Image of God, III: The First

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April 22, 2018

Image of God, III: The First

Passage: Genesis 21:8–21

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So 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. —Genesis 21:14


Do you ever get on a crowded “L” car with the diversity of human kind pressed upon you or maybe a commuter airplane that is packed to the gills and marvel, “wow, all these people are made in the image of God”?  That might not be your first thought, particularly if others surround you who are loud or smelly or invading your space.  Try it next time.

In our sermon series, the “Image of God,” Bill and Katie and I are reading stories of our faith alongside the myriad contemporary failures we have of seeing the image of God in one another.

Our scripture is embedded within the sermon rather than a reading at the beginning.

Before we begin, please pray with me.

Creating God, silence in us any voice but yours that we may be startled to hear your truth. Open our eyes to see the divine in one another so we too may be blessed to live in harmony with your beloved.  We offer this prayer in the name of the man of your word who is our savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen. 

I am old fashioned and enjoy reading a paper, newspaper.  Although we receive a number of papers, the Chicago Tribune’s Arts & Entertainment provides the comics and Ask Amy.

Sometimes the questions posed in Amy Dickinson’s advice column echo the challenges you encounter and grace my office with.  Sometimes I read the letters she receives and I am grateful these problems are not in our midst. You just don’t make up how heartbreaking or destructive some of the conflicts that are described in her letters.  As I read them, I always ask myself “How would I respond?”  Sometimes I agree, although not all of her advice feels very pastoral.

Earlier this week, the column featured a letter writer’s “quandary.” She found a photo of her beloved mother-in-law and grandmother to her children who had recently died.  This writer was “appalled” by a 1930’s image of a Halloween office party in which everyone was costumed, including mom/grandma, and some of the people were wearing black face.  Seeking advice from Amy:  does she destroy the photo even though grandma is in it or keep it despite the racism she sees and abhors?[1]

Such is the challenge of our individual family histories and collective faith history.

The beginning of Genesis tells the story of our first family of faith: promise and beginning.  Let’s look at the major characters in this saga as if it were a television series with each episode pulling us in as it reveals new characters and plot twists.[2]  It will be a bit of fast-forward, binge watching affair.

Episode one:

God speaks to Abraham: “Leave your country, your people and your family.  I will make you into a great nation.  I will bless you and you will be a blessing.  All people on earth will be blessed through you.” (Gen 12:1–3).  The three monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam originate from Abraham’s legacy.

This is crazy:  Abraham and his wife, Sarah, were old and childless when God spoke. At God’s direction, he left his country for an unknown land; led by the promise his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in heaven.

The tension is magnified by Sarah’s shameful barrenness, which denied any chance of her participating in this promise.  This late-life folly spotlights the agony she had long born in an Ancient Near Eastern culture that values a woman solely upon the abundance in her womb.  We feel sorry for Sarah as she is dragged half way across the Middle East in pursuit of Abraham’s, but not her blessing.  It is a cliff hanging ending of how this will be resolved.

Episode two:

Enter a new character in the series:  Hagar.  Introduced as Sarah’s Egyptian servant, Hagar seems to be her answer.

Customary at the time, just as a servant’s hands and feet were useful in work, her womb was also at the mistress’ disposal.  Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham as a wife, she conceives, but Sarah gets angry at Hagar’s delight in this promise.  Rather than get between these two women, Abraham washes his hands of the matter and lets Sarah do, as she will.  Her abuse becomes so great Hagar flees into the desert and likely death.

In the desert, God sees this pregnant Hagar and promises her so many children they cannot be counted. After seeing God herself, Hagar becomes obedient, returns to Sarah and gives birth to a son, Ishmael.  Oh, how Sarah fumes as Abraham loves his son.

Episode three:

Another new character enters along with more complexity.

By divine intervention, Sarah conceives a child by Abraham and Isaac is born.

Listen what happens next as I read our scripture lesson from Genesis, chapter 21.

Isaac grew and stopped nursing. On the day he stopped nursing, Abraham prepared a huge banquet. Sarah saw Hagar’s son playing, the one Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham. So she said to Abraham, “Send this servant away with her son! This servant’s son won’t share the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

 This upset Abraham terribly because the boy was his son. God said to Abraham, “Don’t be upset about the boy and your servant. Do everything Sarah tells you to do because your descendants will be traced through Isaac. But I will make of your servant’s son a great nation too, because he is also your descendant.”

 Abraham got up early in the morning, took some bread and a flask of water, and gave it to Hagar. He put the boy in her shoulder sling and sent her away.

 She left and wandered through the desert. Finally the water in the flask ran out, and she put the boy down under one of the desert shrubs. She walked away from him about as far as a bow shot and sat down, telling herself, I can’t bear to see the boy die. She sat at a distance, cried out in grief, and wept.

 God heard the boy’s cries, and God’s messenger called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “Hagar! What’s wrong? Don’t be afraid. God has heard the boy’s cries over there. Get up, pick up the boy, and take him by the hand because I will make of him a great nation.”

 Then God opened Hagar’s eyes, and she saw a well. She went over, filled the water flask, and gave the boy a drink. God remained with the boy; he grew up, lived in the desert, and became an expert archer. Ishmael lived in the Paran desert, and his mother found him an Egyptian wife.

Throughout scripture, Abraham is the model for faith.  He left his homeland for the unknown.  In this story, he trusts God will not allow Hagar’s son to die so a great nation will live under his name—as numerous as the heavens. Later, when God tests his faith by asking him to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham complies, again, trusting in God.

Sarah appears as the paragon of matriarchs, who brings about a nation from a barren womb.  She was devoted to her husband, his dream, his blessing, and willingly humiliated herself with Hagar, for him.  Sarah plays a starring role by bearing the son to whom we trace the birth of Judaism and the seed of Christianity.

The Egyptian servant, Hagar, had a few close calls with death, was obedient to God, and had the privilege to be given to Abraham as a wife.

Ishmael flourishes; giving rise to what becomes Islam.  As a faithful son, later in Genesis, he returns to join his half-brother Isaac at the burial of their father.

God kept God’s promise to Abraham.

This would seem a happy ending in our family faith drama if it were told on the Hallmark channel.

But, if we remove the lens of those who have interpreted them throughout the ages—Hebrew, urban, elite, and male—and read this with an eye for all of God’s creation, including women, the ethnic minority, and common laborer, we see deeply flawed characters.

You knew I was going to do this, unmask the patriarchy, racism, and sexism from this story so we can see the lives of our ancient ancestors of faith are not much different from our lives today.  Without changing one word in our sacred text, but rather reading it with integrity, this is edgy like Netflix or Amazon Prime, filled with betrayal, abandonment, and abuse.

Abraham. Yes, he is faithful to God beyond imagination.  But, despite his power, he is a pawn in the women’s struggle and defines himself idolatrously by his offspring.

Sarah believed Hagar’s body was merely a tool at her disposal. It is a chilling paradox:  she refused to see Hagar as a human yet human enough to take possession of her womb.  Dominance and wealth preservation guided Sarah’s actions.

Hagar was called an “Egyptian servant.” It is a pleasant euphemism for slave, since she was likely captured when Abraham and Sarah were in Egypt and has been in bondage ever since. She is the first minority to be oppressed and the first #metoo to be sexually exploited.

Hagar’s encounter with her Hebrew mistress is hauntingly reminiscent of the black slavewomen and white owners during US slavery.  Over and over tales are recounted about rape of blackwomen by white masters only to be compounded by brutal beatings by white mistresses who penalized the slave for their husband’s lust.[3]

Hagar is not a bit player in our first family of faith. She is the first woman to be visited by God’s messenger, the first and only woman to see God and live, and the first to weep for a dying child. Hagar is the first individual to experience God’s redemption.  She looks far more like Jesus than Abraham ever has.[4]

Saving the best for last:  Ishmael.  God gives him the name Ishmael which means, “God heard.”  In the desert with no water, no future, God hears his cries.  Ishmael is not the exiled one who stands forever outside of our faith, but bear’s God’s image as everyone else who walks the earth.

Just as Ishmael must have wept for the senselessness of Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham’s ways, maybe it will take our children’s weeping on our behalf—our children’s weeping for the sins and prejudices and stubbornness of parents—to convince God to intervene on our behalf.

None of us are safe from the ravages of a society that makes room for only a chosen few and keeps the vast majority impoverished.  For those educated and employed, there is the potential to be Sarah, and far too many opportunities for her to surface.

A faithful interpretation of this story could elevate each character as a beloved child of God.  Throughout the story, God is the star, ensuring each of God’s precious creation is seen, redeemed, and loved.

Our dramatic series continues onward with sequels and episodes. For all the times someone avoided, ignored, abused, and refused to see the divine image God implanted in everyone, the plot would twist, and good news would be revealed, oft times through the most unlikely character.

Our faith story culminates at this table before us and the story Jesus has asked us to tell through the ages.   Here, he invites everyone to join him, whether we are male or female, slave or free, aggressor or victim, all are welcome to receive his grace and to be reconciled through his life to each other and to God.

[1] Amy Dickinson, “Family wonders what to do with racist family photo,” in “Ask Amy,” Chicago Tribune, April 17, 2018, accessed April 18, 2018,
[2] Kathleen M. O’Connor, “Abraham’s Unholy Family:  Miroror, Witness, Summons,” Journal for Preachers, (Advent 1997), 26–33.  O’Connor’s approach to describing the events of Genesis in the form of a series of episodes inspired this framework.
[3] O’Connor, Journal for Preachers, 30.
[4] Samuel Well, “Casualties of Destiny,” Journal of Preaching, (Easter 2009), 20.