Sarah, Hagar, and God’s Laughter

The story begins with laughter, and before we go too far into the story, we need to hold on to the beginning. The story begins with laughter. It’s funny, because today for Father’s Day, the story doesn’t center on Abraham. Sarah laughs and laughs. Her laughter even gives a name to their long-awaited son: Isaac means “laughter” in Hebrew.

Sarah laughed when she heard she would conceive a child in her old age. In the scripture we heard last Sunday, we learned Sarah had been through menopause. What other reaction could there be? Sarah laughed when the visitor said she would conceive. And then today, we learn Sarah laughed again when the child came into the world. For what other reaction can there be, when a long hoped for child, a baby it seemed impossible would come, arrived. Sarah laughed.

In the verse just before our story today Sarah says: “God has given me laughter. Everyone who hears about it will laugh with me.” What a name for a child. “God has given me laughter.” Children are meant for joy. Life together is meant to bring laughter. And if we’re honest, at its best, life together still does.

But then the text takes a turn. Sarah hears another laugh. She listens, and realizes, it is Ishmael. And Sarah doesn’t want Ishmael to laugh. She wants to reserve the laughter for Isaac.

Again and again in Genesis, we find the stories of rivals. Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Essau. It’s almost as if the Bible is trying to tell us something about how we relate to one another. And today we enter again the story of Sarah and Hagar.

Sarah had already abused her handmaid Hagar. After handing her over to her husband, after making the decision on Hagar’s behalf that this, this would be how Abraham would father many nations, Sarah regretted the decision. And Sarah abused the woman and her son. That was chapters ago, before Isaac, before Sarah was even called Sarah, or Abraham, Abraham, back when they were Sarai and Abram. This rivalry is old. So when she hears Ishmael laugh, the old anger rises up.

Sarah quickly decides she has to be rid of the boy, and his mother.

Sarah was focused on the rivalry. Sarah couldn’t see that in God’s eyes there was no contest. In God’s eyes all children are a gift, all children should be cause for joyful laughter. Something ancient and ugly sat with Sarah, something told Sarah there wouldn’t be enough.

She tells Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert. Send them away.

Sarah couldn’t see that Ishmael’s life mattered. For Sarah, Ishmael only mattered, Hagar only mattered, when they were in service to her purposes. Sarah couldn’t see that Ishmael’s life mattered to God.

The story that follows is one of the stories that makes me believe in the Bible. I’ve said before, it’s not helpful to pretend we can read the Bible literally. The Bible was shaped by the cultures in which it was composed. The Bible is not “divine writ.” Some churches want you to believe that every word in the book comes from God. Honestly, that’s more of an Islamic idea of scripture than a Christian one.

But the story of Hagar gives me faith that there must be some kind of Divine inspiration in the text. Because it is said, usually, that history is written by the winners. If the history of Abraham and Sarah had been written just by men (and I choose that word on purpose), if it had just been written by the winning men, there is no way God’s words to Hagar would have been recorded.

Hagar is one of a very small number of women ever addressed by God by name in the Bible. And the Bible records what Sarah can’t see. God’s promise holds, even for those who have been cast out, even for those who have been held down, even for those who have been counted as less by their fellow human beings, God’s promise holds. Ishmael will be part of the constellation of God’s promise. Hagar will mother many nations. Ishmael’s life matters. Hagar’s life matters.

Holy Communion’s vestry is getting ready to talk about whether we are going to put a “Black Lives Matter” sign out in front of the church. The National Cathedral projected the words on the front of the building, for all of Washington DC to read. My old church, St. John’s Lafayette Square now sits on a street officially named “Black Lives Matter Plaza.” My old church, probably the most carefully anti-partisan church I know in our denomination, also has a Black Lives Matter sign. A few years ago, the vestry decided the words were too divisive at the time. Black Lives Matter, in St. Louis might be read as a specific endorsement of particular organizations.

Now the words have gone global. Black Lives Matter is a statement of truth, in the face of a lie. For too long our nation has behaved as if black life was expendable. Too many killings have gone unnoticed. In our state, I’m convinced we would get more serious about gun violence prevention if the children who were dying were white. I was amazed how quickly restrictions started lifting on the virus, when the world realized that Black and Latino communities were the most at risk. Today’s racism isn’t the blatant ugly bigotry of our grandparents generation, it’s subtler. Too many of our systems, to many of our structures are built on a lie: that black life matters less.

It’s time to tell the truth.

I wish it were simple. Christ knows, it isn’t. Jesus says to his own disciples, his vision of peace isn’t easy. His peace isn’t a return to normalcy. Telling the truth, in Jesus’ days as in our own, it will divide you from your family members. Thank God Jesus didn’t come in the time of Facebook. Jesus came to upset the status quo.

The Rev. Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams likes to talk about the book of Genesis as an origin story, like in the comic books. She says, we get confused, we get tied up in knots when we tried to read it as something other than an origin story. We like to pretend maybe things would have been different if we were there. We could have kept Adam and Eve from eating that fruit. We could have shooed away the serpent, but that misses the point.

Genesis isn’t Adam and Eve’s origin story, it’s ours. This story of Sarah and Hagar, it’s not just about how wrong was this particular abuse of one human to another, it’s about all the ways we count one another as rivals rather than co-collaborators.

And so, if there are lessons, I would venture among them are these: If you have been excluded. If you have been kicked out. If you have been kept down, even if it seems all hope is lost, pray. God hears you. God will be faithful. God will prosper the work of your hands, even if your fellow human beings fail to see your value.

And, if you find yourself in Sarah’s position, there is hope for you too. Learn to laugh. Learn to listen for laughter, and instead of becoming suspicious, figure out how you might join in.

My sisters, my brothers, my siblings. God has given us to one another. We are the inheritance God promises. And, God wants us to learn to laugh together. God desires nothing more. Laughter on its own won’t heal all wounds. It will take structural work. It will take deep work. But, it is what God desires, that we greet one another as a gift from God. With Laughter.

Amen.

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