Last week we heard the story of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah that they would have a son in their old age. Before this promise came, Sarah had already directed Abraham to have a child with their Egyptian slave woman Hagar. And he did. Hagar gave birth to a son named Ishmael. Years later when Sarah does become pregnant and gives birth to their son Isaac, things in this little family unit unravel. Listen as the story continues…..
8 Isaac grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing around with her son Isaac. 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” 14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and sent her away with the boy. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
20 God was with the boy, and he grew up… and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother Hagar got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
What Paul has said in Romans 5 is that the grace of God in Jesus the Christ is God’s response to human sin. However great is human sin, however far we fall short of the glory and the purposes of God for our lives, God’s grace is greater, abundantly greater than our shortcomings. Listen for the Word of the Lord.
What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8 But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.
This past Friday was “Juneteenth,” the day that commemorates the emancipation of the very last African American slaves on June 19, 1865. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became official on January 1, 1863, almost two and a half years earlier. But it was only after the Civil War ended in 1865 that Union soldiers arrived in Texas—the last holdout—to enforce the President’s executive order. This morning we’re going to talk about emancipation.
It’s a big, multi-layered, timely topic. The end of slavery in the United States was about physical emancipation. The current protests in response to the police killing of African Americans are about social and political emancipation from the systems and structures born from the sin of racism. And for generations, African American leaders have been working for the psychological emancipation of their people from the traumas of being defined and treated as less than human. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free.”
This morning we are going to talk about emancipation. All kinds of emancipations. Not just for some people, but for all people. We’re going to talk about getting free, together, from what binds and enslaves us. The story of Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham is about emancipation in this little family group. And in his letter to the Romans, Paul is talking about a cosmic emancipation through the grace of God in Jesus the Christ.
We begin with Hagar. The Egyptian slave of Sarah and Abraham, the maidservant to this Hebrew mistress of a wealthy household. Hagar’s life is in the hands of her masters. Sarah directs Abraham to make a baby with Hagar and he does it. Hagar has no say. Some would call this rape. But the system allows it. The baby boy born from Hagar’s womb, is counted as Abraham and Sarah’s first-born son. The system allows it. Sarah finally, in her old age, gives birth to Isaac, and, at his “weaning party,” while watching Ishmael and Isaac playing together, she realizes that Ishmael as their first-born son is the primary heir to the family’s wealth. The system requires it. Sarah doesn’t like it, so she orders Abraham to throw Hagar and Ishmael out. Abraham doesn’t like that, he is grieved, but he does it. The system allows it. Son Isaac got a feast. Hagar the slave and the “other son,” Ishmael, are sent into the desert with some bread and a flask of water. They are dis-owned. The moment is tragic. And God allows it. God supports it. Or so the tellers of this story say. Maybe it’s fake reporting. Maybe it’s a way to shift the blame away from Sarah and Abraham.
Maybe what we see here is the way that the human-divine dance unfolds. Maybe the initiative to cast Hagar out is a purely human action, and what we see is that God is always in the process of turning human sin, human jealousy, human fear, human competition, human self- protection into an occasion for grace, for liberation, for life. Abraham literally emancipates Hagar. He releases her from slavery and gives her son back. Hagar’s is an emancipation like that experienced by so many African Americans who were freed with little to nothing material in their hands, left to figure out how to survive, carrying their psychological traumas with them.
There is this dark underside to the history of our Hebrew ancestors in the faith. And I love that the sacred Scriptures we read and that read us, that show us who we are—I love that they don’t try to hide the sin and the evil. They don’t excise the loathsome ways that human beings have treated one another for thousands of years. These stories tell the whole truth, and carry the hope that the truth will set us free. There is a dark underside to our history as a nation and unless we open ourselves to this truth we won’t be able to fully share in what is happening now as people of color fight for material, social, political, and psychological emancipation. Neither will we be able to make this nation as great as we have pretended it has been, nor as great as we hope it can become.
God finds Hagar in the wilderness, crying out in anguish for herself and her crying, dying boy. They are emancipated with no place to go and no one to protect them. God hears and sees Hagar there, powerless to save her son, unable to see through her tears, unable to imagine any kind of future. But Hagar is spiritually attuned. She hears an angel speak God’s promise that Ishmael will become a great nation. The angel points Hagar to the power that she has, right now, to lift up her son and hold him tight. God opens her eyes to see a well deep with life-giving water, and opens her heart to know that she and her son, are beloved and held by God. God has a plan and a future for them.
There is a refrain that runs through the story of God and humankind from ancient times to the present. We hear it and see it in the Scriptures. We heard it most recently repeated at George Floyd’s funeral—human beings may mean it for evil, but God intends to turn it to good. Human beings fall short of the glory and the purposes of God, but in grace, God brings beauty out of ugliness, and new life out of death. This is the nature of the perpetual divine-human dance that we are caught up in. This is the story of the cross. Human beings meant the murder of Jesus for evil, but God turned it to good. Not all of the harm we human beings cause or experience is turned to good before our eyes, within our lifetimes. The ache and the trauma can stretch over generations and centuries. With Hagar we weep. And with Hagar we see that where there is sin, God is always responding with grace.
This is what prompts the apostle Paul to ask: “What then shall we say? Should we continue in sin, should we sin more so that grace may abound all the more?” Of course the answer is “no.” But, sometimes, it feels like things have to get really, really bad, really tragic, really rock bottom awful before we can see the webs of sin we spin, the systems of sin we create and live within. The systems allow certain behaviors. Within them sin is an operating force, a power at work. We don’t mean to be, but we can be enslaved by modes of living that are contrary to God’s intention for the world. Abraham had faith in God and felt grief about the decision to throw Hagar and Ishmael out. But the system allowed it, and he did it. And God was there to emancipate her and Ishmael from the effects of sin and the threat of death.
This is the divine-human dance we are caught up in. Paul declares that in the waters of baptism we are emancipated from the powers of sin and death. The waters themselves do not free us. They are the sign, the seal of the promise that our old selves have been crucified with Jesus and that we have been raised to share in his resurrection life. It’s a done deal. It has happened. We are living in the realm where grace and love abound, around and within us.
It has been nearly sixty-four years since I was baptized, and the truth is my old self, the dark underside, the shadow side of myself, is still there. I’m still invested in my own self-interest, my own self-protection. I’m still dying to that self, and still rising to be the self that is already grounded in God’s amazing, love and grace. And the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus is like the Union troops who showed up in Texas on Juneteenth to emancipate both the slaves, and the slave-owners from the powers of sin and death. Holy Spirit is the gentle force, the beautiful power at work in the world, the divine dance partner who moves with us through the daily dying and rising that frees us in body, mind, and spirit, to live as servants of love and grace.