One of the things that makes the Bible such a powerful book, a book that you keep coming back to again and again, is the way it can surprise you. You think you have it pretty well figured out so you’re comfortable with it, then you come across stories like the ones we read this morning that draw you up short and take your breath away because they’re so different from what you’d expect in the Bible.
God uses surprising stories like these to shake us up. We develop assumptions about the way God should do things, assumptions that usually mirror the way we would run the world if it were ours to control. Every once in a while we have to be reminded that God doesn’t always conform to the way we think things ought to be. These two stories – the story of Hagar and Ishmael and the story of the Canaanite woman – challenge us to reconsider our view of outsiders, those different from us. And for those who feel like they’re on the outside, they offer a word of hope and encouragement.
The story of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar grabs your attention from the start. It sounds scandalous to our modern ears. Let me give you some background: Abraham and Sarah couldn’t have children, so Sarah told Abraham to have a child by Sarah’s servant, an Egyptian woman named Hagar. Abraham and Hagar had a son and named him Ishmael. Eventually Sarah and Abraham had a son whose name was Isaac. One day, when Isaac was a little boy, Sarah saw him playing with his half-brother Ishmael. The jealousy that had been brewing in her flashed. Sarah demanded that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away.
Now, what I would expect the Bible to say is that Abraham told Sarah we should all get along. But that’s not how the story goes. No, Abraham gets up early one morning, lifts the boy on Hagar’s shoulder, and sends them out into the wilderness with nothing more than a skin filled with water. That’s not exactly the kind of parenting we want to celebrate on Father’s Day.
The lesson we read from the New Testament is just as hard. A Canaanite woman comes up to Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter. You remember the Canaanites. The Old Testament is constantly warning the people of Israel to avoid them because they worshiped fertility gods and idols. You’d expect Jesus to put all that aside, welcome this foreigner with open arms and gladly heal her daughter. But Jesus ignored her. Then his disciples told him to send her away because she was a nuisance. Finally Jesus spoke to her, and told her he had come to save the children of Abraham. “It’s not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he told her, implying that outsiders like herself were dogs.
These stories are shocking because they don’t start out with the kind of behavior we try to teach our kids. They grate against our civility and open mindedness. But if you’ve ever been on the outside looking in, they may not sound so foreign. They portray a pretty realistic picture of what it’s like to be out of the mainstream. If you’ve ever felt cut off, wandering, not sure how you’re going to make it from week to week, feeling like people treat you like you’re not up to par, you might be able to identify with Hagar. Hagar has become something of a symbol for single mothers who feel they have been cast out with no support. If you’re a member of a racial ethnic minority, you might resonate with the Canaanite woman. Anyone who’s ever been told, either outright or in those subtle, indirect ways “You’re not one of us” knows that what the Canaanite woman experienced isn’t so unusual. People run into that all the time.
These stories are for anyone who’s ever felt on the outside. They’re for children and teenagers who feel shut out because they’re not old enough. They’re for anyone who’s ever felt out of place in church because of something in your past. If you’ve ever been on the outside, there might be something about these women that resonates with you.
But the really surprising thing about Hagar and Ishmael and the Canaanite woman isn’t the way those outsiders were treated by those on the inside. What’s really surprising is the way God treated them. You see, the way God treats outsiders is a lot different from the way we usually do. When we’re on the inside, we tend to think that what we see and experience is the norm for everyone else. I once heard a retired Presbyterian missionary to Korea lament how hard it is for him to keep up with what’s going on in the world now that he’s home. He pointed out that except for three or four newspapers in a handful of major cites, international news gets little more coverage than a couple of half pages buried deep in the paper. It’s only human nature to assume that what’s happening to us is what’s most important in the world.
Hagar’s story shows that the Israelites weren’t the only ones God was looking out for. The Israelites are the insiders in the Bible. The Bible is the story of God’s relationship with them. The story of Hagar and Ishmael is a reminder to those insiders that God isn’t confined to them. God looked out for those on the margins. Hagar and Ishmael wandered in the wilderness until their water gave out. Hagar placed her son under a bush so at least he would be sheltered from the direct heat of the sun as he died. But as she cried in despair, an angel of the Lord came to her and said that God had heard her son’s voice. God was going to bless Ishmael by making him the father of a nation. Then God opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw a well. She and her son drank and survived until they settled in the land of Paran. The last we hear of Ishmael, he had grown into a strong hunter and married an Egyptian woman like his mother. God was caring for the outsider.
Sometimes God turns the tables and makes those who are outside the inner circle. Jesus ignored the Canaanite woman when she first approached him because his mission was to the children of Abraham. Everyone assumed that the way you had a part in that blessing was by your ancestry. It was something you were born into, a right you inherited. But Jesus showed that the way you become a child of Abraham is through faith. It doesn’t matter what your genealogy is. By that definition it was this faithful foreigner who was the insider, and it was those who considered themselves the insiders, who found out that they were on the outside.
A few years ago a friend of mine went on a mission trip to Haiti with a group from his Baptist church. Some of the people he went with were going to help at a weekday Bible school for children. Others were going to help erect a school building. When David left for Haiti he considered himself an insider on mission of mercy to help those on the outside. He had grown up in the church, was a deacon, taught Sunday school, and had built a successful law practice with a fairly good income. He considered himself blessed. But when David came back, he was a changed person. The depth of faith he saw in the Haitians with whom he worked was unlike anything he had ever experienced. Removed from the pressures of getting ahead and protecting a nest egg, without the security of a democratic government and an investment portfolio, the people David met had to rely on faith for survival much more than he ever had. He realized he wasn’t quite as far inside with God as he had thought, and it was those whom he considered on the outside that reached out and drew him deeper into his relationship with Christ.
William Willimon, former dean of the chapel at Duke University, writes about a friend of his who went on a tour of Russia in the 1970s with an ecumenical group of church leaders. When his friend came back, he lamented, “The church in Russia is irrelevant. It has no one in it but old ladies.” The church of Jesus Christ appeared to be dying off because it had no insiders, no one with power or influence or the vigor of youth. It only had little old ladies, people with no clout who were outside the mainstream. (Peculiar Speech, p. 90)
When Communism collapsed, the churches began to burst at the seams. New churches opened every day. People flocked to the church looking for meaning and purpose in life. And who kept those churches alive through the decades of persecution when religion was irrelevant to anyone who wanted to get ahead in the Communist regime? Little old ladies, people outside the mainstream. It makes you wonder who was really on the inside and who was on the outside.
There’s something about us human beings that needs to know who is in and who is out. We need to be able to identify those with whom we have things in common and those who are different. But God’s goodness can’t be contained to one group, even if it’s the group God has chosen to be God’s own. And sometimes, God surprises us by showing us that those whom we thought were so obviously on the outside are really the insiders, and those who thought they were in don’t have it made quite like they thought. I’m glad this one whom we worship isn’t confined to doing things the way I think they ought to be done. That would be a pretty small God to worship. God is so much bigger than that.