May 8, 2011
A Tale of Two Women
I am the second of five children. One of my sisters, who is the youngest, posted a picture on Facebook the other day of my mother holding her when she was only seven months old. She then posted a comment about the lack of pictures of her because she was the fifth child. After two children, they become so sensitive. I ran across something that I thought you might enjoy, wherever you fall in the birth order. It’s called The First Step.
First Child: My wife grabbed the camera. I grabbed the video camera. My wife took four rolls of film. We immediately ran out to the one-hour developing place and had all four rolls developed with double prints. We had the best picture blown up to 24" X 36" and framed. We hung it up in the entry hall. I had a professional studio turn the four hours of video into a one-hour documentary complete with voice-over by a local anchorman.
Second Child: We took one roll of film and five minutes worth of video. The next day we took the film and had it developed by a twenty-four hour developing center. I took the best picture and put it into my wallet.
Third Child: We couldn't find the video camera and we only had five shots left on the roll of film. We took all five shots but I don't remember if we ever got the roll developed.
Fourth Child: I quickly got up and grabbed the camera. I placed it up high so the child wouldn't grab it. (http://www.ahajokes.com/par032.html).
This morning we study a passage about two very interesting women. The story teaches us many things, and one is how very, very different family life was during the Old Testament era, especially for women.
Sarah was Abraham’s wife, and God had promised that Abraham would be the father of a nation and his descendants would number as the stars of the heavens (15:5). The problem was it didn’t seem the promise could ever come true, as Abraham and Sarah were childless and there seemed little hope they would have a child. Sarah devises a plan – Abraham would have a child with her servant Hagar. As we read through the story we find this turned out to be a really bad idea and led to great difficulty for all involved and it continues to have consequences even today.
While this may not seem like a typical Mother’s Day passage, I believe there are some lessons of great importance in this story.
1. Receive God’s freedom.
Does anyone know when women received the right to vote in this country? On August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution became law and women were granted to the right to vote. That’s not that long ago. There are people in this room who lived when women did not have the right to vote in this country.
Sarah and Hagar lived in a world and a time that was not kind to women. Women were regarded as little more than the property of their husbands and they had little, if any, legal rights. They did not even enjoy the right to inherit anything from their husband’s estate.
The word victim is a loaded term these days, but in a sense, Sarah and Hagar were victims of their time. Sarah was victim to the idea of her time that without children a woman had no worth, had no standing in society, and had no hope for someone to take care of her in the latter days of her life. I’m not saying her plan was a very good plan, but considering her context, it’s an understandable plan. Her plan was born out of a sense of desperation, as she must have suffered from fear about what would happen to her if she had no children. Hagar was a victim because she was considered the property of someone else and had little if no control over her own destiny.
Society has changed in many ways, but our world is still not very kind to women. There are many societies that continue to be very oppressive to women, and unfortunately, some of it is perpetrated under the banner of religion.
It is no small matter that our church values the role of women not just with our words but by our practices as well. There are not two different standards when it comes to leadership in our church. There is not one role for men and a lesser role for women. It’s not my goal to be critical of other churches – I’m not criticizing them, I’m just saying they are wrong – but we are very much in the minority in this community when it comes to the roles of women in church. Sometimes we receive criticism because of our inclusion of women in leadership and our belief that women are not in any way relegated to a second-class status, and I promise you that when anyone criticizes us it does not bother me in the least and I am happy we are able to receive it and I hope it does not bother you either.
In our society, which purports to offer so much freedom to women, there is often oppression directed to women. Some of it is obvious and some of it is more subtle. Our society creates is not kind to women when it comes to the images and expectations that are placed upon them. In fact, to live in a society that proclaims that women have been liberated when we look closer we find that isn’t always true.
It’s tremendously instructive to find how many times Jesus offered freedom to women. The Gospels record for us about the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4; the women Jesus saved who was about to be stoned to death because of adultery, while the man was permitted to go free in John chapter 8; the woman, in Mark 14, Jesus defended after she was criticized for anointing him with oil – Jesus said wherever the Gospel would be preached she would be remembered, which was the only time he said that of anyone; the poor widow in Mark 12 Jesus commended for her sacrificial giving; the woman in Mark 5 who, we are told, had suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years and she was healed by Jesus. We can make an even more extensive list, but the point is there is a freedom God offers to women that has always defied the expectations of society. And it is an invitation and a warning – it is an invitation to step into freedom and a warning not to oppress women or rob them in any way of their freedom.
2. Leave life in God’s hands.
Patience, unfortunately, is not one of my gifts.
We need to learn to trust God with our future and to be patient with his plans. Sarah had arrived at the point where she either lost faith in God’s promise or she had simply become impatient and decided to take matters into her own hands.
God is amazingly – or maddeningly – slow in how he works. Have you ever found yourself impatient with God?
The difficulty – and here is where Sarah struggled – is we often see the promised future and the competing reality of the present. Sarah understood the promised future – that her descendants with Abraham would be a great nation – but she saw the present reality that they were childless. So in her mind she may have simply been trying to help bring that future into reality.
Love your family; influence your family; mold and shape your family; but trust their destiny to God. I’m not saying we sit back and do nothing in terms of helping to shape and mold our families, but to trust our lives to God’s hands.
Sarah – and Abraham – struggle to trust God, because what God promised didn’t seem to make sense to her. What God is doing doesn’t always make sense to us either, but we are called to trust.
3. Life is larger than our family.
Did you know this passage is at the root of one of the most difficult and violent political problems of our world? This story continues to be so relevant because the Muslim world traces their roots to Abraham through Ishmael and Hagar and Israel, we know, traces their lineage to Abraham through Sarah and Isaac. So when you enter the politics of the Middle East and say God gave that land to Abraham, you have two groups who both say they are Abraham’s descendants.
What’s fascinating in this passage is that God pronounces the same blessing upon Hagar and he does Abraham – in verse ten God tells Hagar her descendants would be too numerous to count.
God was not just interested in the family and descendants of Abraham and Sarah, but Abraham and Hagar and another entire line of people.
We love our families, as we should, but life is larger than just our family. We love the people we know and the people like us, as we should, but life is larger than just the people we know and the people like us. God is looking not just at your family and my family, but all families. He’s not just interested in the welfare of the people we know and the people like us, but all people.
God has not called us together to bless us to the exclusion of others, but to allow us to be a blessing to others. Old Testament Israel struggled to understand this truth as they saw themselves as blessed to the exclusion of others rather than a blessing for others. The Pharisees failed to learn this lesson as well, as they believed God was only interested in those on the inside of faith. Sometimes churches fail to learn this lesson as well. God is passionate and caring about all people. God cares about the outsiders just as much as the insiders.
Love your family, but remember that life and God’s love extends beyond just our own families. May we pray for all families.