Overcoming the Obstacles

Scriptures: Genesis 21:8-21, Matthew 10:24-39

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

A preacher occasionally has to address stories in scripture that are unpleasant, vexing, or downright maddening. I find today’s stories rather challenging. Challenging because the readings bring to light systems of domination, oppression, loss of security, male hierarchical privilege, hell and breaking down of family systems for the sake of Jesus. Not easy texts to address, but let us try to fathom a message.

The story of Hagar and Ishmael is a classic story of being used, abused, and thrown away. One author, Delores Williams, connects the Hagar saga in Genesis to the contemporary experience of black women in the United States. I submit it is not solely confined there, however. Many women, from all ethnicities, races and social strata can experience this unfortunate cycle of oppression. Perhaps some of us have been largely unaware of it, perhaps some of us have lived through it, or maybe there are even some of us currently experiencing something similar.

Regardless, it is distinctly uncomfortable for anyone who believes God is about doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly. Where is the justice? Where is mercy? Where is love?

Treading carefully, I can’t help but try, in my idealism, to discover these attributes buried in the text. First, Abraham is actually in distress about Sarah’s request – he does love, both his first-born Ishmael, and his mother Hagar as well as his wife Sarah and heir Isaac; otherwise why worry about them? His concern prompts him to have a hard conversation with God; who does convince Abraham to grant his wife’s request to banish whom she perceives as her and Isaac’s rivals. God loves them and is with them, and promises that Ishmael will also grow into a mighty people. Keep in mind that in the socio-political reality of Abraham’s time, only Sarah’s children are her redemption, as she is considered property of Abraham; she must produce an heir to his fortunes – and to God’s promise given to them both. Second, within her powerless power as wife in that society, Sarah does everything she can to maintain her place of primacy as wife and protect her son’s interests. Even though Ishmael was born first, Isaac is supposed to be the heir, in whom God’s promise will be fulfilled. Mercy, Love, Justice – I admit they are hard for me to draw out in this story. Why? Because when Sarah’s perception of justice is granted,

“It is [none-the-less] a horrible scene. Abraham [finally] banishes [Hagar and Ishmael] to the wilderness with very few provisions, essentially giving them the death penalty. When these provisions run out and death seems imminent, Hagar weeps and distances herself from her son, so that she will not have to see him die. We can only guess at the depth of pain in her heart. It is a lament deep in the human soul…[in this case resulting] from [an ancient society’s] systems of using and abusing and domination and exploitation.”[1]

For those of us with a conscience, this story pulls at our heartstrings, and can actually be an obstacle to embracing our faith tradition. Who wants to believe in a God who lets this happen? I have to very consciously view this story through a lens of compassion instead of feminism. Through a lens of compassion, it can be a calling for us to perceive God’s work of redemption in a more mysterious way. How? Hagar and Ishmael are not left to die in the desert. In the work of redemption, God provides for both of them. Both move from death to life, from slave and slave-child to free children of God.

This freedom, this new life as children of God provided for in the wilderness, becomes a spiritual foundation for the Arab world, and Ishmael becomes spiritual ancestor for the prophet Muhammad; even as Abraham through Isaac becomes ancestor to Jesus, and spiritual ancestors to the children of God who come to call themselves Christ-followers.

As hard as it is, our calling in this story is to yield to the One who is Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer – not to allow ourselves to slip into thinking we are morally superior when only God is sovereign.

Let’s test this a bit farther. Turning to the text in Matthew, we find disturbing comments about killing both body and soul in hell, and our Prince of Peace bringing a sword that sets family members against one another.   We are reminded, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter–in–law against her mother–in–law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;” (10:35-37) How do I preach good news when these passages are anything but?

Life seems to echo the struggle: For example, political elections that seem secure but go awry, promotions or new job opportunities that seem the perfect fit then become a burden, relationships that appear to be heading toward fulfilling marriage but then do not work out the way they were expected. What can we learn from this? One author writes, “We can not dictate to God or be self-assured in asserting God’s will, for God is free and the works of God surprise us.”[2]

And again:

“We have no idea what the cost of discipleship will be once we commit to following Jesus Christ. We are not to seek out suffering or persecution or martyrdom. We are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves. We are to be like our Teacher, the one who ate with sinners, welcomed children, washed the disciples’ feet, healed and forgave, fed the hungry and restored to community those who had been cast out and forgotten.”[3]

Now that is good news I can preach. May all glory be unto the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ. Amen? May it be so.

[1] Stroupe, Nibs. Feasting on the Word—Year A David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors. Copyright © 2010 Westminster John Knox Press; Louisville, Kentucky; All rights reserved. Used by permission. Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0

[2] McKim, Donald K. Feasting on the Word…

[3] Duffield, Jill. Editor Presbyterian Outlook, lectionary reflections electronic delivery.

Questions for Reflection

What does the story of Sarah and Hagar (Gen. 21:8–21) say about God? What does the story suggest about how we might treat one another more justly?

Household Prayer: Morning

O God, I praise you as I arise this morning. You are the giver of all life and you provide for what you have made. Be with my spirit this day and teach me to be thankful for all that you offer. Move me to be generous with others, sharing not only goods, but also time, patience, and kindness. You know what will happen today. Guide me so that I do what pleases you. Be near to me and help me to trust your love. I pray for all the world today, for what I do has effects far beyond what I can know or understand. By your Holy Spirit, let me speak peace, let me do peace, let me be peace, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Household Prayer: Evening

Creator of heaven and earth, light and darkness, day and night, I thank you for the day just past that you have given me in your mercy. I pray for your forgiveness for those things I did that were displeasing to you and for those missed opportunities to show my love for you. Let me rest tonight, trusting in the grace of your Son, Jesus Christ. Restore my mind and body as I sleep so that when I awake I will have the strength to serve you and your children well. O beloved God, let me rise to a new day giving you thanks and praise, in the name of Jesus Christ the Savior. Amen.

About Scottrick

Parent ~ Pastor ~ Poet ~ Author
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