As we hear the story of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, of Hagar and Ishmael, let us consider the ways this story of God’s grace and love is interwoven with human oppression and exploitation. What can we, today, learn from the characters of this story?
“Abraham and Sarah,” by Eugene Frost
Call to Worship (13th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, Presbyterian Church USA)
We gather to worship God,
Who creates us and loves us;
Who gifts us with diversity and makes us for community;
Who gives Jesus Christ to show us how to live;
Who inspires children, youth, young adults, and people of all ages,
To seek justice, share power,
and live together in love and equality;
Who invites us to join the struggle for wholeness and wellbeing for all,
and whose presence, grace, and love
sustain us in our living.
We gather to worship God.
To God be all glory, honor, and praise!
Prayer (adapted from a prayer by the Anglican Church of Canada Indigenous Ministries)
from you every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.
You have rooted and grounded us in your covenant love,
and empowered us by your Spirit
to speak the truth in love,
and to walk in your way towards justice and wholeness.
Mercifully grant that your people,
journeying together in partnership,
may be strengthened and guided
to help one another
to grow into the full stature of Christ,
who is our resurrection and our life.
Prayer for Fathers Day
(Kirk Loadman-Copeland, Ordinary Time blog, adapted)
"Our Lady of the Journey," by Kelly Latimore
Holy God, whom we call Father,
we give you thanks for the people who have been
our earthly fathers in this life,
and we pray for all sorts and conditions of fathers.
For fathers who have striven to balance the demands
of work, marriage, and children
with an honest awareness of both joy and sacrifice.
For fathers who, lacking a good model,
have worked to become a good father, and for those who have failed to become such.
For fathers who by their own account were not always there for their children,
but who continue to offer those children, now grown,
their love and support.
For fathers who have been wounded by the neglect and hostility of their children.
For fathers who, despite divorce, have remained in their children's lives.
For fathers whose children are adopted,
and whose love and support has offered healing.
For fathers who, as stepfathers,
freely choose the obligation of fatherhood
and earned their stepchildren's love and respect.
For fathers who have lost a child to death,
and continue to hold the child in their heart.
For men who are unable to have children and carry hurt because of infertility.
For those men who have no children,
but cherish the next generation as if they were their own.
For those men who have "fathered" us in their role as mentors and guides.
For those men who are about to become fathers;
may they openly delight in their children.
And for those fathers who have died,
but live on in our memory and in the communion of your Saints,
whose love continues to nurture us.
All this we ask in your name,
As you are both father and mother to us all.
Giver of every good and perfect gift,
You give us what we need;
Each day you feed and clothe and sustain us.
And now we, in turn, give.
We give to you and to your church;
We give to your people.
Take these offerings and bless them
That they might
May this offering be one more faithful step
Painting by Lucy D'Souza-Krone
Scripture - Genesis 21: 8-21 (NRSV)
This is God’s word to the people.
Thanks be to God.
Meditation by Judith Friesen Epp
When I was a child, I had a toy kaleidoscope. I remember being fascinated by the tiny coloured particles inside, and the very particular pattern they created. You can get digital kaleidoscopes now, but mine was a very simple mechanical toy, filled with coloured beads. When I looked through the tube, I would see an amazing colour pattern. But with a turn of my wrist, the particles would shift and coalesce into something new. Something different and unexpected.
I felt like the scripture text for this morning -- from Genesis 21 – kaleidoscoped before my eyes this week. I thought I knew the colour patterns of this text. I thought I understood the shape of this story of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac, of Hagar and Ishmael. But the whole text shifted on me this week, and I suddenly saw very different patterns emerging; patterns of coercion, systems of oppression, suddenly stood out in sharp relief. I want to share with you the way this text changed for me this week. I am indebted here to the writings of Jayme Reaves, a theologian from the United Kingdom.
In the chapters leading up to Genesis 21, God has promised Abraham and Sarah a son who will inherit the family wealth, and from whom God will make a great nation. But this seemed really far-fetched, even as divine plans go. For one thing, Sarah and Abram were really old already, and for another, God seemed pretty lethargic about putting this plan into action. So Sarah decided to take matters into her own hands. As one very well-known preacher put it, “Sarai couldn't have children, so she persuaded her husband, Abram, to have a child with her maid Hagar instead. Abram and Hagar both proved willing, and soon a child was on the way.”
Abraham and Hagar both proved willing? Now this is the first thing that stopped me in my tracks. Was Hagar really a willing participant in Sarah’s schemings? Highly unlikely. Hagar was Sarah’s Egyptian slave. She would have had no power in the family system. Certainly, the text gives no agency to Hagar. We read that Sarah “took” Hagar and “gave” her to Abraham as his wife. Hagar had no choice in the matter. From the very beginning of the story, it’s quite clear that Hagar is a woman taken from her homeland (Egypt), held in forced, unpaid labour, and sexually exploited by her master and mistress.
Now the text in Genesis 16 goes on to tell us that when Hagar discovered she was pregnant with Abraham’s child, she “looked with contempt” on her mistress. The slave girl got a little uppity – maybe flouncing her pregnant belly in front of her long-barren mistress. So maybe she had it coming when Sarah treated her so harshly that the pregnant Hagar ran away and took refuge for a while in the wilderness. Abraham’s two wives became big time rivals.
But wait. Here the kaleidoscope shifts again. Maybe this is not a very truthful telling of the story. The Hebrew word qalal, which is translated as Hagar “looking with contempt” upon Sarah, is a bit of an ambiguous word. It may indeed mean something a little closer to “Sarah became small in Hagar’s eyes.” Or was it that Sarah herself felt small before the pregnant Hagar? Hard to say. But even if Hagar was guilty of some haughtiness, that hardly warranted treatment so abusive that Hagar ran off alone into the desert – a place of certain death for her and her unborn child. And one can hardly call these two women rivals – that would assume some measure of equality, which was clearly not the case. This was a story of anger, jealousy and power on Sarah’s part, and vulnerability, danger and survival on Hagar’s. In the end, Hagar knows she cannot survive in the desert, so has no option but to return to the household of her abusive mistress.
Painting by Lucy D'Souza-Krone
Years later, Sarah, wonder of wonders, finally has her own baby, a boy named Isaac. And at Isaac’s weaning party, Sarah sees Hagar’s son Ishmael “playing” with her son Isaac. Sarah is so upset that she demands that Abraham “cast out this slave woman with her son.” There’s all kinds of speculation in Biblical commentaries about what made Sarah so upset. What does it mean that Ishmael was “playing” with Isaac? Many commentators suggest that it may have been violent play, or sexual play, that Ishmael was in some way harming Isaac.
But once again the colours of the story shift, for once again we see this pattern of blaming the victim. Sarah’s extreme reaction must somehow be Ishmael’s fault. But Ishmael was simply playing. And that word “playing” in the Hebrew can also be translated as “laughing” – which also happens to be the meaning of Isaac’s name. So the narrator is making a word play here; Ishmael is “laughing” with “Laughter,” or with Isaac. There is no indication of anything sinister or harmful – only an image of delightful play. No, hard as we try, we cannot pin this on Ishmael; Sarah must actually bear responsibility for her own extreme, cruel behaviour. Refusing to use Hagar and Ishmael’s names, calling them only “the slave woman and her son,” Sarah callously sends them out into the desert to die.
Sarah is not a commendable character in this story. And Abraham does not fare much better. The text does tell us that this whole matter between Sarah and Hagar was “very distressing to Abraham.” And it’s true that he gave Hagar some bread and water before he sent them off. But Abraham was a powerful and wealthy man. As the patriarch of the family, the decision was his to make. And he would have had all the resources to protect and provide for Hagar and Ishmael, even apart from his own household. In giving water and bread, Abraham was simply offering a tiny, false pretense of kindness in a wildly unjust system, masking his own deep complicity in the injustice. Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael off to the desert, knowing that they have little chance of survival.
It is, in fact, not long before Hagar leaves her child under a bush – she can’t bear to see him die. But then she encounters God, just as she did the first time she ran away into the wilderness. She meets God, sees God, hears God. God tells her that Ishmael will also become a great nation. And remarkably, Hagar names God – one of the few Biblical characters to actually do that. Clearly, Hagar and Ishmael are beloved children of God, and God’s promise to make Abraham’s descendants more numerous than the stars is fulfilled through two sons, not one. And somehow Hagar and Ishmael survive in the wilderness– an amazing feat of resilience and courage.
But then this remarkable mother and son disappear from the story. Because, after all, the story is supposed to be about Sarah and Abraham, not about Hagar. About Isaac as the legitimate heir, not Ishmael. Hagar and Ishmael, and their long line of descendants disappear from the story, and the Ishmaelites resurface only here and there throughout the Old Testament as foreigners and as enemies. As has been the case throughout history, the powerful get to write the story, and others become invisible in it, or labelled as outsiders and adversaries.
Hagar and Ishmael, by Jean-Charles Cazin
Wow. I used to really like this story. But this week it has kaleidoscoped into a very ugly tale. And much more about this story could yet be said. What in the world is this story of oppression, coercion, and exploitation doing in our Bible? I believe this story is an invitation. A call for us find ourselves in this story, to take a long, critical look at the systems of oppression in our own time, and our role in those systems. Now within our congregation, we are situated in different places in this story. Some of us will know well the oppression experienced by Hagar. And some of us will find ourselves in the shoes of Sarah and Abraham. For me, I must identify with Sarah. Like Sarah, I, as a woman, have known patriarchy and sexism. But I am also white, middle class, and straight, and I have tremendous power in this culture. I easily can, and do, remain oblivious to this power. Sometimes I get tiny glimpses into the privileges I take for granted every day. Like when I go to meet my Indigenous friends for coffee at McDonalds, and they are waiting outside in -30 degree weather. They explain, “We were told we couldn’t wait for you inside.” I have never been asked to wait outside. Or like my conversation with a woman from Cambodia, to whom I was teaching English: “Do you know what it is like,” she asked, “to never be taken seriously in stores? Store clerks look around me, over me, through me – I have no power.” Or like when I hear my African friend describe how her teenage son was kicked out of a store because he and his friend got a bit silly and started laughing in one of the aisles – that was seen as threatening behaviour. (What is it about laughter?) My black friend berated her son, “You’ve got to learn to be inconspicuous.” I have never had to tell my children that. And these just small times when the kaleidoscope shifts and I can begin to see. They are tiny glimpses I get into a vast system of privilege and discrimination from which I benefit everyday, and which has massive negative implications for black, indigenous and people of colour – from fewer employment possibilities, to higher rates of poverty, from school and workplace discrimination, to highly disproportionate incarceration rates, and the list goes on.
Where do you find yourself in this story? What can we learn from it? Today is National Indigenous Peoples Day. On Friday, there was a protest for Eishia Hudson, one of three Indigenous People shot by Winnipeg police within 10 days this past April. On June 5 there was a huge Black Lives Matter protest at the Legislature. We are being given many opportunities in these days to listen, to learn, to hear and support the voices of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour among us and around us. To allow our vision to shift, to let the kaleidoscope turn, so that we see racism, name it, and actively work for change within our own lives, and in our structures. May the ancient story of Hagar and Ishmael, of Sarah and Abraham and Isaac, mingle with the voices of today and call us toward the justice which must belong to all of God’s many beloved peoples.
Confessing our Sin (“Repenting and Lamenting in Times like These,” by Carol Penner)
You are the God who hears:
hear our prayer today
for all who lament or repent.
For those among us who face
discrimination every day
because of their skin colour,
For those among us with white skin
who benefit from racist systems
sometimes even without realizing it,
For those among us who have
struggled and waited so long
for the Promised Land of freedom and equality,
For those among us who have acted in racist ways
and have hurt people of colour,
For those protesting injustice who face police brutality
and a justice system rigged against them,
For those who think racism is someone else’s problem,
and not a problem for humanity,
God of hope, show us how to work for justice together,
standing up for what is right,
stepping in when something's wrong,
shouldering each other’s burdens,
holding each other accountable,
righting the wrongs we’ve done,
speaking truth to power.
We pray for change, lasting change,
for protection for protesters,
for a de-escalation of violence
and for government leaders who listen.
Deliver us from evil, within and without,
in Jesus' name we pray, Amen
“The Promise,” by Renáta Fucíková, 1996
Now receive these words of assurance: (from enfleshed.com)
We gather in the presence of God to encounter Love that sets free.
We do not come seeking mere crumbs of justice but a way of life that liberates.
Together, we practice courage in resisting evil and
rejecting the temptations of complicity and complacency.
The Spirit leads us in power and truth.
Our faith is placed in Love Eternal that lifts broken spirits and brings new life from places of ruin.
With hope that is neither narrow nor fragile, we come to follow Christ.
(Maya Angelou, “Touched by an Angel”)
We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.
We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love's light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.
1863 engraving, artist unknown
Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.
Thank you to our worship participants:
Judith Friesen Epp- message
Marnie Klassen - worship leader