Grace Is Thicker Than Blood

Genesis 21:8-21
© Stacey Steck

It’s a good thing for Abraham that there was no such thing as child welfare agencies, or he’d be in jail. By ANY of today’s standards, Abraham fails regularly and fails spectacularly in the parental department. We heard this morning of the dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael, which makes him look bad enough, but just ahead is the far better known story when God asks Abraham to take Isaac up to the top of the mountain and sacrifice him on a pile of wood. We know how that one turned out; God calls off the test, satisfied with Abraham’s faithfulness, and Isaac goes on to be the father of Jacob and Esau. But today, Abraham must face an even greater power – the wrath of his wife – who wants to make sure her son, Isaac, is the sole inheritor of the family fortune, such as it was for this nomadic family. He doesn’t want to do as she wishes — the text says that the matter was very distressing to Abraham — but God thinks otherwise and counsels him to send away Ishmael and his mother, promising that although it is Isaac who will be the next in line to inherit the promise, Ishmael too will be the father of a great nation.

God’s reassurances aside, it still must have been torturous for Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael packing. One can only imagine the moment when the two finally turned to leave. Somehow even the comfort of God’s promise seems like small consolation in a situation like this. But I want you to know that what makes Abraham the father of the faith he has become, is that however reluctant he may have been to admit it, however much it must have grieved him to act on it, however barbaric it may seem to us today, Abraham recognized that while blood is indeed thicker than water, grace and faith are, and must be, thicker than blood.

Now, in a time when the banner of family values is lifted high this is indeed a hard teaching. We hear it lamented that in our society today both parents must work to support the family, and the kids are being raised by a nanny, grandparent, or daycare worker. We are treated to news stories which suggest that children who grow up without a father are at a disadvantage, for they lack appropriate male role models. We are grieved at the high rate of divorce in our country. We question the parenting skills of the mothers and fathers of the perpetrators of mass shootings. We value our families, we think they are important for the good of society, there is often no one else to whom we turn before we turn to our families. The billboard by the side of the road tell us that “the family that prays together, stays together” and I think that helps. Our families might fight and squabble and even go their separate ways sometimes but the family remains both our cradle and our grave. As hard as some of us might try to disprove it, indeed, blood is almost always thicker than water. Just ask Hagar and Ishmael, who were sent away with just a skin of water.

Like other families, the household of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar and Ismael is complicated, but there is a promise at work at this time in Abraham’s life. He’s a little slow on the uptake but he’s beginning to see that God can be trusted. God has promised a son through Sarah and that has come to pass, and now comes another test of his faith, to trust that God will take care of something as valuable to him as his own flesh and blood. These stories in Genesis try hard to make clear that Abraham’s faith is rooted in God alone, that there is nothing Abraham wouldn’t do for God, even sacrifice his own sons, his flesh and blood, his meal ticket in old age, his pride and joy. God asks Abraham to do something we certainly hope God will never ask of us: to trust God and have faith in God, even to the point of losing that which is most dear to us. This, my friends, ironic as it may seem, is grace at work - God giving us the faith necessary to see what matters most even in the most difficult of moments.

Perhaps for no one is the ability to see what matters most put to the test like it is for parents. Many years ago, Sixty Minutes ran a segment so inspiring, I still remember it today. It was a story of the way one set of parents was able to practice God’s grace in the midst of tragedy. You might remember the brutal murder in Cape Town, South Africa of a young, white Californian named Amy Biehl who was exercising her values by living with and providing help to a village being strangled by poverty. Her death made the headlines because she was killed by the very people she went to help.

For many families, a tragedy like this one is an opportunity to circle the wagons, to cry out for vengeance, to retreat into the pain inflicted upon them. The divorce rate in families that lose children approaches 70%. But following Amy’s death, the Biehls have taken a different approach — they have taken on her work. Mr. and Mrs. Biehl spend much of their time in South Africa, supporting a school where a young sister of one of the convicted murderers attended. They started the first of what has become a chain of bakeries that produce “Amy's Bread --The Bread of Hope and Peace.” Besides jobs and income, the bakeries provide an HIV and AIDS prevention message on each bag. They have given untold quantities of compassion and money to the very township where their daughter worked and was murdered. And at the clemency hearing for the killers, they asked that the four young men responsible be set free, and they were.

The Sixty Minutes reporter several times asked the Biehls how they could be so generous, where was their anger, their sense of injustice? The Biehls consistently responded that they were living Amy's legacy, doing what she had been doing, what she would want of them. There was no condescension, no anger evident either in their words or in the video clips of their actions. Clearly, this puzzled the reporter who asked the same question of Bishop Desmond Tutu: How can the Biehls work amongst these people? Like many I’m sure, I found Bishop Tutu’s response very interesting. He said it was a “mystery” how one might forgive such a grievous wrong and that we would do well to leave it as a mystery, not trying to pin down exactly how or why the Biehls were choosing these actions, but rather to be inspired by their actions. I’m inclined to agree and to suggest that the Biehls were able to see that while blood is thicker than water, grace is thicker than blood, even shed blood.

The phrase, “blood is thicker than water,” comes from 17th century England, but its origin is more obscure. Some suggest a straightforward medical meaning, because the viscosity of blood is different than water. Others suggest it had something to do with agriculture, maybe that it was OK to share water for irrigation up to and until my family’s livelihood would be threatened by your use of the river. Then I’d have to make a choice, and it would be my flesh and blood over your water. The first possibility is certainly true, but the second one is probably the one that matters since the history of most places in the world is inextricably bound up in this very issue - who has control of the water supply. It is true in the Southwest of the United States where the lower Colorado River basin is at the mercy of those with the dams upstream. It is true in Israel, where the Israelis control all the water flowing into the Palestinian territories and regulate it to maintain their political control. And Turkey controls the water flowing into Jordan and Iraq, threatening to cripple agricultural production downstream. Each of these places where water is at stake is in conflict, usually at the expense of those who can least afford it. In 1959, the Sudan and Egypt signed a water agreement treaty that worked so well for both parties that they began talks to create an massive irrigation project for the Sudan which would make that country virtually food self-sufficient. But that life-giving project was delayed for decades by Ethiopia which is trying to protect its own national sovereignty by controlling the waters of the Blue Nile River for its own electrical power generation. It’s a very complicated regional political situation but the upshot is that a project which would have helped thousands of people was on hold for years because the nations involved weren’t able to see that grace is thicker than blood, and were only able to see that their national blood is thicker than their neighbor’s water.

When we read a story like today’s and we see that God agrees with Sarah that Hagar and Ishmael must go, it might seem that God, like Sarah, is choosing the “my family right or wrong,” blood-is-thicker-than-water option. But what I want you to know is that while Sarah is looking out for the interests of her own son, God is busy with Abraham proving that there is something greater yet than family or nation or even church, something more enduring than these relationships and institutions we rightly cherish. That something greater is the faithfulness of God and the gift of grace that allows us to have the faith necessary to recognize God working in our midst. Let me say that again: even greater than the blessing of family is the faithfulness of God, and the grace that allows us to have the faith we need to recognize God working in our midst. Truly, grace and faith are thicker than any blood we can find. Amen.