Father Abraham had many sons
And many sons had Father Abraham
I am one of them, and so are you
So let’s all praise the Lord
Did you ever learn that song at Vacation Bible School? You sing it over and over, and each time you add a motion—lift your right hand, then your left, your feet, and so on, until you’re flailing every possible limb in between verses. It’s sort of “The Song That Never Ends” meets “The Hokey Pokey.”
More to the point, this song calls Abraham “Father.” There are 3 religions that claim Abraham as an ancestor—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We refer to these as the “Abrahamic faiths” because they all trace their origin back to Father Abraham.
For Jews, this ancestry comes by birth—the people of Israel are the actual descendants of Isaac, son of Abraham. For Christians, it is more of a spiritual ancestry—in the New Testament, Abraham is praised for his faith in God, and that faith is our heritage. For Muslims, Abraham is considered the first monotheist, one in a long line of prophets that goes from Adam to Muhammad and many in between, including Moses and Jesus.
But Muslims also see themselves as descendents of Abraham specifically through Ishmael. Ishmael is Abraham’s first-born son, but when Isaac comes along, he essentially loses his birthright. Do you remember the story? Sarah, Abraham’s wife, was unable to have children, so she gave Abraham her Egyptian handmaid, Hagar, so he could have a son. Ishmael was the result. But later, Sarah was miraculously able to have a child at a very old age—Isaac.
This is where things get awkward. Once Isaac is on the scene, Hagar and Ishmael are pushed out of the picture. We often find it easier to forget about Hagar and Ishmael. It is unpleasant to think of Father Abraham sending a woman and her child—his child—into the wilderness with little chance of survival. We stay focused on Sarah and Isaac and paint for ourselves the picture of a happy pre-Christian home that is made less complicated by the absence of the handmaid and her son.
(Note: for the next few paragraphs, I am drawing on readings from this book.)
But there are two traditions in particular for whom the story of Hagar and Ishmael is central to their identity. One is Islam. For Muslims, the story of Hagar and Ishmael relates to an idea known as hijrah. Hijrah is going into exile for the sake of God. In the Islamic tradition, leaving home and going into the wilderness is an exercise in and a test of one’s faith.
Hagar and Ishmael were put in a situation where they had to rely completely upon God. Muslims believe that this state of utter dependence is an opportunity to deepen one’s faith and to bring one’s will in line with God’s. We remember that Abraham did the same, leaving his home at God’s command and setting out for a land he had never seen. The legacy of Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael is one of faith and trust.
Another tradition that lifts up Hagar and Ishmael is one within Christianity itself. Hagar and Ishmael have long been important to African-American Christians, especially to African-American women. The theme of exile that is so central in Islam also resonates with this group and their experience of slavery and oppression. A common refrain among African-American women is that God has “made a way out of no way,” and God’s impossible providence is shown clearly in his care for Hagar and Ishmael.
But Hagar and Ishmael reflect not only the idea of providence but also that of abandonment. This might sound strange, but part of the experience of exile and wilderness is the sense of separation from God. Even this sense of being forsaken is part of the journey of faith. Scholar Valerie Ellis compares Hagar and Ishmael to Jesus on the cross when he cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
My dad tells the story of his friend Thaniel, a classmate of his in seminary, who died of cystic fibrosis when they were in school. Near the end, my dad went to visit her in the hospital and found her mother standing by the window, just staring off at nothing. My dad asked her if she would like for him to say a prayer. She didn’t even turn around, she just said coldly, “Pray if you want. Nobody’s listening.”
At the time, my dad felt helpless and inadequate, but later he reflected on Jesus’ words from the cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He thought of Thaniel’s mother, and he saw that in that moment when she felt abandoned by God, she was actually very close to Jesus. In a society where African-American communities have been torn apart by violence, drugs, and racism, the grief of those mothers and of the abandoned children and youth brings them very close to Jesus.
So what are we to do with this? How can the story of Hagar and Ishmael become more than an awkward footnote to the story of Isaac’s miraculous birth? Can it take us beyond the beginning of a genealogy of privilege that would establish the kingdom of Israel and lead right up to the birth of Jesus?
To answer that, I am going to take a few steps back. Last week, I was at Annual Conference, the yearly meeting of Methodists in Western North Carolina. On Saturday, we had a panel discussion about sexuality and the possibility of a split within the United Methodist Church.
To give a little background, the United Methodist Church does not ordain or marry gays and lesbians. We welcome the LGBT community into church membership, but there has been much debate for years now over the idea of full inclusion, with pastors and lay people of deep faith and thoughtfulness coming down on all sides. Attempts at changing the language in our Book of Discipline, even to reflect the disagreement, have so far been unsuccessful.
Recently, a group of conservative pastors released a statement saying that the time for conversation had ended and calling for an amicable split. The panel discussion at Annual Conference was called primarily to address this idea of a potential schism.
The conversation featured clergy and a layperson with different perspectives on the question and the solution. My dad was a part of the panel, and he shared this image of the church being like a family. Families do not agree on everything, and in fact family members can often hurt one another more than anyone else. There is no one who can get under my skin like my little sister, and yet I know that she loves me, and I would lay down my life for her without a second thought.
My dad asked the question, what would happen to this family if we were to divide over the question of human sexuality? The lines could not be drawn between districts or even between churches. The divisions are within our congregations, among our clergy, between parents and children and brothers and sisters and friends. Divorce may be a sad reality for couples in our church and our communities, but is it really an option for a whole church family, for the body of Christ?
And here is where the story of Hagar and Ishmael is instructive, in more ways than one. When we focus only on Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, we can preserve our picture of the happy nuclear family. But that picture is not the whole truth. We can call on Father Abraham and say that we are all his children, and we are—but there was strife and conflict and even violence in Abraham’s family. Those tensions exist today, not just between Jews and Christians and Muslims but also within our own faith communities and even here in this room tonight.
We may have to wander very far from home indeed to find the truth and reconciliation we so desperately need. But the story of Hagar and Ishmael calls us to stand with those who find themselves in exile, whether they are Muslims facing persecution in this country or abroad, or African-Americans still struggling for equal opportunities, or gays and lesbians who are told they are not welcome but keep coming back to church because this is their home and they love their family even when we hurt them.
We are called to go to the wilderness and to ask where God is in this mess. We are called to leave our comfort zones, to set aside what it familiar, to rely fully upon God and to seek God’s will. Then, and only then, will we be brought to our true home and family.
A few weeks ago, I was able to attend the memorial service honoring the late Maya Angelou. In preparing this sermon, I came across a poem of hers that mentions Hagar. In her memory, and as an invitation to all of us to come home, I would like to close with that poem. This is “The Mothering Blackness”:
She came home running
back to the mothering blackness
deep in the smothering blackness
white tears icicle gold plains of her face
She came home running
She came down creeping
here to the black arms waiting
now to the warm heart waiting
rime of alien dreams befrosts her rich brown face
She came down creeping
She came home blameless
black yet as Hagar’s daughter
tall as was Sheba’s daughter
threats of northern winds die on the desert’s face
She came home blameless
May we all find our way home, even when our family is a mess. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell