St. James Episcopal Church
Monkton, Maryland

Sermon
Isaac and Ishmael
The Rev. Dr. Heyward Macdonald
Saint James Monkton
Sermon, Proper A-7
June 23, 2002
 
You will notice that the Old Testament reading
is different from that used
in our normal bulletin insert.

There is a subtle revision of our cycle of readings
called the Revised Common Lectionary
which we can now use,
if we choose.

Its intent is to tell stories
not usually told;
perhaps, to learn lessons
not always learned.

So, this reading from Genesis of Ishmael and Hagar
I am quite sure
has never before been read
in Saint James Church.

It is a gripping story.
It is a story which illustrates
all kinds of failure of human spirit,
but also one which proclaims
all kinds of grace and power of God
to make things right.

The story begins
with an ancient domestic dispute.

One has to understand Semitic custom of that day.
Abram and Sari were 100 years old
and childless.

That, to an ancient Semite
was a bad message.

Not having children was taken
as a sign of God's displeasure,
and, being 100 years of age
means that there was no possibility
of being so blessed.

In addition,
not having children when one became disabled
was to die.
So, custom allowed Sari
to take to Abram one of her slave girls
with whom to have a child.

This she did,
and a son was born to Hagar, the Egyptian,
and Abram gave him the name, Ishmael.

Then, Abram and Sari were visited by angels,
- messengers of God -
who said that Sari would have a son,
and the messengers
changed their names to Sarah and Abraham,
for they were to be parents
of a great nation.

Sarah laughed at the angels.
One of them looked back,
and said, essentially,
"You won't be laughing in a couple of months."

Indeed, Sarah had a son
and Abraham called him
by the name, Isaac;"

but -

but, what now of the son of the slave girl?

It is here that our story of today begins.
Sarah now had her own son
and looked with envy and anger
upon the son of the slave girl;
for now, her own son
would have to share the wealth and the name
of Abraham.

"Cast her out!
and that son of hers!"
screamed Sarah, again and again.

Abraham couldn't stand up
to the onslaught,
and did as she demanded.

He gave Hagar and her little son, Ishmael,
a loaf of bread and a skin of water
so they wouldn't die in sight of camp,
and sent them into the desert.

This is not a pretty story.

In the text, God tells Abraham that it is OK
to let him off the horns of his moral dilemma,

but, that, in my reading at least,
is an attempt by the story writer
to save the good name of father Abraham.

So, when the water in the skin was gone,
Hagar put her dehydrating child
down in the shade,
and walked 100 ft away,
so she wouldn't have to watch,
and wept her own dry tears.

This story, my friends
is the skeleton in Abraham's closet.

How do you feel about finding it?
Are you disappointed?
Are you angry?
Are you, perhaps,
more accepting of our own dark places?

Are you more able to open the door,
let the light shine in,
and be freed
from what St. Paul called
"that body of death"?

But, wait.
It gets better.

God was there all along,
and came to Hagar
in her moment of hoplessness,
and said,
"Do not be afraid.
Hold the boy,
for I will make of him a great nation,
just as I shall of his brother, Isaac."

Hagar opened her dried-out eyes
and saw before her
a well,
such as shown in the 17th century painting
reproduced on the bulletin cover.

Hagar filled her water skin
and ran to the little boy,
and they lived in the wilderness of Paran.

He married an Egyptian girl
and became the father of a great nation.

Here is a wonderful story
of God making good out of the evil
done even by the great patriarch, Abraham.

These stories have power.
Look for God to work in your life as well.

Now, a real thorny problem presents itself.
We don't have to let the call of God so work.

We can refuse to open our eyes to God
and find the well of the water of life.

A case in point rears its ugly head daily,
for, this story of Hagar and Ishmael
is claimed by Islam
as their heritage.

They see Ishmael as their father
and Isaac as the father of the Jews.
Therefore, their perceived heritage
begins in rejection and attempted murder
of their father, by the Jews.

What they don't perceive
is God's favor for both the brothers,
and they don't read the end of the story;

for, eventually,
Ishmael journeyed to the house of Isaac.
They were re-united
and buried their father, Abraham, in peace.

The teaching is clear.
Regardless of perceived hurts and slights
or even outright evil done to any one of us,
individually or collectively;
if we open our eyes, dried with tears,
we can find the well
of God's water of life.

We can move past the death,
to be reconciled
and become fruitful for God.

Jesus knew all of this,
and nails it
in his stories as recorded
in today's Gospel reading.

To his disciples, he says, "See,
I am sending you as sheep among wolves."

No one ever said this world
would be either fair or safe.
It is neither.

"Brother will betray brother," he says;
not because it is God's doing,
but because it is just the way people get
if they don't open their eyes in time.

Later on, Jesus says to his disciples,
If you are rejected,
shake off the dust from your feet
as you leave the town.

This was not to be done as a curse
but as a sign that they were to take
none of that animosity of the townspeople
with them.

Leave it behind, forgive,
and get along God's journey.

Seek not retribution
but rather shout the truth of God's love
from the rooftops, he said.

For, God loves every one of his children;
even as he does the birds of the air
and the hairs on your head.

To deny this reconciling view
of God's nature
is to reject God.

To deny it
is to refuse to open one's eyes
and to engage yet another cycle
of retribution and violence
- sometimes subtle, often not.

If you feel like an outcast
listen in your desert for God's whisper.
You can hear it in these stories.
You can experience it in these liturgies.
You can be incorporated into it
in this community of faith.

Let go of your fears and your hurts.
They will kill you,
- dry you up.

Open your eyes
and discover the well of God
and the water of life.

For, God is always near.

I don't know how to make this work
for the suffering people of the Middle East.
I have to leave that to God.

But I know, I know,
that God can make it work
for me.
 

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