Last week, I pointed out that we were in the midst of reading through the Abraham saga in our Lectionary. This week we continue in that reading. I love the Old Testament, and these readings capture everything that attracts me to the Old Testament.
The stories are masterpieces of construction and terse, precise narration. They capture universal themes and concerns. Today’s story is thousands of years old and yet we can completely identify with its jealousies, anxieties and predicaments.
This alone highlights another fascinating aspect of the Old Testament stories: They make very little effort to idealize the characters. These are not pious hagiographies of saints or tales of heavenly heroes. These are earthy members of humanity. Bound by the same limitations we are. Held hostage by turmoil, doubt, fear; kept alive and vital by wonder, hope and even ingenious manipulation of their circumstances.
As we read these stories, we do not have to scratch the surface very hardto have many of our most basic and fundamental ideas about God, and our faith, challenged.
This week we read of the drama that rips apart a family. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, cannot abide her slave-woman, Hagar, and her son because of her jealousy for her own child, Isaac. Each person in this story is caught in the grip of passion and turmoil.
Sarah, finally, has received the fulfillment of God’s promise of a child. She received the promise with more than a fair amount of doubt, but she has accepted its fulfillment with an equally healthy amount of wonder. Yet her glow is rudely interrupted when she sees that her slave-woman’s son’s presence can only complicate matters of the family’s social and economic stature, not to mention the emotional toil of Abraham’s unavoidable fatherly loyalties.
Hagar, the slave-woman, has been duped and abused by her owner, Sarah. She is given to Abraham as a concubine, raising her social status as she bears him the son Sarah seemingly could not. Though abused by Sarah, she also nurtures an indignant will against her owner, wielding the blessing of a child as an emotional weapon against the barren and aged Sarah.
The jealous rivalry between the two women reaches a breaking point and Sarah tells Abraham to dispose of Hagar and her child. God even appears more than a little dubious in this passage, as he seems to show little concern over Hagar and her son’s health until the boy is cast off to die.
Abraham approaches this crisis in his normal manner. He quietly accedes to the most trying demand upon him. He is stricken by his loves for his sons but is caught between two women and his God. Not, in any way, is this an enviable position.
Isaac, the blessed and promised child, may be the most innocent here. A young boy, he surely knew his brother, borne to Hagar. But when the crisis plays out, he is left without a brother, perhaps wondering where he went and being taught a sense of reality that people dear to you can just disappear and be cast as villains and enemies.
And then there is the one who bears the brunt of the story: the one who was unfortunate enough to be borne from an exercise seeking to force God’s fulfillment of a son; the one who nearly dies; the one who is forced to grow up in the wilderness and make his own family his enemies for centuries to come; the one whose identity is denied to such an extent that his name is never called in this story, even by God.
The boy, cast off and abandoned, set aside to die by his mother, is Ishmael. The last time he is named previous to this story was more than three chapters earlier. Ninety eight verses have passed with Ishmael unnamed. The next time he will be named is when he returns to his brother Isaac to bury his estranged father, Abraham.
Let’s recap a bit:
Sarah, whose name means princess or queen, who will be the mother of Israel, is portrayed as the wicked stepmother.
Hagar, who was granted a visitation with God, assuring her of Ishmael’s own blessings, turns from victim into petulant shrew
Isaac, the favorite son, first born of a new nation, is left wide-eyed and pondering about the who can be trusted and honored.
Abraham, our father in the faith, may have been willing to bargain with God over the welfare of Sodom and Gomorrah, but will not defend his own son’s safety.
Ishmael, once born into the royal family, is left to fend and fight for any dignity that may be given to him.
Now what are we to make of all this? This story brings much the same hope as last week’s story. Last week, I preached about Abraham, the father of Jews, Christians and Muslims. I noted the hope that we can take that such a broken man, such a human man, can be used so powerfully by God.
Our hope this week is very much the same. What can we learn from this passage? That God is present and active even in our most dysfunctional and sloppy moments.
Sarah, Hagar, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac; each player in this drama is a victim of some sort. Each player is also a perpetrator of some sort. Each player is human. Yet God is in their midst; blessing, leading, and redeeming their messes.
This is one of the reasons why I love the Old Testament. Though Paul may wax so poetically in his hymn of love, few of us will ever be able to love so well. Though Jesus paints a beautiful picture of faithfulness, its costs and its paradoxes, in the Beattitudes, few of us will ever be able to fully embrace them and live into them. To counter our despair, the Old Testament offers us stories of ruffians and ne’er-do-wells whom God uses and leads; willing to suffer their mistakes and still seeking their best.
As I walk through this life of faith, as I stumble and misstep, making mistakes more often than not, and sharing the frailty of being human with peers, parishioners and loved ones, I have come to believe that, as the angels stand around God’s throne, the most often phrase they overhear God saying is this: Well, there’s always plan B.
Abraham, Sarah, and their entire clan of dysfunction, are the patrons saints of plan B. That is the hope they offer us. You know, I wrestled with this mightily, seeking some type of amazing insight that will make sense of this passage and put it all into perspective, But I haven't discovered a neat and tidy answer. That in itself is seems like the answer. Our lives are not neat and tidy. But neat and tidy is not a prerequisite for God's presence among us. In fact, it may be just the opposite. The sloppier our lives, the messier our faith, the more God may be with us.
You know, I think God is used to dealing with sloppy lives. God's been doing it for thousands of years, all the way back to Abraham and Sarah, all the way back to Adam and Eve. All the way back to last week, or this morning, and even later this afternoon.