Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Cheering for the Underdog


Do you ever read something in the Bible and think, "Hey, that's not right! God shouldn't have let it happen that way!" To some, those thoughts may feel sacrilegious, but I think a careful reading of Sunday's lesson from Genesis 21 reminds us that we aren't the only people who feel that way. Sometimes even pillars of faith like Abraham aren't sure God is doing the right thing.

Before we get to Sunday's lesson, here's a quick recap of the Abraham story. God appeared to Abraham and told him to leave his homeland and set out for a new territory. God promised to make Abraham the father of many nations and to give him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore. Over and over, God reminded Abraham of his promise even though Abraham and his wife Sarah were getting older and older. When it seemed certain that Sarah was too old to have a child, Sarah suggested that Abraham have intercourse with her maidservant Hagar the Egyptian. He did, and Hagar had a child, who was named Ishmael. But that wasn't what God intended. Eventually, despite all the odds, Sarah conceived and gave birth to a son who was named Isaac, and God made it clear to Abraham that Isaac was to be the child through which God's promise would be fulfilled.

But blended families can be complicated. Even before Ishmael was born, Sarah began to regret her decision to encourage her husband to sleep with her servant Hagar. She complained to Abraham that Hagar was becoming obstreperous, and Abraham told her to treat the servant however she wanted. So Sarah chased the pregnant woman out into the desert. But an angel appeared to Hagar and told her to go back and submit to the harsh treatment because God had a different plan and a different promise in mind for the fruit of her womb. That's more or less where Genesis 21 picks up.

Sarah still burns hot with jealousy. Her servant's son is a constant living reminder of the intercourse that servant had with her husband. On the day of celebration when her own son Isaac was to be weaned, Sarah saw Ishmael playing with her son, and her rage became uncontainable. She said to her husband, "Cast out this slave woman and her son; for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac." And there it is. Unwilling to share, unable to make room, Sarah will not allow another woman and her son to remain. But this is Abraham's son. He may not belong to Sarah, and we may know that Isaac is the one through whom God's promise is to be fulfilled, but Ishmael is still his son--his own flesh and blood. He is Abraham's first-born child. He has known him for a decade or so. He has held him in his arms. He has played with him in the woods. He has taught him how to hunt and how to tend the sheep. And now he is being asked to send his own son and that son's mother out into the wilderness to die?

In Abraham's moment of need, God intervenes. And what does God say? "Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring." In other words, don't worry about it. I'll take care of it. Send them out. They will have their own story, their own people, their own nation.

Why doesn't God speak to Sarah instead? Why doesn't God make it possible for Abraham to keep both sons? Is this God's way of punishing Abraham for seeking a child by another means? Is this God's way of showing preference for the light-skinned people of the Fertile Crescent, where Sarah was from, over the darker-skinned people of Egypt, where Hagar was from? We can ask these questions, but they don't have answers beyond speculation. The comfort I receive is in seeing Abraham's struggle. "This matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son." These were real people with real feelings. They might not have had the same sort of father-son relationships that we enjoy, but the bond between a man and his offspring was real back then. It wasn't easy for Abraham to say goodbye to his own family. He wasn't sure about this. This didn't seem right to him. But God told him not to worry, and God stepped in to provide for Ishmael and his mother.

I like to cheer for the underdog. I was a Cubs fan long before the Cubs threatened to make the playoffs much less win the World Series. I like it when Fred Couples or Tom Watson makes a run at a major championship long after they should have stopped being competitive. I like the longshot. I like the David-versus-Goliath match up. For the most part, the story of Israel is a story of an underdog, but not yet. At this point, in the Bible, Abraham and Isaac are the winners. They get to stay. But the story isn't over for Ishmael.

I like the Islamic tradition that retells the story of Ishmael and Isaac. In that tradition, the promise is not made through Isaac but through Ishmael. In that tradition, it isn't Isaac who is taken by his father to be sacrificed when God tests him; it is Ishmael. In that tradition, when Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness, the angel Gabriel appears and revealed to Sarah, who had been searching for water, that her son had found a spring. That spring became Mecca, the holiest city in Islam. Also in the Islamic tradition, Abraham doesn't bid farewell to his older son for good. Throughout his life, he visited Mecca several times to check on his son and offer his fatherly advice. Those details aren't part of the Jewish or Christian traditions, but we do embrace God's promise to Hagar--that her son Ishmael will become the father of his own nation. Those might not be our stories, but they are a part of the story of the people of God.

Abraham teaches us that it is ok for us to feel anguish over the path that we are on. Abraham teaches us that faith in God does not always mean that we will understand how God works. Instead, he teaches us to have faith that God is with us and those we love even when we do not understand it. The outcome may be painful. The road ahead may be hard. As Jesus reminds us, we may even have to give up family and friends. But God is bigger than we are. God's purposes are wider than we can see. God's love and provision are greater than we can imagine. Struggle and uncertainty are not signs of lacking faith. They show us what it means to have faith beyond our own understanding. They show us what it means to have faith in God.

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