Only the Lonely, VII: One Among the Stars

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June 21, 2020

Only the Lonely, VII: One Among the Stars

Passage: Genesis 21: 8–21

Bible Text: Genesis 21: 8–21 | Preacher: Reverend Dr. Jo Forrest |

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Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. —Genesis 21:19

Jews, Christians, and Muslims throughout the world point to the same father of faith, Abraham. Our tradition holds that late in life, God came close to Abraham in the desert night, to call for his faithfulness and despite being childless promised him descendants as numerous as the stars in the night sky.

Abraham’s wife, Sarah, impatient to realize this promise decides to take matters into her own hands and gives her enslaved Egyptian, Hagar, to Abraham. They conceive a son, Ishmael, to Abraham’s delight.

Despite her age, years later Sarah bears a son, Isaac. Truly, God kept the promise.

Let’s not be deceived into thinking this is a smooth road for any of them. Before I read the lectionary text for today that continues the story, please pray with me.

Sovereign God, you placed the stars in the sky
and your spirit into our beings.
Your presence pervades our lives
as close to us as the air we breathe.
Gather us across time and space
and stir within us as we hear this ancient story of your faithfulness,
that we too are caught up in your story
And live in ways that honor all your gifts to us. 

 
Genesis 21:8–20
Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar that Egyptian, playing with her son.  So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” And this thing seemed evil in Abraham’s eyes.
But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”
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.
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, and 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. 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.
I’ve been a minister long enough; I’ve been alive long enough to know each family has a trove of buried secrets.

Families create and bequeath cover-ups to avoid a reality. Presumably, if we don’t talk about those things, we can imagine another story, one more pleasing, or fabricate a future we think more stable.

At one extreme, true skeletons rotting in the closet require hard work to cover the stench. And at the other, a slight slant in telling a story.

Very few family photos exist of my paternal grandfather, who was born in the early 1900s. Those that remain include an aunt, who we believe to be his birth mother. Conceived outside of marriage, she gave my grandpa to relatives who had a farm and social stability in a small Iowa town.

My grandfather died when I was in my early 20’s so I really do not have the perspective of him as an adult.

As a child I recall an anger about him. During the Depression, they lost the farm, and any financial security.

Perhaps he heard whispers of his birth. To be called “illegitimate” stings and we know worse labels to erode self-esteem. Such damage lingers in the ethos of families.

His wife, my maternal grandmother, suffered from anxiety and depression. If in the year 2020 we are still trying to remove the stigma of mental illness, can you imagine the fear and shame in small town Iowa during the 1950s and 60s of such an illness?

It haunts to think of the pain her gentle soul endured, and the helplessness grandpa must have felt, while searching for someplace to send her.

My grandparent’s legacy is not defined by these facts alone. They gave me so much; grandma’s piecrusts could have won the state fair, memories of hot summer picnics, learning the trick to crank the handle on the ice cream maker, and the shape my forehead and nose.

And yet we have this unspoken history. To pretend these wounds did not exist never allows healing. Worse yet the truth will leak out in troubling ways.

In addition to this anger he seemed to have a chip on his shoulder.

Could others see him as a courageous and loving family man with this history? When others foist shame upon you, how do you write your story?

Struggling to maintain cover-up saps your energy. And the behavior patterns of ignoring the truth can become ingrained in the family DNA, seen just as plainly as my nose on my face.

After God promised Abraham a legacy with his wife Sarah she became impatient, and insisted that Abraham father a child, with her enslaved servant Hagar. Sarah’s plan worked, and as we predict of human nature, the pregnancy also provoked Sarah’s animosity, and so she banished Hagar to the desert.

God found Hagar there.

Hagar is the first person in scripture to give God a name. She called God “the God who sees.”

We have a God who sees. This first name bestowed on God echoes throughout our faith history, especially for those who have suffered at the hands of established patriarchy, selfishness, classism, and economic exploitation.

To know that you are not alone, to know that you are seen, gives you the strength to carry on. Particularly when you are discarded by people with power who would rather you didn’t exist.

Hagar’s child would bear a special name, “Ishmael,” which in Hebrew means “God hears,” for God heard of Hagar’s misery.

God sees and God hears.

God gave Hagar a promise identical to the promise made to Abraham, that her descendants would be “too numerous to count,” like the stars in the desert sky. She returns to the lion’s den to raise her son.

Years later, Sarah conceives, and Isaac’s birth reopened festering wounds. The birthright laws of ancient times declared that regardless of the parent’s wishes the eldest son inherits everything.

 

This time Sarah told Abraham to exile Hagar and the teenage Ishmael to the desert.

Wandering, with waterskins empty, Hagar abandons Ishmael to die and they both sob.

Again, God saw, and God heard.[1]

God expanded his promise to Hagar, integral to the promise made to Abraham: “I will make him into a great nation.”

Ishmael’s star shines brightly. God sees. God hears. God is faithful.

What a mess. What an awful text the lectionary prescribes for Father’s Day. Where are the stories of baseball, hotdogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet?

Scripture’s power rises as it challenges us to examine to whom and to what we devote our lives.

Usually where we make the greatest messes in our lives is where we see God.

We never learn if Sarah discovers God’s rescue. Hebrew scripture follows Sarah and Isaac, not mentioning Hagar and Ishmael. An adage claims that the victor gets to write the story. Sarah tried to hijack God to her benefit. The victor will write a version. Eventually history catches up and the truth speaks. Islamic tradition celebrates that Abraham frequently visited his son and continued to care for Hagar.

Ishmael became a great archer, took a bride, and flourished. Together, he and Abraham built a cornerstone celebrated by Islam in Mecca.

Abraham’s faithfulness to God is unimpeachable as is his love for both of his sons. Truly as numerous as the stars in the sky, so too are the descendants of Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael.

God sees. God hears. God knows.

“Nostalgia is the enemy of history,” insist sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark. They unpack this with, “we frequently accept . . . tales that corrupt our understanding of the past and mislead us about the present.”[2]

Our country and world can no longer tolerate the ways generations have tried to cover the truth. Everyday a new smartphone video records a violent crime against people of color, proving their cries of brutality, and demanding our attention after hundreds of years of disbelief.

When the light of day shines on the truth, it demands we examine our personal histories, our shared conscience, and the way any lies distort our behavior now and for future generations. It is time to rip off the Band-Aid that never allowed deep wounds to heal.

When Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address in 1865 at the end of four years of civil war, few people in either the North or the South would have bristled from his statement that slavery “was, somehow, the cause of the war.”

At the war’s outset in 1861 Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, justified secession for fear Lincoln’s policy to not allow slavery in new territories would make “property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless,…thereby annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars.”

The vice president of the southern states, Alexander H. Stephens, spoke of the Confederacy’s founding based on the, “great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Yet, at the end of the war, to salvage their honor, they created new stories.

After the surrender, Davis insisted, the war was fought solely for “the inalienable right of a people to change their government…to withdraw from a Union into which they had, as sovereign communities, voluntarily entered.”

The “existence of African servitude,” he maintained, “was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.”[3]

That’s a cover-up. Traitors became heroes. Without Twitter and honesty, the continued slaughter of blacks continued.

Even slavery continued. Juneteenth celebrates the day enslaved people found out of their freedom in Texas more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Intimidation. Cover-ups. Lies. The myriad ways to write stories not only fail, they compound the problems in future generations.

As a father’s lie may infect us so too may a father’s courage. Earlier this month Roger Goodell apologized for the NFL turning its face from the ravages of racism. His video made headlines as rarely do we find senior leaders willing to speak with such conviction, without polish, without having the message scrubbed, and approved.

Perhaps Roger’s father, Charlie Goodell, influenced his conscience and decision. Charles Goodell served in the armed forces, was elected to US Congress in 1959, and when his eyes opened to the realities of the Vietnam war, he became a vocal opponent. To criticize the war sounded deeply unpatriotic and outside of partisan ideologies. He also marched with Coretta Scott King. He lost his reelection bid in 1970 but remained true to his convictions.

Roger Goodell spoke in favor of taking a knee to protest systemic racism, and acknowledged the damage done to people of color for the continued silence about racism. Black Lives Matter. This leader no longer acquiesces to the status quo. Goodell lives as a testament to his father’s bravery.[4]

We don’t write the story. God does.

We are actors in God’s grand story of creation of life, of love, of a humanity blossoming in all colors to reflect God’s divine image. When we rebelled again and again, prophets called us back.

God sees and hears us. God showers us with life abundantly, if only we trust in God’s time, God’s care.

Through Jesus, God offers us a grace for us to name the truth and start afresh. Jesus came not to bring peace, but a sword to pierce our indifference to one another. Jesus came to bring us back to the life God intends, living in humility and freedom.

This is the gospel truth, “For God so loved the world.” May we begin to love the world in return.  All of it. All the time.

[1]Daniel B. Clendenin, “Ishmael: God Hears and Sees,” Journey with Jesus, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20050613JJ.shtml, June 1, 2020. Clendenin’s essay inspired my thinking along with exegetical work done.

[2] Brad Braxton, “James Baldwin Reminds Us Not to be Surprised by This,” The Christian Century, June 11, 2020.  https://www.christiancentury.org/article/reflection/james-baldwin-reminds-us-not-be-surprised.

[3] James M. McPherson, “Southern Comfort,” The New York Review of Books. June 18, 2020, https://getpocket.com/explore/item/southern-comfort?utm_source=pocket-newtab.

[4] Andrew Beaton, “Goodell’s Lessons From His Dad,” The Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2020.