This Sunday’s Old Testament reading continues the saga of Sarah and Abraham, and of Hagar and Ishmael. Unable to bear a child and advancing in years, Sarah gave Abraham her Egyptian slave girl, Hagar. And Hagar birthed Ishmael. The child Ishmael was in line to inherit Abraham’s clan. That is until three strangers visited Sarah and Abraham, promising them a son. In due time Isaac was conceived and birthed, much to the amazement of all, especially Sarah and Abraham. Isaac was a gift from God; Sarah and Abraham welcomed the gracious, loving gift of God. Now Isaac was to be the favored son, and the one to lead the clan of Abraham into the future.
In today’s reading Sarah insisted that Hagar and Ishmael be cast out, treated like trash, and thrown away into the wilderness where they would surely die. Sarah wanted no part of the controversy concerning Ishmael and, her son, Isaac. It seems, reluctantly, Abraham agreed, especially when God assured Abraham that “as for the son of the slave woman [Hagar], I will make a nation of him also because he is your offspring”. According to the book of Genesis, God provided a ‘well of water”, and the mother and son prospered in the wilderness. In due time Hagar provided Ishmael a wife from her native land, from Egypt.
This casting our of Hagar and Ishmael is also part of the Koran. The Koran names Hagar as the daughter of an Egyptian king, and she was a gift to Abraham. Upon being cast out, Hagar in her panic and distress ran seven times between the hill of Al-Safa and the hill of Al-Marwah before discovering a well in the valley between them. The well, to this day, is known as Hagar’s well. Around this well, the city of Mecca grew. The water of Hagar’s well is considered holy water by the people of Islam. Those on pilgrimage in Mecca walk the same hills as Hagar, seven times. The prophet Mohammed is a descendant of Hagar.
The saga of Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, Ishmael, and Abraham did not have a tragic outcome, yet I think Sarah “missed the mark” in her response to the gracious, loving gift of Isaac. God was lovingly gracious to her, and she, rather than being lovingly gracious with Hagar and Ishmael, cast them out, cast them out to die.
I think the same pattern of “missing the mark” is found in our Gospel reading. As Matthew was writing the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, the earliest Christian communities were being ravaged by their contemporary Jews and Romans. Matthew wrote, “… have no fear of them. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul…Do not b afraid, you are or more value…”. God values the People of God – Yes. But then Matthew “misses the mark”. He wrote as the words of Jesus – “…whoever denies me before others I will deny before my father in heaven… I have not come to bring peace but a sword”. Sorry, folks, I disagree with Matthew. He is “missing the mark” about the Prince of Peace. Think of Peter, who denied knowing Jesus three times on Good Friday and then became the leading disciple. Think about Saul who presided at the stoning to death of Stephen, and then following his Damascus Road experience became the leading apostle, Paul.
The love of God is more gracious than we can ask for or imagine, Peter, Paul, Sarah, Abraham, and you and me. The love of God is beyond a warm feeling for us in God’s heart. The Love of God is action, gracious action of our behalf, life-giving action, like providing a well of refreshing water in the wilderness for Hagar and Ishmael.
And our love, our love, is to be like God’s gracious love. Agreed, to act out of love is not always easy. It may “set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother… and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household”. Yet, we are invited to act as the People of God, the Servants of God.
Sarah “missed the mark” in casting out Hagar and Ishmael, and God made it right. Matthew “missed the mark” and on Easter morning God made it right, appearing to Peter and the other hiding, fearful disciples.
We are invited as the People of God to commit acts of gracious loving. We are invited “to put legs” on our love. We are invited to incarnate God’s love just as Jesus became flesh and blood and lived among us. Yes, we may do a Sarah-thing from time to time. Yes, we may do a Matthew-thing from time to time and “miss the mark”. Yet remember this parable, also found in Matthew’s writing. Jesus said,
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall. Matthew 7:24-27.
Here at All Saints, as the People of God, may we proclaim God’s love, and may we graciously live God’s love each and every day. Even when the storms come our way let us stand together on the Rock, the Rock of our Salvation, Jesus, the Christ.