God Will Not Stop Loving Anyone

By The Rev. Anne Michele Turner, Bridge Interim Rector

Genesis 21:8-21

Every so often, I hear people talking with a certain nostalgia about biblical family values.  Clearly, those people have not read the book of Genesis.

All summer long, we are going to hear stories from this first book of the bible, stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith.  And it’s a lesson in how daunting the very idea of family can be.  There’s some pretty weird stuff in there.  The culture of the ancient near east was a nomadic one, and the social conventions are certainly not what you and I would think of as, well, conventional.   Multiple wives are bought, sold, and traded around like cattle.  Children are conceived maybe with a wife or maybe with a mistress, but it doesn’t really matter too much in pursuit of an heir.

The real breakdown in “family values,” though, is not seen in these accidents of history.  It’s emotional wreckage–which actually seems quite contemporary.  All these stories from Genesis make clear that our ancestors four thousand years ago were no more adept than we are at navigating the complexities of the human heart.  Genesis reminds us that human beings have always struggled with favoritism, and jealousy, and anxiety, and fear.

Read between the lines of our story today and you will hear a lot of familiar questions, questions that we don’t always like to ask but that nonetheless persist in our flawed lives.  Like, what happens when we think we’re going to fail at our most intimate relationships?  Will we be able to love our partners enough?  What about our children?  What happens when our resources are limited?  Are we humans bound to fail?  What about God?  Can God fail at relationships, too?

To remind you what the stakes are here, we’re in the midst of the stories about Abraham and his wife Sarah.  God has promised to make Abraham the father of a great nation but has been frustratingly vague on the details of how that might happen—especially when it appears that Sarah is unable to have children.  At first, Sarah thinks she can fix the problem herself: she follows the custom of the time and sends her slave Hagar to sleep with her husband, so that Hagar’s child—a son named Ishmael—might serve as heir.  God has a different solution in mind, however.  We heard last week how angels showed up at Abraham’s tent and promised a child to Sarah, an idea so far-fetched as to make her bust out in laughter.  But here it has come true: that miracle child is born, and not only born but growing and thriving and ready for his first big party.

And here’s where we see it all fall apart again.

Genesis does not pretend that the players in this story have any particular virtue.  It is painfully honest about how these men and women are, like us, all kinds of good and bad and magnanimous and small all mixed up together.  Sarah, the laughing one, the one who has endured so much waiting for the promise of God—she is also the one who cannot escape jealousy.  “Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had born to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.”  And she was determined to get rid of her son’s rival.  In the Hebrew, those last four words—with her son Isaac—don’t even appear; Sarah simply cannot stand to see this other child playing at the feast.  There is not enough room in her heart.

And Abraham—he doesn’t come off much better.  Abraham the faithful one, the one who has held so steadfastly to the covenant—he is also the one who cannot figure out how to care simultaneously for both sides of his strangely blended family.   There is not enough room in his imagination.  He prays to God and gives Hagar a little food for the road and then just brushes off his dirty hands.  To me, it looks like he wants to do the right thing but really doesn’t have much idea what that would be.

And Hagar.  If any player is wronged in this story, it is she; she is the casualty of Sarah’s insecurity and Abraham’s weakness.  And yet she is also the one who gives up.  She runs out of water in the wilderness and, unlike Abraham and Sarah, who made their own solution to every problem, she just sits down and waits to die.  Literally.  She gives up on her child, and she gives up on herself.

Everyone here fears failure.  Everyone here fears loss.  And everyone here is complicit is failure and loss, too.

So what might redeem this story?  And what would redemption look like?

“The angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, sand said to her, “What troubles you Hagar?  Do not be afraid.”  And here we have the fundamental promise of the whole book of Genesis: that we may fail, but God does not.  That our love may be limited, but God’s is not.   God shows up.  We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we know that God is going to show up.  And because we know that, we do not have to be afraid.

What’s particularly compelling to me about this redemption—what makes it ring true—is that is it, like the rest of Genesis, so very realistic.   There is no papering over human flaws here; there is no pretending that God can put everything back the way it was before these people and their flaws messed it all up.  But there is the insistence that God will not stop loving anyone.  God made a declaration of love to Abraham, and he kept it.  God made a declaration of love to Sarah, and he kept it.  God made a declaration of love to Isaac, and he kept it.  And now he will find a way to love Hagar and Ishmael, too.  There is no way that God will let human smallness keep him from love.

The gospel we heard this morning was spoken for different circumstances, but its message seems fitting here, too: “Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”  Do not be afraid; God is paying attention.  Do not be afraid; God will find a way to love you, too.  Whoever.  Wherever.

The story of Genesis may seem long ago and far away; none of us is worried about being sent out with just a loaf of bread and a water skin.  But we are worried about being in the desert, aren’t we?  Human nature just hasn’t changed a lot, and failure of our human relationships and human emotions haunts us still.  Whether you are worried about a marriage, or a parent, or a child, or even the web of relationships that makes up this family we call parish—whatever the setting, the weakness of human character is there.  It is really easy to be afraid that we will be enough for one another.

But God promises us: you do not have to be afraid.  There’s enough love to go around, because that love comes from God, and God does not fail.

Brothers and sisters, we can make no promises about one another.   But we can make promises, and we can trust promises, about God.  God was in that desert, and God is in this desert, too.  God saw Abraham and Sarah and Isaac, and Hagar and Ishmael, too.  And God will not overlook anyone.  God will not overlook you.  Take heart, and get up, and keep going, and be brave.  God will never forget any one of us.