Thursday, June 26, 2014

Family Feud

8The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.9But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.10So 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."11The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son.12But 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.13As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring."14So 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.
15When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes.16Then 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.17And 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.18Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him."19Then 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.
20God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.21He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
Have you ever watched the TV show Family Feud? It’s a game show that pits one family against another. It’s a friendly competition to see who can answer the most questions and take home some prizes. The game works because everyone wants to win.

Not too different from our family feud between Sarah and Hagar, the mothers of Abraham's sons. God has promised a wonderful inheritance to Abraham—decedents as numerous as the stars and blessings in abundance that he will share with the world. Trouble is Old Father Abraham now has two sons.  One man. Two mothers. Two sons. Understanding what is happening in the Bible reading today requires that we know the back-story of this family.

God made a promise to Abraham telling him that he would live in a fertile land and be the father of a new nation. The trouble was Abraham didn’t have any kids and he and his wife Sarah were past child-bearing age. I’m not talking late 40s where a woman might be surprised. I’m talking OLD age, the point where it'd comical for a woman to conceive if it weren't so terrifying. At one point when God talks about the promise of children, Abraham falls on his face laughing at God because it seems ridiculous. Sarah chuckles as well.

And, not surprisingly, Sarah does not conceive. She worries. She frets and feels like a failure. So, finally she "gives" her Egyptian slave Hagar to Abraham to take as a wife. This was the common solution for infertility in Sarah’s day. Can’t have a baby? Insist that one of your slaves bear your husband’s seed and keep the child as your own. Hagar ends up pregnant.

Suddenly there is a power shift in the house and Sarah begins to feel inadequate. Hagar’s growing belly is more than Sarah can bear. So, she “afflicts” Hagar and treats her harshly. Hagar runs away and God appears to her and tells her to return.  God makes HER a promise similar to the promise made to Abraham. God says:

I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.” 11And the angel of the Lord said to her, “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction (Genesis 16).

Hagar is slave woman who gets a promise from God. She talks to God. She sees God. God addresses her directly. She names God. And God tells her to go back to that awful woman who keeps mistreating her.

Hagar returns, submits to Sarah and gives birth to Abraham’s first-born named Ishmael, which means God hears. For a number of years it seemed like a good plan, until…surprise…Sarah discovers she is pregnant.

Then Sarah gives birth to Abraham’s child. The second-born child is Isaac, which means he laughs. Given that Sarah was old and times were hard, parents didn’t really celebrate their children until they had a better chance at survival, usually around three years old. Sarah and Abraham host Isaac’s weaning party, a celebration of his survival.

So now we have:
  • Abraham with a direct God promise and a promise through Hagar
  • Hagar with a direct God promise
  • Sarah with a promise through Abraham
  • Ishmael and Isaac with promises through their parents

Our reading today picks up mid-drama. Father Abraham now has two heirs. As you might guess, tensions were high in the household. Abraham knows that both sons have promises from God for fertility and nationhood. Sarah worries that Hagar is giving her the hairy eyeball and is hostile.  Hagar has been too haughty and Sarah thinks that Ishmael is mocking Isaac. And of course, Sarah is feeling all mama bearish about her own son. Imagine the family dinners!

In the family structure, Sarah has all the power. She's the #1 wife. She is the one to whom and through whom God promised the descendants for the covenant we share with Abraham.  Now that she had her own son, she didn’t want or need Hagar and Ishmael. In fact, as Abraham’s firstborn, Ishmael was a threat to Isaac’s inheritance. And so, Sarah decided, he had to go. 

Sarah and Abraham send them out into the desert with some meager rations. They are shunned—banished—left to fend for themselves while Sarah, Isaac and Abraham continue their lives as usual.

And it doesn’t go well for Hagar and Ishmael. They don’t have enough water to make much of a journey and before long they are dying of thirst in the desert. They are weak and light headed. Ishmael gets to the point where he can’t walk anymore so she drags him and places him under a bush so that she doesn’t have to watch her son, her only son, die.

I imagine Hagar sitting there delirious in the hot sun wondering what is happening. What about that promise of decedents that God made to her? How can it happen if Ishmael dies? Hagar is watching her future die before her eyes.

Hagar cries and wails. And, God hears. God says:

As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation

Hagar’s eyes are opened and she miraculously sees the water they need to survive. And indeed they do, because Hagar gets a wife for Ishmael from her homeland of Egypt and he has many sons. God’s promises are fulfilled.

In the Sarah-Hagar-Abraham drama, we have two very clear and very similar promises of fertility and nationhood. Sarah seems to worry that there may not be enough inheritance to go around. She believes God’s resources are finite. She seems to think that blessings, love and inheritance can go to either Sarah’s child or Hagar’s child but not both.

We worry about that, too, don’t we? How could we possibly love a second, third or fourth child or niece or nephew as much as we love our first? How can our hearts hold enough love for all of them. But, over the course of our lives, we learn that love is expansive. It grows and changes with the people we care about.

Sarah and Hagar feud and fight. They are elbowing for position, drawing lines and creating boundaries. But the way I read this story, the boundaries are selfish--an attempt to keep all of the power and inheritance rather than share it or risk losing it. Sarah isn’t willing to give up her inheritance because it feels like giving up her future.

We often talk about children as the future of our society. Issac and Ishmael are the embodiment of the future. They are symbols of God’s promise for the days ahead. We have one son within the Abraham and Sarah line and one in the Abraham and Hagar line. One on the inside of our covenant and one on the outside. The Bible says that God is with them both.

Isn’t this the way we think of God acting in our world? We think God is inside our lines—inside our community, inside our denomination, inside our church. Do we spend time thinking about how God might be working on the outside. Is God making promises to people that we do not expect?

It's interesting how different things would be if we had Sarah as the matriarch. If we sang about Mother Sarah instead of Father Abraham. 

Mother Sarah had many sons. 
Many sons had Mother Sarah. 

If that were the case we could claim authority on God and the exclusivity of God’s care. But that’s not the story. The song and our heritage are traced to Father Abraham. Father Abraham, the man who sired two sons. Both of whom receive a promise of a multitude of descendants and nationhood.

And that’s the lesson. We may create boundaries. Even God may create boundaries. But God is free to work inside of them and outside of them.

We don’t control God. God does not conform to our rules or expectations. We may call ourselves a chosen people because of our heritage, faith or practice, but God is free to choose whomever God pleases. This foundational Bible story shows us that God’s work and care goes beyond the boundaries that we sometimes expect.

We learn from Sarah that when we think we’ve got it all in control, when we plan and orchestrate to MAKE God’s will happen, God still works in God’s ways. You know what happens when we make plans, right? Isaac--He laughs and does what God wants.

We learn from Hagar that even when things are out of control, when we are shoved aside or pushed outside the boundaries and feeling hopeless, Ishmael—God hears. God responds to our cries with steadfast love.

Our family feuds often occur because we want God to work for US, instead of the other way around. Trying to make exclusive claims about the God who created the earth and all that is in it--including the people--places human limits on God. It can't be done. We can’t imagine that God might have enough love those people outside our boundaries AND for us. We don’t trust that God’s future emerges from God’s own hand and not our own.

Over and over again in the Bible, God goes outside the bounds to care for people. People like Ishmael, you and me. 

God goes into the wilderness to find us-- whether it's a desert, the wilderness of sin or the wilderness of this world in which we live. Remember, God so loved the world that he crossed the boundary of heaven to be here with you and me. Christ showed us that sometimes God walks with ordinary people. God gives promises to people who don’t deserve it.  God has given you a wonderful inheritance. You can claim it, but you can't control it. 

Don’t scheme and feud about how to keep God's promises for yourself. Share them and watch them grow.

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