The God of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar: What do we mean by the word “God?” (part one)

What do we mean when we say the word God? That question is going to be at the center of the sermons I will preach this Sunday and for the next two. What do we mean when we say the word God? Today we begin the series in perhaps the most appropriate place to begin talking about God. We begin with Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar…

Abraham has been called the first monotheist. Abram, Abraham, Ibrahim, known by many names he is named the father of many faiths. We’ll get to the matriarchs in a moment, I promise. In today’s strange story we hear God’s covenant with Abraham: “I am your God. I will make you the father of many nations.” The story is strange because Abraham cuts the covenant with God, in a literal sense. Cutting open animals could formalize a covenant between tribal leaders, or with one of gods. Offering animals this way was common in ancient Mesopotamia. While the animals may seem a strange detail, don’t be distracted. At the center of this story are the stars.

Out in the desert, the dark of night is deep. Out there in the desert, the Bible tells us, a terrifying darkness descended. God’s voice is in the dark. “Look up,” God says, “count the stars, if you can count them.” In St. Louis, with our light pollution, you can only count a few dozen stars on a clear night. In the depths of the Negev desert, you can see your shadow from the light of the Milky Way. Every inch of the sky is shot through with a thousand iridescent stars. “Count those,” God says.

The Koran also tells a story of Abraham’s astronomy. In the Koran Ibrahim, (as Abraham is known in Arabic), stays up all night one night in his boyhood. He is trying to wrap his young mind around the idea of this God he can hear calling. At first he thinks the stars must all be gods. Growing up in a polytheistic world, the heavens were full of characters. But Ibrahim knows his God is greater. As he watches the stars set, he knows the God who is calling to him must be more comprehensive. Ibrahim looks to the moon, but it sets as well, and the sun, and again rules out that possibility. Ibrahim learns from this dark night that his God must be behind all of the lights, Immortal, Invisible, in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.

I had included this story of Abraham from the Koran before the events of Friday, before we learned of the staggering death toll of one young man’s hate toward immigrants, toward Muslims. Yesterday the Prime Minister of New Zealand promised her nation would revise their gun laws. The terrorist who killed so many is an Australian citizen, and he apparently came to New Zealand because he knew there he could more easily get his hands on deadly weapons. The location of this act of terrorism was chosen for the country’s lax gun laws. The Prime Minister says she will work to change those laws, to make deadly firearms less easy to access. I long for a leader to initiate that kind of legislation in our own state, in our own country.

I included the Koran’s story of Ibrahim today, before the white nationalist attack occurred, because hatred like the hatred that was manifested Friday has become too commonplace. The hatred is too mainstream. Christians like us have a responsibility: we must know and we must help our fellow Christians know, that when Christians speak of God we speak of the same God we share with our Muslim siblings. We share our God with our Jewish siblings. When Christians, when Episcopalians, in the Arabic-speaking world name God, they use the Arabic for God, “Allah.” The word simply means “The God.”

While I was in India this past January, an Indian scholar noted that in America and Europe we often talk about Hinduism as one singular religion. There are in fact many Hinduisms, and counting Hinduism as one religion is akin, the scholar said, to counting Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as one faith. While I understand the point of comparison, the counterpoint is also fascinating. We share more in the Abrahamic traditions, the religions that trace our origin to Abraham, we share more than we often imagine. Today, more than ever, it is important to spend time with our roots, our common roots. A priest friend in New Zealand wrote on Facebook this weekend, “New Zealand is their home. They. Are. Us.”

For Christians, for Muslims, for Jews, our faiths share stories. We share prophets. We share moral teachings. We share scripture. We are one family in faith. We share father Abraham, and because of Abraham, we share one God.

The Biblical story does engage the conflict between the Abrahamic people. Time and again, scripture teaches us, the worst rivalries happen within families.

In the verses that follow our story today, the angst that Abram shares with God on that starry night is shared by his wife Sarai (Sarah). In this first book of the Bible, the book all about creation, Abraham and Sarah are unable to create life, they have been frustrated in their hopes to have a child. Sarah says to Abraham, you should have sex with my servant Hagar, a common arrangement for powerful married couples struggling to conceive in the ancient world.

Ishmael, the child born of this match, should, by all rights, be counted as Abraham’s heir, his first born. But Sarah eventually conceives, and she wants Isaac, her son, Abraham’s second child, to be counted as the inheritor, and indeed, Sarah wins. The Hebrew Bible was first the scripture of the Jewish people, long before Christians or Muslims were a twinkle in God’s eye. Isaac is the Father of Jacob, who is also known by the name Israel. Sarah’s boy Isaac must be the heir, must win the day, for the Biblical narrative to go on from here.

But the Bible is really remarkable. We would expect a clean story, clearly showing God’s favor to the father of the nation, to Isaac, but the story is much more complicated. When Hagar is pregnant, Sarah treats Hagar terribly. Sarah becomes the personification of the woman who oppresses other women to get ahead. Hagar runs away, but God intervenes. God promises to Hagar the same thing that was promised to Abraham. “I will give you many offspring, so many they cannot be counted.” God says these words just one chapter after talking with Abraham about the stars. God chooses not just a patriarch, but a matriarch. The Bible is remarkable, and surprising sometimes.

Sadly, while God shows mercy, Sarah’s human cruelty toward Hagar does not end. After Isaac is born, she demands that Abraham send Ishmael and Hagar away. Hagar and Ishmael find themselves in the desert close to death. The water flask has run dry. The child is crying. Again God sends an angel to her, and God’s messenger says Hagar’s name, she is one of the only women named by God in the Bible. “Hagar, do not be afraid, God has heard the boy’s cries…I will make of him a great nation.”

History, it is said, is written by the victors. But the Bible doesn’t clean up this story as much as we would expect. God continues to be concerned with the downtrodden, with the overlooked, with those who are cast out. Not only does God care for them, God promises blessings, God promises greatness. This is not simple human history, this is the story of God’s promises to God’s people, promises that are surprisingly abundant, surprisingly generous, surprisingly inclusive.

When the prophet Muhammed begins to preach in the sixth century, thousands of years after these Bible stories, Muhammad traces his lineage through Ishmael, through Hagar, to Abraham (Ibrahim). The wandering Aramaen is counted as the ancestor of the Arabs as well, the father of Islam. The word, “Islam” simply translates as “submission” to God’s will. Muslims believe Abraham was the first follower of Islam, the first to hear God’s call and to obey. 

When we say we believe in the God of Abraham, the God of Sarah, we also must know that we claim the God of Hagar. Our God is not a narrow tribal God. Our One God is capable of mercy, and justice, and love not just for one group, but for all of humanity. When we speak of God, Genesis tells us, we speak of the One true God, the God whose mercy does not respect our boundaries.

Abraham, and Sarah, and Hagar taught their children not simply which God was best to choose among the many. The matriarchs and patriarch of our faith, and the faith of our siblings in Judaism and Islam, pointed to a God who was radically one. When our ancestors spoke of God, they spoke of the one true God, a God who was bigger, and deeper, and wider than our human imagination, a God who we cannot fully comprehend, because when we speak of God, we speak of the One who is behind creation, behind every act of mercy, behind every movement for justice, behind every demonstration of love.

In Islam the first names of God are “Ar Rahman” and “Ar Raheem,” the most Gracious, the most Merciful. In Genesis God says to Abraham, “my name is El Shaddai,” one of the many names for God in Hebrew Scripture. While El Shaddai has often been translated as “the All-Powerful” one, modern Hebrew scholars also note the linguistic connection between “El Shaddai” and the word “breast.” The power of God is the power to nurture. God may be said to be all powerful and all nurturing in the same breath.

When we speak of God, when we say we believe in a God who is One, we speak of the great One who Abraham saw behind the stars. Our ancestors began to know that the stars did not represent many small gods, petty gods that needed to be placated with sacrifice, angry little gods who asked for murder. Rather, the stars were a sacrament of the breadth of the One God’s love for all of humanity, for all of God’s children of every tribe, and language and people. The stars shine as a measure of the breadth of God’s mercy, the power of God’s nurturing presence, the depth of God’s love. We are one people who share one God.

Some night, when you are troubled by darkness, try and count the stars. Know that the God we share is a God of peace, whose peace, like those stars, surpasses human understanding. The One God, the God of Abraham, of Sarah, and of Hagar, the God of our ancestors, is the God who offers a peace so great, a love so great, a mercy so great that the world struggles to comprehend.

I want to finish this sermon with a prayer. It comes from the Prayer Book of the Anglican Church of New Zealand. The Prayer is fitting for these difficult days, and the prayer interprets well the language of this story, helps us today to name the God of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar.

The Lord be with you:

O God of many names,

lover of all peoples;

we pray for peace

in our hearts and homes,

in our nations and our world;

the peace of your will,

the peace of our need.

Amen.

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