St. Francis, St. Sauveur & Trinity, Morin Heights
June 25th, 2017
SERMON; HAGAR & ISHMAEL
Lord, consider my thoughts, guide my words and make them acceptable to you and accessible to those who would hear them. Amen
I am often attracted by the stories from the Old Testament because of the characters in them and their humanity. They are direct, like Jesus’ parables, with lots of opportunity for human interpretation, and that is true of today’s story of Hagar and Ishmael. The story has so many themes that we can learn from that I am going to touch on a few and let your decide which, if any, are important to you.
So first let’s take a look at the story. Remember that Hagar appears twice in Genesis and that today’s lesson is the second time. The first describes Hagar as the Egyptian slave of Sarai, Abram's wife. Sarai had been barren for a long time and sought a way to fulfill God’d promise that Abram would be father of many nations. They needed a son and they were getting older. Sarai offered Hagar to Abram as a second wife. Hagar became pregnant, and tension arose between the two women.
This is a pretty fragile situation, open to jealousies and conflict. It is not hard to understand that Abram was delighted that he would have a son, and so might Sarai have been to start with, but it soon turned sour.
Sarai complained to Abram that Hagar, now that she was pregnant, looked down on her, and Abram told her to do as she saw fit. Sarai treated Hagar harshly, and Hagar ran away, fleeing into the desert. At a spring, an angel appeared to Hagar and instructed her to return to Sarai, so that she might bear the child, who would be a wild man, at odds with everyone. Hagar realised that God saw her plight, had faith in Him, returned to Abram and gave birth to Ishmael.
So now we have a set up for more conflict. What might be a comparable situation today? A comparable situation might be if your daughter-in-law, whom you didn’t like very much, and her child, came to live with you. Or your spouse’s child from a previous marriage. We may know situations like these which have worked out well but equally maybe some haven’t.
When we add crisis or tension to the situation, it makes it worse. For example, if the other person has been forced out of their home by floods or marital problems or fire. Or if they are not particularly compatible. And this was the case with Hagar and Sarai. Which brings us to today’s first reading.
Sarai and Abram have now been renamed Sarah and Abraham by God, who has given them a son, named Isaac. God promised that Isaac would be the father of a great nation, so for Abraham all was settled.
Not so for Sarah - she has grown jealous of Hagar and is fearful of how Ishmael might affect Isaac’s right to the inheritance from Abraham. One day, she sees the two boys playing together, some interpretations say that Ishmael was mocking Isaac. Remember that Sarah’s original beef with Hagar was that Hagar mocked Sarah when she was pregnant, so Ishmael mocking Isaac would really get her goat. Whether they were just playing or Ishmael was teasing Isaac doesn’t really matter because the point is that is triggered Sarah’s worst fears and worst instincts. Jealousy does that.
So do arguments over inheritance. “I will not have this slave’s son sharing the inheritance with my son”, said Sarah. I have two close friends who are no longer speaking to their sisters because of disagreements over how the inheritances have been divided. Conversely, I know of two examples, one in my own family, of when wise approaches to the same question. In those situations, potential conflicts and family division were avoided and relations continued as before. Conflict over inheritances can be lethal to families and such was the case of Sarah and Hagar.
Sarah wanted Hagar banished from the family and Abraham was very upset as he was in a quandary. He had no argument with Ishmael or Hagar but his conscience was relieved (rightly or wrongly, when God told him that Ishmael would engender a great nation.
So Hagar and Ishmael are banished as Sarah requested and they wander into the desert. Their water soon runs out. Hagar, not wanting to see her child die, puts him under a bush. Can you imagine the agony of a mother knowing her son will die of thirst. Well, it’s still happening today and in much the same area. Let me just take a moment to talk about famine.
Today, millions of children are at immediate risk of starvation where the Middle and Africa intersect; specifically, Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan,, among other places. The consequences of hunger crises are devastating – children struggle to survive. In 2011 the world watched as 260,000 people died from famine in Somalia. We promised we would never let this happen again, but we let it anyway.
The world’s largest humanitarian crisis in 70 years has been declared in three African countries on the brink of famine. Experts warn that the continent’s growing drought and famine could have far-ranging effects, including a new wave of migrants heading to Europe and possibly more support for Islamic extremist groups.
The conflict-fueled hunger crises in Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan have culminated in a trio of potential famines hitting almost simultaneously. Nearly 16 million people in the three countries are at risk of dying within months. Famine already has been declared in parts of South Sudan and one million people there are on the brink of dying from a lack of food, according to the U.N.. Somalia has declared a state of emergency over drought and 2.9 million of its people face a food crisis that could become a famine. And in northeastern Nigeria, severe malnutrition is widespread in areas affected by violence from Boko Haram extremists. So putting a child under a bush to avoid watching it die might seem distant to us, but for millions it would not.
Back to Hagar and Ishmael. An element in this whole story is the importance of Hagar and Ishmael to Muslims. This story is a place where Islam and Christianity intersect. In the Islamic tradition, Ishmael and Hagar are taken by Abraham to Mecca. It creates a focus on Mecca and is the beginning of Mecca’s place as a holy area in Islam.
Instead of Sarah having Hagar and Ishmael banished, Islamic tradition says Abraham was ordered by God to take Hagar and Ishmael to a location, where he builds a shrine. He then leaves them there. Hagar asks Abraham to whom he is entrusting herself and Ishmael. He answers that he is entrusting them to God, to which Hagar replies that God will guide them. Hagar and Ishmael run out of water and Ishmael becomes extremely thirsty. Hagar is distressed and searches for water, running back and forth seven times between two hills near Mecca.
Muslims are supposed to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the Haji, at least once in their lives. Some go many times. Part of the pilgrimage is running back and forth between these hills in commemoration of Hagar’s act. When Hagar returns to Ishmael, she finds him scratching the ground with his heel or finger, whereupon water begins flowing and Hagar creates a spring-fed wellThere are numerous versions of this story. Ishmael and Hagar are both regarded as extremely important figures in Islam and if you are in any way interested in interfaith discussion or in ecumenism, then this story has relevance.
Back to our reading. In the Genesis version of the story, Hagar is again visited by an angel in the desert, a clear sign that she is favoured by God, whom she trusts. God shows Hagar a well, she gives water to Ishmael, and from then on, they both flourish. All because on two occasions, Hagar, when visited by an angel, has the faith that God will provide a way out of her predicament.
So this simple, human story can teach us about putting our faith in God, about the evils of jealousy, about the potential consequences of squabbling over inheritance, about thirst and famine and about the connections between Christianity and Islam.
Let each of us take from that that which strikes us personally.