Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17, Romans 6:1-11, Matthew 10:24-39
Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 88-90.
Our story from Genesis doesn’t make Abraham look so good. Abraham was in a fix, but the story is on Hagar’s side. In a prior story, God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of nations, and that his descendants would posses the promised land. Such promises depend on your having children, of course, but Abraham had none. So finally his wife Sarah proposed that Abraham sleep with her lovely young slave-girl Hagar, and if Hagar had a son, Sarah could take him as her own, for him to inherit their riches and the promises. This plan Abraham did not protest!
When slavery was legal in America, Black girls were taken all the time by their White masters. According to the ordinary ethics of ancient times, Abraham did nothing wrong. Hagar had no rights. But according to the standards of the Torah this was adultery. More subtly, Abraham insulted God, because he took God’s promises into his own hands. Abraham feared for his future, so he took the ordinary ethic of his day and the standard sexual privilege of powerful men.
Hagar had no rights. Abraham had the power of life-and-death among his household. He had the right to sex with his slave-girl, and Sarah had the right to give her to him, and also to take the slave-girl’s child as her own, even though Hagar would nurse him and do all the work of raising him. Abraham had the right to disinherit the boy whenever he was inconvenient. He also had the right to free his slaves. As he did with Hagar.
But even in freedom Hagar had no rights. Her freedom was no benefit to her. In those days, every woman had to be under the protection of a man, lest any other man might have his way with her. Every town or village would be dangerous for Hagar and her boy, and so she took her chances on the desert. Of all that Abraham did to Hagar, setting her free was the worst.
By the standards of the day he does nothing wrong, but the story depicts it as dishonorable. He does it in the dark, before the dawn, by himself, surreptitiously, and he packs her provisions, which is a servant’s job, and he does it on the cheap, with just some bread and water. He who had hosted a lavish feast to honor little Isaac. He puts the skin of water on her shoulder, touching her body, which once he had loved. She submits to him again. This is how he treats the mother of his son, his firstborn son, for some years his only son: dishonorably and shamefully.
We are troubled by God’s complicity. God tells Abraham to do what Sarah said to do. True enough, God was not complicit in the use and abuse of Hagar in the first place, and it was from Abraham doubting God that this shameful outcome resulted. True, God promises Abraham that Hagar and Ishmael will survive and someday flourish, but imagine him trying to tell her that as he casts her out in the dark. She’d need to have even greater faith than Abraham exhibited.
God rescues her, but it’s not pretty. Why does God allow her to suffer first? And why is it the crying of her boy that God responds to? Does she count for nothing? God watches her suffering from heaven, and only saves her at the last resort. Okay, so God prefers to wait till other hopes are gone. Or do we say that God is always just in time? And that we have to learn the hard way that the right time is not our time? You can’t get around the mysteries of faith.
I do not think that the opposite of faith is doubt. Not most deeply, most existentially. I think the opposite of faith is fear. It’s fear that drives your doubt. You fear that God will not come through. You fear that God will be unfair, or that God will not deliver on God’s promises. You fear that even if God is real, and good, and true, and loving, still God is an ideal, whose promises are ideal, and not to be banked on, so you just have to make do with the darkness of things.
Sarah was operating out of fear for her little boy Isaac, and so to protect him from what she feared she let Hagar and Ishmael suffer. Abraham was also operating out of fear. It specifically says he was distressed. He was afraid of Sarah’s anger, and afraid of dissension in his house, and maybe afraid of his slave-girl and their son, which is why he treated them so shamefully.
Not all fear is bad. Fear has its place. There is such a thing as healthy fear, and the Bible is firm on fearing God. When you plan your future, you have to build in healthy fear of certain things. And you have to choose among your fears. Which do you fear more? Global warming or a weakened economy? Terrorism or state security? Freedom from fear is one of the famous Four Freedoms, but that’s impossible. Freedom means only that you get to choose among your fears.
So often God’s promises run counter to the world’s expectations, so how are you supposed to apply them to the secular world where these promises have no self-evidence nor privilege? It’s natural for you to fear that God will not deliver on God’s promises, and so you yield to the conventional standards of the world.
This fear is addressed by Jesus in our Gospel: Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid, precisely because following him will bring you new things to be afraid of, and because God’s promises so raise your expectations of the world that you will have more opportunities for doubt than those who do not know God’s promises. Jesus calls you, not to have no fear, but to face your fears and choose between them.
The standard dynamic is that your fear turns back your faith, but I am inviting you to let your faith prioritize your fears and help you choose among your fears: That fearing God you do not fear death. That you fear love, and that you fear love so much that you do not do anything that is not love. That you fear justice, so much that you do not do injustice, even to preserve yourself. That you fear truth and hope, even if your family is against you. That you learn to fear with love and to love what you fear. The great goal of following Jesus is to fear only that which you must love. Fear what you love above fearing anything else.
The Lord Jesus says he came to bring a sword. That sword is not for you to use against someone else, but on yourself, your own worst enemy. St. Paul says it differently in our Epistle. He tells you that you are two of you, simultaneously, the old self always dying, and the new self always rising. As certainly as you are baptized, your old you has been crucified with Christ and your new you has been born again in you. You both live on in you, your you who is enslaved to sin and death and your you who can already breathe the freedom that Jesus had. Your conversion is a daily thing, converting your old you to your new you, and every day you convert yourself again. And when you die, at last you will be only one of you. Your old you will be dead for good, and only your new you will have a future, when you attain your resurrection from the dead.
Slavery and freedom. Which Hagar was better off, the Hagar who was hated by her mistress but who enjoyed the warm security of slavery, or the Hagar who was free, and therefore in danger and at great risk? That’s a tough call. Hagar had figured out how not be afraid of Sarah, but now she has to be afraid of what she does not know and can’t control. Which is more fearful: slavery or freedom? Both of them have much to fear; we see nation after nation backing away from the chance for democracy and choosing the slavery of security.
The freedom of Christ means new things to be afraid of. The light of his love exposes you and you want to hide. His stubborn, quixotic honoring of you makes you feel ashamed. He even loves your old and sinful self, and you should too, but when you want to defend it and explain it he just forgives it and wants it peacefully to die, so that only you live on. You will fear until you die. But perfect love will cast out all your fear. Fear only this, the absolute love of God for you.
Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.