Sermon: Family Values
Text: Genesis 21:8-21
(Gary W. Charles at Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, on 6-25-2017)
I am not sure how scholars decide what biblical texts get read on a particular Sunday. I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that they have a list of Bible stories not fit for prime time, that never make into Children’s Bibles and they assign these thorny texts to the summer months, hoping that the faithful will be sunning on the beach while reading a Grisham novel, working in the garden, or enjoying a lazy day away from church.
While those scholars who choose these texts are cruising somewhere in the Caribbean, drinking one of the specials of the house with a little umbrella in it, you and I are left to wrestle with a story that sends a chill right down the spine. I am surprised that a movie producer has not filmed this story. It is a natural for the screen: Two women share a bed with the same man. One woman, in fact, sets up the rendezvous. It is the original MA-rated, biblical, Mid East ménage a troix!
Meet the characters. First, there is compliant Abraham, who is married to Sarah. Abraham trusts God’s obscure promise and takes his family and considerable property – and by the way, his property includes human property, slaves -- and leaves his home in Haran to head God knows where.
Abraham is told by God to look up and number the stars – that will be the number of his offspring. But here is the problem – Sarah is barren – which means in the ancient telling, that God has closed her womb. How can Abraham be the father of billions if he cannot be the father of one? So, scheming Sarah gets to work. She finds a seductive, fertile slave and insists that her husband sleep with her. Abraham could have declined, but instead, he said, ever so willingly, “Yes dear,” and slept with another woman – sort of. Hagar was not really “another woman”; she was a piece of property, a slave, and you can do with your property whatever you will, can’t you?
Hagar, the slave wife, gets pregnant right away and Sarah does not like the way Hagar looks or looks at her. Ever-so-compliant Abraham gets an earful from disgruntled and barren bride number one: “I hope you’re happy with what you’ve done. You see how she looks at me, how she preens about when I’m around. I just hope you’re happy!”
Abraham has every right to protest to such verbal abuse and respond, “Now wait a minute, Sarah. Wasn’t this your idea in the first place?” But, again, he says, “Yes dear, please do with that slave girl whatever makes you happy.”
Sarah does. Hagar is beaten and abused by her mistress and finally makes a run for freedom, but an angel of Lord finds her mid-flight and says, “Go back to Sarah and live as a slave to her, because God is about to open your womb and you’ll have a son, Ishmael, who will be a wild ass of a man who no one will subdue.”
So far in this story, we have the future father of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity sleeping with his slave, and the future mother of two of the three world religions beating her slave, and Hagar being told by God to act like a slave. Robert Lewis Dabney, sometime personal chaplain to Stonewall Jackson and later professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary, wrote a book in 1867, after the end of the Civil War. The book defended slavery based on his reading of the Bible.
Dabney drew his defense of slavery from this terrifying story, concluding: “Had her [Hagar’s] subjection to Sarai been, as the Abolitionists say slavery is, a condition of unjust persecution, the Saviour’s instructions to her would doubtless have been: ‘Now that you have escaped the injustice of her that wronged you, flee to another city’. His remanding her to Sarai shows that the subjection was lawful and right” (Dabney, A Defense of Virginia, p.113). Oh my, what a thorny text this is, indeed.
I lament what sincere Christians like Dabney have done with this text and what sincere Christian folk still do with it today. For instance, I am perplexed by fundamentalists who read this text while railing against the collapse of the traditional family and wanting to reclaim biblical “family values.” I keep asking myself, “Have they ever paged through our biblical family album, ever given even a casual reading of Genesis, much less this story?”
Believe it or not, the ancient story from Genesis gets worse. True to God’s promise, Sarah bears a son, Isaac. When older brother, Ishmael and Isaac play together, Sarah gets irate. Listen to her: “Banish, drive out, expel the son of this slave girl.” To Sarah, neither Hagar nor Ishmael has a name. Hagar is simply the “slave girl,” an offending piece of property, a means to an end and now that Sarah has what she was promised, the nameless slave girl and her nameless son must go.
In the Hebrew and Islamic traditions, Ishmael and Isaac are genuine brothers. Try telling that to Sarah. She has more than petty parental concerns in mind. She knows how inheritance works in her neck of the woods. She knows that Ishmael is the firstborn to Abraham and she will not allow a slave boy to inherit what rightly belongs to her freeborn son. Sarah, you see, has turned God’s promise into her privilege and she is not about to be left barren again.
Renita Weems is a scholar of Hebrew Scripture and also the great-granddaughter of slaves. She worries about the temptations that come to those of us with privilege. She writes:
“[T]hrough freak circumstances and the grace of God, I am an educated and employed black woman upon whom, from time to time, capitalism confers the opportunity to exploit other women. . . . My potential victims are those who are neither educated nor employed.
“I am painfully aware of this when I step across the floor recently mopped by the black cleaning woman at the office building where I am late for an executive meeting. This fact becomes glaringly evident when I eat out at a restaurant, and the white waitress who is the age of my mother calls me ‘ma’am’. And I am reminded of my privileges when, while sitting at a desk in my hotel putting the final touches on a speech for an organization of Christian women, the Latina maid tiptoes in to replace my soiled linen and make my bed.”
Professor Weems concludes, “None of us is safe from the ravages of a society which makes room for only a chosen few. . . . For those of us who are educated and employed, there is always the potential to be a Sarah” (Weems, A Womanist Vision of Women’s Relationships, p. 11).
Weems is especially hard on Sarah, but what about Father Abraham?
Where is the insistent voice of the Father of Three World Religions that his slave “wife” be freed and treated with respect and that his firstborn son be treated with honor? As Sib Towner writes, “Abraham displays the milk of human kindness toward his second wife Hagar and his son Ishmael – sort of. He packs them a lunch before sending them into the wilderness” (Towner, Genesis, Westminister Bible Commentaries, p. 181).
In one of the most pathetic and desperate scenes in all of Scripture, Hagar sets her son under a bush and then she sits at a distance because she is now the barren one – bone dry of milk or water or food. Like most any parent, she cannot bear to watch her own child, the fruit of her body, die.
The cast-aside, left-to-die, Ishmael is the one we meet in literature, the classic outcast, the archetypal survivor. “Call me Ishmael” writes Herman Melville and throughout Moby Dick, Ishmael does survive even the mania of Captain Ahab. Though today’s story ends with God hearing – the Hebrew meaning of “Ishmael” -- and responding to the cry of the abandoned child and making a divine promise to him as well, it is still a horrendous story and sadly, some of it is not far from our own imagining or from our own human experience.
Fast forward to Jesus telling a crowd, “I’ve come to set father against son and mother against daughter?” What kind of family values are these? Where in Scripture is the traditional family for which the Religious Right pines? Where are the decent family values that they insist on so much? Not in the Genesis story!
Scripture spends little time talking about “traditional families” and “family values” and a great deal of time talking about what the “family” of God should value. God does not finally value starvation and the dehydration of a child and his mother in the wilderness, slave or free, and neither should the “family” of God. God does not finally value that the “Other” be cast out and abandoned, neither should the “family” of God. God does not finally value that a few prosper greatly while the vast majority suffer greatly, and neither should the “family” of God.
This troubling text begs us to ask what the “family of God” should value? How can the “family of God” sit still while over 13 million American children live below the poverty line, while rape and mutilation and ethnic cleansing still go unchallenged in the Sudan, while vast numbers of young African Americans travel the pipeline to prison?
[At the baptismal font]
Did you notice how the theme of water in this story? Cleansing, life-giving, hope-producing water, splashes throughout this disturbing text; first, a meager skein of water given by Abraham to Hagar and Ishmael and then a life-giving spring of water that appears out of nowhere in the desert for the dying mother and son.
The baptismal waters are a reminder of a God who claims us and claims all who are outcast. The baptismal waters splash forgiveness over Father Abraham who would see Hagar and Ishmael die, over Mother Sarah who would do the same, and over us when we would allow the most vulnerable in the land to lose their health care and then blame them for being poor and sick.
The baptismal waters fall upon us and never let us forget that living like loving and redeemed children of God is the greatest “family value” of them all.