a sermon on Genesis 21:8-21 and Romans 6:1b-11,
preached at Christ Episcopal Church (Shaker Hts OH)

There is no nuance to it.
There is no middle ground,
there are not “both sides.”

Sarah is in the wrong.
Hagar is in the right.

Sarah is wrong for oppressing Hagar,
wrong for holding Hagar in enslavement,
wrong for doubling-down on Hagar’s maltreatment.

That the story is in the Bible doesn’t make Sarah right.
That enslavement was “the culture” of the times doesn’t make Sarah right.
That God allowed it and even returned Hagar to it doesn’t make Sarah right.

Sarah endorses Abraham’s rape of Hagar. Sarah casts Hagar out into the wilderness twice: once during Hagar’s pregnancy (for giving Sarah a dirty look) and again more than 13 years later for allowing their two sons to laugh together.

Sarah, our grandmother in faith, is wrong.
We cannot allow ourselves to nuance that.

Because, of course, there is nuance to it.
Nuance cannot defend Sarah’s sin against Hagar,
but nuance implicates more people in the sin.

Abraham, too, is in the wrong.
Though he is our grandfather in faith,
we should state it without nuance:

Abraham is in the wrong.
Abraham is wrong to put Sarah’s life at risk
– not once but twice – but calling Sarah
his sister when they were in foreign countries.
Abraham is wrong for holding people in enslavement,
wrong for purchasing people for labor,
wrong for accepting people as gifts.
Abraham is wrong for raping Hagar
and wrong for letting Sarah also abuse the girl.

That the story is in the Bible doesn’t make Abraham right.
That God allowed it doesn’t make Abraham right.
Abraham is wrong.
We cannot allow ourselves to nuance that.

Because, of course, there is nuance to it.
Nuance cannot defend Abraham’s sin against Sarah and Hagar,
but nuance widens the circle of implication in the sin.

God, too, is in the wrong.
For God promises Abraham his own land –
land on which other people already live,
land over which there will be disputes and wars,
land beyond one person’s capacity to manage and tend,
land for which Abraham will accumulate people as his labor and property,
land that for centuries to come people will believe they can simply plant a flag in,
lay a cornerstone on,
plow under or pave over,
and rewrite its name as their own.

As far as our text reveals, God never says to Abraham,
“Don’t enslave people in your quest for land.
Don’t kill people when you move to a new place.”

And although God promises Abraham an heir of his own seed
– who is Ishmael, Abraham’s first son, borne by Hagar
and marked with God’s covenant by circumcision –
as soon as Sarah asks Abraham to sacrifice his firstborn son to the wilderness,
God affirms to Abraham that he should do it.
God is in the wrong for allowing Abraham to break covenant with his heir;
God is in the wrong for allowing Sarah to sacrifice Hagar’s well-being for her own.

I know it’s God;
I know it’s the Bible;
but the God of Abraham and Sarah fails to curtail them
from oppressing and enslaving others, including Hagar.

We cannot nuance that.

Because, of course, there is nuance to it.
Nuance cannot defend the harm that is caused
but nuance can teach us that harm is neither the end of the story nor the only story.

Yes, by scripture’s record, God does not admonish Abraham and Sarah for enslaving people
(in fact, generations later, God gives laws to Moses about how to treat enslaved people),
but God also hears Hagar’s cries and God hears Ishmael’s cries
and God gives to them the promises that Abraham and Sarah steal from them.

When Sarah sees Ishmael and Hagar and is enraged with jealousy,
God sees Ishmael and Hagar together and is moved to rescue them –
rescue them from Sarah,
rescue them from Abraham,
rescue them from death in the wilderness.

When Abraham exiles the flesh of his own flesh from his household,
sending them away with only a loaf of bread and a skin of water;
when Sarah breaks a bone of her own bones by rejecting her adopted son,
guarding her joy over Isaac as though it is too brittle to share;
God sees the dying flesh and holds the broken bones
and makes a way through the wilderness for Hagar and Ishmael to live in freedom.

What then are we to say?

Should we continue to be complicit in oppression, because Abraham and Sarah supported oppression for their own gain?

Should we worship God without cause or conviction, because God was silent about Sarah and Abraham’s enslavement of people? Should we worship God without passion or purpose, because Jesus was silent about slavery in his time, because he did not cry out against cities that exiled their lepers and sent their poor into the streets to beg for bread?

What then are we to say?

Must the bone of God’s bones and the flesh of God’s flesh continue to be killed in the streets and shot in the back and hung from the trees and tossed in the river, just so we can continue to benefit from sin?

What then are we to say? Shall we continue to sin because sin is our inheritance?

By no means.
In this, we cannot be nuanced.

The texts we call sacred may be nuanced,
but the call to resist oppression must not be.

The God whose stories we proclaim may be complicated,
but the holy work of freedom must not be.

We may be tempted to hedge our support when the protest of Hagar is too loud,
but the well of life that breaks open when Hagar cries does not share our restraint.

Life has no restraint but grace.
Freedom has no limit but love.
Resistance has no requirement but healing.

Of this, we must have no doubt.

To this, we must remain wholly committed – without nuance or delay.

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