Sermon June 25, 2023 Cast Out (Genesis 21:8-21) Rev. Betsy Hogan
I was remembering this past week 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 invariably respond, "Noooooo." And then I'd say, "Show me."
Which I’m not going to say it worked a treat, because I don’t think I was hoping that speaking politely to Mummy would translate into saying “please” as though one was being tortured – but that wasn’t really the point.
The point was trying to get across that the real measure of what we’re about or what we believe is never just what we SAY we’re about, or SAY we believe. The real measure of what we’re about and what we believe is what our actions SHOW.
Which is what I was contemplating this past week, as I considered a world in which our public discourse includes righteously and reactively insisting on the one hand that ALL lives matter while on the other hand heaven and earth get moved to rescue five people on a vanity excursion but a ship full of migrants in the Mediterranean is left to simply sink.
If all lives matter, I imagine God observing rather pointedly – then show me. Because I’d like all lives to matter to you, I imagine God observing rather pointedly – but it really isn’t what I’m seeing. So if your belief that all lives matter is real and the conviction really is that deep? Show me.
It's literally Jesus’ point in what are arguably his three most important parables. The parables of lost things. 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.
And 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.
And 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.
Three parables of lost things. If all lives matter, show me. Show me you’ll go the extra mile to make sure that one lost sheep sleeps safely tonight. Show me you value and can’t just write off that one lost coin that rolled under the cupboard. Show me you won’t just leave that one lost son standing at the garden gate like he’s made his bed and now he has to lie in it. Three parables of Jesus.
But all of them grounded in the story that Paul just read for us from the book of Genesis. The story of the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael. Probably the ultimate “if all lives matter, show me” story.
And it is not a nice story. It's seriously? got all the bad stuff in it. I mean, one of the useful 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. Entirely consistent with their context in biblical times, and this is roughly three thousand years ago, but from our perspective, dreadful.
Slavery, for example, is simply a thing that exists unquestioned. So Sarah owns Hagar. Hagar is Sarah's slavewoman.
But women and children as chattel property of fathers and husbands is also a thing that exists unquestioned. So Sarah owns Hagar, but Abraham owns Sarah. And also Hagar by extension.
And Abraham has a RIGHT – also a thing – to expect there will BE children. And particularly male children. And since Sarah hasn't produced the expected child – there've been no babies for her – Abraham is actually considered to be "a righteous man" because he hasn't simply chucked her out. For not "holding up her end of the ownership deal", as it were.
Righteous indeed. But before we're 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 context.
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 orders 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 Hagar does produce a son, who's called Ishmael. Immediately taken possession of by Abraham and Sarah, who are thrilled. Until Sarah discovers she's pregnant at the age of ninety, 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 asks him to. 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 in their context 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 when God looks at where this story is ending – how Abraham and Sarah can imagine they're being righteous when their own lives matter and Hagar's and Ishmael's don't –
And God basically says, if I want them to understand that ALL lives matter to me, that I want ALL lives to matter to them, I’m clearly going to 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. Because when God saiys All Lives Matter, God MEANS IT. But just 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 all the other 99 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 priority is 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. God 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 to save them.
Think about how that would have felt to Hagar, to learn that she and her son specifically matter. To God, if not to Abraham and Sarah.
Because it’s a beautiful thing. But at the same time, this story also forces us to look straight-on at Hagar’s bone-weary resignation – before God turns up – that she lives in a world in which when the rubber hits the road, as it were, her life doesn’t matter.
Not to the people around her. To whom she’s expendable. For whom she can just get written off, like a lost coin. There’s NO massive international rescue effort when her ship gets lost at sea. And she just has to watch, from where she’s been living for months in a tent or her car, when suddenly the housing crisis provokes an active and coordinated response – because of and only for the people who’ve lost their homes to fire.
It's not good enough, is what God is showing Hagar in this story. It’s not good enough, is what God is showing US in this story. There’s no all lives matter if Hagar’s life doesn’t matter. If Ishmael’s life doesn’t matter.
So I’ve shown you, God says to us in this story, what it looks like when all lives matter. So if your belief that all lives matter is real and the conviction really is that deep? Show me. Amen.