Proper 07 Year A Old Testament
Theme: Two peoples don’t have to remain estranged
Let us pray.
Most holy, Lord God, you have a strange way of showing your blessings upon us; help us to see your great goodness and blessings and may we trust in your love for us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This past Thursday, a cease fire agreement between Israel and Hamas went into effect. Hamas was regularly firing rockets into Israel, while Israel responded with military incursions into Gaza and restricting imports into Gaza. Gaza depends on imports of practically every good for its people. The cease fire was mediated by Egypt.
I can’t remember who I told about this action this past week, but there was cynicism about its prospects. The same cynicism exists among Israelis: Hamas will take advantage of the lull to reload, and Hamas will fail to control militant groups in Gaza, which will cause Israel to cross the border again. Some Israelis say that the government will say they exhausted all possibilities before invading Gaza again. In Gaza, they expect the Israeli army to appear at any moment.
Israel pledged to open the Gaza borders in exchange for a stilling of the rockets. Sanctions are to ease any day.
There is also political movement for Hamas and Fatah to begin talking. Fatah controls the West Bank. Gaza and the West Bank separated when Hamas took control of Gaza. The Palestinian people want reconciliation.
Hamas is declaring victory in that it forced Israel to open up the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza.
Palestinians and Israelis are, at the core, the same people. They are Semitic peoples. According to the Bible, they are cousins. There are Arab people who are Israeli citizens. Arabic and Hebrew are related languages. They have much more in common than what separates them. The truce in Gaza is good step forward.
Our Old Testament story is the story that explained why Arab peoples and Jews are so much alike. They both have Abraham as their father.
As our story progresses, Isaac is now a baby, born to happy and very old parents. Ishmael, born from Sarah’s slave is going to be an issue. When Isaac was weaned, Abraham celebrated with a big party. The Bible is silent as to the exact reason for the feast. Perhaps it is obvious. The joy of the feast is eclipsed by rivalry. Isaac is about three years old and Ishmael is about 17.
Then one day, Sarah noticed that Isaac’s older brother, Ishmael, was poking fun at the young boy. Even though this is pretty normal sibling behavior, Sarah reacted harshly. She told Abraham to kick out Hagar, the slave, and her son, Ishmael. Ishmael is not to inherit anything. It may be that this issue was brewing with Sarah for some time.
Well, this caused Abraham great stress concerning his son, Ishmael. God reassures Abraham and tells him to do as Sarah asks. Isaac will give birth to his descendants. God will make Ishmael into a great nation, too. Abraham didn’t waste any time once he made his decision. The next morning he got up early, gathered up some food and water, placed them on Hagar’s back, and sent her off with her son.
They went into the Beer-sheba desert. When they ran out of water, Hagar put Ishmael under a bush. She then walked off about 50 yards, because she couldn’t bear to watch her son die. She sat down sobbing. It was a practice in the ancient world to abandon children where they might be picked up by merchants or traders. It probably meant a life of slavery, which is better than death. We know the faces of hunger and thirst from photos from around the world. We know this picture.
Rather than merchants, God heard Ishmael crying. Ishmael means “God hears”. So an angel, in heaven, called out to Hagar. This angel can really speak up. The angel told Hagar that she should not be worried. She should not be afraid. God has heard the cries of the boy and knows his situation. Go to him and take his hand. God will make a great nation of him.
It was then God let Hagar see a well. She filled her waterskin and gave the boy a drink. God was with Ishmael. He became a skilled archer. He lived in the Paran desert. His Egyptian mother picked an Egyptian woman for him to marry. Ishmael will have descendants.
This is an unkind story. Do the blessings of Abraham and Sarah mean that someone else is removed by force? If I am blessed by God, can I claim a special status for myself at the expense of others? What rights and responsibilities come with God’s blessing? These are the kinds of questions this story creates.
Ishmael is never mentioned by name in this story – perhaps to minimize his importance. Hagar is named once then referred to as the slave woman. She is chattel. The story makes a turn at verse 14, when Hagar is named and becomes a hero. Hagar is given a few things to eat. Isaac and Sarah get a feast.
In one sense, Sarah is our mother. She is the mother of the other patriarchs. In another sense, Hagar is our mother, because she is the gentile mother of promise.
“The story thus also brings good news to women. It brings good news to people who are enslaved or oppressed, or have slavery or oppression in the history that has shaped them. It brings good news to people of African descent, or of other descent than that of the Asia in which the gospel was born and the Europe in which it long found its best-known home.
“It is then noteworthy that Ishmael himself is the ancestor of the nomadic Arab peoples who live around Israel. The story is a reminder that God stands in covenant relationship with them as well as with Israel. This might imply that God is committed to the Palestinians and the other Arab peoples around Israel as well as to Israel, and to the Islamic community as well as to the Jewish and Christian communities.”
God’s promises and grace is much broader than we can understand. Being blessed by God gives us no special status. God blesses even those who see God differently than we do. Once we try to put limits on God, we are playing out our own anxieties. God will have nothing of it. God will love us to live in peace.
We now pray: Gracious God and giver of all good gifts, thank for your many blessings upon us; may we also reflect your blessings by blessing those around us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
[The New York Times contributed to this sermon.]
Text: Genesis 21:8-21 (NRSV)
8 The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.a 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” 14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
Van Harn, R. (2001). The lectionary commentary: Theological exegesis for Sunday's texts (39). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
a Gk Vg: Heb lacks with her son Isaac
 The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.