A sermon on Genesis 21:8-21 preached at First Presbyterian Church PC(USA); Starkville, MS, June 2017.
Sometimes Scripture readings are followed by a certain call and response: the reader might say “This is the word of the Lord,” and the listeners would respond, “Thanks be to God.” Every now and then, a text comes along that makes me feel like there maybe should be a question mark at the end of those statements. “This is the word of the Lord?” Hagar’s story is one of those. She’s a slave woman who has been forced into motherhood, only to be cast out into the wilderness with little more than some water and a snack. And God tells Abraham to do it! Thanks be to God? Question mark after question mark, but here we are, with a story of wandering in the wilderness.
Before we get to this morning’s part of the narrative, God has made a covenant with Abraham, promising that he will flourish in land and offspring, becoming a great name. God makes these promises even as Abraham and Sarah are advanced in years and have been unable to conceive children on their own. But, Abraham ends up with two sons. Ishmael, his firstborn, conceived by the handmaid Hagar, as Sarah’s attempt to make sure the covenant would be fulfilled regardless of her own barrenness. Years later Sarah gives birth to Isaac, seemingly impossibly, after a visit from angels of the Lord. Where we pick up the story today, Isaac is about three, and playing with Ishmael at a family celebration. Sarah notices the two boys together, and she gets nervous. That flicker of nerves turns into fear for her son’s future, which manifests as a harsh rejection of Hagar and Ishmael. “Cast out this slave woman and her son,” she orders Abraham. “…the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” She doesn’t even say Hagar’s name. Jealousy and fear can do funny things to people. Abraham hesitates to follow Sarah’s request, but ultimately, after God tells him to, he obliges. It won’t be until later in Genesis that Abraham tries to sacrifice Isaac, but this story might as well be called the sacrifice of Ishmael.1 There is no logical way Hagar and Ishmael would survive this rejection. Families are messy. Being human is messy. And sometimes, so is following God.
I wish I could say that someone being cast out to wander the wilderness is a thing of the past, but unfortunately Hagar’s plight is something a lot of people can relate to on a pretty literal level. Just this past week, many people observed World Refugee Day. As the UN describes, “On World Refugee Day. . .we commemorate the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees.”2
Whatever the reason — political, religious, personal identity — there are all too many people left to risk their lives, and often the lives of their children, in search of safety.
The strength, courage and perseverance of Hagar and Ishmael are worth remembering too. Here they are, wandering in the wilderness facing death by dehydration. When the water runs out, Hagar can’t bear the thought of seeing her son die. Perhaps too weak to walk himself, Ishmael is set by a nearby bush as Hagar cries out, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And she weeps. I can only imagine the kind of bone-shaking sobs this moment would have evoked in her. At this point she’s so desperate that she’s not even praying for survival. She just doesn’t want to have to see her kid die. All she wants is to be heard by God.
Here’s another story of someone who wanted to be heard, as told online by Kids Hope USA, a children’s mentor program that began in Holland, Michigan.
“She was eight. And she was invisible. At least that’s how Sam felt most days. She would stand alone on the playground. She would sit unnoticed in the classroom. At home, things were hard. Grandpa had died [and] a new baby was on the way. She felt like she was being left behind. Like no one could see her…and worse, that no one really tried.
“But then Kim, Sam’s…mentor, came into her life. Kim called her by name. She looked in her eyes. She listened, uninterrupted, to Sam’s voice, and Kim saw her in a way Sam thought no one had ever seen her before.
“In Sam, Kim saw a unique heart and creative spirit. A fun kid, undiscovered by her peers. A bright mind, overlooked in the everyday hubbub. A timid child, unaware of her importance. And through Kim’s eyes, Sam began to see herself too. Kim’s encouragement gave Sam confidence to step out and take a chance. Her reassurance freed Sam to be herself. Her time and her presence and her caring shined light into Sam’s soul…and the sense of invisibility began to disappear.
“Kim showed up every week. She called her ‘Sam,’ and she brought her black licorice jelly beans, because she knew they were her favorite. And for the first time, Sam felt important. She felt special and valued…[because] she had found hope in someone who knew her name.”3
In the midst of Hagar’s anguish the angel of God calls to her by name — “What troubles you, Hagar?” Now if we’re being honest here I can imagine a bit of a sarcastic first response from Hagar. “Seriously, angel of the Lord? What troubles me? Can you not see me right now?”
But, the angel goes on, “Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy…” God promises, “I will make a great nation of him.” And God does. It can be easy for us to focus on Abraham and Sarah, remembering the tales we hear of Isaac, since it is through Isaac that Christians believe God’s covenant with Abraham was fulfilled. But Hagar and Ishmael are no minor diversions.4 In fact today the world is filled with nearly a billion of Ishmael’s spiritual descendants — our sisters and brothers who claim Islam as their faith. Early biographies of the prophet Muhammad trace his lineage through Ishmael, all the way back to Noah and Adam.5 Hagar’s search for water in the wilderness is also an important part of the hajj — the pilgrimage to Mecca that for more than 1400 years each Muslim has been called to complete. Pilgrims run between two small hills, recalling Hagar’s frantic search for water to save her son. While our Scriptures tell us relatively simply that God opened Hagar’s eyes to a well of water, Muslim tradition describes Ishmael kicking his heels into the sand, miraculously making a spring appear. This spring still exists today, and its water often serves as souvenirs for pilgrims who have completed the hajj.6
While our sacred stories may vary, followers of Judaism and subsequent Christianity trace our lineage back to Abraham too, through the covenant fulfilled in Isaac. Family drama and all, we’re related. There’s a children’s song about Abraham that some of you may know — I learned it at camp, but I’m sure it makes its way around some congregational settings too. Father Abraham, had many sons. Many sons had father Abraham, I am one of them, and so are you, so let’s praise the Lord. What typically follows is a lot of arm waving and foot stomping and tongue sticking outing that I won’t subject you to, but suffice it to say these simple words are a good reminder. We’re family. And we don’t have to be exactly the same to be together.
In 2006 in Omaha, Nebraska, a rabbi, a reverend, and an imam joined together to form the Tri-Faith Initiative. Rabbi Emeritus Aryeh Azriel says “the idea was born out of the tragedies of 9/11, when fear was at its highest level and he and some congregants went to defend a local mosque from vandalism.” The $65 million Tri-Faith project sits on 35 acres of former golf course. Currently the land includes Temple Israel’s synagogue, and a mosque called the American Muslim Institute. Late 2018 should bring the completion of a new worship space for Countryside Community Church, and in 2019 the Tri-Faith Center will be built, featuring classrooms and other space for interfaith activities. Rev. Eric Elnes of Countryside Community Church remarks, “One would think if it can happen in Omaha, it can happen pretty much everywhere, couldn’t it?”7
W. Sibley Towner writes, “there are other people out here who are a lot like us…Their self-understanding and their history are not the same as ours, but we have the shared experience of being spiritual children of Abraham who are bound by covenant allegiance to the same Lord.”8
Today’s Scripture starts off with a raw example of family conflict. Sarah’s drive to ensure her son Isaac’s inheritance maybe gets the best of her. She loves her son, but in living that out, Abraham is led to sacrifice his love for another son. How often does fear lead us to be Sarahs? Whether it’s intentional or not, how often do we get territorial about things to which we think we’re entitled? How often do we assume there couldn’t possibly be enough to go around, and decide the only thing to do is look out for ourselves? Maybe our actions aren’t always quite as extreme as Sarah’s, but I bet we’ve all been there. At some point or another, in some way or another, we’ve been there.
Hagar, on the other hand, goes from one hardship to another — she’d been living as a slave, after all. Having little to no agency of their own, Hagar and Ishmael fall victim to their position on the social ladder. And she was an outsider to begin with — an Egyptian living among Israelites. Even so, there’s no escaping the pain in this separation, the unknown future these two people faced in being rejected from the place and people they had known for years. The sinking dread they must have felt in being sent out to face almost certain death. Again I’d venture a guess that, even if not to this degree, we have all felt rejected before. I’d venture a guess that each of us has fearfully faced an unknown future, separated from people we once thought we knew.
The way and reasons for which God guided Sarah and Abraham in this story might still be a bit of a mystery. Unfortunately I don’t think this text is one made for easy explanations. But it’s not up to us to limit the mercy of God.
Sisters and brothers, here we are. And we don’t have to be the same to be here together. This story reminds us that, as Ronald J. Allen puts it, “diversity within the family of God is divinely ordained.”9
Wherever we worship, whatever mistakes me make or whatever rejection is inflicted upon us, we are children of God, mess and all. We still have work to do. But luckily for us, in the words of Terence Fretheim “God chooses to work through complex situations and imperfect human beings…God does not perfect people before deciding to work through them.”10
When it comes down to it, smack dab in the middle of all that it is to be human, still God is faithful. Praise the Lord for that.
- Kathryn M. Schifferdecker on Working Preacher.
- Read more on the UN website here.
- See this and other stories on the Kids Hope USA website here.
- Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis,” New Interpreter’s Bible vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), p. 488.
- Daniel W. Brown, A New Introduction to Islam (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009
Jamal J. Elias, Islam (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999), 71-72.
- See the CNN story here.
W. Sibley Towner, Genesis (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).
Feasting on the Word Year A Additional Essays (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 4.