We are familiar with the birth of Isaac. His birth brings the Abraham story to climax. The verses stress that God has made good on the promises and that Abraham has been obedient in naming and circumcising Isaac. It is the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham (and to Abraham’s descendants). The foundation of something great has begun as the child grew.
But in verse 9, the story abruptly changes. The reappearance of Hagar and Ishmael makes it impossible to dismiss them as simple diversions in the grand Abraham saga. They receive almost as much attention as Isaac. Isaac and Ishmael are both children of promise. The Judeo-Christian tradition sees that God has made clear that the redemptive purposes on behalf of the world (the whole world, including Ishmael) will manifest themselves through Isaac. But Ishmael does have claims. The “other son” (and those that will come after him) are not to be dismissed from the family or from God’s realm. God will remember both children and their descendants.
The relationship between Sarah and Hagar was either not resolved amicably or has deteriorated in the three years since Isaac’s birth. Sarah’s depiction of Hagar as a “slave woman” probably drives home her concerns over inheritance rights. She demands that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away. She does this during the festival associate with the weaning of Isaac, a time of rejoicing because he has survived the difficult first years that most children do not. (Perhaps she has waited until now to insure that there WAS an offspring.) She only speaks “about” Hagar, never talking directly to her and again making her appear “beneath” her. Sarah gives Abraham an ultimatum, insisting that he choose between his two sons. Modern readers probably side with Hagar, feeling sorry for her and with Abraham at the position in which he finds himself. And, yet, some move must occur if BOTH of the sons are going to follow the shape of their futures that God holds for them.
Both children are recognized as belonging to Abraham but also to a particular future that will be worked out in the future. God announces that it is through Isaac that descendants will be named for Abraham, probably referring to the covenantal line. But Abraham can be assured that God will care for the future of Ishmael as well, making of him a great nation.
In this story, the people of God should recognize and rejoice that God’s saving acts are not confined to their own community or their own depiction of who God is. God’s acts of deliverance occur out and about in the seemingly godforsaken corners of the world, even among those who may be explicitly excluded from the so-called “people of God”. This story reminds the “chosen” that their God is the God of the world, the God of all Creation, the God who we can only fathom in our small, particular way.
The story of Hagar Hagar is often looked upon as one in which she becomes many things to many people. In Texts of Terror, Phyllis Trible writes about Hagar’s story in this way: “Most especially, all sorts of rejected women find their stories in her. She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless woman, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures, the welfare mother, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others.”
This text does affirm that God chooses the line of Isaac (even with more intention than if the treatment of the two offspring had been “even-handed”) But Abraham was chosen so that all families might be blessed through him. What one does with the Ishmaels of the world in the face of claims for Isaac comes front and center. God is God; we are not. God has the power to make all things new. We are reminded by this text that the world is filled with both physical and spiritual (in the way that Christians relate to Abraham) descendants of Ishmael. There are 2.8 billion Muslims in the world and close to half live outside of the continent of Africa. These, too, are the children of Abraham.
For Hagar, while she focuses on her past, God focuses on her future. In the sixteenth chapter of Genesis, God actually draws her into the conversation. Hagar is the first person in Genesis to encounter an angel of God and the first woman to be given promises. She becomes the only person in the Old Testament to actually name God. Where some would assume that this is a sort of “split-off” of the actual story of God, this narrative tells us that it is, rather, another way of telling the story itself.
- What is your response to this passage?
- How does our tradition usually read this passage?
- How does our society treat the “Hagars” of the world?
- How does this story call us to relate to the descendants of Ishmael?
- How does this text call us to see God?
NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 6: 1b-11
The letter of Romans is essentially Paul’s “manual” for life. It teaches how to wrestle with the world and wrestle with our faith in the process. This journey through baptism is a journey of life. More than just washing away sins, it brings us into unity and participation with the living Christ. We become not just “sinless”, but Resurrection people, with new lives and new outlooks. Baptism doesn’t MAKE us children of God but instead puts us on the pathway to living our calling as God’s children.
The passage tells us that “we were buried”; in other words, our old way of living is one that we have let go. We have buried it and find ourselves raised anew alive in God. Being alive in God, though, is not a static way of being. It is a journey, a journey that assures us of life and yet one that does not lay out every detail of that life along the way. Being alive in God means being alive in the glorious mystery that surrounds us.
In the preceding chapter, Paul depicted God’s grace as the answer to human sin. No matter our sin, God’s grace is bigger. But then it is up to us. This abounding grace is ours for the taking. It not only forgives; it also reminds us who and Whose we are. It reminds us that we are God’s children and that life always holds something more. We move from being the “walking dead”, so to speak, to being alive in Christ. But, Paul claims, first we have to let go of that death, to let go of the life that is killing us either physically or spiritually. We have to let go of who we think we are and begin to live as the one that God created us to be.
What the believer does with the facts, says Paul, is to embrace them with a curious kind of realism. When we were baptized, the church was quite candid about the transitoriness of it all. Knowing how we could easily spend our whole lives lying about death, the church got all that over with right at the beginning by holding us under the waters of baptism. Early, back on Ash Wednesday, we were told, “You are dirt and to dirt you shall return” (Gen. 3:19) At the beginning, we were assured that our things, our kings, our empires and our projects don’t last. The church pried our fingers loose, one by one, from these alleged securities and pushed us into dark waters, waters that (surprise!) turned out to be our womb rather than our tomb. Rather than falling back into nothingness, we fell back upon everlasting arms. Death? How can we fear what we’ve already gone through?
We find that, quite surprisingly, we began really to live because we did not have to. All the really interesting people were those who had somehow learned to let go. Is Paul’s talk of baptismal dying too mystical? I posed that question to a group of ordinary, everyday laypeople in an ordinary Mississippi church. “Has anyone here had to die in order to be a Christian?” Silence. Then they began to testify.
“I thought that I couldn’t live in a world where black people were the same as white people. When segregation ended, I thought I would die. But I didn’t. I was reborn. My next-door neighbor, my best friend, is black. Something old had to die in me for something new to be born.”
Another said: “I used to be terribly frightened to be alone by myself. When my husband went out of town on business, I either went with him or took the children and stayed with a neighbor. But the night that my eight-year-old child died of leukemia, I stopped being afraid.”
“Forgive me,” I said, “but I don’t get the connection.
“You see,” she explained, “once you’ve died, there is nothing left to fear, is there? When she died, I did too.”
When he spoke of what happened to him on the Damascus Road, Paul never knew whether to call it being born or being killed. In a way, it felt like both at the same time. Whatever it was, it had something to do with letting go. (Excerpted from “Letting Go Down Here”, by William Willimon, in “The Christian Century”, March 5, 1986, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1002, accessed 16 June 2014.)
So, let go…and become alive.
- What is your response to this passage?
- What life is it that you feel you need to “die to”?
- What does being alive in Christ mean for you?
- Does this give you any new meanings for your own baptism?
GOSPEL: Matthew 10: 26-33
This passage is not one of the most comforting from the Gospels. Everything will be known—all our secrets, all those things that we are trying to conceal. Darkness and whispers will become easily seen and easily heard. But you are a child of God. God knows you and loves you. So do not be afraid. Just have courage. Because walking from darkness to light is hard. But you are not alone.
The truth is, this passage is not one of those feel-good healing stories. It tells of disruption. After all, Jesus did not come to walk the pathways of this earth to tell us what a stupendous job we were doing in the Kingdom-building department. Jesus came to show us a new vision, the vision of God. And when new visions come to be, the others are often cut to pieces, curtains torn and storm clouds gather, and that is indeed uncomfortable. Jesus came to expose the darkness of the world, to show us a different way.
For those of us who have never faced persecution for our faith, never lived in a darkness that we could not imagine, this is hard to grasp. For most of us, we are born, exist, and will die in at least a dimly lit version of what our faith is. But what if the world went dark? What if all that you knew was hidden? Do not be afraid. That is what we are told. You are not alone.
And for us, those who exist in a “peaceful and civilized” society, how should we read this? Where are our darknesses? Where are those things that the Way of Christ is exposing? The truth is, Jesus calls us not to walk with the majority culture, but to align ourselves with the marginalized, to walk straight into the darkness and start shining light everywhere. We are no longer called to be people of the Empire; we are called to be children of God. The empires will do their best to crucify Jesus over and over again but, do not be afraid. Nothing is too great for God. Being one with Christ, in unity with who God calls us to be, will indeed show us life.
The season of Easter is behind us. The work of the Resurrection now begins. Where are you on the road? Are you existing in darkness or shining light into it? Be who you are called to be; be Light.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What darkness do you see in your world?
- What does it mean to shine light into it?
- How would this passage speak to our world? Our society? Our denomination? Our church?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
No man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee. (John Donne)
Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void. (Simone Weil)
Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. (Howard Thurman)
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
(St. Francis of Assisi)