Scripture: GENESIS 21:8-21
When I was a boy, I could tell my father felt close to me. I can’t know, of course, but I would guess he felt closer to me than he did to my younger brother, and I think my brother would agree. I could tell that my father was easier on me than he was on Tim, that he felt maybe more connected to my interests and talents. Even I could see that I was something of the favorite.
Fast forward several years. Some of you have heard me tell the story of my mother’s last day as the minister of the church she served for more than a decade in Bangor, Maine. I was by now a young adult, and felt totally lost, as though I were something of a non-entity. My father and brother and I went to the last service my mother was to lead at that church, and when we arrived at the door that Sunday morning, the greeter warmly welcomed my father, enthusiastically greeted my brother with an energetic “Hi, Tim,” and then turned to me and said, “And you must be the other son.” No name. I felt erased, as though I were hardly worth anything. Certainly not unrelated, later that same afternoon, I got into the worst fight I ever had with Tim, as we nearly came to blows.
As the years went on, my father and brother developed a remarkably close relationship. There was palpable healing between the two of them. It’s clear to me, though, as I look back, that I have known both what it is to be the chosen one, and what it is to be the also-ran, the second fiddle. I certainly have no “poor me” card to play in this, though, because, in most settings, I have primarily been the one who’s been granted the privilege. As a white, male, educated, heterosexual, I have mostly known what it is to be chosen. Because of that, a good part of my journey as an adult has been seeking to recognize that unearned privilege and to be attentive to those who have not had the same good fortune, as well as to the systems that have perpetuated these inequities.
The story of Abraham and Sarah, of Abraham and Hagar, of Isaac and Ishmael, is, in many ways, a sordid and nasty one. Abraham and Sarah have been promised by God that they would be the parents of a great nation. Try as they might, though, they are thwarted in having a child. So Sarah brings her maid Hagar to Abraham to see if they might be able to conceive and bear a child. Indeed they do, and Ishmael is born to Hagar. As time goes on, Sarah grows more and more resentful of this child that she has been unable to bear. And when, at the age of ninety, she and the hundred-year-old Abraham finally miraculously have their own child, Isaac, Sarah’s resentment boils over and she spitefully tells Abraham to get rid of the one-time maid, Hagar, and Hagar’s son, Ishmael.
To be frank, it’s one of the uglier stories in the Bible. Sarah, the mother of Israel and all of us, throwing what she sees as her lowly slave out into the wilderness, with the expectation that Hagar will die: “Get rid of this slave woman and her son,” says Sarah to her husband. “No child of this slave is going to share inheritance with my son Isaac!” (Genesis 21:10, The Message). You can hardly believe that Sarah can be this callous and cruel. She doesn’t give a fig what happens to the two of them.
Stranger still, and even more disturbing, even God seems to take Sarah’s side against Hagar. “Do whatever Sarah tells you” (21:12), says God to Abraham. And we want to scream, ‘This is so not right. And this is so not a God we can believe in.’ Sarah seems little more than a monster. And God is her great enabler, her puppet. Some kind of God that is!
That’s not the end of the story, though. God does indeed admit that Isaac is the one chosen to carry on Abraham’s line, acknowledging that Isaac has a unique role in Israel’s beginnings. But God goes on to say something unexpected: “As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring” (21:13, NRSV). Does God give Ishmael the same gifts as Isaac? No. But is Ishmael abandoned and totally disinherited? Not at all. Ishmael, too, is to be honored and protected and blessed with abundant riches.
That’s still not the end, though. The tension continues to escalate. Hagar is sent on her way with some bread and water, and maybe even carrying the sixteen-year-old Ishmael on her back. Knowing that she is out of water, she leaves her son in the bushes, assuming he will die and unable to watch it happen. Suddenly, though, God opens her eyes, and she sees a well she hadn’t seen before. “She [goes] to it and fill[s] her canteen and [gives] the boy a long, cool drink.” And then, says the story, “God [is] on the boy’s side as he [grows] up” (21:19-20, The Message). God is on Ishmael’s side.
The story is both ugly and beautiful, frightening and endearing. Dear old Sarah has suddenly become a vicious mother bear who will brook no competition. Abraham meekly refuses to challenge her and looks spineless because of it. Even God seems unwilling to say no to Sarah’s brutality. And yet, at the end, God comes through. And while Ishmael will never have exactly the same prominence as his younger brother, he is nevertheless treasured by God. He, too, will have his own nation. He, too, will be filled with blessing. Evil has been turned to good.
Ishmael is all those who have not been favored. Ishmael is all those who have been consigned to second-class status. Ishmael is all those who have felt erased and neglected. If you grew up in a house in which a sibling was the chosen one, you know what it is to be Ishmael. If a classmate got all the attention as the star athlete or heartthrob or lead soprano or most adept programmer, you know what it is to be Ishmael. If your spouse or partner sidelines you to focus on their work or their phone or their hobby or their affair, you may well know what it is to be Ishmael.
If that is your experience, then this story has a crucial word for you. Know this: that, even though you may feel like a second-class citizen, even though you may not have been the one “oohed and aahed” over, God watches over you and gifts you, in the words of the story, with your own “nation,” with your own world of wonder and blessing. You are not “less than.” Quite to the contrary, in God’s eyes you are everything you were meant to be. You are treasured. You are adored. You are Ishmael, and God walks with you and holds you close.
There’s more, though. As much as this story is about you and me, it’s also about so much more than you and me. As we are becoming so acutely aware, in countless ways, so many of us who are sharing in this worship service are, again and again, not the Ishmaels, but the Isaacs of this world. We are so often the ones who have been favored—with financial security, abundant opportunity, health, physical comfort, personal safety. And there’s a whole world of Ishmaels of whom we may be only vaguely aware who need to hear the core of this story, who need to know that, even if they are Ishmael, they are the apples of Abraham’s eye, and even more crucially, they are the apples of God’s eye. They are not to be relegated to the trash heap to which Sarah sends them. They are all somebody—they are all somebody—and they matter infinitely to the God who gave them, and all of us, life.
You and I have abundant opportunities to be God’s agents of blessing and to contribute to the forces that upend the cruel “Sarah” part of us and our world. Hilton Als, the Pulitzer Prize-winning theater critic for The New Yorker, is an African American man living in New York City. When protests began in his neighborhood over the killing of George Floyd, Als cowered in his apartment. He wasn’t afraid of the helicopters and sirens. He was afraid he would be discovered living in a predominantly white area of the city and thought to be up to no good (https://news.yale.edu/2020/06/17/speak-me-school-art-discussion-series-explores-racial-justice?utm_source=YaleToday&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=YT_Yale%20Today%20Alum%20no%20Parents_6-19-2020). Like Sarah with Hagar and Ishmael, we have too often pushed people to the side and conveyed that “certain people” didn’t belong in a particular area. Privilege has made us think we could just let the Ishmaels of the world perish. Hilton Als deserves to be at peace wherever he lives.
Juneteenth, celebrated two days ago, commemorates the freeing of African Americans who had been enslaved. With systemic racism still so entrenched in this culture, the celebration of that past freedom is also a call to remove the shackles that still exist in the present. It’s a call for the Hagars and Ishmaels of the world to be encompassed in blessing.
One of the challenges we face as parents is the task of talking with children about race. When our younger son Taylor was three years old, one of his friends was a black boy, Peter. One day, Peter was at our house for lunch. Suddenly Taylor touched Peter’s arm and looked up at Mary. Then he touched his own arm, and again looked up at Mary. He had certainly noticed the difference. But I confess that I don’t remember ever talking with our children in any substantive way about race matters. Not once.
I suspect that would not be possible in an African American household. The subject would be unavoidable. My sense is we’re bid to make it an inescapable subject for white families, as well. Child psychiatrists say it’s never too early to begin that conversation. “Infants as young as six months old can recognize differences in skin color. By age two-and-a-half, research has shown, children prefer playmates who are similar in race and gender. And as early as age three, they are forming judgments about people based on racial differences. . .. As a result, it’s imperative that parents recognize and talk about racial differences with kids from an early age to prevent [the sickness of] racism from taking root,” say experts.
“Avoiding conversations about race sends a message that there’s something off-limits, and even bad, about racial differences, [says child psychiatrist Wanjiru] Njoroge . . .. She recalls a young patient who asked if her skin was so dark because she didn’t take baths.” And she says, “If you are in communities that are not diverse you can introduce race through books and through play. . .. Talk about how there are different genders, different races, languages, and cultures. Tie their questions to education—get out the globe or the map and tell stories.”
Another child psychiatrist, Amalia Londono Tobon, urges parents to “be comfortable with the fact that you don’t know everything . . . What’s [most] important is that you are open to talk about this. It’s not one conversation, it is many conversations.” Those of us who are white, she says, need to think about what we’re reading, what TV shows we’re watching, who our friends are.
The key is to talk about these things. Because silence is part of the privilege we have of being white. It’s never wrong to talk about the mistakes we’ve made and how we’ve learned from those mistakes to be better. And then to teach our children about the inequities built into our country, and how, with God’s guidance, we can overcome those inequities and build a more just and equitable society (https://news.yale.edu/2020/06/15/its-never-too-early-talk-children-about-race?utm_source=YaleToday&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=YT_Yale%20Today%20Alum%20no%20Parents_6-17-2020). Just the other day, a news story popped up on my phone saying that “Educators point out that many major events in U.S. history, such as Juneteenth and the Tulsa Race Massacre, are still not taught in schools”—that such events have been “whitewashed and erased” (NBC News). It’s that silence, on both a personal and societal level, that has to stop.
The story of Hagar and Ishmael is a vivid reminder that everyone on the margins—refugees, and Muslims who trace their lineage directly to Ishmael himself, and people with disabilities and mental illness, and LGBTQ people—everyone has a place at the table.
So we end today with two celebrations. First, this week’s Supreme Court rulings protecting “Dreamers” and people who are LGBTQ remind us that we do make progress, and that God’s embrace of all people will not be thwarted.
And second, on this Father’s Day, we celebrate that so many of us, including me, have known God’s blessings through our fathers. And many of us have been graced with the opportunity to be fathers. Fathers have a powerful opportunity to share the love of God with their daughters and sons, to embrace the Ishmaels and Isaacs of this world, as well as their figurative sisters. In fathering, there can be grace and beauty. I’m going to show you now a brief video of blessing conveyed by a father, our son Alex, with his daughter, Allie.
God dances with us and holds all of us close. And many of us have sensed that from our fathers. Take in these Federated fathers now, fathers who have, in countless ways, stood by us and showed us God’s love.
No matter what is going on in any of our lives, or in society, graces still abound. God loves Isaac and Ishmael. God loves you and me. And that gift never lets us go. Can I get a virtual “Amen”!