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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Get Ready For God's Hopes and Dreams - 06/21/2020

You’ll remember that impossibly and in a way only God could pull off, our fore-parents of the faith, Abram and Sarai, were 100 and 91 years old, respectively, when their son, Isaac, was born. Not having children all those long years was a big deal in their day. Abram needed an heir. And Sarai needed a son to take care of her if Abram died. Pride and ego also played roles, I’m sure. Women who could not bear children were considered cursed and outsiders in that time.

And so, although it may feel very strange and wrong to us, Sarai decided to make one of her enslaved women Abram’s wife too. “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children,” Sarai said to Abram one day. “(Perhaps), she said as she suggested the arrangement “it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” (Gen. 16:2, para)

This story of Hagar and her son Ishmael feels quite relevant, as we are on the heels of the American celebration of Juneteenth, the remembrance of June 19, 1865, the day Texas, the last confederate state, learned about the Emancipation Proclamation—marking the end of chattel slavery in the United States.

I say relevant because I think one of the things this story illustrates for us is that what is created in sin and disregard for any of God’s “very good,” creation carries that stain, that wound, that flaw, with it.

In the case of Sarai and Hagar and Abram, this was evident from the get go. Hagar did become pregnant and when she did, she was not the docile, welcome-mat Sarai expected. She looked with contempt on Sarai. And why not? She did not consent to any of this. I cannot tell you exactly what I would do in a similar situation, but I can guarantee you it would not be sit down and shut up, which, I admit, is really easy for me to say being white, straight, American. It’s an example of my privilege.

Anyway, Hagar pushes back at the situation, and Sarai complains to Abram, who basically washes his hands of the situation saying something like “your slave, your problem,” and Sarai responds with harshness, punishment, discomfort and disrespect. And so Hagar runs away to the dangerous wilderness, where it was very difficult for anyone to survive, let alone a young pregnant enslaved person with nothing but the God-given breath of life and an unborn child within her.

An angel of the Lord found her at a spring in that wilderness. “Hagar, (enslaved) girl of Sarai,” the angel says. Up until this point in this story, her name had not been spoken by anyone. Abram and Sarai only say “her,” or “your slave, your problem.”

But the angel of the Lord calls her by name. “Hagar … where have you come from and where are you going?” (Gen. 16:8)

Hagar tells the angel everything. If it were today, there might be other resources available to someone in her abusive situation, but there were no such things. And so we might be upset or angered to hear the angel counsels Hagar to go back and “submit to Sarai.” (Gen 16:9) The alternatives in the wilderness were likely death or being picked up and enslaved by someone else.

Ugh. This part of the story is difficult, but hang tight. It may not seem like it at times, but God is at work and more mightily than any systems of enslavement and oppression can muster.

The angel of the Lord said to Hagar: “‘I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude…Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction. (Ishmael) shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin.’ So she named the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi,’ which is another Hebrew name for God, but literally means “the God who sees me.”  (Gen 16:10-13, para)

It’s an ominous prophecy for one’s child, no doubt. But it reminds us, when what we create is based in something like the sin of enslaving others, that stain, that wound, that flaw is carried forward. Perhaps that is what is meant by the sins of ancestors being on the shoulders of generations to follow. It is a hard truth, even if God does continue to work through it. And God does.

Hagar returned and submitted herself as the angel had said. We don’t know much about how it went for Hagar and Ishmael over the next 15 years or so. Ishmael was about 14 when Isaac was born and where we re-enter the story today, he is probably about 16. We know Ishmael and Isaac were playing together at this celebration. This glimpse of a child who plays and responds to the infectious personality of a well-rested and fed two-year-old seems to indicate Ishmael found some joy in this imperfect household.

The scene of the two boys playing together brings up another response in the matriarch of the household, who by this point in the story has been renamed Sarah. Surely, over the years, Hagar spoke of what the angel of the Lord promised … that a multitude of descendants would come from her son too. I mean who wouldn’t tell that story?

And so it appears Sarah had become concerned that Ishmael, so close to being a grown man himself, would inherit Abraham’s wealth.

Sarah’s jealousy of Ishmael brings out that punishing, disrespectful side again and she demands Abraham cast Hagar and Ishmael back into the wilderness.

Here we see another sign that these years in this imperfect household have held some blessing for Ishmael. Abraham is very troubled by this whole situation. He appears to be quite fond of Ishmael.

In his troubled prayers, God comes to him and tells him to cast out Hagar and Ishmael, as Sarah is demanding, and not to worry. God’s got it under control.

And here, through the imperfect and sin-soaked situation God’s beloved humans have created, is where God changes everything up. It’s an M.O. we should get accustomed to as students of these stories of how God relates to God’s people.

As soon as we get to the point where we think we can comprehend how God is going to do God promised to Abraham, everything he ever hoped and dreamed à “for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named after you …” God said to Abraham …

…. Every time we get to the point of comprehending what God is up to, God unleashes an even wider hope, an even bigger dream à “As for the son of the (enslaved) woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” (Gen 21: 12-13 para).

It is as if God is saying, “Yep, I’m making good on my covenant with you, Abraham, in case you had any doubt. AND, I’m going to also work through these sins of slavery and oppression to fulfill the covenant with Hagar.”

And it was so. The lines of the children of Abraham were in motion. Through Ishmael, God brought about our Muslim cousins.  Through Isaac and his descendants came our Jewish cousins, including Jesus. And then beyond that, the Christian children of Abraham who came to believe that Jesus is the Messiah who died for our sins and rose from the dead so nothing could get between God and God’s creation anymore – not sin, not being enslaved or being an enslaver, not wayward cultural norms, not even death.

Just when we thought we were comprehending how God keeps the covenant, the promises are expanded beyond anything we could even know to hope for or dream of …

God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah to make of them a God-fearing and stranger-loving people … a people more numerous than the stars of the sky was fulfilled through Isaac and also Hagar and Ishmael, and later a poor, no-name couple called Mary and Joseph, and then one day others called by names like George, Arlene, Jean, Matthew, Deb, Lyon, Ray and so many more.

God’s covenantal promise to provide land on which to make a life was also kept for these Abrahamic cousins and through time and history, also us who live in one of the most beautiful fulfillments of that promise God has created for anyone.

God’s covenantal promise to bless our ancestors so they may be blessings to others came through loud and clear – even through mistakes and bad behavior, jealousy, doubt.

So Hagar and Ishmael were freed from slavery – a first step to a better way God hoped and dreamed for them. God went with them in the wilderness and provided for them and they survived and even thrived.

With the recent celebration of Juneteenth and all the social unrest over the undeniable strands of racism still so easily detectable in our systems and culture, I find this to be a powerful story of conviction and hope.

It convicts us, some of today’s descendants of Abraham, as we consider the conception of this nation. It is a nation formed in many worthy, democratic values … freedom of religion, the rule of law, separation of powers, a free and independent press, a commitment to the general welfare of and justice for all. There’s a lot of good and righteous stuff in our origins. Like our stories of God and God’s people – the promise of these values has been expanded over time to more than only white, land-owning men. But that was where we started. First steps.

And, we must be honest and admit there are stains, wounds and flaws in this nation’s conception too. Some would argue, and I would tend to agree, that the sin of enslaving people and the racism that goes hand-in-hand with slavery and its legacy is a national wound that has got a hold on us like almost nothing else.

Ugh. This part of our story is difficult. But hang tight. It may not seem like it at times, but God is still at work and more mightily than any system of enslavement and oppression can muster.

I think the church has been too quiet about naming racism and standing in opposition to it. I think the church has also been too quiet about the fact that we already have what we need to go forward and help heal that wound instead of pouring salt in it, or worse yet, not naming it and ignoring it – which is another sign of privilege.

What we have is Jesus. This Messiah who came to us as yet another fulfillment of God’s wide-hope and big-dream covenant. Jesus who came not only to save us from our sins but also to teach us to acknowledge our sins and repent, to teach us how to forgive and be forgiven. Jesus taught us to give more of our time to praying and listening so we may know how to best serve neighbor especially those who have little voice and agency of their own. This is a responsibility of privilege.

Jesus taught us to follow the world’s law and also question and challenge it when it falls short of God’s law. He taught us that we can do what is right and hard and sometimes scary and unpopular because it is God who goes with us, guides us, and corrects us when we need it. The very same God who has counted every single hair on your head and would not even let a sparrow fall away without taking note, let alone a Hagar or Ishmael … let alone Abraham or Sarah or Isaac … let alone you or any of us. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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