Terrible Choices (Father’s Day, Indigenous Sunday 2020)

As we are all staying at home during COVID-19, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

— (Rev) Andrew Jensen

Terrible Choices

Scripture: Genesis 21:8-21

There is a remarkable irony that our lesson today falls on Father’s Day.

It’s hard to imagine how difficult it must have been for Abraham to choose between his two sons.

It happened this way: God promised Abraham a child with Sarah. She didn’t believe it could happen because she was too old. She gave Abraham her slave girl Hagar to make pregnant so there would be a child that might qualify.

Lo and behold, some time afterwards Sarah became pregnant herself and bore Isaac. And that’s where this lesson starts; when Isaac is weaned and Sarah insists that Hagar and her son be cast out so Sarah’s son will have no competition from an older brother, the son of a slave.

There are so many issues here: Hagar was a slave and so basically Abraham raped her: she had no choice in the matter. She might have been willing, with the chance of her child being the heir of such a powerful man. But there’s no way this would meet modern standards of consensual sex.

The way this is told, the blame for all of this falls on Sarah while Abraham, the Patriarch, the powerful man with many slaves and flocks and herds, simply has to obey whatever his wife tells him to do.

The situation is not unthinkable. In households of the world, many of which still exist today where there is polygamy, the intrigues between the different women are legendary. Their power comes from manipulating the men who have the legal power. Senior wives can be quite nasty to junior wives if they see them as a threat. And of course, slaves have no protection at all. You notice that Abraham was upset about what would happen to his son Ishmael, not about Hagar, the mother.

Wow, talk about playing favourites! There were ancient rules in place: the eldest son would inherit twice what his younger brothers would; and Sarah wanted Isaac to get everything.

Her strategy worked, and then again, it didn’t. Ishmael inherited nothing, although he became father to the nation of the Arabs and is central to the Muslim religion, as the link to Abraham for that faith.

But after Sarah died, Abraham re-married and in the end had a total of seven sons. But she succeeded in getting Isaac the double inheritance, taking the place of Ishmael as the first born.

Wow, what a situation!

Happy Father’s Day: you get to choose which of your children goes out into the desert to die and which one will inherit everything.

Abraham had the authority to make another choice. He could have kept Hagar and Ishmael alive at home, although that would have come at the cost of years of domestic turmoil and strife. We are told that God reassured Abraham that Ishmael would be fine. So Abraham sent them out into the wilderness with only a small supply of bread and water.

It’s not hard to see why Hagar despaired; and it took an angel to open her eyes to see what was right before her: a source of water. That became the way they survived, and even prospered.

Hagar must have been a remarkable woman, to turn a well in the wilderness into a life for her and her son and to get to the place where she could get a wife for him from her homeland of Egypt, far away. Someone should write her story someday.

But Abraham doesn’t have a lot of my sympathy right now. He seems to be too willing to make terrible choices about which of his children should live or die, when he didn’t really have to.

Playing favourites is an ancient human pastime. As parents we know we aren’t supposed to favour one child over another, but we are flawed and biased people. And the kids know that our domestic relationships aren’t perfectly balanced or fair.

But in Abraham, here we have the extreme example – and the consequences are terrifying! Thousands of years after this story was first told, the relationship between Arabs and Jews – the descendant nations of Ishmael and Isaac – remains mired in resentment, distrust and injustice.

This is not only a problem of the past; we can’t even claim it is exclusive to the Middle East. Today isn’t just Father’s Day, it is also the Indigenous Day of Prayer. And as we consider our history, we can see some disturbing Canadian parallels with the Abraham story.

If we consider all people to be God’s children, which is a basic understanding that we Christians have, then we cannot miss the fact that historically we have chosen one child over another.

In Canada, the Indigenous peoples could be called the first-born, like Ishmael, and entitled to a greater inheritance simply by being here first. And the Abrahams, the patriarchs, the people in power have consistently chosen to give the inheritance to the favourite children; whether that’s people, or corporations or someone else who can see a profit, regardless of the demands of justice or God’s sense of what is right and good; without regard to the idea that every person matters.

It’s like we have continued to believe the idea that the children of slaves don’t get to inherit. Even though we don’t believe in slavery anymore, we want to defend the idea that our favourite children get to be the ones who inherit everything.

It is so basic: my bloodline gets my best energy and others get pushed aside. This is a basic human pattern: we prefer the people who most resemble us; the children who remind us of ourselves or what we wish we could be.

God calls us to be better than that. In this story, we could cast God as Abraham at his best: the one who loves all the children equally, and who has to deal with the prejudice that leads one part of the family to oppress the other.

God has always let us make decisions (free will) and we can only imagine how painful some of those decisions have been in the eyes of God; the God who loves all children, all people, equally. Those times where we have failed to be our brother’s keepers, where we have failed to love each other as ourselves, where we have played favourites. And more than that, where we have taken the inheritance of the first child and stolen it for our own.

Historically we’ve been clever, we’ve been cunning, we’ve benefitted from the past actions of others without every looking too closely at what those actions were or what injustices were part of it.

Over recent years we have been considering our past. We are facing up to the way we have inherited lands and resources that were unjustly taken. And more than that, we are facing up to the way that our brothers and sisters were cast into the wilderness of tiny reserves on untenable land; of residential schools and the 60’s scoop and other attempts to erase these peoples from the landscape.

Even though we didn’t make these choices ourselves, we have inherited the benefits.

It is not very comforting to know that these human dramas are ancient. We have been doing these unjust things to each other for millennia, but that doesn’t justify it. The call of this whole story is that we should do better at every level in our personal lives, as we treat our own children fairly and in our dealings with others: the indigenous peoples, and people of colour. We are called to love each person as much as the other, to overcome our very selfish, human inclination to love most what is familiar.

God loves us all equally and that is our calling: our challenge to strive for that level of love, to create that level of justice, that level of welcome, that level of humanity where all belong, and all can share together.

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