I had the wonderful opportunity to preach (for my first time as a priest)at St. John the Baptist, Episcopal Church in Ivy, VA (just outside of Charlottesville). It was a wonderful experience in a stunningly beautiful church. Enjoy!!
As we begin today, I’d like to take a moment to reflect back over last week. Because I think it’s important to remember that these stories, they aren’t just individual stories. The characters continue, the plot lines grow.
I took a class in college, I have no idea what the class was, and have forgotten almost everything. But there is one moment I remember: the difference between a tv sitcom and a drama. Sitcoms might have overarching plot lines that continue over a long period of time, but for the most part, everything that was at issue is concluded after each episode. But in a drama, issues and plots continue and build from the previous issues. You can start watching a sitcom halfway through a season, but if you try that with a drama, you’ll be very lost and miss many of the important details.
The Bible is a lot more like a drama than a sitcom.
As the credits rolled on last week’s episode, Sarah, well advanced in age, was laughing and filled with joy. Because she had born Abraham a son, Isaac.
In the ancient world, and this is still true in parts of the modern world, a woman’s worth depended on her ability to have children. Specifically, on her ability to have sons. It was often considered a mark of God’s displeasure with you if you couldn’t have children. And, of course, this had to be the woman’s fault; infertility could never be the man’s fault.
I say that in jest through my modern lens. We know now that it can be the man’s fault. And that there are a lot of factors that go into whether or not a couple can have children. For example, a nomadic lifestyle in the wilderness of the Middle East, such as what Sarah and Abraham lived for many years; that would contribute to a couple being unable to procreate.
But last week, Sarah laughed. First, she laughed in disbelief, and then, she laughed out of joy. An infectious laugh that she predicted would carry over to those around her.
But there was one problem: Abraham already had a son, Ishmael.
Again, it’s easy to think about this through a modern lens, and think of Ishmael as being illegitimate. But he’s not.
Hagar was owned by Abraham. And so any children born to her would also be Abraham’s property. But this story gets ever more complicated. Because, it was a standard practice in those days for barren wives to “give” their female slaves to their husbands. Any children created were considered the children of the wife and husband, not the mother.
This means that Ishmael was considered the firstborn, and legitimate child of Sarah and Abraham.
Until it came to pass that Sarah bore a child of her own womb.
And this is where the story picks up this week. Isaac is being weaned, which in those days means he was somewhere around 3.
Ishmael, the other child in this story, is nearly 16. He is a man by ancient standards. He is nearly old enough to assert his legal claim as the legitimate first born son of Abraham. God may have promised a blessing to Isaac, but the legal system of the day would not have. And it was about time for Ishmael to find a wife.
The joy with which last week ended, with Sarah laughing, that joy has evaporated. Joy evaporated when Sarah watched 16 year old Ishmael, playing with Isaac.
Abraham, fully understanding what truly is an age old adage: happy wife, happy life. Did as Sarah demanded, and cast out Hagar and Ishmael.
What I find most interesting in this part is what comes next: God seems to forget about Hagar and Ishmael until Hagar cries out, as both she and Ishmael await death. It is after the crying out, that God steps in. Hagar still has to do something, she has to pray.
Her prayer comes in the form of a guttural, helpless, pleading sound. Hagar weeping, mixed with the sounds of Ishmael dying. That is what caught God’s attention, and brought God to action. Crying out is also what will draw God’s attention when Isaac is lying on the altar with Abraham holding the knife over his son. But we’ll get to that story later.
This story, of Hagar and Ishmael, this is where the story really gets interesting. And, it’s where we have our first major Spinoff series.
Hagar and Ishmael go and live in the wilderness of Paran, which is one of the places where the Israelites would spend time during their 40 years in the wilderness. It’s also where King David would seek refuge after the death of Samuel.
Paran is now believed to be located somewhere very close to what would become the city known as Mecca.
Which makes sense, since the great nation that Ishmael would become, is Islam.
This is the point where Judaism, Christianity, and Islam separate. Judaism and Christianity would continue to grow together for a couple thousand more years. And it would take Islam several thousand years to take root, in the wilderness between Mecca and Medina.
Islam and Christianity are siblings. We both grow out of the same Genesis story. We just have different mothers.
I’m going to take a moment to explain just a couple of the misconceptions that grow out of our sibling rivalry with Islam.
First, Christianity believes that the Word became flesh in Jesus, meaning that Jesus is God in human form, and the revelation of God is captured in the Gospel’s of Christ. For Muslims, the Revelation of God came in the form of words that were given to the Prophet Muhammad, one line at a time, over the course of many years. Those words were written down in what is now known as the Quran.
The revelation of God for Christians is Jesus. The revelation of God for Muslims is the Quran.
Islam requires you to give all of yourself to your God, to care for those in need, and to respect all people.
Does that sound familiar? It should. Because Jesus said the exact same thing.
Don’t believe me? It’s in the Gospel today. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
In Islam and Christianity, God is supposed to come first.
Now, of course, within Islam just as within Christianity, this is corrupted. It is even more complicated because Islam teaches that this religion is to be part of the political sphere; religion should guide politics. Christianity has a long history, especially in this country, of being separate from politics. Christ teaches, and Paul teaches in other parts of the Epistles, that the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man are different. This is true, but we often struggle to reconcile what religion teaches, with what is happening in our country.
Islam is a little different. Islam teaches that what is happening politically must be reconciled with religion. Or at least, there must be efforts to reconcile.
This has opened Islam up to corruption, just as it attempts at separation have in Christianity. The human struggle for power has long been bolstered by saying that struggle is ordained by God. Look at the crusades. Look at Hitler, claiming to be a good Christian. Look at Manifest Destiny!
Look at ISIS.
These are corruptions of the teachings of remarkably similar religions. Religions that teach kindness, acceptance, carrying for those in need, respect of differences.
In watching tv dramas, and in understanding religion, it’s important to know the whole story. I won’t stand here and tell you I know everything about Islam, but I won’t say I know everything about Christianity either! But what I will tell you, and will encourage you to do, is to always remember that these aren’t individual stories told in isolation.
Hitler rose to power out of the destitution and power vacuum that resulted in the decimation of Germany in World War I. ISIS developed in the destitution and power vacuum that resulted in the aftermath of the Second Iraq war. These plot lines repeat themselves!
Sarah’s laughter turned to anger. Hagar called out to God to save Ishmael. Abraham called out to God and Isaac was saved from death. Jesus cried out on the cross.
It would be a lot easier if religion were like a sitcom. We could just take a chapter or even a few lines and not have to worry about the rest. But religion isn’t a sitcom. It’s a drama. Each story builds on what came before. Each character is developed slowly. Each part builds on what came before. Each episode is made so much more beautiful when you know the back-story.
Learn the story. Then you can live the story.