Monday, June 16, 2014

a well of laughter--a reflection for June 22

(published in the Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual 2014)

Genesis 21.8-21

Isaac received his name because he caused laughter in his parents’ lives. It seems that laughter is restricted, though, since when Ishmael laughs, it causes not happiness but rage. Sarah sees Ishmael and Hagar laughing and feasting as they celebrate Isaac’s weaning, and it is too much to bear. Though Ishmael exists only because Sarah gave her slave Hagar as a concubine for Abraham, and though his status as second-wife’s-son is below Isaac’s, he is still the firstborn, and his laughter cuts into Sarah’s heart.

So out they must go, out into the desert with only a little food and a day’s water. If Hagar had doubts about this God of Abraham’s, they have been confirmed now—this is a God who cares only for his own kind, not for outsiders or those who are mistreated. She will have no part in the covenant God is making with his people—she is literally and figuratively cast out. Her last meeting with God had resulted in instructions to put up with Sarah’s abuse (Gen. 16), and now she must know for certain that this is a God who not only allows but encourages pain, grief, and heartache. It seems unlikely she (or anyone else who feels outside of grace) would be interested in adding this kind of God to her already heavy desert burden.

Finally God takes notice…of Ishmael’s cries. Never mind that Hagar has been lifting her voice in grief and despair too, God has heard the cries of her son and remembered that promise to make him a great nation as well, to pay heed to his status as Abraham’s son even if no one else will. That paternity is what will save Hagar as well as Ishmael. By this point Hagar must be wondering if she matters at all—a foreigner with dark skin and different language, a slave turned concubine, an outcast. God’s messenger has even had the audacity to ask “what’s wrong?” What isn’t wrong? God is making covenant partners and has left her out, casting her aside into the desert. Is there any good news to be had?

There is a well. And actually, the presence of shrubs under which to place a child also means the presence of water. The haze of grief and despair can sometimes cloud our vision, but even so God offers what we need. God opens Hagar’s eyes and she sees her well of salvation right in front of her, and she is strengthened to go on, to find a way forward as a part of God’s great story, rather than as a footnote. How often do we resign ourselves to the bit part, eyes closed to the possibility of good news or clouded by resentment and despair of injustice ever being overcome? There is a well, even in the desert, for those whose eyes are open to see, and perhaps there will be laughter too.

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