notre dame montreal St

Sermon for Ordinary 12 Year A

The Reverend Dr Sam Cappleman

God’s concern for all people

The story of Hagar from our reading in Genesis today is something of a rarity.  It’s one of only three or so examples in the Old Testament where God shows His love, compassion and concern for those outside the covenant community of Israel and the Jews.

The other two are where God sends Jonah to Nineveh and the healing of Naaman the leper in 2 Kings 5.

Strangely enough it’s also one of three examples in Genesis where the story speaks of women, wells, fertility and the continuance of a kingdom and dynasty.

The other two are where Abraham sends his faithful servant to find a wife for Isaac and there is an encounter with Rebekah at the well and where Jacob meets his future wife Rachel at the well.

We don’t really know much about Hagar but the story surrounding her seems to be a catalogue of manipulation, deceit, jealousy power struggles, deception and ultimate triumph.  In other words it looks like an ancient soap opera from 2000 BC!

Significant Rabbinic tradition has it that Hagar, whose name is often understood to mean ‘stranger’, was ‘given’ to Sarah by one of the Pharaoh’s of Egypt. 

This is when Abram went there to Egypt to avoid famine and the deceit started as, for a time, he passed Sarai off as his sister and let Pharaoh taker her into his household until he found out what was going, on when he sent Abram and Sarai away, apparently well blessed with livestock and possessions.  It’s no wonder the story of Abraham is riddles with its own ups and downs.

For all of her life, it would seem, Hagar had been of little value as a person but treated as a possession to be used, and abused at the whim of whoever seemed to be her master or mistress at the time. 

Abraham and Sarah see how to use this to their advantage.  Rather than trust in God who had promised them offspring, Abraham and Sarah take things into their own hands and manipulation of the situation by using Hagar as a surrogate mother and impose their wills on her to meet their own needs

Are we surprised when things go wrong?  No.  But how often does the world do the same?  And when it does always seems to be the weak and powerless are the ones who suffer and are scarred and harmed?  So it would be for Hagar.

But the situation then takes another twist and turn because after Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham in order that they could have a child and fulfil the promise of God, and once she becomes pregnant Hagar realises she is no longer valueless or of no importance, she becomes the centre of attention for a change.  She has an identity, perhaps for the first time in her life.

Now she would surely have people looking after her and serving her needs rather than being at the beck and call of Sarah. 

More importantly, she realises that in the society in which they are living where the ability to bear children is of huge significance and importance, she can look down on Sarah, who now counts as nothing in her eyes, rather than Sarah looking down on her.

It would seem Hagar revelled in this situation!  So much so that Sarah treated Hagar so badly she ran away, only to meet with an Angel of the Lord who gives her the promise that Ishmael’s descendants will be numerous and instructs to return to Sarah, which she does.

An uneasy truce would seem to follow until Sarah gives birth to Isaac some years later and all the emotions resurface.  If it was a soap opera this would now be the second series where our reading today comes in.

Hagar is sent away by Abraham where she once again meets and angel of the Lord and is blessed and the promise renewed and the rest, as they say, is history.  What a story.

But it’s a story with parallels for us and our society 3000 years later.

Because for all of us there are times when, rather than rely on the grace and provenance of God, we manipulate the facts and the situation to our own good, often not thinking about what the consequences for others may be, however god or bad, whatever effect it might have on the lives of others.

Governments do this, but so do individuals and as Christians we need to both be above this at a personal level and stand against it when we see it happening at an institutional level.

On a personal level, all the time we try to manipulate situations we are decreasing our faith and trust in God to be in control.  We undermine and dilute our faith bit by bit, and the corrosive beguilement that we are in control can control things grows.

Whether it’s through our power, our influence, the odd word here or there, through our financial status or influence we undermine our trust in the power of God to be the God who is omniscient, omnipresent and omni-powerful

The more important we become in our lives, the less important God becomes and the strength of our relationship with Him is strained.

Whatever the deeds of manipulation, the story of Hagar shows clearly that the love of God exposes these works for what they are and breaks through into every situation in our lives, whatever they have been or how they have arisen.

For in the story of Hagar a God who cares for all people, irrespective of their backgrounds or personal history.  Irrespective of whether or not they can handle what life seems to throw at them or make a mess of things

Hagar’s self-worth and self-esteem must have been worn down to the bare minimum following her life of service and slavery.  Every ounce of self-respect would have been beaten out of her.  She was as nothing, a possession to be used as her owners wished.

And, as an Egyptian, she was certainly outside the covenant relationship with God as the Jews understood it.  But God is making a powerful point here to the Jews.  Those outside the covenant relationship are not worthless, valueless or invisible to God.  He cares for them too, very powerfully in this case, just as He cares for those within His covenant.

He gives Hagar true worth, not the transient worth or value she may have had as a result of a somewhat sordid transaction to become a surrogate mother, but worth as a person in her own right and somebody who God uses, despite all she has been through, much of it beyond her control.

She might not come from the right family or nation but to God she is precious, as are her offspring.  She may have been marginalised and rejected, suffered and been an object of shame but God did not care.  He showed great love for her and watched over her.

We all know how easy it can be to look own on those who are not like us, those who are not from our ‘tribe’.  Those who seem to just make a mess of their lives whatever help and assistance they are given from the state or from individuals. 

Those it seems to us who are just manipulating the system and the situation to their own advantage or those it seems are doing nothing to help themselves but expecting others to do everything for them.

So quickly we write them off as of no value and worthless, adding nothing to society, if anything, a drain on it.  We get angry and frustrated just thinking about them. 

But God does not give up on them, and neither should we.  Through the example of Hagar God calls us to value all people, whatever the background and circumstances. 

Because sometimes it’s those very people that God uses, the ones we would not expect, the ones we see as worthless individuals, to extend His Kingdom and do His will.

And just perhaps He wants us to be the very people who reach out to them to show the same love for them as God showed for Hagar, so that they too can come to know the love of God that he has for all people. 

If we don’t, who will?  It’ a huge privilege being called to God’s work, it’s also an awesome responsibility.