Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Story We Never Tell

Genesis 21:8-21
Our story; Our story is the story of Abraham and Sarah.  Our story is the story of a promise, of an impossible child, of a blessing, of the creating of a nation out a hopeless situation.  Our story is the story of God bringing fertility where there was only barrenness.  Our story is the story of faith, the story of a miracle, the story of a God who provides, who protects, who leads, who transforms. Our story is the story of a man who trusts, a woman who laughs and child who is a blessing.  That is OUR story.
THIS is not our story.  THIS is the story we never tell; the story we want to forget.  The story we wish was not there.  It is kind of inconvenient.
But the story we have before us this morning shows us Hagar and Ishmael alone in the desert; abandoned by their family rejected by the people of God.
She is out of food, and she has run out of water.  She has nowhere to go and no one to whom she can turn.  She is at the end, not just her wits end, or the end of her rope, she is at The End.  She has no alternatives, she has no opportunities, she has no choices.  This is the end; for her, for her son. She is: Alone: in the desert without anything to sustain her; absolutely and completely alone.
So she takes her son, she puts him under a bush and then goes a little ways off, puts her back to her son, because she cannot bear witness to his dying.  As she sits there, back toward her son, far enough away that she cannot hear his hunger cries, she too begins to wail.
And how did we get here?  Is she cast off because she has done something wrong?  Is she banished because she has committed some heinous crime?  No she is sent away because her son was laughing and playing with Sarah and Abraham’s son, Isaac, at Isaac’s party.
Why is she here? She is here because Sarah and Abraham decided to take God’s promise into their own hands and find a way for Sarah to have a son w/o actually HAVING a son.  She is a here because she is a slave; she is Sarah’s slave.  She is here, because God’s people have failed, and have failed not just on one occasion but on repeated occasions and she is being punished for their failure and in doing so, they fail once again. 
So let’s back up for a second.  Let’s go back to Heron. Heron is where Abraham and Sarah are originally from.  While in Heron, God comes to Abraham and promises that Abraham will be the father nations, if he will only go to the land where God will lead.  So Abraham packs up all his things and he and Sarah, follow God across the desert in search of the place to which God will lead.  On several occasions God comes to Abraham and renews this promise in varying ways.  God promises that Abraham and Sarah will have a son.  God promises that he will father a nation. God promises that Abraham’s descendants will be more numerous than the stars in the sky.  God promises that Abraham will be a blessing, that the world will be blessed through him.
But it does not matter how many times God promises, or in how many different words, Sarah does not have children.  Not one, not even a girl.  So Sarah and Abraham decide to take matters into their own hands and do the only culturally responsible thing, for a woman of Sarah’s standing, who is barren, to do.  She offers her slave girl as a surrogate.  She gives Abraham her slave girl so that her slave girl can serve as surrogate and bear a child for Sarah.  That is right ladies, and gentleman, she gives her slave to her husband so that her slave can have a child with Abraham who would then be Sarah and Abraham’s child.  
And then, and then when the slave, whose name just so happens to be Hagar (neither Abraham nor Sarah call her by name throughout scripture), actually gets pregnant, Sarah gets upset.  Sarah goes to Abraham and complains, to him telling him that she does like the way Hagar looked at her. “Abraham, I don’t like the way that woman is at looking at me.”  And Abraham deals with it in a responsible fashion, by saying, “She’s your slave girl, you can do with her what you want.”  Yep, he eschews his responsibility toward the pregnant mother of his child and allows his wife to “do with the slave girl as she wills.” And what Sarah “wills” is to mistreat Hagar. The pregnant Hagar does not take kindly to the abuse and flees. 
It is by a well along the road, where God finds her and calls her by her name. God gives her the dignity she deserves, a human being.  God tells her to return to her mistress, that she will bear a son and he will be the father of a nation.  And she calls God, the God who sees, El-Roi.
When no one else in her life values her enough to call her by name, when she has no advocate, God steps in and brings value to her life.  God names her and sets her worst fears to rest; her and her child will not be destroyed they will live, and they will thrive.  God gives to her a promise of descendants and of a nation.  God gives her back her dignity.
Hagar returns to Sarah and Abraham and bears them a son, named Ishmael, which means God hears. God heard Hagar when she was fleeing and frightened, God heard Abraham and Sarah and finally gave them a son. God heard.  For a while they probably believe that Ishmael is the child of the promise.  Sarah and Abraham have a son who socially counts as theirs.  And it seems that this must be the way that God’s promise can be full-filled, after all God has promised Hagar that this child will be the father of a nation.  The promise associated with Abraham and his son.  The trio moves forward, Sarah’s cruelty and Abraham’s negligence seemingly forgotten.
But that is not the way the story ends.  God comes to Abraham and tells him that THIS is not the way.  God did not intend for Abraham and Sarah to use Hagar in this way.  God intends for Abraham and Sarah to have a child of their own.  And God fulfills this promise.  Despite the odds, overcoming her barrenness, and in spite of her age God allows for Sarah to bear a son and they name him Isaac which means laughter. 
And things seem to go well for a while, that is until Isaac is weaned and they throw a party to celebrate.  While at the party Sarah sees Ishmael playing with Isaac.  What is interesting here, is the word, in the Hebrew, has its root in the same word as “to laugh.”  So Ishmael is almost literally laughing with the child of laughter.  And Sarah sees this and instead of being happy that the two boys get along so well, she gets agitated.   She becomes afraid that since Ishmael is technically her son, he will be treated as the firstborn and that he will inherit instead of Isaac.
Sarah goes to Abraham and insists that he throw that slave girl and her son out of the camp, “because I will not have him inheriting alongside of my son.”  Sarah does not even acknowledge him as her son, or even as Abraham’s son, she does not even acknowledge that technically he is the firstborn, perhaps not wanting to remind Abraham of these facts.  Abraham is deeply disturbed, but being assured by God that Isaac is the child of the promise, Abraham feels free to give the boy and his mother some bread and a skin of water and send them into the desert.  But the desert is huge and a loaf of bread and skin of water do not go very far and soon they find themselves alone, in the desert, with no provisions.
The people of God have failed.  They have tried to take God’s promise into their own hands; they have mistreated and abused another human being.  They have disregarded her life and disrespected her as a person.  They act in ways that neglect their responsibility toward her and her son.  They cheat her son out of his rightful place in the household and steal his inheritance to give to their other son.  And when her usefulness no longer suits them they send her away; out of sight, out of mind. 
And let us not white wash this AT ALL, Abraham did not give her enough provision to make it to anywhere.  Abraham did not send her away in hope that she could find another family.  He did not direct her toward Egypt (the country of her birth) with the expectation that she could make her way back there and start a new life for herself and her son, perhaps find her family.  He gave her just enough food and water so that she and her son would be far away when the two of them died of exhaustion, dehydration and exposure. If he did not see it happen then perhaps it did not happen.  If a woman and her son die alone in the desert, where nobody can see them or hear them, do they really die?
But God is El-Roi, the God who sees Ishmael, and God the one who hears.  God sees!  God hears! And God shows them a well and provides for them and they both survive. 
And this is the story we never tell.  This is the story we want to forget.  This is the story where the people of God fail, and fail again and then try to cover up their failure.  They try to hide it. 
This is Abraham, the father of faith, the one whom Paul commends for his Faith, telling us that it is Abraham’s faith which makes him righteous.  Abraham and Sarah could be described as many things, when it comes to Hagar, but righteous is not one of them. Let’s face it they act sinfully toward Hagar in almost every way.  They do not treat her as a human being.  They treat her as an object which can be used, abused and thrown away when it no longer has value.
The people of God fail here. And the fact of the matter is that sometimes that the people of God fail.  Sometimes, even saved and sanctified Nazarenes act in reprehensible ways toward other human beings.  We ourselves, personally, act inappropriately toward other people.  But we also turn a blind eye when people around us are misused or abused.  We want to ignore their stories; we want to forget their stories.  Their story is not OUR story.  So what does it really matter.  Sometimes, we want to think as Abraham and Sarah thought, “out of sight, out of mind.”   Sometimes we think, “if I don’t see it happen, then it must not be happening”, or even, “I am not actually aware of it when it happens, then I am not responsible for it happening.”
But when we turn a blind eye to abuse; when we try to ignore the people all around us who are being misused; when our belief systems inadvertently call for us to allow abuse to happen to other people, when our words tell half-truths about the lives of others who are being victimized, when we realize that we are allowing slavery with our purchasing choices, when we are aware the things we eat and drink come to our tables without the very people, who toiled and labored so that these things could be brought up out of the earth, are not being paid enough to feed themselves and their families; when we find that we are participating in systems and paradigms that allow other people to be abused, misused, and enslaved, we are being Sarah and Abraham.  We are throwing Hagar and her son into the desert so they can die out of sight.
Let us be better than that!  The people of God ARE better than that.  We cannot call ourselves the children of God.  We cannot call ourselves Christians and turn a blind eye or stay silent or even participate in the abuse of other human beings.  Let us stand up and say, “No,” when we are witness to a person being abused by their spouse!”  Let us stand up and say, “No,” when we see children being misused.  Let us make choices with our dollars and say,  “No,” when we know that farmers, fishermen and other labor workers are being mistreated, underpaid and enslaved to bring food to our table, and coffee to our cups.  Let us do whatever we can to stamp out the slavery that happens in our neighborhoods, in our city, in our country, or anywhere else in this world where it occurs on a staggering and mind-blowing basis!   Let us be better than Abraham and Sarah, let us not us not fail as they did.  Let us truly be the people of God! Let us remember Hagar, let us tell her story and let us not allow this to happen to anyone else!