A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
For August 28th 2016, the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Based on Gen 21:8-21
Today’s scripture is not an easy story. Remember: Sarah and Abraham wanted a child. When this did not happen, Sarah gave her Egyptian servant Hagar to Abraham. This was a common custom at the time, and any children of the union were supposed to become Abraham’s inheritors. But when Hagar became pregnant, Sarah grew Jealous and drove Hagar away from camp. Hagar returned, and her son Ishmael was born. Then Sarah became pregnant, and delivered Isaac. That’s where today’s scripture picks up.
There’s a Navajo tradition of the First Laugh Ceremony. It is something of a contest to be the first person to make a newborn child laugh. The reason the first laugh is such a big deal is that laughter is part of what it means to be human. Laughing together is what creates a relationship. That first laugh is an indication that this baby is a person. Whoever has the honor of evoking the first laugh then has the responsibility to throw the newborn a party – the First Laugh Ceremony or a Laughing Party or Chi Dlo Dil.
Succulent foods fill tables, the kinds of foods that make us smile. Since this is a party for a baby, there are baby foods and foods their older siblings and cousins will like. And in the effort to assure that the baby will laugh again and again, everyone who attends tries to outdo the others in making everyone laugh, because to be human is to laugh together.
Remember when our scripture was about Abraham laughing and falling on his face? Remember: the Hebrew word there for “laughter” was tsawkah. Remember when Sarah overheard that she would be pregnant within a year and she laughed? Remember: the Hebrew word there for “laughter” was tswkah. tsawkah. It means what it sounds like: a laugh, a chortle, a snort. In a few places it is translated as “play”. Because Abraham and Sarah laughed – because they “tsawkah-ed” – their son is named Giggling Boy – Laughing One – Isaac. Remember all of that?
Abraham throws a party to celebrate a major landmark in his other child’s life – the point where Ishmael is no longer an infant but a boy-child. And at this party Ishmael is laughing or playing with Isaac. Guess what the Hebrew word is! tsawka. You would think that since so much blessing has come to this family from laughter that they would be able to welcome laughing and playing together. But this is not a Navajo Laughing Ceremony.
Maybe older sibling Ishmael was teasing his younger step brother Isaac. Maybe they were roughhousing. Maybe name-calling took place. Anyone who has been around children knows this is pretty normal behavior. Anyone who has a sibling or knows someone who has a sibling knows the older ones pick on the younger ones. We aren’t given the details of how Ishmael interacted with Isaac. However it is that Ishmael played with and laughed with his step-brother Isaac, it made Sarah angry.
What I find astonishing is that the word so related to intimacy and blessedness – tsawkah, laughing, chortling, snorting, playing – is now the cause for banishment. It has me examining my own life to discover activities which had been blessing become the source for bitterness, anger, intolerance, judgment against others. What are our boundaries of acceptance? What do we allow ourselves to do that we disdain others for doing? What are our limits for tolerance? How often do we announce “Don’t do as I do – do as I tell you.”
And so the next morning Abraham escorts Hagar and Ishmael out from the camp. He gives them bread and water. Really? “Leave our camp, head out into the wilderness, and here’s some provisions to carry you over: bread and water.” Really Abraham? This is your baby’s mama. You may not be married to her, but you have celebrated your child with her. And all you can offer her is bread and water?
I don’t like this story. I don’t like what Abraham or Sarah do here. In earlier parts of the story I admire them for their intimacy with God and one another. But this … this part of their story appalls me. And this is to be the father of a righteous nation? It is stories like this that help me understand why my atheist friends are critical and dismissive of Christianity, Judaism, Islam.
Father Abraham had many kids – but, what, only loved one? And that other kid: Abraham sent him out into the wilderness with his mother with only bread and water? At this point in the story I am ready to take my leave from Abraham and Sarah. I’m kind of tired of them.
So I’m glad the story-teller also leaves them. I’m almost relieved the story teller goes with Hagar – except for what she faces there in the desert wilderness. Because I’ve seen the image so many times in movies, I can imagine Hagar struggling through the desert, dehydrated, her mouth crusty, her voice croaking as she pleads for water. I don’t want to imaging the boy Ishmael in the same state – but the media has provided me with enough images of starving children from around the world that I can see Ishmael’s bulging eyes staring, pleading for sustenance and relief.
I can understand Hagar placing Ishmael under a shrub – a little bit of shelter – and then walking away. No parent wants to watch their child die.
I don’t understand why God’s messenger doesn’t intervene earlier. I don’t know why there is not a pillar of smoke or fire, why there isn’t a billboard or something like the Bat-signal indicating the location of the well. Why does God’s help only come at this moment of extreme despair?
And the angel says what angels always say:
Do not be afraid.
God is in charge.
Things are about to change.
This affects you.
“Hagar! What’s wrong?
Don’t be afraid.
God has heard the boy’s cries over there.
Get up, pick up the boy, and take him by the hand
because I will make of him a great nation.”
Really God? You had to wait until Hagar thought both she and her son were dying in the wilderness before offering them support and encouragement?
I don’t like this story. It makes me feel estranged from God. It makes me feel as though maybe I cannot trust God. Sure, everything works out in the end: Hagar and Ishmael were just a few feet away from a well, and they get a drink that allows them to survive the desert wilderness, and Ishmael grows up to be a strong archer and head of his own nation. Great.
But for me, that does not excuse Abraham and Sarah banishing them from the nomadic group that they have called family. That does not excuse Abraham treating one sibling better than the other. That does not excuse God waiting until Hagar and Ishmael are dying of thirst to provide for them. I’m kind of tired of these tests of faith, of stories where some kind of salvation comes at the last moment. I want to be saved earlier. I don’t want to have to be banished into the wilderness for God’s help. I want God to show up before I am at the point of giving up.
In my impatience with God’s sense of timing, I have not banished God from my life. I still wait for God’s presence, and passive waiting often becomes active seeking. In my disappointment with Abraham and Sarah and oh so many others whose behaviors have been disrespectful, I have not banished them to a deserted place so I don’t have to deal with them.
Like many of you, I am confident in my self-assessment that my own actions have been righteous, merciful, loving – and yet I have to admit that maybe when future generations tell stories of my life they will have to wrestle with the complexity of my being both a gracious witness to God’s presence and a sinful example of intolerance and impatience.
I do not like this part of Abraham and Sarah’s story, but I am not ready to banish it from the bible – because it shows despite our most terrible behaviors, God is around the corner. Thanks be to God.