Vows Keep Messiness at Bay

A sermon based on Genesis 21:1-21
give at Mt Vernon, Ohio on June 25, 2017*
by Rev. Scott Elliott

It’s been a while since I have preached a homily at a breakfast service in this space. Last year we had a hymn sing in June and in July I read some notes from the past about the history of the church. Despite the clamor and messiness of the breakfast tables I thought I’d give it a try again, a little preaching up here.

If you’ve seen my desk you know messiness does not offend me. A few weeks ago I straightened it all out and thought about posting a sign that said “My desk was not messy yesterday, sorry you missed it.”

If WE are alive somehow someway WE have to deal with messes. Right? And it is not just physical things being out of place. Relationships get messy too.

In seminary our Pastoral Care class was taught by a pastoral care legend, Peggy Way. One of Professor Way’s gifts was stating complex issues in simple ways. Her most famous is a three word phrase: “Life is messy.” It’s true. Life is a bumpy messy ride. The bumps, the messes, often come from choices we or others make, but of course they happen naturally as well. The choices that most often lead to messes tie into how we treat others in relationships. Religion is about how best to be in relationship– relationships with God in creation, God in one another, God within our self.

Important relationships involve promises, or vows– expressed or implied. The Bible has a number of stories about promises and vows, the covenants made in relationships. And like today’s reading many of those stories concern messes caused by breaking vows– covenants. Walter Brueggemann, a famous Old Testament theologian notes that:

[a]ll important relationships are covenantal, which means they are a) based on vows, b) open to renegotiation, c) concerned with mutual decisions, d) affecting all parties involved, e) addressing life and death issues and f) open to various internal and external sanctions 1

In our modern life covenants are mostly thought of as contracts, or parts of contracts. They involve a mutual exchange of promises, what we hear Dr. Brueggemann refer to in important relationships as “vows,” like wedding vows, the promises couples make getting married. 2

Here’s a free, short legal lesson. In contracts and covenants both sides have to promise something to make it binding on the parties, to hold them together– otherwise they’re unenforceable 3 And this is important too, when there is a material breach of a promise the injured party’s remedies include ignoring the offense, enforcing the contract, renegotiating the contract, seeking reparation or extinguishing the contract. 4

With respect to relational covenants each of these options exist, and all but extinguishing the agreement are meant to keep a relation intact. Moreover, (and we’ve talked about this before) broken relationships need reparation, they need fixing, which is what forgiveness is all about.

Sometimes, however, family relations can be severed for months, years . . . even forever. Scriptural examples include Cain’s banishment; ; Joseph’s enslavement; Jacob’s running away; Moses’ running away; David and his son warring; and even Mary almost being divorced; and unwed and pregnant, leaving town.

Today’s Lectionary text is an example too. We can learn a lot from it about the messes caused by broken vows, what threatens families, and where God is in it all. It’s a story about a foreign slave Sarah owned and gave to Abraham to impregnate. 5 The slave Hagar, who appears to have had no say, becomes pregnant and is mistreated, so, she runs away. And the story remarkably recounts that God blessed the runaway Hagar –an expendable low to the culture alien slave girl of another religion. God sided with her and caused her to safely return to the clan and give birth to Ishmael.

Things seem to go well for a dozen or so years after Hagar returns until Sarah gives birth to a son, Isaac. Shortly thereafter – as we heard– Sarah and Abraham cruelly sever the relationship with both Hagar and Ishmael. In this awfulness, this ugly mess, God again helps outcasts to survive, and thrive. That’s remarkable. God cares. God loves everyone everywhere.
We can hear how in the messiness of life God is present in it. God does not just favor the elite or just the Hebrews. God’s presence in this messy, dysfunctional family is with everyone. God calls the entire family –and all of us as story listeners– to vows that each family member’s well being is supposed to matter, to be equal to the other members. When one family member’s well being is put above or below another’s that’s when trouble begins, the relational vows are breached. We can see that in the lesson. The mess and breakdown of the family result from the failure to form, or comply with, family vows. There’s no mutuality, no honoring of those vows to be in loving relationship.

Using Dr. Brueggemann’s list we can see the relationships in our story do not seem to have been based on vows that were mutually consented to by the parties, or honored much at all. Such vows and consent and honoring are essential for relationships to survive. Peggy Way put it simply, “Community and family life has to be negotiated” 6. Herbert Anderson, another pastoral care expert, fleshes that out like this:

our choice to marry and remain in a family as a life long commitment is an intentional act. A marriage may not endure, a family may become dysfunctional, if persons involved are not committed to one another with a matching intensity. 7

Hagar could not fully relate to Sarah or Abraham. She was not a part of the decisions for her to enter into relations, marriage or a pregnancy. 7 She never bound herself to them by vows. And whatever vows a father, husband, sister wife, and slave owners had to treat fairly Hagar and Ishmael, those vows were not honored by Abraham or Sarah. They didn’t treat Hagar or Ishmael as if their well being mattered, at least not near as equally as other family members.

Like I said, when one family member’s well being is put above or below another’s that’s when trouble begins. The relational vows were breached, and we see that in this story. Professor Way beautifully summed up what family is supposed be “the family” she writes

is the historical embodiment of the human creatures caring for one another, seeking, as they mature, to help each member experience love, esteem, possibility and responsibility, and, as they do that seeking beyond their own family living to care for and with families that transcend their own. 8.

All of the adults in the Hagar story violate family vows to care, love, affirm and accommodate one another. Abraham and Sarah do not show love, affirmation or accommodation toward Hagar or Ishmael. Understandably Hagar does not show it either. There’s no nurturing between the sides of the family. So it is really not surprising that the whole thing ends in a mess. The sins of this family are that vows to love, to tend to each others’ well being, are not honored. The family members only take care of whom they want, when they want. 9.

It’s hard to blame Hagar for wanting to leave the family since she is bearing the brunt of the harm. It is hard not to want to blame Abraham and Sarah for casting Hagar and Ishmael out to die. But blaming individuals is not necessarily the only place to look for problems. Weaknesses in the family unit often stem from cultural norms. Traditions and rules can also be responsible. 10. And are in this instance. The Hagar/Sarah/Abraham family unit is “messy” from the start and fails because the family’s covenantal moorings are so very weak. And the patriarchal ways of the culture help create the mess. It allows and lauds multiple spouses for men. It considers women as men’s property. It allows slavery. The patriarchy created a hierarchy of preferences not just the men over women, but first born males over other children and first wives over other wives; as well as Hebrews over aliens; and slave owners over slaves.

Basically the patriarchy is fraught with unequal treatment of those the culture considered non-elites, like women, children and slaves. We can see the consequences in our lesson. Cruelty. Wives vying against one another for positions of survival. Estrangements. Divorce. Abandonment. What our culture would call horrific treatment of the non-elite by the elite . . . BUT NOT BY GOD.

For all the ugliness and just plain old awful messes of family disputes, a fundamental theological truth exists in the lesson. God is in all the mess loving everyone. And calling all the family members – and each of us– away from acts that are not loving, from acts that hurt others and ourselves, most especially the vulnerable. We also can hear God’s call for us to make and honor relational vows– especially in families – to care and respect and love one another.

This does not mean that divorces should not, or will not happen, or that anyone who divorces commits a sin. What it means is that we are called by God in the Bible to cultivate a desire to make and keep family relational covenants and to do our best to avoid breaching them. We are called to answer God’s call to honor relational vows.

Another truth is that no matter what, God is always steadfastly present during all family conflicts loving every single person involved. In the mess of it, God loves Hagar, God loves Abraham, God loves Sarah, and God surely loves the children Ishmael and Isaac. God does not just love the elite, or for that matter . . . the non-elite. Like it or not, God loves everyone. The right, the wrong, the oppressed, the oppressor, even covenant breakers. That’s good news! All of us break our covenants to each other at one time or another. And while there are repercussions for such breaches, losing God’s love is not one of them. God loves us all the time. That is good, good news!


This sermon is based a bit on a paper I wrote in seminary for a class on Pastoral Care for Family taught by Dr. Peggy Way the winter of 2005 at Eden seminary– and a previous sermon I wrote in 2008. The writings referred to in the sermon by last name and page numbers are Anderson, Herbert, The Family and Pastoral Care; and Brueggemann’ Walter “The Covenanted Family a Zone for Humanness.” Unfortunately the references to Prof. Way’s exact work has been misplaced, but, I do want to credit her with the quotes and so have left them intact. My apologies to Dr. Way rest her soul.
1.Brueggemann, Walter “The Covenanted Family a Zone for Humanness”18).
2.Blacks Law Dictionary (Abridged 5th Edition), St. Paul: West Publishing Company (1983)(“Contract”); cf., McKim, Donald, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, (1996)(“vow”).
3.Blacks Law Dictionary, supra.
4. Cf., Blacks Law Dictionary, supra at ‘remedy”.
5.Gen 16: 3 provides that Sarah gave Hagar as a wife to Abraham. Also I note that at the start of the Hagar pericopes Sarah and Abraham actually both have different names, they are known as Sarai and Abram. To avoid confusion in the summary I have used only Sarah and Abraham as their names. I also note that many of the concepts in this sermon regarding Hagar are influenced by, and derived at least in part, from my exposure to Dr. Deborah Krause’s 2004 Feminist Biblical Interpretation course at Eden Seminary – and especially the discussions and readings regarding a text in that course entitled Sisters in the Wilderness, by Dorthea Williams.
6. Way, Peggy, Family p.40
7. Cf., Anderson Herbert, The Family and Pastoral Care p. 57
8. Way at 12.
9. Anderson at pps 51-58
10. Ibid at p. 111
Scott Elliott Copyright © 2017