A Handmaid’s Tale

Yesterday, at St. Paul’s, we celebrated Andy Heller’s 20th anniversary as Director of Music! It was a fantastic day, with beautiful music and good food and fun together. As I mention in my sermon, though, unfortunately our texts weren’t quite as festive. Continuing on through Genesis, this week we read of Hagar and her son Ishmael.

Understandably, texts like these give people a lot of questions. When we read difficult texts, the challenge is to find where God is acting in them and to see how they are calling us to act.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today has served as a really good example to me why I ought to read ahead to see what texts are coming up before we go about planning a party. Happy twenty years, Andy. But don’t get too comfortable because Jesus is here to bring not peace, but a sword.

I spent some time this week trying to figure out how to weave these passages into something happy, but finally decided that my gift to you today would be to have the best sermon I could, even if it isn’t the happiest it could possibly be. So here goes:

Last week, in our Genesis reading, we had Sarah’s story. God’s reminding Sarah of the promise, God fulfilling God’s promise to give to Sarah a son, despite her doubt and disbelief. And we were right there with Sarah, not believing that such a miracle could come true after so much time and yet rejoicing when the Lord brought life out of death.

If last week was Sarah’s story, this week is Hagar’s turn. Our reading doesn’t do a great job of explaining exactly who Hagar is. She is Sarah’s slave, her handmaiden. And during the years when Sarah was growing desperate of her ability to have a child, she “gave” Hagar to her husband Abraham, to bear a child for him. After all, she was a slave, so anything she has is Sarah’s: her son would be Sarah’s son. And so we have Ishmael, the son of Hagar the Egyptian.

But now that Sarah has a son of her own, her one-time solution has become quite a problem. Ishmael is no longer a means to continue the promise of God, but a liability and a threat to Isaac’s future. She tells Abraham to cast them out, to turn his back on them, and he does it. He’s a little reluctant, but he still does it—giving the woman and his son just a little bit of food and water and sending them into the wilderness.

As we read this story, I think the challenge for us is to ask ourselves, who do we cast aside? Or, perhaps, like Abraham, despite feeling badly about it, who do we let be cast aside? What fellow human beings are expendable to us in our pursuit of…whatever it is we’re after.

Is it the people whose hard work and labor we benefit from every day, sometimes all around the world, but never stop and question whether they have any decent standard of life? Whether their economic slavery is worth our comfort. Is it the children never given a chance to succeed with overcrowded, underfunded schools, just a county line away? Is it those ravaged by addiction and an opioid epidemic, that we would honestly rather we didn’t have to think about?

When Sarah sees Hagar and Ishmael as expendable, she’s playing a zero-sum game. If Ishmael has more of anything, it means that Isaac has less. For Isaac to win, Ishmael has to lose. It’s our problem, too. We act like life is a zero-sum game. And we all want to win.

But God has a different set of rules. God’s promise to Isaac, the covenant made with Abraham, it does not entitle Isaac to exclusive claims on God’s care or God’s presence. There is a promise to Ishmael also—God sees Ishmael, hears his cries, and cares and loves abundantly. There is no division of limited resources, of limited hopes and promises, but instead abundance. God’s way is not a zero-sum game. There is more than enough for all.

When Abraham offers a meagre skin of water that runs out quickly, God produces a well. God cares, God cares especially for those whom we cast aside. God cares especially for those others view as expendable. Giving abundantly of the love and mercy that will never run out.

This passage, as tough as it is, is an invitation for us to do the same. To stop playing the zero-sum game, and instead treat others, perhaps especially those we tend to cast aside, with God’s abundance. Not just in our hearts, but in our actions as well. What might the world look like if we actually did this?

If we truly give it a shot—loving like God loves, loving who God loves—I think we ought to be prepared for some of that conflict Jesus talked about. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth,” he says, “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.”

What he means is that Kingdom of God is not calm and tranquil. The Kingdom of God upsets and disrupts. The Kingdom of God upends systems of power and abuse that treat human beings as expendable. In their place, the kingdom of God demands true peace—not the false peace of the status quo—but the real peace of God.

Taking up our cross and following God’s way does have costs, and it might, in fact it probably will, cause conflict. Because it calls into question the ways we view and treat our fellow human beings. It calls into question the things we value. And it challenges the systems that teach us we can only win if someone else loses. And those systems and those values aren’t going to go down without a fight.

Yet right in the midst of this challenging, honestly scary, passage, we hear those words of Jesus that are spoken again and again in scripture: Do not fear. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. God knows every single hair on your head. You are of immense value to God. Just as God heard the cries of the child Ishmael, God still hears us today. God notices us, and God cares for us.

We would never be able to take up our crosses, and take up this holy calling if God had not first taken up the cross to show us the truth of love. That same love that we have received, that has changed our lives and made us whole, we take to extend to the outcast and stranger.

May God go with us. May God go behind us to encourage us, above us to watch over us, beneath us to lift us up, within us to give us the gifts of faith, hope, and love, and may God always go before us, to show us the way. Amen.

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