The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

HOW NOT TO BE THE FATHER OF THE YEAR

Delivered 6/21/09
Text: Genesis 21:8-21
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Hmm. Intriguing text on Fathers Day. Not exactly the inspiring story of paternal love and care that we might wish for. More about that in a minute.

Meanwhile, Happy Fathers Day again, to those of you to whom that applies. You DO know why we have a Fathers Day, don't you? Simple - because we have a Mothers Day. Legend has it, a Mrs. John B. Dodd of Spokane, Washington first proposed the idea of a Father's Day in 1909. She wanted a special day to honor her dad, a Civil War veteran whose wife had died while giving birth to her sixth child. As an adult, Mrs. Dodd began to realize the strength and selflessness her father had shown in raising six kids as a single parent. After hearing a Mother's Day sermon, she spoke to her minister about having a church service dedicated to fathers. She proposed June 5th, her father's birthday, as the date of the event. Unfortunately, that date was too soon for the minister to prepare the service, so he delivered it a few weeks later, on June 19th. From then on, Washington State celebrated the third Sunday in June as Father's Day.

At about the same time, different towns across the country were beginning to celebrate their own versions of "Father's Day." Shortly thereafter, states began lobbying Congress to declare Father's Day a national holiday. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson approved of the idea, but it wasn't until 1924 that Calvin Coolidge made it a true national event. The purpose: to "establish more intimate relations between fathers and their children and to impress upon fathers the full measure of obligations." Of course, there is a big difference between an "event" and a real national holiday. To that end, in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed a presidential proclamation declaring the 3rd Sunday of every June as Father's Day.(1) So now you know. Nice occasion, and a bonanza for Hallmark - they say that over 100-million greeting cards will be given in the U.S. this year. And not a few neckties too, I suspect.

Back to our lesson. The saga actually gets underway several chapters earlier in Genesis - chapter 12 - as Abraham is called to uproot himself and his family and set out for a new land to which his God would direct. During the course of the journey, God makes Abraham some wonderful promises, but they all involve posterity, and by the time we reach chapter 16, we are informed that Abraham and Sarah are still childless despite being relatively well along in years. This was a particular disaster in the ancient world since children stabilized that society - they were a supply of labor, a promise of old-age security, and guarantors of the orderly transfer of property. Indeed, for a woman to fail to give her husband children was seen as a curse from God. For Abraham, all these divine promises were "on hold." If the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, then the promise of descendants so numerous as to be compared to stars in the sky or sands by the sea will begin with a first child. Big problem.

Actually not so big. Not for the well-to-do (as Abraham and Sarah were). There was an alternative: surrogate motherhood. Custom of the day permitted a woman to claim as her own any children a servant girl might bear after a liaison with the master of the house. By the time Abraham and Sarah address this possibility, Sarah was well past her child-bearing years. So, according to the Genesis record, with mistress Sarah's blessing (although I suspect it was given with a forced smile and through clenched teeth), Hagar became pregnant with Abraham's first child.

Now the trouble starts. Scripture says, "when [Hagar] saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress." Uh, oh. What did she do? Little verbal jabs? Eyebrows elevated for a view down the nose? Walk around the tent with belly tauntingly thrust forward? Who knows? Just the meanness of youth sneering at age. Hagar was not nice.

Sarah did not react well. The hurt that she had felt in not being able to bear Abraham's child was now compounded by the anger at being ridiculed. Furiously, she takes her hurt out on her husband: "Abraham, it's YOUR fault; when I offered you Hagar, you actually TOOK her. This would never have happened if it were not for YOU! MEN!!!"

Abraham's response: "Uh huh." How else is a man supposed to respond to that? He finally said, "Listen, she is YOUR servant; she works for YOU. YOU handle it!"

So Sarah did. She took the meanness of Hagar, multiplied it, then dumped it back. She made life so miserable for the pregnant slave that Hagar finally ran away into the wilderness. Not a good move. How did she plan to survive? What could she have been thinking? Of course, she was NOT thinking, just reacting.

Now we find Hagar all by herself, resting exhausted by a spring. Genesis says, "The angel of the LORD [meaning the Lord] said to her, 'Go back to your mistress, and submit to her.'"(2) You can imagine how Hagar must have been eager to jump at THAT chance. Then the LORD gave her a reason: "I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count." The angel of the LORD also said to her: "You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard of your misery."

Ishmael -- a Hebrew name meaning GOD HEARS. To be honest, what she hears next might make a woman expecting a child to change her mind. Hagar is told that the child will be a boy of whom God says, "He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers." Delightful. Then follows a scripture verse that became famous in it's King James Bible language - it was posted in cross-stitch on the walls of countless Christian homes, it was carved in wood above the pulpit of the first church in which I regularly preached,(3) and my mother tells me it was the first Bible verse she ever taught me. Hagar listens to the divine voice, realizes that no matter where she might be, she is never beyond the sight of the Almighty, and says those words which have made her immortal: "And she called the name of the LORD that spake unto her, THOU, GOD, SEEST ME." It is a wonderful affirmation of faith. Obediently, she returns to the tents of mistress Sarah, the baby is born, Abraham's son.

It would be lovely to end it there and say they all lived happily ever after, but we know better. Actually, knowing the personalities involved - two women who hated each other, a man who did anything he could to avoid confrontation, and a boy who even before he was born was predicted to be all but a juvenile delinquent or a gangster - it is almost surprising things did not blow up sooner.

As you know, between the time of Ishmael's birth and the scene in this morning's lesson, 16 or 17 years had elapsed, and a major miracle had taken place. About two-and-a-half years before, at the age of 90, Sarah had given birth to Isaac. Suddenly, everything was changed. As is often the case, the family is now focused on the new arrival, and attention is diverted from earlier children. But this shift was different. The presence of Hagar and Ishmael was unwanted evidence of Sarah's previous pain. Now that Isaac was on the scene the faster that reminder could be removed, the better. Nasty.

Really? One of my colleagues has written, "My ex-husband is remarried and he and his new wife have a young child. I have only met this child once and I didn't like him. A small, innocent child and I resented him. Why? I have a son with the same father. My son will get less attention, less money, less inheritance, less love because this other kid now gets some. Don't talk to me about how love is limitless and you can love more than one child at the same time. I don't want reason or logic or even reality. It isn't even that I can't wish happiness for my ex- and his wife. I just don't want this kid messing up my son's life. Can I relate to Sarah? Totally."(4) Hmm.

Finally, Sarah got her chance. It was at a big family party celebrating one of those rites of passage - the weaning of the child, the first step on his road to manhood. The Genesis account says, "Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, "Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac." What? For teasing the baby you get thrown out of the home? PERMANENT EXILE??? Wow! This is one tough lady.

We might wish that father Abraham would have shown himself worthy here of the reverence and respect shown him for centuries by three great religions. No. The story says that Abraham was displeased with the demand - after all, Ishmael WAS his son. The boy might have been a bit of a handful, but a son is a son. We do not just get rid of them in favor of a newer model. For whatever it is worth, Abraham was able to justify being an incredible wimp and acceding to Sarah's demand by relying on God's promise that Ishmael would also become the source of a great nation. What could the man have been thinking? "Oh gee, Lord, that puts my mind at ease. Now, I, a wealthy man having the wherewithal to provide handsome support, can send them out into the desert with nothing but a loaf of bread and a skin of water and not give it a second thought." Right.

That IS what he did, you know. Bread and water and bye-bye. "See ya, Hagar. It's been fun. Bye, Ishmael. You be a good boy, now, ya hear?" Father of the Year. Not.

Hagar and Ishmael wander south to the wilderness near Beersheba. The food and water are soon gone. The strength of the teenager fails first. His mother puts him under a bush, out of the blazing desert sun. As the boy sinks toward death his mother sits down about 50 yards away and waits for the inevitable.

Ishmael starts to cry. God hears ("Ishmael," remember?) and intervenes in this story one more time. Hagar opens her eyes and sees what seems to be an oasis. A mirage? Perhaps, but waving palm trees in the desert stand out against the stark background. Hagar gathers her waning strength and goes to see. Sure enough, it is water. She fills the goatskin and takes it back to Ishmael. He drinks, his parched lips are healed. He regains his strength.

As the story draws to a close, we get hints of a happily-ever-after ending. They continue to live in the desert. Ishmael becomes an expert archer. His mother finds him an Egyptian wife. The only time we ever hear of Ishmael and Isaac getting together again is to bury their father.(5) And the bad blood between the two sides of the family continues to this day: Jews look back to father Abraham through Isaac; Arabs look back to father Abraham through Ishmael. Father Abraham...and such a wonderful father, at that!

Of course, what we have in scripture is not to be understood as instructions on good parenting. Frankly, the models we find there, whether it be Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, David, whomever, are not award-winners. Everyone is flawed and some of them horribly so. To be honest, these characters are just supporting cast for the real hero of the story, God. The single point of the Ishmael story is that there is no stopping God's promise. God made a promise to Abraham...and kept it. God made a promise to Hagar...and kept it. God made a promise of new life to you and me in Jesus Christ...and God will keep it. That is good news indeed.

I recall hearing about a Sunday school class in which a particularly effective teacher was relating the story of Abraham taking his son, Isaac, off into the wilderness to sacrifice him. The teacher told the story so well that one child covered his ears and said, "This scares me. I don't want to listen."

Another child reassured him, "Don't worry. This is one of God's stories and they always turn out all right." Indeed. Good news indeed.

Amen!

1. From an ad in Sports Illustrated, 6/13/05

2. Genesis 16:9ff.

3. St. Luke's United Methodist Church, Pritchardville, SC

4. Teri Thomas, unpublished commentary on the lectionary text

5. Genesis 25:9

The Presbyterian Pulpit Sermon Library

Mail Boxclick and send us mail