From Gift To Curse

Apologies to my RC readers; this is one of those few Sundays where our Scriptures are different. However, I do hope you can appreciate the homily below which I preached this morning, June 25, 2017.

Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1-11; Matthew 10:24-39

Last week we explored the story of Abraham and Sarah and God’s promise of a child in their old age. One of the things that stood out was that these two great ancestors in faith were not exactly perfect or flawless human beings. Yet God could fulfill the promise in them regardless of their shortcomings. God had rescued Sarah, and Abraham, of their barrenness, and Sarah’s laughter, first in disbelief, had turned into one of gratitude and praise.

But today’s sequel is an a sober reality check, a jolting and embarrassing reminder that even while Abraham and Sarah were the blessed recipients of God’s gift in their son Isaac, their sinfulness remained a stubborn obstacle. Today’s squabble between Sarah and Hagar, with Abraham caught in the middle, shows that there’s a fine line, a very fine line, between rejoicing in God’s blessings and using those blessings to oppress another child of God. This sober reality check is the first lesson today.

The second is both more encouraging and more embarrassing: and that is that God always – always – hears the cry of those who despair and are oppressed. No matter how rejected, exploited and abused we are, no matter WHO we are. Let’s unpack these two lessons a bit more.

Earlier on in the story, the Scriptures tell us that Sarah, despairing over her inability to conceive, had sent her Egyptian slave-girl Hagar to sleep with Abraham so that she might bear him an heir. And indeed, Hagar did bear a son named Ishmael. But Sarah became a victim of her own plot: she grew jealous of Hagar and mistreated her so badly that Hagar had ran away. An angel of the Lord found Hagar in the wilderness, and encouraged her to return to Sarah and Abraham. So Hagar did.

For awhile the waters were relatively smooth between the two women, esp. once Sarah conceived and bore Isaac. But once Sarah weaned Isaac and watched the two boys play, her jealousy and resentment flared up with a vengeance. The irony is that Sarah was no innocent bystander to this unfolding tension of course. After all, it was she who had encouraged her husband to sleep with Hagar. She had had a hand in creating the situation that she now found so intolerable. Aware of which of the two boys was the oldest (Ishmael), she devised a plan to rid herself of both boy and mother, telling Abraham: “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for he shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham. To his credit, he was not as willing to eliminate Hagar’s son from the household as was Sarah. After all, Ishmael was his son. But you don’t mess with an angry and jealous wife. Abraham at least packed Hagar some provisions and sent her and the boy away.

This is not a sympathetic portrayal of Sarah. While just a few verses earlier she had been the vehicle of God’s marvelous new work in the world, here she has become vindictive and mean spirited, driven by her own selfish desire to protect what had been given to her as a gift. Sarah’s controlling and possessive attitude towards what God had given as a free gift of grace is a scathing illustration of human self-centeredness. All throughout the Hebrew Scriptures the chosen people had real problems understanding what it means to be chosen, in order to bear God’s promise in the world and to extend that promise to all people.

To be chosen by God does not mean that others are not chosen. When we humans choose someone, it automatically involves excluding or rejecting someone else. But not for God – God’s choosing is radically different. Instead of excluding others, God includes others. God’s choosing is not a competitive choice, but a compassionate choice, each one chosen in his/her own uniqueness. Just because God chose Jesus, chose you and I, does not automatically mean that God cannot and will not choose others. In fact, the very opposite is true: God chooses each woman, man and child as precious and beloved, and as bearers of the divine promise of redemption.

There is just enough truth in the claim of being “chosen,” being “special” that it can blind us to the distortion that can slip into that claim. Certainly there was a sense of chosenness in the miracle of Isaac’s birth. But this miracle also came with a responsibility that Sarah conveniently ignored. God’s gift was never really for Sarah herself even though God worked the miracle in her. The gift was really meant for the larger world, the world that would be blessed through the community that would emerge through this child, just as God had promised to Abraham and Sarah. To claim special status because God is giving US a gift is to misunderstand the nature of the gift completely.

This mistake, to claim special status based on God’s gracious gift and then use that superior status to justify mistreatment of our sisters and brothers is still with us today, including in our churches. It can hide under the banner of “defending the faith” and proceeds to exclude all those who disagree with us. Sometimes it emerges in a general attitude of self-righteousness that prevents us to live out the gift of God in our lives. We can become preoccupied with the sinfulness of others in comparison to ourselves. And so it can be easier to spend most of our time thanking God that we are not like other people, congratulating ourselves that we have not slipped into such sin rather than finding ways to give cups of cold water in Jesus’ name. Sometimes it simply comes out in negative or fearful attitudes toward everyone who is not like us. We comb the news and social media about the latest stupidities and sins of others and present them as proof of how special we really are with our own gift.

And sometimes it actually comes out in outright oppression of others as we justify our own behaviour on the grounds that they do not have the same gift that we have. This attitude was at the basis of the Canadian policies towards our First Nations sisters and brothers, policies expressed through the Indian Act and through the legacy of residential schools, which sought to eliminate an entire indigenous culture. Because they were not like us, they did not deserve consideration. Let that sink in for a moment …

To all of these attitudes, in whatever form they emerge, the story of Sarah’s humiliating treatment of Hagar speaks strong words of condemnation. Recipients of God’s gifts are not called to privilege but to responsibility and accountability. From those who have been given more, more will be expected. In our human weakness, we distort the gifts and blessings God bestows on us, even the blessing of our faith in Jesus Christ our Lord. We rejoice and praise God for impossible gifts, we thank God for the gift of his grace through faith. But then, like Sarah, we can smoothly slip into acting with a sense of entitlement, superiority and arrogance, all of which can easily turn into oppression and abuse, at great cost to other people. History is full of embarrassing examples What we forget in the process is that all people beloved by God are all equally chosen!

And that is the second lesson in today’s passage. Hagar’s son Ishmael may be “second choice” (even though he is the older one), but God has no intention to abandon her and her son. God is a God who “hears the cry of the poor” no matter who those poor and abandoned ones are. “God heard the voice of the boy” Scripture says. Later on, when the chosen people are suffering in Egypt, Scripture quotes God as saying: “I have observed the misery of my people; I have heard their cry …” And Scripture tells that “God made Hagar ‘see’ the well that held the water they needed to survive.” (Gen. 21:19)

“God was with the boy” (Gen. 21:20). Our God is a God who cares for all people, even those who live “outside the promise” so to speak. It is in God’s character to hear the cries of the weak and the oppressed. It’s God very way of being to bring about deliverance and redemption, no matter who cries out to him. even if you are an Egyptian slave-girl suffering at the hands of one of God’s chosen.


The Genesis passage ends with what seems like a rather mundane observation: Ishmael grows up, settles down, and takes a wife (vs. 20-21). Seemingly simple words but containing a great punch line: Ishmael – the rejected son – had a future … prepared … by … God. Let that sink in for a moment …

With God’s help Ishmael would live out his own divine promise. God said to Hagar: “Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” And indeed, God fulfilled a promise through Ishmael. Ishmael is considered the ancestor of several Arab tribes. Today, Muslims trace their ancestry to Abraham through Ishmael, the desert dweller. This makes Abraham our common father in faith.

Yes, do truly treasure God’s gifts, but never use those gifts to harm another one of God’s beloved people. And remember that God’s very nature is to come to the aid of every person who cries out for deliverance and hope, no matter who it is. God fulfills a divine promise in us all, each according to our measure and stature. AMEN

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