“A Painful Short Cut”

Session Date: 
Sunday, June 21, 2020
Bible Text: 
Genesis 21:8-21


Our summer series continues looking at God’s chosen family. Like our own families, there are some closets stuffed with baggage. As our story opens today, one of those closets has been opened for find God’s family, and they’re in the middle of a mess. To untangle the mess we need to go back a few chapters.

Way back in Genesis 12, God had told Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation. God had promised he would literally be a father. However, time goes by and nothing happens. Chapters and years go by and still no baby for Sarah. So in chapter 16 Sarah takes matters into her own hands. In an act of impatience and power that should disturb us, Sarah “gives” her enslaved girl Hagar to Abraham in order that she might bear a child for them. Her plan works and Hagar gives birth to Ishmael.

Fast forward a few chapters and God, in the form of the three messengers, returns to tell Abraham that he and Sarah will have a son. God reiterates and clarifies God’s promise, and finally at the beginning of this chapter, Sarah gives birth to Isaac.

And this is where it gets messy, even ugly. Hagar and her son Ishmael have been part of the family for fourteen years. Suddenly Sarah is jealous and fearful of them. Even though she is the one who mistrusted God’s promise, tried to take a shortcut and dragged Hagar into the whole business, she now demands Hagar and Ishmael be cast out.

It’s a dark story. It casts a dark shadow on the history of God’s family. Abraham and Sarah are supposed to be our heroes, yet they not only own Hagar as a slave, but abuse and mistreat her and her son. This remains our story as we are asked, ever more prominently in this day, to confront our family’s past. For every family it is a painful story. It can be painful to confront our own past asking what does it mean for us today.

Did our ancestors enslave people? Did our ancestors use scripture to defend the practice. Did actions then, and actions now, overtly or covertly perpetuate the supremacy of one culture or race over another through land grabs, real estate laws, separation laws, hiring practices, the list goes on.

The answer, of course is, they did, and we do. And in the mirror of biblical and familial history we see the face of matriarchs and patriarchs of the bible, and in our families and communities who acted in ways that broke God’s heart.

Professor Ibram Kendi of American University notes: “Americans have long been trained to see deficiencies of people rather than policy. It is a pretty easy ,istake to make: People are in our faces, policies are distant. We are particularly poor at seeing the policies lurking behind the struggles of people.”

Hagar and Ismael were in Sarah’s face, blocking her vision of God’s promise and steadfast presence.

The good news in this story, and the good news in our story, God does not agree with Sarah and Abraham’s rejection of Hagar and Ishmael. Even though they are cast into the wilderness, God goes looking for the young woman and her son. God speaks directly to Hagar. God gives her water to drink. God promises to make a nation of her son.

Here is how my friend, poet and Presbyterian minister, the late Thomas John Carlisle tells the story:

The God of Seeing

When Sarah’s strategy

Backfired in proud success

Her mistress’ harshness

Sent Hagar flying

Defiantly for parts unknown.

Yet Yahweh met her

By a sudden spring between Kadesh and Bered

And sent her back

Fortified with wild promises

For her expected son

And his descendants.

She called her visitor

“The God of Seeing”

and the welcome well


“Have I indeed seen God

and yet survived?”


Back at the ranch

Hagar bore the baby

But as time went by

Sarah enjoyed an unexpected

Pregnancy and Isaac

Grew old enough to play

With his half-brother.

Again Sarah exploded.

Abraham with tears

Dispatched his concubine

With plenty of bread and water

Into the wilderness—

And Ishmael whom he loved

Went with his mother.


And when the water was gone

Hagar was sure

Her child would die

And left him

Under a bush

And walked a bowshot off

So that she would not see.

But Ishmael wept

And God responded:
“Lift up the lad

And hold him tight

And look!

A well of water

Waits your lips and his.

You can replenish

Your supply and live—

You and your son.”


The sharp-eyed Deity

Manages to get

Around when people least

Expect attention—

Not just to those

Who claim monopoly

Of God’s good graces.


This story, then, as messy as it can seem – as messy as any of our families—is a deeply reassuring story. Although we at times fail to trust God, take matters into our own hands, and cause a lot of harm in our wake, God, the sharp-eyed deity, sees through our blinders to justice and intervenes to redeem and to save. God can use our shortcuts and mistakes to bring about something new.