Once upon a time there was a wealthy man who enjoyed a special relationship with God – so special that they agreed that God had chosen HIM to be a blessing to the whole world. Like many men of his day, -the cultural context is really important – this man owned a whole retinue of slaves, who did his bidding morning, noon and night.
This man also had a wife – but no children.
This perplexed and grieved the couple. In conversation with God, the words “Father of a great nation” had definitely come up…but you can’t be a father without a child to call your own. What was this man – whom of course you recognise as Abraham – to do?
From our perspective, the answer is frankly shocking. His barren wife, Sarah, commanded one of her slave girls to take her place in Abraham’s bed, and to bear him a child. She deliberately set out to exploit another human being – treated a person like a thing, existing only to meet her own need…Those who know Margaret Attwood''s Handmaid's Tale will have seen a chilling development of this theme, and here too, unsurprisingly, trouble followed.
Of course, at first it seemed like an answer to prayer when Hagar bore a son – hence his name. Ishmael – meaning “God listens” – is born…At last a son and heir…a dream come true. And they all lived happily ever after.
Except – in this story many of the worst aspects of humanity come to the fore. Against all the odds, another son is born to Abraham, a child for Sarah, who was said to be barren. And, just like that, Ishmael’s value plummets. He is no longer the treasured first born but a threat to Sarah’s longed-for child. He is last year’s toy – to be discarded now he is no longer needed. Abraham – the father of a great nation – the revered icon of faith and obedience – opts for a quiet life and allows Sarah to manipulate the future, yielding to her demand that he
“Cast out this slave woman with her son”.
Notice how Sarah has begun to dehumanise her. She no longer has a name. A line has been drawn and mother and child are placed firmly on the far side of it. They are othered…no longer Hagar and Ishmael, part of the family, but “this slave woman and her son”…You can almost hear the venom in Sarah’s voice
And Abraham…He’s a patriarch, revered throughout history...of COURSE he’s going to stand up for justice for his child…to recognise that Hagar and Ishmael are already disadvantaged, since Isaac is the son of his marriage. This is flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone, right? Right?
Well, it’s true that he IS perturbed, distinctly uncomfortable indeed. Not only is he dealing with a request to banish Ishmael and his mother, he is also coming face to face with an aspect of his beloved wife’s character that he surely can’t be proud of. Perhaps, like me, he goes a long way to avoid conflict...He knows Sarah’s attitude is unfair – but he hopes that someone else will intervene – and indeed, he is reassured by God that all will turn out OK. On that basis he is somehow content to send mother and son away with only a loaf of bread and a skin of water, banishing the source of his discomfort rather than deal with the problem. He has bought in to the theory that some lives matter more than others…that it’s fine to prioritise the needs of your own nearest and dearest and exclude others, hoping that someone else will sort out their situation.
Actually, both he and Sarah have fallen fair and square into that trap which our Cathedral challenges in its very bones…They have divided the world into us and them, those who really matter…those on the inside…and those we push outside as somehow less deserving.
Remember the power of the missing word?…We say Father forgive – not Father forgive THEM – and that’s not just about shared culpability for the issues of the world...it is a clear reminder of our shared humanity – that there is NOBODY on the other side of the line because in reconciling the WORLD to himself, Christ has erased that line forever...
But we forget too easily, and when we do, we send Ishmael and Hagar out into the wilderness once again
We do so, too, when we deny the reality of racism, however unconscious, in our selves and in our society…We do so when we try to alleviate our discomfort and smooth over the passionate anger that is fuelling the “Black lives matter” debate by insisting “All lives matter”…Of course they do (no “us” and “them”) – but if you remember the parable of the lost sheep, the good shepherd could not rest til all was well for each and every one of his flock...and knew that at that precise moment he needed to pay particular attention to the one who was needed help..
We do so when we insist “I’m not racist” but refuse to recognise the layers of injustice that permeates our society, unnoticed and unchallenged. If you doubt their reality, there are many many statistics to make the point. This IS our problem, albeit in different ways from the experience in the States…
More widely, we do so when we suggest that there is no need to celebrate Pride month, because that battle is won – or even, perhaps, that “people like that” should not be free to celebrate their identity...When it takes a pandemic to make us aware of all those people who were not able to worship with us simply because they can’t get through our doors…
We are still adept at pushing those who make us uncomfortable out into the wilderness.
But, what happens to Hagar and Ishmael there?
They encounter God, who meets their needs and stays with Ishmael to see him grow up and find his place in the world...God who loves each precious child far too much to abandon even one...who will ensure that all that is covered up in our hearts and our lives and our society will be made known...who so cares for all his creation that he notices when a sparrow falls to the ground.
Our gospel reminds us that when we ally ourselves with God’s revolution, when we stand with the broken-hearted, speak up for the excluded, support the weak, it won’t make us popular. Here in the Church we have a tendency to try to be nice...to direct our efforts into upsetting nobody...It’s something I really struggle with myself...but it’s not the gospel invitation. Not peace, but a sword, because the struggle is REAL. We need to be ready to fight – to challenge injustice wherever we may see it, even within the hearts and minds of those we love...and to offer hope that God is already making all things new. Will you join me? Can we hold one another to account, so that we may come to live out the Magnificat wherever we turn, placing the first last, the last first and losing our own lives, with all their protective self-interest, to gain the life of the Kingdom?
The call is clear. Let’s pray for the courage to answer it.