Text: Genesis 21:8-21
Preached FCCW, June 25, 2017
When I was a kid, my favorite thing to spend my allowance on was comic books. An entire drawer of my bedroom bureau served as storage space for my library of Marvel and DC superhero comics. Among them were a few prized issues that were devoted to the origins of those super crime fighters and the super villains from whom they protected us. These books held the answers to questions that comic book junkies like me craved to know; like how Bruce Banner became the Incredible Hulk or what was up with The Joker’s permanent clown face?
In a way, the Book of Genesis has a similar relationship to the rest of the Bible as those Origin comics had to the rest of my library. Genesis means origin and the Book of Genesis was full of explanations for how things got to be the way they are. From how the universe was created, to how there came to be so many different languages… to how the Hebrews became God’s chosen people.
The story of God’s chosen people has its share of almost mythic superheroes.
There is Noah, the original Post-Apocalyptic Superhero. There is Jacob, who had the strength to outwrestle an angel, and Joseph who had the super-power of predicting the future through other people’s dreams, and who also possessed the first superhero costume — his Coat of Many Colors.
They weren’t always superheroes in the squeaky clean, Adam West portrayal of Batman way. They had their darker sides, kind of like the Ben Affleck version of Batman. It was God’s power working in and through them that made them superheroes.
All these Hebrew superheroes of the Chosen People trace their origins to the story of a chosen couple named Abraham and Sarah.
The superpower that Abraham and Sarah are remembered for was the ability to have a baby when they were about 100 years old. Although, their actual superpower was their faith in God’s promise to bless Abraham with descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, and make of him “a great nation.”
Even though Sarah was way past child bearing age.
Years went by without any sign that God was keeping his promise of giving them a child. And that was when their faith wavered.
In desperation, Sarah finally told Abraham to take her Egyptian slave girl Hagar as a concubine.
Hagar bore Abraham a son named Ishmael, which means “God hears.”
Not surprisingly, Sarah grew to resent Hagar as a threat to her privileged role as Abraham’s wife, and treated her harshly. But seeing her affliction, God comforted Hagar. So Hagar called God by a name that means “the God who sees,” because God was not blind to her situation.
Then, wouldn’t you know, God finally kept the promise to Sarah, and she gave birth to a son, Isaac. Sarah’s joy at what God had done for her soon turned to resentment against Hagar’s son Ishmael. Sarah viewed Ishmael as a competitor to her son Isaac. She feared that Isaac’s inheritance would have to be shared with Ishmael.
At one time, Hagar and Ishmael had been a convenient “Plan B” for providing Abraham with descendants. Now that Sarah had given Abraham a son, the slave and her child were expendable.
Eventually, Sarah convinced Abraham to send both Hagar and Ishmael off into the desert alone with just some bread and water. When those meager supplies ran out, mother and son were as good as dead.
But God, the God who sees, saw Hagar’s affliction.
The God who hears heard the desperate cries of the boy. God rescued them both.
If this was a test of Abraham and Sarah’s character, they did not exactly get a passing grade this time. Still it was through Abraham and Sarah, that the Hebrews came to identify themselves as God’s chosen people. But intertwined with the story of this chosen people, are other stories of other peoples.
“Unchosen peoples”, you might say.
People like Hagar and Ishmael, who himself was the forerunner of the Bedouin Arab peoples. The unchosen people were the ones who were considered to be outsiders to the promise that was given to Abraham and his descendants. Because the unchosen were not included in the promise, they were believed to be untreasured by God.
But that wasn’t what God had in mind. In fact, God said that there was a special plan for Ishmael, too. That he also would become a great nation.
What is even more significant… it says that God was with the boy Ishmael, as he grew.
It seems that Abraham and Sarah could separate Hagar and Ishmael from THEIR clan, but not from God’s.
God’s promise to Abraham was that through his family all the families of the earth would be blessed.
It was never God’s intention that there ever be unchosen people.
Unchosen people were the result of human choice, not God’s will.
At the same time, to be a chosen people did not mean you had special privileges. It meant you had special responsibilities. That your advantages were given that you might be a blessing to others.
Chosen people seem to have a way of conveniently forgetting that.
As important as Abraham is, if you ask a Jewish person what is the defining moment in their religious and historical identity, the answer would be something that happened generations after Abraham lived.
For four hundred years the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt.
The land that Hagar came from.
Then the God who sees, saw their affliction and the God who hears, heard their cries.
Just as God had seen how Hagar had been afflicted under Sarah’s treatment of her.
God rescued the Hebrews, cared for them as they wandered the desert, and brought them to a promised land and a promised future. Just as God had cared for Ishmael and Hagar in the desert, and brought forth a great nation through Ishmael.
The story of the Hebrews and the story of Hagar and Ishmael are mirror images of each other. In one, Sarah the Hebrew cruelly oppressed Hagar the Egyptian slave. In the other, Egypt mercilessly oppressed the Hebrew slaves.
In both stories, God heard and responded to the oppressed, the helpless, the victimized; because God’s commitment to justice stands over and against God’s obligation to a particular group or nation.
God is the God of the underdog and God is free to choose the unchosen peoples of the world when they are victims of oppression. God sees the afflictions and hears the cries of the Hagars and Ishmaels of our own time. God still seeks the welfare of the unchosen peoples of the earth, when and where the chosen people fail to be the blessing to the world that they were chosen to be.
As Hagar and Ishmael discovered, it is a small step from being unchosen to being expendable.
It was labelling Westerners as unchosen that made those in the World Trade Center Towers expendable.
It was naming African Americans as unchosen that made those meeting to pray in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. expendable.
It was declaring LGBT people to be unchosen that led to the crowd at Pulse nightclub being expendable.
It has always been that separating out any group as unchosen people has been the first step to denying justice for them or justifying violence against them.
God blessed Sarah with a son. But the gift was not just for Sarah or Abraham alone. It was meant for the wider world, that would be blessed by the community that would come into being through the child.
The outcome of Abraham’s handling of the matter between Sarah and Hagar was the division of his family into categories of chosen and unchosen.
But if the family is where messages about who is chosen and who is unchosen originate, it can also be the place where children learn lessons about respect and caring for those who are different.
What is it that God – the God who heard the cries of both the Hebrew slaves and the child Ishmael — hears in the conversations between parents and children?
Are they words that teach acceptance or intolerance?
What is it that God – the God who saw the harsh treatment of Hagar at the hands of Sarah and saw the harsh treatment of the Hebrews at the hands of the Egyptians– sees in the behaviors we model to our children?
Are they acts of hospitality or hostility, that they see us extend to others who are different from us, but for whom God also has great plans in store?
When the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome he encouraged them to break from the old, destructive patterns of living they had learned growing up in the world.
He posed the question, “Should we continue to sin?”
Then he answered his own question with an emphatic, “By no means!”
He then went on to explain that when we are baptized
it’s like we cease to be who we were and become a new creation, no longer enslaved to sin, and with the potential to live the great plan God has for us.
You don’t have to be a superhero to save the world.
You don’t need to be Wonder Woman or Ironman.
You already possess the superpower you need to make a difference.
The superpower of living in the newness of life that is yours through your relationship with Jesus.
Which is the story of the origin of God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven.
©2017 Raymond Medeiros