Genesis 21.8-21; Matthew 10.24-39
On the face of it, our first reading this morning is a troubling story. It is the story of Hagar and her young son Ishmael being cast out into the wilderness, cast out following a fit of jealousy on the part of Sarah and Abraham, as they protect Abraham’s other son Isaac and his inheritance. Hagar and Ishmael are forced out to wander in the wilderness, there to come close to death, before finding, even in the desert, with God’s prompting, a well of water from which they are replenished, and so wander out of the pages of our bible. The troubling aspects of the story only increase as we examine the background, the preceding chapters of Genesis which have laid out this story of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar.
The story begins with God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants, more in number than the stars, will fill the earth and bless it. That promise appears frustrated as Sarah and Abraham remain childless, until they have the idea to ‘use’ Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant, Hagar, as a surrogate mother. It’s a suggestion that initially at least Abraham appears to have little difficulty with, but in the course of time perhaps unsurprisingly it ends in mutual recrimination, as the now pregnant Hagar is cast out for the first time. Prompted by God she returns to the household, and ‘submits’ to Sarah, even as Ishmael is then born to her. To Sarah’s astonishment – she had laughed at the prospect – the seemingly impossible happens and Sarah herself becomes pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. And so we reach this morning’s story; when at a great feast to celebrate Isaac’s weaning, his older half-brother Ishmael is spotted playing with him, and Sarah and Abraham respond to the blessing of this child by turfing out the potential rival, banishing Hagar and her son Ishmael. This story of the blessing of all the families of the earth through the progeny of Abraham starts unpromisingly.
And that matters, of course. For this is the story of Abraham – the father of faith. And yet it’s a pattern we have seen before: the blessing of the Garden of Eden is soon disturbed and Adam and Eve find themselves cast out; that first family finds itself undone by jealousy as Cain turns on, and murders, his brother, Abel. The Hebrew Scriptures are very clear eyed in their depiction of the jealousies and rivalries that threaten to undo the blessing of God that they also attest to. That is what makes this story troubling: Abraham and Sarah’s blessing – both the covenant that promises to bless the earth through them and their descendants, and the concrete blessing of this child, Isaac, given to them even in old age – Abraham and Sarah’s blessing does not unleash generosity of heart and action, but a casting out of the one who, they think, is no longer needed for this story, is indeed a potential rival. Hagar is superfluous. Nevermind that the story was supposed to be one of blessing, blessing for all people, the whole earth.
We are often not as clear-eyed as scripture about these things. We don’t always recognise the same jealousies and protectiveness in ourselves, or in the church, the proclaimer of God’s blessing. Any self-examination however, and any prolonged experience of the church, that community of flawed human beings like you and me, quickly disabuses us of the notion that living in an awareness of God’s blessing prevents us from selling that blessing short. It’s a pattern played out all too often in the name of religion – the blessing of God is narrowed, and becomes a possession for me and mine; the outsider and the other is superfluous to the blessing, their wellbeing and blessing somehow not part of the gift. We recognize ourselves in this account of Abraham and Sarah.
What redeems the story is its recognition that God is not limited to such behaviour. Abraham may be the centre of this story, the primary recipient and means of blessing, but his failures to see a different future for Hagar and Ishmael, do not determine their fate. The story recognises that God is bigger than that, that God’s promised blessing is faithful, and Hagar not forgotten. She may wander out of the pages of Genesis, but the hint is there that God does not desert her: ‘I will make a nation of him also’, says God before providing the well in the desert to replenish and renew. Muslims trace their religious ancestry back through Ishmael and Hagar to Abraham. Hagar is the mother of the Islamic faith – the well in the desert where she finds water is traditionally thought to still spring in the desert, a short distance from the Kaaba at Mecca. When Muslims perform the Haj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, many will journey between the Kaaba and the well to replicate Hagar and Ishmael’s search for water. To drink from the well is to re-find blessing.
So our first reading explores the gap between God’s promised blessing, and our en-action and reaction to such blessing; it suggests too that God is always bigger than we had imagined, always at work to enlarge our flawed living out of the blessing.
Here at St Mary’s Cathedral this week we are busy planning the re-opening of our building for prayer as lockdown begin to ease. It’s proving quite an effort – to make sure we can do that safely. Ordering the hand sanitiser, finding volunteers to staff the rota, setting up the building for social distancing as well as prayer. But we do that because this building is one of the ways we seek to bless our city. Just as its doors were shut back in March, not out of fear, but out of love; so now the effort is important, is one expression of the blessing of God that we want to proclaim and deepen. Every church has it’s own ways of seeking to be a blessing, an expression of that gift of God given to each in the gift of life together.
‘Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’ That is the dynamic of the gospel, words which end Jesus’ challenging speech to the disciples we heard in today’s gospel. Those words suggest that to be a blessing is not straightforward, and that it’s certainly not about hugging the blessing to ourselves.
Jesus has two fundamental messages to the disciples which underpin that insight that to gain life is about letting go. The first is the exhortation to the disciples: Do not be afraid; a exhortation found again and again in the gospels. Fear is what makes us hold the blessing tight to ourselves – fear of the potential rival, fear of the other. And second, the mission to widen the blessing is not easy – it may even bring us into conflict. Those hard words of Jesus, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother,” are not easy to hear. They only make sense, it seems to me, in a world where family loyalty is everything; where the protection of me and mine is the over-riding loyalty. That is the loyalty which caused Sarah and Abraham to drive Hagar out. Family bonds, the bonds we share with those we love, or are familiar, or are like us, those bonds are important and a blessing, of course, but they can become oppressive of the outsider, and a limiter of the blessing. Jesus words are an exhortation to widen the circle of blessing, to include more than we would naturally, instinctively. And that is the task as we move out of lockdown. How might we live out, and offer that blessing, given to us so that all might be blessed? A blessing that we discover as we share it.
The doors of this Cathedral will, we hope, be once again thrown open this week – not just for our sake but to be a place of refuge, of transformation, of prayer, of community, of blessing for all. Amen.