When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 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. 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. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 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.
God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt. Genesis 21:8-21 (NRSV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Since April, I’ve been a weekly television series on Hulu called The Handmaid’s Tale. Have any of you seen it? Well, it’s based upon a book with the same title written by Margaret Atwood in 1985.
It’s set in the near future in New England, in a totalitarian theocracy that has overthrown the United States government. Did you hear the word “theocracy” there? This society--this theocracy--is one that is based upon a deeply perverted misreading of the laws and codes of the Old Testament. The leaders of this culture believe that they are being punished by God for dangerously low reproduction rates. That they have failed to fulfill God’s mandate to be fruitful and multiply.
The story is narrated by Offred, a handmaid. A young woman, fertile and in her prime child-bearing years, who has been assigned to bear children for an elite couple who has trouble conceiving a child. Offred is not her real name. As a handmaid, her name consists of the word “of” followed by the name of her commander, who in this case is Fred. Of-Fred.
Every month, when she is most fertile, she is required to have impersonal, wordless sex with the Commander while his wife sits behind her, holding her hands. Her freedom, like the freedom of all women, is completely restricted. She can leave the house only on shopping trips. The door to her room cannot be completely shut. And the Eyes, who are the secret police force, watch her every public move.
And, as I’ve been watching it, I’ve been struck by the growing power struggle between the two women--the commander’s handmaid and his wife--to be the one who is most important to the commander.
It’s a frightening and disturbing story. And it’s similarities to the story today of the power struggle between Hagar and Sarah are just as frightening and disturbing.
That’s really what this is, isn’t it? A power struggle, right? A struggle between two women to gain power in their relationship with Abraham. A struggle between two women whose only power in society comes through their potential to produce an heir.
But, wait a minute. I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
Our story opens today with Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah. He has now reached the point in time to be weaned. In our world, this might mean that he was 8-9 months old, perhaps a little older. In the time of our story, he would have been breastfed until he was 2 or 3 years old. Infant mortality rates were very high. That Isaac had reached this point was a big deal. A rite of passage. Reaching this age gave much greater certainty to both Abraham and Sarah that Isaac would live to actually become Abraham’s heir.
It was cause for celebration. So, that’s just what they did. Our story tells us that Abraham prepared a huge banquet.
It was during this celebration, or perhaps a short time later, that Sarah saw Ishmael laughing. You remember Ishmael, don’t you? He was the first-born of Abraham. The son of Hagar. Hagar, the Egyptian. Sarah’s slave given to Abraham. Given so he could have sex with her to make an heir. Since Sarah was barren and unable to produce one herself.
When Sarah saw Ishmael laughing, she got angry. It’s hard to really know why this made her so angry. Perhaps, seeing Ishmael reminded her of her former barren state. Perhaps, seeing him reminded Sarah of the way in which Hagar had treated her after Ishmael was born. How Hagar, who was able to produce an heir, had shown disrespect to Sarah, her master.
Or perhaps it’s because when Sarah saw Ishmael, she was reminded that he was still a potential threat to Isaac. To Isaac’s inheritance. In a society where a woman’s entire value was measured by her ability to produce an heir. In a society where a woman’s only source of power was through her children and, specifically, through her sons. In a society where a woman was completely dependent upon the wealth and inheritance of her husband and her sons. It is no surprise that Sarah viewed Ishmael, and also Hagar, as a potential threats to Isaac and to herself.
And, so, Sarah goes to Abraham. And she demands that he send her away. That he divorce her.
Abraham is very distressed by Sarah’s request. That she should ask him to send away his son. (Do you notice that our text says nothing about a concern for Hagar?)
Yet, God speaks to Abraham. Tells him to comply with Sarah’s request. So, Abraham packs up some bread and a small amount of water and sends Ishmael and Hagar away. Into the desert. Where their water runs out. Where Hagar, who can’t bear to watch her son die, puts him under a tree a distance a way. She can’t watch and, yet, she still hears his cries.
If feels wrong somehow, doesn’t it? That God would side with Sarah in this mess. This big mess. Much of which is Sarah’s own making. It just feels wrong. That the woman who is the slave, the one with even less power than her mistress, the one who complied with Sarah’s wishes. It just feels wrong that she should be sent away. With her son. Who is even more innocent. That they should both be punished. Be cast aside. And that God would go along with it. It just feels wrong, doesn’t it?
How many times has this happened to you? That you’ve been cast aside? Been in a position with no power and been pushed aside? Pushed to the edges of your family? Or your friends? Or pushed to the edges of society? Like the elderly, like the disabled, like the poor, like those who are gay, or undocumented, or those who skin is the wrong color? Or those with the wrong religion or belief system. Cast out. Pushed to the edges. Where it seems as though they’ve been abandoned by family, by friends, by our world. Perhaps, even, by God?
But, this isn’t the end of the story.
As the first season of the Handmaid’s Tale came to an end, Offred, the handmaid, learned that there were a number of people working quietly, working underground. Resisting. Resisting the the evil theocracy and those who had so devalued women. She begins to understand that this is not the end of the story.
The desert scene with Hagar and Ishmael also wasn’t the end of the story. We read that God heard Ishmael’s cries. God came to Hagar and took both of them to a well where they might receive sustenance. Where they might receive life-giving water. And, then, God promised them greatness.
God hears you, too. God hears you and I and all those who have been cast aside, all who are on the edges. Broken, beaten down. Wracked by sin and guilt. Hurt by the evil of the world. God hears and comes, too. God takes us to the well and gives us water. Life-giving water.
And, then, God promises greatness. Greatness that comes through love. Through the loving and life-giving act of Christ on the cross. Through the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.
We are called to this greatness through love. A love we have received through nothing we have done, but solely a result of God’s own love. A love that transforms and changes. A love that hears you and I and leaves no one cast out.
This is the nature of our God. God leaves no one cast out or alone, left to die. No one.
For this, we praise God in the words of the psalmist today, “You are great! You do wondrous things! You alone are God!
Preached June 25, 2017, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Third Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39