Sermon June 21, 2020 Cast Out (Genesis 21:8-21) Rev. Betsy Hogan
I've been having some flashbacks this past couple of weeks to when my boys were little. Not surprising, perhaps, in the midst of the whole graduation from high school of the youngest thing, but actually a little more focused than that.
Because what I've kept flashing back to, this past couple of weeks, has been all the moments in bringing up my children that ended with the words, "show me".
Like, for example, "Thomas, do you need some time in your room to remember how to speak politely to Mummy?" To which he'd obviously respond, "Noooooo." And then I'd say, "Show me."
I've been flashing back to this, as I'm sure won't surprise you, whenever I hear someone say that All Lives Matter. Because of COURSE all lives matter. Of course that's our belief, of course that's our conviction and our commitment. And we're as absolutely certain about that, particularly as people of faith who hold fast to the belovedness of ALL God's children, as my Tom ever was that he did NOT in fact need any time in his room to remember how to speak politely to Mummy.
But that's not really the point, is it. The point isn't the belief or even the certainty. The point is.... show me.
All lives matter? Show me. Because it's not that I doubt the belief or the depth of commitment, but it hasn't been what I'm seeing. So if the belief is real and the commitment really is that deep? Show me.
It's literally the two word synopsis of arguably Jesus' three most important parables, all linked together in the gospel of Luke, chapter 15.
A hundred sheep and one goes astray? If all sheep lives matter, show me – and the shepherd does. Leaves the 99 for the time being and concentrates on finding that ONE that's now in peril.
Ten coins and one gets lost? If all coin lives matter, show me – and the woman does. Turns her whole house upside down until that lost coin's been found again.
Two sons and one gets lost? If all son lives matter, show me – and the father does. No resentment, no entirely earned reprimand, just embrace and celebration, because what's been lost has been found again.
The proof of the pudding, as the old saying goes, is in the eating. So don't tell me it's a good pudding, show me by giving me a taste of it. Don't tell me you know how to speak politely to Mummy, show me by doing it. "Don't tell me All Lives Matter," says Jesus in these parables to his disciples, to us – "show me."
"And just so we're all on the same page," he goes on, "I want to be quite helpful to you in this endeavour. So I'll describe for you exactly what that 'showing me' looks like. It's making sure... that one lost sheep isn't in peril... and that one lost coin isn't stuck in the floorboards... and that one lost son isn't left at the garden gate with nowhere else to turn. It's focusing the concentration, it's attending specifically to the broken bit, it's taking that time and doing that work.
"So has everybody got it now?" he asks the disciples, and us. "Then good. Because I want you to believe that all lives matter, and I want you to be certain that all lives matter – but seriously?
"Don't bother telling me that's what you believe and that's what you're certain about. Because I want to be able to figure it out by seeing you combing the woods like the shepherd and sweeping the floorboards like the woman and running out to the garden gate like the father. I want to be able to figure it out by seeing you showing me."
Jesus was a good student of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. We know that because he often quoted from the Prophets in particular, but also from the Torah – the first five books, what he would have called the Books of Moses.
And so it's entirely possible that in one of those many moments in the gospels when we're told that he gathered with his disciples and taught them by "opening up the scriptures to them", the story he chose to teach from was the story that we heard earlier, from the book of Genesis.
The story of the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael. A show me story if ever there was one.
And it is not a nice story. It's seriously? got all the bad stuff in it. I mean, one of the best things about the Old Testament stories is that the people in them are real and authentic and flawed human beings, and not perfect and holy and a bunch of paper saints –
But even by those standards, the whole thing with Abraham and Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael is pretty ugly. Starting with the fact that in this story, slaves are a thing. In the Bible, people have slaves. It's a thing. Some people get to own other people.
So Sarah owns Hagar. Hagar is Sarah's slavewoman.
Then of course there's the second kind of owning which is how in the Bible, husbands own their wives and children. Wives and children are also property.
So Sarah owns Hagar, but Abraham owns Sarah. And also Hagar by extension.
Now, as Sarah's owner – her husband – Abraham has a RIGHT (in our nice story in Bible times) to expect she'll produce a child for him. And not just any old child, but specifically a boy. Sarah hasn't done this – there've been no babies for her – so Abraham is actually considered to be "a righteous man" because he hasn't just chucked her out. For not "holding up her end of the ownership deal", as it were.
Righteous indeed. But before we're just filled with compassion for poor Sarah, who has after all to be grateful to her husband for not chucking her out because she hasn't had a baby –
Before this reasonably fills us with compassion, Sarah's response from deep in the midst of this egregious system she's caught in, is itself fairly appalling. Though again, totally a thing. Not 'out of line' and not in the least questioned, in this, our nice Bible story.
Because what she does, she's allowed to do. She wants a son, a son's not arriving for her, but she owns Hagar, so she gets to order Hagar to submit to being made pregnant by Abraham "in her place".
"Submit" in this particular construct, being rather too active a verb for what this actually is, and the degree of agency Hagar actually possesses in this situation. But that's what Sarah gets to do.
And Hagar does produce a son, who's called Ishmael – and Abraham and Sarah are thrilled. Until Sarah discovers she's pregnant, which is ludicrous and laughable but there it is, she IS actually pregnant and she also has a son. Isaac.
And then suddenly she's not quite so thrilled about Hagar and her older son Ishmael. And she wants them gone. And wow, we're really meant to not like Sarah, but this whole system she's caught in herself, she's pretty much fighting with the only weapon she has. And Abraham, he's caught in it too, in his own way. The child of the slavewoman can't pre-empt the child of the wife, that's just the rules. It's "the way things are". So he does what Sarah insists he do. He casts Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness, basically to die.
And it's heartbreaking. But it's just the rules, it's the way things are, Sarah and Abraham are being righteous. Anyone they know would look at them at this point in the story and say they're being righteous.
Which is why it's not where the story ends. Because then God looks at where this story is ending – how Abraham and Sarah and everyone they know can imagine they're being righteous when their own lives matter and Hagar's and Ishmael's don't –
And God basically says, Oh oh oh, I told them ALL lives matter, I wanted them to understand that ALL lives matter, I thought they'd gotten it that ALL lives matter.... but clearly I need to SHOW them.
So the story continues. Hagar's just waiting to die, she can't bear having to watch Ishmael die, she's howling out her grief – and God hears her. And saves them. When God said All Lives Matter, God MEANT IT. But saying it? Clearly not good enough. Not if that story could nearly end the way it did, and everyone could have thought Abraham and Sarah were righteous.
God had to SHOW God's people. Hagar and Ishmael's lives matter. Sarah and Abraham and Isaac and the other 95 sheep are safe and well and secure, and that's just as crucial but it's also true in this moment. So in this moment, God's taking the time, concentrating specifically, on the two little sheep out in peril in the wilderness.
98 out of 100 isn't "all". It can be hard to lose sight of when we're in the 98. There's a reason Jesus preaches his three parables – as a human family, being TOLD all lives matter really hasn't been effective enough. 99 out of 100 isn't "all" the sheep. 9 out of 10 isn't "all" the coins. 1 out of 2 isn't "all" the sons. So God doesn't just tell us but shows us. In the shepherd, in the woman, in the father of the prodigal son. In God's own self, immediately setting out into the wilderness to find Hagar and Ishmael and save them.
Think about how that would have felt to them, to know that they specifically matter. I am certain that some of us have felt that feeling of knowing that we specifically matter. I would hope that ALL of have felt that feeling of knowing that our lives specifically matter in the world. Because that on its own ought to be enough for us to want Hagar and Ishmael to have that feeling too. To want that focus, to understand why that focus, to appreciate its specific necessity when Hagar and Ishmael have specifically been cast out.
But it's tough, and we're human, and it's not our default. Our default a lot of the time is being the elder son and thinking "don't I matter too?" when the father's all focused on "prodigal lives matter".
But of course you do, the father says. Always and forever. But today your brother knows that he does too. And for me, the father says, Jesus says in the parable, God says out in the wilderness with Hagar and Ishmael, mattering isn't pie. There's not just enough for ALL. There's enough for EACH. Thanks be to God. Amen.