not be afraid”? And there are also redemptive moments when we can, in a sense, be the voice of God for others, reminding them of their importance to God, of their status as beloved of God, where we can help them recover their dignity and sense of worth.
I read a powerful story about social redemption this week. Adriaan Volk was South Africa’s minister of law and order between 1986 and 1991. It was a strange and strained time in South Africa. The government was under increasing pressure for its apartheid racial policies. The white government wanted to retain power, yet also appear “humane.” Volk’s police “resorted to dark, cloak-and-dagger tactics to dispose of apartheid’s enemies” (The New Republic, June 30, 2014, p. 37). Anti-apartheid activists were kidnapped, drugged, and some killed. One strange plot involved the Rev. Frank Chikane. Chikane interdenominational church group was suspected for harboring armed militants. Volk’s police force poisoned a pair of Chikane’s underwear, lacing them with a potent insecticide. Chikane was so sickened that he had to be flown to the United States for medical treatment.
August 1, 2006, Volk appeared at Chikane’s office. Chikane was now part of the government of South Africa. Volk pulled out his Bible, and spoke words that were difficult for him. “I have sinned against the Lord and against you. Will you forgive me?” He handed his Bible to Chikane and took out a rag and a basin. “Frank, please, would you allow me to wash your feet?” “Why would you want to do that?” “I must humble myself before you, for what we did, for what we were trying to do.” For Volk it was a redemptive moment. He realized for just how long he had viewed himself as superior to South African black. He sought out others to wash their feet. This is a story of social redemption. At a time that still can be tense between blacks and whites in South Africa, Volk is witnessing to a way forward. We need to see such redemptive moments in our world.
We can also be part of redemptive moments in the world. The precise nature of redemption in the wider world can be more difficult to discern. Part of being a redemptive presence in the world is to hear the cries of the hurting, the dispossessed, the children. But what might redemption look like for the crying children detained at the U.S. Mexico border, many of them fleeing violence in their own countries? I am not sure. Part of redemption is seeing the situation as something more than persons trying to enter our country illegally. It is trying to discover why children would undertake such an arduous journey.
What of the relationship between Jews and Christians and Muslims in our world? What might redemption look like? Can we feel something of the poignancy of Isaac and Ishmael together burying their father, and in that sense that we share something together as Christians and Muslims and Jews? Perhaps part of redemption is working to avoid the broad negative stereotypes of Muslims that are too common, finding the worst in Islam and painting all Muslims with that same brush. Would we consider it fair to have all Christians portrayed as Fred Phelps or as the pastor in Florida wanting to start a bonfire with Qurans? I think redemption in interreligious relationships looks like friendship as written about by United Methodist theologian Marjorie Suchocki in her book on religious pluralism, Divinity and Diversity: Friendship requires a forthrightness about who we are, and an eagerness to listen to who the other is. Friendship requires knowing one another, which requires witnessing to one another about our experiences, our beliefs. And friendship involves us in working together for the common good of a world of peace, of sustainable lifestyles, of care for the planet and all its inhabitants. (11)
So we have this story of Hagar, of Hagar treated horribly, and of God, of a God who, half tipsy with compassion is always working to redeem, restore, set free, turn things toward the good. This God who called Hagar by name continues to call each of us by name and continues to work redemptively in our lives and in our world. Do you hear God calling you by name? Do you see redemptive moments? Are you willing to be a redemptive presence in the world? Amen.
“Faith Forum After Hours”: The following questions were included in the bulletin and used for that discussion.
Questions for Reflection
What are some of your initial reactions to this story?
What do you think of this characterization of the entire Abraham, Sarah, Hagar story?
The story of Hagar is the story of the terribly jealousy of Sarah and the singular ineffectuality of Abraham and the way Hagar, who knew how to roll with the punches, managed to survive them both. Above and beyond that, however, it is the story of how in the midst of the whole unseemly affair the Lord, half tipsy with compassion, went around making marvelous promises, loving everybody, and creating great nations, like the last of the big-time spenders handing out hundred dollar bills.
Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures
How do you understand God in this story? Is God in control all the time and over all the circumstances or is God responding creatively in love to human choices? What do you think about this question posed to the story? But does that mean that even God is surprised – that like Sarah, who didn’t anticipate her emotional reactions to Hagar being pregnant, God didn’t know He would respond this way to the child? (Bharati Mukherjee in Bill Moyers, Genesis)
In Islam, the story is told of how Abraham is later re-united with Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham finds them near present-day Mecca. He and Ishmael rebuild the Kaaba, believed to have been originally built by Adam as a temple to the one true God. The Muslim practice of taking a pilgrimage to Mecca is rooted in this story. Do you think the story of Abraham and Hagar and Ishmael, as found in Genesis, provides any resources for thinking about the relationship between Jews, Christians, and Muslims?
Where have you seen redemption - difficult, hurtful, even horrendous circumstances shifted so that good emerges – in the world? Where have you experienced redemption in your life?