July 25, 2023

 ‘Laughter’ & ‘I Have Heard’

Rev. Jane Courtright

Why should we know about Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ismael & Isaac? Because this is the foundational story of the three largest monotheistic religions in history. Christians, Jews, and Muslims all share this story!

Even if you aren’t a believer, you should still know Abraham’s story because more than half the world’s population shares a worldview shaped by this story. Just think. More than 14 million Jews, nearly 2 billion Muslims, and over 2 billion Christians stand in awe of the moment when God chooses to bless the world through Abraham’s descendants and when Abraham chooses to follow God.

Any understanding of how our world works includes learning Abraham’s story.

Abraham probably lived a bit more than 4,000 years ago. The Koran, the Hebrew Scriptures, the Gospels and the Christian Scriptures talk about him. Hundreds of other ancient stories circulated about him as well but didn’t find their way into these holy books.

In the Biblical story, Abraham emerges several generations after Noah. Basically, humanity had again become a mess, filled with corruption, incivility, and violence.

God decides to call Abraham to be the leaven in the loaf. God wants to work through Abraham and his descendants in faith to raise human behavior around the world to a higher level.                        So, one day, God approaches Abram as he was named then & says, “Go to a land that I will show you later and I will bless you. I will make of you a great nation; through your descendants,                 all the world will be blessed.”

Finally, it seems that Abram would father the children he’s always wanted.

I’m sure he raised an eyebrow as he looked over to his wife Sarai (who later becomes Sarah) who was also aging. Really?, he must have thought. But he didn’t have any other hope.

I like that Abram is 75 when this happens. Just because you’ve had some birthdays, doesn’t mean that God is done with you, that God won’t call you to new adventures.

Abram has to leave what is comfortable, what he’s known all of his life. He must leave his father and his father’s land.  It’s a powerful reminder that sometimes to grow, to open up the blessings meant for us, we move beyond what we’ve always known. We adopt new ways of thinking. Acceptance of people we were taught were bad. We learn new approaches. Try new things. Take a leap of faith!

So Abram sets forth on a long journey, believing in God’s promise, His name is changed to Abraham, which means father of many. He wanders from territory to territory and prospers.

But there is a problem. They still have no child. Sarai takes initiative by doing something customary at that time. If the wife was barren, the couple chose a servant to bear the child. They select a woman named Hagar who gets pregnant with Abraham’s child, Ishmael. Muslims trace their lineage through Ishmael  —that’s how they are connected to Abraham.

A few years after Ishmael is born, Sarah conceives in her old age and gives birth to Isaac. The Judeo-Christian tradition traces its lineage through Isaac. You might hope that this is the place                where it says they lived happily ever after.  But no!

Sarah feels threatened by Hagar & they banish Hagar & Ishmael into the wilderness.

Although Sarah and Abraham cast them off, God looks after Ishmael, saves him, blesses him, and promises to always be with him and his descendants.

Abraham’s story is a mixed bag. He does a lot of good things. He trusts God, he obeys. He offers extravagant hospitality to strangers. He’s a peacemaker. But he did a lot of horrible things, too.

The Bible offers us Abraham. These scripture stories offer us heroes painted as real people.

The point of showing people like Abraham seems to be that we see that God doesn’t call just the perfect, blameless people. God calls all of us, warts and all.                                                                We don’t have to be perfect to be useful, to do some good.  We honor Abraham and Sarah, and realize that God has purposes for people like us, too.

After Sarah dies, Abraham takes another wife and has several more children. He lives long enough to live into his new name. Abraham means “father of many.”

Before Abraham dies, he personally gives Ishmael & his additional sons gifts, making sure they are provided for.  Then, when Abraham dies, Ishmael, ‘God hears’ returns and helps Isaac, ‘God laughs’ with the burial. Leaders of emerging nations with different ways of doing things, stand side by side and do the task to bury their common father.

Abraham is the common faith ancestor of these three religions:  Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We are a family, we have something in common, we share this story of Abraham.

We share the story where Isaac and Ishmael come together and stand side by side without hurting each other without trying to convert each other,                                                                        & without thinking that they alone had the truth & God’s blessings.

Because God’s blessings extend to all, even if some people don’t agree that they should. Maybe that is where our hope is for peace begins. We receive God’s blessings and let them flow through us  to bless the whole world with love.

Frederich Buechner describes the mystery of God’s ways in these stories about Abraham, Hagar, Ishmael, Sarah and Isaac.  He writes:

“The story of Hagar is the story of the terrible jealousy of Sarah and the singular ineffectuality of Abraham; and the way Hagar….  managed to survive them both.  Above and beyond that, however,    it is the story of how in the midst of that whole unseemly affair, God, half tipsy with compassion, went around making marvelous promises and loving everybody, and creating great nations,                 like the last of the big-time spenders handing out ten-dollar bills.”

How can we remember Abraham? May we remember the time when God showed Abraham a better path.

We also can choose. We can choose to live in peace. We can choose to break out of the familiar to do good in the world. We can offer hospitality. We can see people from other faiths as our brothers and sisters, not as mortal enemies.

And we can choose to believe that no matter how barren our lives may feel, there is still a promise ahead of us. Amen?  Amen!

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