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God of the Outcasts

A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.

The Second Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 21:8-21

June 22, 2014

Jeremiah 20:7-13; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

Before this story turns terribly dark in telling of the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael, it is uproariously funny. When Abram and Sarai are told the news they will bear a son that will create an extended family God will call “my people,” they can’t help themselves and fall down in irrepressible laughter. The preposterous news is such a stretch they can’t hold it back. Those crazy angelic messengers are real cut-ups, don’t you know!

I wouldn’t say the Bible is widely known for its sense of humor, but if you read this story closely, you realize just how ridiculously funny this is. Playing the straight man, the LORD wonders what’s so funny and asked why Sarah laughed. “I didn’t laugh,” she said giggling while trying to suppress her laughter. It’s like SNL where the comedians try to make each other melt down in uncontrollable laughter so they can’t say their lines.

God interrupts the laughter and elevates the conversation: “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” Such divine innocence is a beautifully tender line as God tries to get them to take the promise seriously.

What would we do without laughter? Perhaps laughter is God’s best gift to us in creation. Sarah gets it, asking “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” The writer of Genesis delicately hints, “… it had ceased to with Sarah after the manner of women.”

The writer of Hebrews got it too. In describing faith through the faith-stories of a series of persons from Hebrew Scripture, this ancient scene is described: “That’s how it happened that from one man’s dead and shriveled loins there are now people numbering into the millions” (Hebrews 11:12, The Message).

God’s promise is not limited to a single fantastical miracle of family planning better told in Ripley’s Believe it or Not. This is a divine vision of the future where this family is counted in numbers beyond counting, “as many as the stars of heaven and as innumerable as the grains of sand by the seashore.”  And so the comedy was framed in the cruelty of God choosing to bless the world through two ancients, a shriveled up old man and a dried up old woman. And when the boy was eventually born, the joke was still being celebrated as they named him “Laughter.”

But let’s be honest. We love this kind of comedy … laughter that comes from watching someone slip on a banana peel or some other accident we can’t help finding humorous. Comedians have long understood the connection between pain and comedy. Most of the comedians understand that humor is based on anger and anguish. John Larroquette observed, “… comedy and pain are inseparable. (And) the best comedy comes from angst.”

That’s the key to understanding this text which features the heartbreaking plight of Sarai and her infertility as opposed to the fertility of Hagar the common slave girl who bears Abraham’s first-born son.

The crisis in the story of Father Abraham and his two sons is complicated at best and the drama of the two sons, half-brothers by different mothers, has been reenacted through the centuries even until today in the on-going Jewish-Arab conflict in the Middle East.

This crisis of lineage and blessing keeps repeating itself in some endless loop of conflict gets its start here in Genesis 21 as Sarah clearly sees the problem of primogeniture (first-born son) as Ishmael is Abraham’s first born son and inheritor of his family name and consequently the inheritor of the promise from God.

In its simplest truth, Hagar was a slave and not a part of the family. She was the servant to Sarah and knew she had to do whatever was asked of her, even if asked to bear Abraham’s child. It’s easy to lose track of the simple fact that Hagar was Sarah’s slave girl and was forced to comply.

The 2013 Global Slavery Index reports today that nearly 30 million women, children and men are enslaved around the world today. Their slavery has taken many forms. For millions, especially women and girls, it is prostitution, forced marriage, or other sexual and reproductive exploitation. Others are forced into domestic work and agriculture, or construction and manufacturing. They are tricked, kidnapped, and/or sold for illegal adoption, forced begging, armed combat, forced crime, and even for harvesting their organs.

Families can be heartless in their judgment or they can be nurturing places of safety, forgiveness, and grace. This story in Genesis is harsh in its arbitrariness and unforgiving in its judgment rendered in order to protect the blessing.

The juxtaposition of these stories helps us understand that the oppressor’s story is always understood differently than the stories of the oppressed, which are silent stories often ignored or suppressed. We ignore the pain and anguish of the oppressed in favor of the telling the official story, our story as the dominant culture. This is as it is and as it shall be evermore.

But we can explore Hagar’s painful story of banishment today as an interruption to the dominant story. It’s only in the spotlight for a brief while before turning back to the triumphal story of the sacred promise. But at least this much is ours to think about. That’s why Phyllis Trible, professor of Hebrew Scriptures, includes this story in her book, Texts of Terror. [Today, we call this kind of historical theology Liberation Theology or Feminist or Womanist Theology as Hagar was undoubtedly a woman of color. Most Christians I know dismiss those two perspectives, but they are interpretations that have much to teach us.]

God always sides with the oppressed. God sides with those who bear the pain of the dominant story and God wants us to learn from the story in all its many truths.

George Mason, pastor and friend, recalls that at the close of the Civil War a story is told that after being beaten down and defeated, the congregation of the socially upper-crust Episcopal Church of Richmond, VA, was back in the pews and the soldiers had largely returned from war. On that Sunday in worship, the minister, prepared to administer Holy Communion and something wholly unexpected occurred that sucked the air out of the congregation.

A tall, well-dressed black man slowly rose from his seat in the gallery – a section traditionally reserved for Negroes. He slowly strode toward the communion table and knelt at the kneeling bench squarely in front of the table. This had never happened before as the strict custom was that the white members would receive communion first and only then would the Negroes be served. But the war was over and this was a new day, and this proud black Christian wanted to know whether the war was worth the fight.

The minister was startled and sadly immobilized. For a long moment, no one moved, until at last a distinguished but gaunt-looking gentleman with snow-white hair and gray beard rose to his feet and made his way to the table. He gently stooped down to kneel beside the black man and prepared to receive Christ alongside his black brother. Only after watching General Robert E. Lee act in fellowship with his dark-skinned estranged brother did the rest of the church follow.[1]

God is the God of all, from the top to the bottom, from the left to the right, from the oppressor to the oppressed. God is the God of us all and there’s room at God’s table of reconciliation for us all.

[1] Jay Winik, April 1865: The Month that Saved America, Perennial, 2001, 362-363