Ishmael and Isaac – June 22, 2014

Pentecost 2 – June 22, 2014

The Rev. Philip Tierney

When I was in seminary, I played intramural football. When my birthday rolled around, my teammates gave me a t-shirt. On it they’d printed the words “A. Feisty. B. Pastoral.” It was a joke, but many a truth is said in jest. The A and the B were supposed to represent my perhaps overly logical thought patterns. The feisty meant what it said. I was feisty back then. And the pastoral indicated that I often swung into damage control in the wake of my feistiness. Lots of us are complicated, and so was I. Fair warning, I’ll be a bit feisty in today’s sermon.

His name was Ishmael. Perhaps to objectify or dehumanize him, that name’s not mentioned in today’s reading, but his name was Ishmael.

This passage is incredibly human, in the worst sense of the word. And I, for one, would prefer that it never needed to be entered into the annals of scripture. This is the story of a terribly dysfunctional family. It’s the story ruthless triangulation within a family. It’s the story of two sons, their respective mothers, and a haplessly complicated father. All I can say is that it’s a good thing that this story didn’t come last Sunday, on Father’s Day.

Here’s the gist of it in a nutshell. God had promised Abram a son. He was getting on in years and he and his wife, Sarah, hadn’t had any luck whatsoever in the procreation department. In those days, offspring meant everything, as it does for most species. But it wasn’t important to have sons for the sake of preserving genetic code, alone. It was also to carry on the name. It was to pass on the accumulated resources of the family. It was to insure the care of parents in old age. In a time when Jews didn’t believe in any afterlife, it ensured living on after death through one’s own seed. Having a son meant everything to a man, like Abraham, back then. But the chances of it were becoming increasingly remote. So his dear wife, Sarah, had an idea. She’d give, that’s the discrete word for it; she’d give her slave, Hagar, to Abraham as a surrogate. Abraham could breed with her and gain a child, perhaps even a son. And so it came to pass, and Ishmael was born.

Alas, as these things sometimes turn out, time passed, thirteen years or so, and Sara gave birth to a son, named Isaac. Now, the story might have gone on, everyone living happily ever after. But that was not the end to this story. You see, Sarah may have been Abraham’s wife, but for thirteen years Hagar had been the mother of Abraham’s only son. And so, for various inter-psychic reasons, Sarah had come to resent Hagar, and Hagar looked down on her mistress. But after Isaac was born and the years went by, Sarah had occasion to notice how much fun Isaac had playing with his older brother and how understandably much he looked up to Ishmael. And so, Sarah’s feelings festered into fears that Ishmael would dominate Isaac. Sarah prevailed upon Abraham to get rid of the Ishmael and his mother. She wanted them sent away, alone and into the wilderness. What was Abraham to do? In his distress, he prayed. He got the sense that God sided with Sarah and assured him that the Lord would protect Ishmael and Hagar. Whatever the source of that idea, from my point of view Abraham simply didn’t man-up, as they say. He banished his first-born son and his mother to the desert, where they were as good as dead for lack of food and water. Imagine that! And remember that Abraham was the greatest of the men of God. But that just goes to show you that none of us is perfect, no matter how faithful or devout we might otherwise be.

This story offends me. The slavery in it offends me. Slavery, whether then or now, is offensive. Everything from sex slavery to not paying full-time workers a living wage is also offensive. Triangulation in families offends me—people ganging up on each other to exert power over other members of a family is an offense. Abandonment, neglect and abuse of children is offensive. And using God to justify those actions is offensive.
Thankfully, God did intervene. God rescued Hagar and Ishmael, protected them and preserved them. But once again, that’s not the end of the story. Family dysfunction has consequences. And this dysfunctional family drama has lasted for 4,000 years. That’s right that single family’s dysfunction has had terrible consequences which persist to this very day—200 generations later.

It’s strange, isn’t it, how the more things change the more they remain the same. This is what I mean. Ishmael and Hagar migrated to Egypt. Ishmael married and had many children, including about twelve sons. They migrated to the Arabian Peninsula. The Arabs trace their ancestry to Ishmael. One of Ishmael’s sons, named Kadar was the patriarch of the tribe into which Mohammed was born. Another, Masa, was the patriarch of a tribe from which Palestinians trace their ancestry. And the same dysfunctional conflicts characterize that one Semitic family’s relations to this day, largely in the same ways. Jealousy, insecurity, fearfulness, malice, and power-driven triangulation characterize that family’s inability to resolve its issues. The children of Sarah still disinherit the children of Hagar and the children or Hagar still feel oppressed by and resent the children of Sarah. Still, that dysfunction expresses itself in triangulation, including with US.

All that, too, is profoundly offensive. But Jesus did say that members of families would turn against one another in today’s gospel reading. I don’t believe for a minute that He was recommending it so much as he was predicting it. In fact, he named the cause. He said, “Do not fear.” He said, “Do not be afraid…” Fear breeds dysfunction. Whether in one on one relationships, in families, in groups or organizations, within and among nations, and within the global community, it is fear that breeds dysfunction, fear and self-interest, just as it did between Sarah and Hagar. Misplaced and exaggerated fears and self-interests have created the ideological divides that are tearing this country apart, other nations, races, ethnic groups, religious extremists, and various social classes. We live in a fear-ridden and profoundly self-interested world. And the dysfunctional fruit of it seem to be getting worse all the time.

But Jesus gave the antidote. He said, in short, “Stop your fears; and trust God, instead.” Stop your fears and your self-interested ways and trust God, instead. Faith is the antidote to fear, and love is the antidote to self-interest. As soon as you notice that you or anyone else starts to scrutinize other people, other people’s ways, other people’s ways of living, defining God, or defining of love, well, that’s fear and self-interest oozing back into the equation again. The problem is that religions, politics, and economics seem to be saturated with fear and self-interest more than ever in our time. And that’s why it seems that humanity has been regressing rather than progressing of late. Fear and self-interest, whether Sarah’s, Hagar’s, Abraham’s, or any individual and group in the world today, are the root problem. Feed them or act on them and things always get worse. Attend to them with trust in God and with the love that faith gives the security to risk, and the world will improve. It’s as uncomplicated and as difficult as that. Faith can cure fear and love cures self-interest. At least that seems to have Jesus’ point of view.