“The Hard Things”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
June 25, 2017
Genesis 21:8-21 & Matthew 10:24-39
I must begin today with a confession: I do not have any frame of reference when trying to interpret the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar for us today. Nothing in this story has ever happened in my life, and I pray that by God’s grace it never does. Sarah’s struggle with infertility, her desperation that made room for extra-marital affairs, the competition between Hagar and Sarah, and a mother and child sent into the wilderness to die; these are not experiences I have ever had. And because these are not experiences I have ever had, I turned this week and listened to the voice of someone who has had these experiences. Her name is Renita Weems. Weems she is a person of color, a mother, a pastor, a religious scholar, tha granddaughter of slaves, and an award-winning author. In 1991 she wrote a book called, “Just a Sister Away,” and she devoted one whole chapter to the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. A colleague suggested I read this chapter in Weem’s book, and I’m thankful I did; a very sacred duty we all share in interpreting the Bible is to seek out the voices of those who have experienced the hard things of the Bible when we have not.
But before I share with you some of Weem’s thoughts on this story, let’s remember how it happened. It started with a promise from God to a man and woman who desperately wanted to have a child. When God visited Abraham at Mamre and promised that Sarah would give birth to a son, Sarah laughed. She laughed because they were too old to have children; she laughed because a son would solve all of their earthly problems; she laughed because with just one word, God could reverse her shame and fear and end the scorn she received from her neighbors. But it was 25 years before God fulfilled the promise. In that time, shame and fear overtook Sarah and in an act of total desperation, Sarah gave her handmaid Hagar to Abraham. Hagar gave birth to a son and named him Ishmael and Ishmael for quite a while was the one and only legitimate heir of Abraham. In time, though, about 14 years later, God made good on the initial promise and Sarah gave birth to a son and named him Isaac. Isaac in the Hebrew language literally means, ‘to laugh.’ After Isaac was born, Sarah was enraged to see Ishmael playing with him. Immediately she ordered Abraham to kick his mistress and her son out of the house, with only a few morsels of bread and some water to keep them alive.
Weems writes that the relationship between Sarah and Hagar is a relationship that has reiterated itself over and over again throughout history. Most recently in the history of our nation, Sarah and Hagar’s relationship made it self known in the scourge of slavery. Weems’ grandmother was a slave and her mother served as a live-in housemaid long after slavery had been abolished. Weems confirms that Sarah is the archetype of a wealthy slave owner. We cringe even at hearing the word slave, but that is what Hagar was. Treated with respect or not; paid or not; given a nice bed and plenty of food or not, Hagar was owned by Sarah. Hagar could do nothing on her own and everything she had belonged to Sarah, including her son Ishmael. Hagar was a piece of property and property cannot own property even if it is a newborn baby boy.
Weems goes on to say that Sarah’s greatest sin in this story is not that she gave her handmaid to Abraham in order to have a child; Sarah’s greatest sin was that she doubted the promises of God. Sarah’s doubt gave her permission to believe that she was defined by what her body was able to do or not. In this way, Sarah was a victim of her times. But she was not just an innocent bystander. In a culture that gave value only to men and male heirs, Sarah was under extreme pressure to give Abraham a boy. Abraham had vast wealth, but this could not protect Sarah from fear and anxiety, from the scorn of her neighbors. Sarah’s life depended on her womb. When her body could not do what society expected it to do, Sarah saw no other hope than in the body of her young, fertile salve. This is where she became more than a bystander in a misogynistic culture. How quickly she had forgotten God’s promise. How quickly she had forgotten that her self-worth was defined by God and not by the culture. How quickly she forgot that Hagar was also a beloved child of God, created in God’s image.
These two things worked in concert: Hagar was a piece of property and Sarah had very few options. If Sarah wanted to maintain her status in the community, she had to have a son, and in order to have a son, she had to enslave Hagar even further. As reprehensible as this story is to our modern ears, it is not uncommon in tribal cultures today and it is not uncommon in the Bible. Just a few chapters later, Rachel gives permission to her husband Jacob to father a child with her handmaid Bilhah. Not only was this type of in-house prostitution an acceptable custom of the times, there are men in the Bible who willingly go along, with their wives’ blessings. For barren women, these relationships helped them to keep their social standing; for the slaves who had to take the place of the barren wife, it did nothing but remind them that they were of little value and easily disposable.
Which brings us for a moment to Abraham. Weems writes that Abraham, like the salve owners of American history, had many choices. Abraham did not have to listen to Sarah; he did not have to send Hagar and Ishmael out with only enough food and water to last them a few hours. Abraham did not have to bow to the expectations of his culture, and he did not have to go along with Sarah’s unforgivable plan. Regardless of Sarah’s instance, as powerful and desperate as it may have been, Abraham, according to some wise words, forgot who he was who’s he was. Just as quickly as Sarah, Abraham forgot that his self-worth was not tied to his ability to produce a son, but that God had called him from all the nations of the earth and had blessed him. Abraham quickly forgot that if God was able to lead them to a land to call their own, God would make good on his promise. Abraham forgot that salve or not, Hagar was a human woman, deserving of respect and dignity.
Weems writes, “Can we deny the sorrow in this story? Can we afford to ignore the lessons of this kind of pain? The answer to both questions is a resounding “No.” The story of Hagar and Sarah touches us in the many places we hide, places which are not often held up for public view. It is a story which also exposes the many hidden scars and ugly memories of the history of relationships between racial ethnic and white women in America. But the story is not limited to the races. It goes beyond race and speaks to class stratification that divides between the professional and the non-professional, the young urban professional and the factory worker, the executive and the store clerk,” those who live on the east side of the tracks and those who live on the west.
The story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar searches out the unconfessed sins of arrogance and low-self esteem, presumptuousness and passiveness, jealousy and faithlessness that we are all guilty of. It calls out the sin that we commit when we work out intricate plans to get others to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. The story is a deep examination of how one person’s belief that they are better than another can ultimately lead to the other person’s death. Abraham and Sarah and Hagar’s tale confirms that there is no such thing as not being involved; in one way or another, active or complicit, we are all involved in the degradation and oppression of another of God’s children—either way, someone is getting hurt. As hard as that is to hear, and as much as you may disagree, it is the truth…it is truth that comes directly from the pages of Scripture.
As a woman, as a person of color, and as a child of God, Weems offers some thoughts on how we might confront this hard thing and work for the things that are better, the things of God. She writes that it will not be easy, and it will require deliberate effort on everyone’s part to listen when it is easier to dismiss. She says that we must be willing to confront and confess the evil in us first, before we point to the evil in the world. She writes that it will require us to work with one another both in spite of and because of the pain. Weems says that we must be ready and willing to respect the genuine differences in one another and to see them as a strength and not as the bane of our existence. She says that black or white, men or women, American or Israeli, rich or poor, Presbyterian or Muslim, abuser or abused, we must work for righteousness together because the luxury of isolation is not something we can afford. And she writes that injustice will continue to tear us apart as long as we alienate ourselves from one another and continue to compromise our unity in the Gospel by bickering over who is right or wrong, or who is in or who is out, or who may come to the table or not, or who stands on the side of God and who does not. Our future, the future of our families, and the future of our world depends on our ability to recognize and tend to the scars as we tunnel through tragedy to the light and love of God that is right within our reach.
So the question I have for you today, the charge that I send you with from this Scripture is this: will you wait for God to intervene on behalf of the oppressed and shut out, or will you step in? Will you continue to do as Sarah did and exploit those around you for your own gain, or will repent and work for equity, fairness, and justice? Will you step in when you see someone being put out, put down, or dragged through the mud, or will you stand by and remain silent? Will you leave here today and say, “Oh, he wasn’t talking to me,” or will you take a moment, just a moment, to think about what God might be saying to you in this moment? Will we all work together for a more just world or will our children weep like Ishmael did over the sins of their parents? Will you send Hagar away? Will you search for and grasp at and cling desperately to your life, or will you lose it for Christ’s sake and the sake of the Gospel? May this story move us today to turn from our ways, to act, and to seek the will and way of the Lord. Amen.