Continuing our series of sermons using Dr Meg Warner’s book ‘Abraham: A Journey Through Lent ‘ delivered by Rev Dr Phil Wall
Readings: Genesis 21:1-21
Having a Dad who is technologically ignorant – who has never been on the internet – is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, when it comes to things such as booking flights or renewing insurance online, I get a few additions to my to do list. On the other hand, it means I can often have some fun when ordering things from the internet for him. For example, last Christmas we all converged on my sister’s house in Blackpool for our celebrations and to make the train journey easier for him, I ordered most of his presents to be delivered straight to her house…and with certain delivery companies, you get to write a message for each present. Hence why my sister’s present from my Dad this year read ‘Happy Christmas Nicola, all my love, Dad. PS Here’s hoping 2018 is the year you finally get your face fixed. PPS Isn’t your brother wonderful? He’s definitely my favourite!’.
Somehow, she worked out that her annoying little brother was responsible for that…and I was joking, of course. About being my Dad’s favourite – we’re still hopeful about the face! No, over the years my sister and I have often joked about who was the favourite, who was currently wearing the golden crown out of the two of us. It went back and forth for several years whilst these days, we know neither of us have got a chance – for it’s firmly owned by the grandsons!
My sister and I can joke about all this because we’re blessed to know that our Dad loves us equally. There is no chosen child or golden crown and even today he makes a painful effort at Christmas to spend the exact same amount of money on both of us as a symbol that we’re loved equally. For us then, such talk is fun. For others it can be truly painful as their experience might be of a parent figure who treats one sibling with more or less affection than another, sparking years of conflict, low self-esteem, bitterness, driving ambition and a whole load of other potential burdens. Some of these then end up getting played on the world stage where religious and political leaders claim that our Divine Parent has their favourites too. It’s the Jews or the Muslims; it’s the Catholic, it’s the Protestants; it’s the Americans or Caucasians; it’s the straight, the male, the select, elect elite…we so often seem to divide humanity into smaller and smaller sub-sections, claiming that it’s our tribe who really wear the golden crown; it’s our group of people who were really chosen – diminishing God’s blessing to a single religion, nation or skin colour.
Well, this morning we reach ground zero on both human commonality and division as Father Abraham watches one son get chosen over the other.
So what do we have here? Well, in the verses preceding our reading, we learn that after decades of not being able to have children; after laughing at God’s promises; and turning to surrogacy through the slave-girl Hagar, Sarah finally becomes pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. It’s a huge blessing for Abraham and Sarah – proof that God’s promises are coming true through a son of their own to love and adore. But what of the son that Abraham already had? What of Ishmael? Well, sometimes extended families are like expanding circles of love where a new addition to the family only widens and deepens the already existent abundancy of love. This, however, was not one of those times. Sarah looks over at the boy Ishmael and wants rid of him and any claim to Abraham’s inheritance that he may have. “Cast out this slave woman with her son,” Sarah spits, “for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”
I wonder how you react to hearing those words. Perhaps you recoil in horror at the jealousy, the venom, the lack of compassion in them. Or perhaps you can empathise with them. If you’re a mother, or indeed a father, perhaps you can identify with that primeval desire to protect your offspring – the flesh of your own flesh – to keep them safe by any means possible.
As someone who isn’t a parent, I find it hard to empathise with Sarah’s outlook here but I do recognize its stubborn prevalence in the world today. Surely it’s this very thinking that lies at the foundation of so much xenophobic thinking today. Isaac no more deserved Abraham’s inheritance than Ishmael for neither could control to whom they were born, yet Sarah was keen to keep such blessing away from the boy born to the foreigner. This is the same argument we see plastered on the tabloids and peddled by those promoting Britain First or for God to Bless one country over others. Even though we no more deserve a better life because of the accident of to whom we were born, so many of us want to protect our inheritance from foreigners so we chose to build bigger walls, call for less overseas aid, to hunker down and guard the inheritance for our children whilst casting out the women and young children outside of our own tribe. After all, we’re the chosen ones and we don’t want to share this land of milk and honey with anyone else so let them be sent into the desert, the refugee camp or even the Mediterranean Sea whilst we can focus on protecting our own.
For Abraham, of course, Ishmael was his own and there’s no reason not to believe that he developed a deep love for his son as the years went by. The fact that we’re told that Abraham was greatly distressed by the situation adds weight to this. But then God intervenes. The God of justice, the God of grace, the God of love – things are gonna be fine. Just listen.
“Abraham,” God says, “Do not be distressed.” Told you! “Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you.”
Wait a minute, what?! Do whatever Sarah says?! Do whatever the one who is calling for a slave woman and her young son to be thrown into the desert alone, says?! What is going on here? Are those who say that God’s got favourites actually right?!
It certainly can appear that way – both in this story and in life. Yet if we keep reading, keep going with God, hoping that God’s goodness will shine through, I think we might hear a deeper truth…
“Do whatever Sarah says,” God continues in his conversation with Abraham, “As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”
Perhaps, then, God had chosen Isaac. Yet when Ishmael’s life is in the balance, it appears that God chooses Ishmael too. As the story enfolds this becomes all the clearer to us. In Hagar’s darkest hour, God hears the voice of Ishmael and sends an angel to comfort his mother. God opens Hagar’s eyes and quenches her thirst. God tells her not to be afraid for God will make a great nation for Ishmael. And as the Sun goes down on Hagar and Ishmael’s story, for now at least, we’re told that God was with the boy. God was with the boy. Ishmael was not alone, unchosen, abandoned, but was with God. Far from simply being a story about division and injustice, what we might glimpse instead is a story of how God cannot help but choose blessing and grace and life. In the words of the Presbyterian writer Fredrich Buechener, “[this] is the story of how in the midst of the whole unseemly affair, the Lord, half tipsy with compassion, went around making marvellous promises, and loving everybody, and creating great nations, like the last of the big-time spenders handing out ten dollar bills.”
Those of us here who watched and discussed the film ‘The Shack’ recently might see an echo of this view of God in the recurring line that God says to the main character, “I’m particularly fond of you.” It’s a line that God says about all Her children, for she’s particularly fond of each of us. Perhaps this is what Ishmael heard as he grew with God. That the God who is particularly fond of Isaac and Sarah is also particularly fond of Hagar, the African slave woman, and of Ishmael, her son.
Perhaps, when we listen to God’s whisper, we might hear the same today. That the God who is particularly fond of Jews and Christians is also particularly fond of Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, Jains and Sikhs. The God who is particularly fond of Britain and America is also particularly fond of Kenya and South Sudan, of the EU and Syria, of Palestine, Ethiopia and North Korea. The God who is particularly fond of the chosen and saintly, the ones whose lives seem so easy and blessed and good, is also particularly fond of the disreputable and forgotten, the poor, the ill, the loud and annoying, the quiet and despairing, the fat, the thin, the old, the young, the straight, gay, transgender, black, brown, white, disabled, able-bodied…that God is particularly fond of me – of course! – and God is particularly fond of you too. This is what I think the tale of Isaac and Ishmael might teach us. That whilst we often spend our time worrying about who wears the golden crown, who will get the inheritance, who is in and who should stay out…God is with each of us, saying, ‘I hear you, I choose you, I love you,’ for God seems incapable of doing any other.
Perhaps then, this morning this is what we need to hear again. Perhaps there are friends here who feel overlooked, unworthy or unloved. And if there are, I pray that you will hear God calling your name and saying ‘I am particularly fond of you’. I pray that we all get drenched in God’s love in this place and that such love might cascade out to the people around us during the week, might reach the thirsty desert wanderers who are yet to drink in God’s love. I pray that any thoughts that others don’t deserve what we have are washed away as we are reminded once again that we are blessed through God’s grace; we are cwtched by the God who is with each of us; we are chosen and loved by the God who is particularly fond of us all. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Do you see good news in the story of Hagar and Ishmael? If so, where? If not, what do you did with it?
Do you see good news in the story of our world today? If so, where? If not, how do you respond?
Who are ‘the others’ in our community/church? What causes the othering and how is it expressed? What can you do to challenge such division?
Prayers of intercession
On this Mothering Sunday, we celebrate all the women and men who have reflected your parental provision and mothering love through the years.
We remember Sarah,
who grieved for many years because she was childless.
we pray for those who feel excluded
when we emphasis one kind of family as normal.
We remember Hagar, Sarah’s servant
who was sent into the wilderness because of having a child.
Today we pray for all people who are persecuted for their gender, sexuality or status.
We remember Esther,
who was adopted and raised by her cousin.
God who embraces us all,
we pray for those who cannot be raised by their parents,
for a short time or permanently.
We remember Hannah,
who loved her child so much she handed him over to another to raise.
we pray for parents who have placed their child in another family.
We remember Naomi,
who grieved the death of her sons.
God, who grieves with us,
we pray for parents who mourn the death of a child,
and those who mourn the loss of a parent.
We remember Ruth,
who gave up her family to be family to another.
we pray for those who choose to be family
to those isolated by culture or language or distance.
We remember Elizabeth,
who had a child in old age
and we remember Mary,
who had a child as a teenager.
we pray that as a community we accept people in all the stages
of life, responsibilities and relationships.
We remember Rachel,
crying for her children
God of justice and hope,
we pray for those whose children are injured or killed,
and look to a time when children can live safely in their communities.
We remember Lois and Eunice,
who taught Timothy faith by their example.
we pray for those who teach us faith by their lives,
may we remember that we also teach about you in the way we live.
We remember other people not named in the Scriptures,
like the mother of the prodigal son.
we pray for those who wait for a phone call or a visit,
cut off from family and friends by distance and disagreement.
May they know your loving presence.
And, in a moment of quiet, we bring to you the people and places on our hearts that are in particular need of your love today.
Mothering God, we give thanks for those
who enrich our lives by their presence
who teach us about your abundant love
who encourage us to journey in faith.
Bless them and us, so that the world must be blessed, transformed and redeemed in your name. This we pray in the words of our brother and saviour, Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray saying…
Our Father, who art in heaven…
Prayers offered by Rev. Patty Lawrence. Adapted by Phil Wall and Sue Walkling