a sermon on Genesis 21:8-21
Fifty years ago yesterday, three young men were murdered about an hour from the town where I grew up in Mississippi. James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman had converged on Philadelphia, Mississippi, from their different backgrounds of rural Mississippi and New York City as part of a summer-long attempt in the Civil Rights Movement to bring attention to and relief from the oppression faced by African-Americans there. In the course of this three-month campaign, thousands of women and men from Mississippi and beyond, with varied racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, worked to register voters, integrate public accommodations, initiate educational campaigns, and build a lasting network of leadership to confront the racism and violence that were the norm in Mississippi and throughout the South. These three volunteers Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman confronted a world that had been so very carefully taught the hate and fear that resulted in their brutal murders at the hands of men who would not face true justice for over forty years.
I can’t help but think about how we teach one another this kind of hate and fear when I hear this morning’s reading from the book of Genesis. Here we see one of the earliest biblical witnesses to oppression based at least in part on cultural difference like that which was confronted in that Freedom Summer fifty years ago. On the day of the celebration of her son Isaac’s weaning, Sarah was furious to see her long-awaited son, a true gift from God in her advanced age, out playing with her husband’s son by their Egyptian slavewoman Hagar. This was simply unacceptable to her. No other child could threaten her son’s place in the line of inheritance, and especially not the child of an Egyptian slave.
So Sarah went to Abraham and demanded that he cast out Hagar and her son Ishmael from his household. Abraham didn’t like the idea all that much, but after consulting with God, he acceded to her plan, trusting God’s promise that both his sons would make a great nation and that even if he cast Hagar and Ishmael out, God would care for them. So Abraham gave them some bread and water and sent Hagar and Ishmael away to wander in the wilderness. But soon their supplies ran out, and Hagar was ready to give up. She couldn’t bear to see her beloved son die, so she left him under a bush and walked away so that she would not have to be a witness to such a horrible sight. She stayed near enough that she could hear his cries, but she could do nothing more than wait for them to go silent.
Yet when Hagar could not answer, God did. God heard Ishmael’s cries and sent an angel to his mother. As is so often the message in such moments in the Bible, the angel told her, “Do not be afraid.” God would take care of the boy. There was more to their story than just their being cast out—they would not only survive, but they would be brought into God’s family all the more, and a great nation would emerge from them, too. God would overcome the hate and fear that led to their being cast out and lead them through the wilderness to new life.
The careful teachings of hate and fear in our world are not limited to Broadway musicals, the state of Mississippi in 1964, or even the world of the Bible—they are sadly still very much present with us today. These teachings in word and action, intentional and unintentional, continue to tell our world that our racism is okay so long as we have a few friends who look different from us, that poverty is not really something for the prosperous to be concerned about, that peace is an unrealistic goal in our world and so we should not feel bad about profiting from war, that injustice may not always need to be answered, let alone remedied, even that hate is permissible so long as it can be backed up with a good reason.
God’s actions with Hagar and Ishmael are among the earliest of many biblical stories that suggest that God offers something more than an endorsement of our own hates and fears. When we judge someone based on her origins, God insists that all are welcome. When we try to justify poverty and perpetuate hardship, God sends surprising provision. When we live in a way of war, God sends a surprising pathway of peace. When we allow injustice to go unquestioned, God questions us. And when we bring hatred of any sort to our interactions with others, God calls us to account for our actions.
It was a privilege to be even a small supporting part of challenging the hate and fear of our world at our denomination’s General Assembly this past week. This biennial gathering of Presbyterians from around the country spoke out against war and injustice and took steps toward a new and different way of peace in the world. While the mainstream media has lifted up two of the assembly’s actions, divesting from three companies whose products support Israel’s occupation of Palestine and giving ministers permission to officiate at same-gender marriages, as I look over the total sweep of its work I see a strange but wonderful embodiment of the kind of love and presence that God showed with Hagar in the General Assembly’s actions.
The assembly spoke out loudly against racism by taking the next step toward including the Belhar Confession from South Africa in our Book of Confessions, and we will use a portion of it in our worship later today. The assembly stood for a true and just peace in the Middle East by divesting Presbyterian holdings from companies who profit from war and human rights abuses in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The assembly urged Presbyterian congregations across the country to make churches gun-free zones and and to encourage legislators to take meaningful action to reduce gun violence. And the assembly pointed out countless other places where our care and concern as Christians can embody a promise like the one God offered to Hagar and Ishmael, whether it be for LGBT persons who face persecution, prosecution, and sometimes even execution in other countries, for farm workers who are not compensated fairly for their labor, even in some offerings for a church that is wandering in the wilderness and needs a new way of understanding God’s call to us in a changing age.
While good and reasonable and faithful people may agree or disagree with any or all of these actions as we even saw at the assembly, I believe that God calls us continually to set aside the hate and fear that we are taught, the hate and fear that manage to creep into our lives and our world despite our best efforts, the hate and fear that make us and others less than the beloved children of God that we are. And in setting these things aside, I believe that God calls us to learn and teach a new and different way that seeks the well-being of all people and all creation, that stands up and speaks out for the marginalized and oppressed, and that embodies God’s own presence in times of injustice and despair.
These are not easy things to do. It is not easy to set aside some of the things that we have been taught, but as we learn something new, I pray that we will see the depth and breadth and wonder of God’s amazing love for others and ourselves as we seek to live it out in our lives each and every day. So may God teach us carefully how not to hate, how to set aside our fear, and how to live out God’s presence and love each and every day until all things are made new in Jesus Christ our Lord. Lord, come quickly! Amen.