Sunday, July 16, 2023

Ishmael's Siblings

 Sermon preached at Church of the Redeemer, Addison, NY, June 25, 2023, the 4th Sunday after Pentecost: Genesis 21:8-21

          It’s to the first reading I turn this morning, a very important piece of the Abraham and Sarah story from Genesis, although a part of the story with which we are not so familiar, the story of Hagar and Ishmael.

           This story is important because it is an example of how the biblical story allows for the complexities of life, and, even as it seems to give us a narrow way to live, there are these moments when it allows for a broader understanding of what it means to be faithful.

           Two weeks ago we were with Abram and Sarai as God called them to leave their home and travel to the land of Canaan, a foreign land.  It was a hard thing for God to ask of them, but it came with a promise:  In this foreign land I will make your descendants as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore, as many as the stars in the sky.  Your children will be a blessing to the whole world.  They trusted in that pro ise and they went.

           They went, but the years went by and the promise was not fulfilled. No children came to them. Yet God kept promising. Last week we heard of one of those occasions when the promise was renewed, when Abraham and Sarah were visited by three strangers, who brought with them the message:  you will bear children and they will be a blessing to the world. It was such an impossibility in their minds at that point that it caused Sarah to laugh.

           The unfulfilled promise was finally dealt with by Abraham and Sarah in their own way. They could not wait any longer for God to act, so they did.  Sarah gave her slave girl Hagar to Abraham so that he might have a child to be his heir. And, indeed, Ishmael was born.

           But then after yet another reiteration of the promise, Sarah becomes pregnant in her very old age and bears a son, Isaac, whose name means “laughter.” Finally here is the child of the promise.

           But what of Ishmael?  Sarah cannot bear any rivalry with Isaac, and so she demands that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away. Abraham is deeply saddened by this request, but God intervenes. It is all right, God says, do what Sarah has asked of you. But do not worry about the boy. I will take care of him. He too will be the father of a great nation.

           Hagar and Ishmael’s part in the story could have simply ended there and we would not have thought anything of it, but the biblical writer wants us to know more, wants us to be sure about God’s care for this other child, the child not of the promise.  God fulfils his promise and the boy lives.

           This story has always been important to me, ever since I first became aware of it, which if I remember correctly was not until I was in seminary.  I was and am deeply attracted to Ishmael, the child not of the promise, the “inconvenient child,” if you will.

           Isaac represents normality, the way things are supposed to be, the way things work best maybe even the way God wants them to be.  But then there is Ishmael, the different one, the inconvenient one, the one born outside the norm, whose life is not typical and, therefore, perhaps not as highly valued. Ishmael is not the way things are supposed to be.

           And yet!  There is room in God’s heart for Ishmael.  There is room in God’s heart for the unusual, different, abnormal, inconvenient, not seemingly what was promised.  There’s room in God’s heart, that meant and means, for me.  And, truth to tell, for you.

           The Bible sets out a path to the promise of abundant life. God tells Abraham that Sarah is right. Indeed God will use Isaac—the child of the promise—to build his Israel. That is how life works, what we might call normal.

           But the Bible also, time and time again, provides an alternative, a path that does not appear to lead to the promise, but all things are possible for God. God can find a way whose lives do not follow the usual route. Those who are not obviously children of the promise, and yet are still children of love and care. The children of Hagar are also loved.

           And that is the good news for today. Whatever your life does or does not look like, you are loved and God will find a way for you.  And the church, if we are truly doing our job, will find a way also.  I am proof of that, brother of Ishmael, thanks be to God.

No comments: