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Hagar's Lament -- Genesis 21:8-21 (Fourth Sunday After Pentecost)

There is so much that is wrong in the world of this morning’s Scripture. Theirs is a world infected with slavery. Abraham and Sarah enslave Hagar – and they have the power to use her body as they see fit.[1] Patriarchy is at work. The women in the story have little power relative to men – their value in their world reduced to their ability to bear children. This slavery and this patriarchy work together to produce even more violence – as Hagar and her body are used to bear and birth a son, and then discarded when she and her son become a perceived threat to those with more power than her. It’s not a pretty story.

Last week, I said that the story of Sarah and Abraham being promised a son was a moment well into a long story. This is another part of that story – it’s Hagar’s story. And it starts a few chapters before this morning’s Scripture:

God has promised Abraham again and again that God will make Abraham into a great nation. But for years and years, Abraham and Sarah remain childless – so long that they take matters into their own hands.

Sarah says to Abraham, “I have a slave woman, Hagar, take her as a second wife, and have a child.” Abraham and Sarah force Hagar into surrogacy – and she gives birth to Ishmael. But while she’s still pregnant, Sarah starts to have second thoughts. All of the sudden – in this world of patriarchy – Hagar has a bit more power than Sarah – Hagar is going to give birth to the firstborn son, and there is power in that. And Sarah can’t stand it – so she mistreats Hagar, mistreats her so badly that Hagar flees into the desert. And Abraham sits idly by while all this happens. An angel of God finds Hagar in the desert, asks her what’s wrong, and promises her that she, too, will bear a son who will become a great nation. Hagar takes all this in, and she names God – “The God who sees” – and she names her son Ishmael – which means “God hears.”

Ishmael is born to Hagar – and then finally, finally – Isaac is born to Sarah – and we come to this morning’s story. Isaac is born at last – Sarah finally has what she has been longing for, for so long. And she looks out one day, and sees Ishmael (son of Hagar) playing with – some translations say “mocking” -- her son Isaac, and Sarah says, “Oh no, oh no, this won’t do. There’s no way that her son will inherit along with mine”. And so she tells Abraham to turn Hagar out. “Send her away.” Scripture says that this was “distressing” to Abraham because of his son (apparently not because of the well-being of Hagar). But Abraham (concerned, but not convicted) goes along with Sarah’s demand – in fact, the Scripture says that God tells him, “Don’t worry, I’ll make Ishmael into a nation too.”

And so Abraham rises early in the morning, he takes a bit of bread and one skin of water, and he puts them on Hagar’s shoulder, and he sends her on her way. And Hagar goes out, wandering in the desert.

Now, you may remember, last week I said that in the desert hospitality is a fundamental moral obligation – it’s so important because, in the desert, hospitality is a matter of life and death. If you don’t welcome the stranger – in the desert – the stranger dies. I want to be clear: When Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael into the desert, he is effectively sentencing them to death. The bread and the skin of water will last them just long enough that they can travel far enough away so that Abraham and Sarah will not have to witness the carnage that their choices have wrought.

There is so much that is wrong in the world of this morning’s Scripture – and we have to name that before we can look for any living, liberating word for today. I say that because in my reading this week I’ve run across a number of explanations of this text that almost justify what happens here – as if it were somehow OK – maybe you’ve heard something like that in Sunday School. Something like: “Oh, what happens here is OK, because God had a plan. What Sarah does to Hagar – Hagar’s suffering – is just a part of that plan.” Readings like that have been used for far too long to justify and perpetuate the oppression of far too many people – they have kept us from naming as wrong things that are plainly wrong.