Sunday, June 25, 2023
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Remember to watch for angels!

The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77450

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Once again we have some challenging passages this morning. Hard to decide which of these two to unpack. Do we look at the gospel which is all about division of Matthew’s young community as they try to figure out this new way of being that Jesus is showing them? Parts of this sure sound like our world today. Or do we look at the troubling story of Sarah demanding that Hagar and Ishmael be sent out into the wilderness which as far as Sarah is concerned is a death sentence for the two. I think I want to stay with the Abraham saga for I think picking up on trusting and obeying God may be the part that both passages push us to confront.

Now one thing we can usually conclude about hard passages where the characters may behave in ways that we have trouble with are probably the ones most likely to be true. Sarah the mother of the nation of Israel, through Isaac, seems almost petty and is certainly not portrayed in a favorable light in this part of the story. Scholars though would ask why would they keep some of these details unless this really happened and are an essential part of the story. This separation of Hagar and Ishmael is essential for the rest of the saga to unfold as the founding of Israel.

Remember Ishmael only exists because Sarah thought that having a child with Hagar is what God had in mind since she continued to not get pregnant as she thought the angel had foretold. Let’s remember that Ishmael may have been 10 years old when Isaac was born. That is a long time to wait for a promised miracle.  It isn’t until Sarah is pregnant that she actually believes that God meant what God said. There’ that trust in God theme again.

As with almost any bible story there are layers here. For example Ishmael’s name means God hears. That plays out in today’s passage. 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. Faced with the very real potential of dying of thirst in the dessert, Ishmael cries out to God and God hears.

Now in another week we will hear the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. Now I don’t want to get ahead of myself but there are parallels with today’s story. Abraham thinks he is to sacrifice his son until the angel appears and points out the ram caught in the bush that is to serve as the actual sacrifice. Here it is the well, the water that Hagar needed which was right in front of her. Yet she didn’t see it until she listened to an angel. Hagar is in an area that did have many wells and a place that is returned to in the Old Testament, time and again because of the wells. Several years later Isaacs son, Abraham’s grandson, Jacob will wander through this area and find a well and a wife by that well. Later Jesus will be by Jacob’s well.

Please note how important angel messengers are in the Abraham saga. They are the agents of God in this story especially those parts written by the E writer. A quick reminder this story is the result of putting together the story told by the J writer and the E writer. Combined many hundreds of years later. This does prompt a question for us to ponder. Who are the angels that God sends us when we most need them?  When we are at the end of our rope. When we feel abandoned by God who are the angels either literally or figuratively. Ignatius teaches that it is at these moments of desolation that God is the closest if we will just be open to God’s presence, maybe in the form of an angel.

Now there is something else going on in this story that also merits examination and explains in part of what God might have been doing in all of this. Again please remember that in this world everyone believed that God (or in other traditions) or the gods intervened actively in the world on a regular basis. That isn’t as widely accepted today, but it was universal some 3000 years ago. Also please remember that the idea of a Jewish faith is just in its formation stage. They are not yet even the people of Israel but a small group of nomads wandering the wilderness.

God promises that the descendants of Abraham will be as numerous as the sands. This particular story is the creation story not of the tribe of Israel for that is Isaac’s role. However another of the great world religions traces their connection to Abraham through Ishmael and that is the faith of Islam. Please don’t forget all three major monotheistic religions trace themselves back to Abraham through either Isaac or Ishmael. For this creation to happen the two must separate.

Sarah is jealous and I must admit that it is Sarah with whom I have an issue. The text sounds like she makes Abraham’s life miserable. However God provides the answer. The key is the statement from God, “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.”

So God as God so often does in scripture especially the Hebrew scriptures takes a bad situation and turns it into something creative and fruitful. God can even use some of our worst actions and turn it to the good.

So again this week I was led back into the theme of trusting in God in times of distress, strife and challenge. When you feel God is most distant remember, that is when God is closest. That is when God sends an angel in some form to walk with you. However just like Hagar who cannot see the well until the angel points it out, we also need to be open to the angels, to the Holy Spirit and allow God to open our eyes to the path forward. May the Spirit open all of our hearts, our minds and our eyes to see the “well” that is right in front of us.