Sermon preached for the Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
The boy grew and stopped nursing. On the day he stopped nursing, Abraham prepared a huge banquet. Sarah saw Hagar’s son laughing, the one Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham. So she said to Abraham, “Send this servant away with her son! This servant’s son won’t share the inheritance with my son Isaac.”
This upset Abraham terribly because the boy was his son. God said to Abraham, “Don’t be upset about the boy and your servant. Do everything Sarah tells you to do because your descendants will be traced through Isaac. But I will make of your servant’s son a great nation too, because he is also your descendant.” Abraham got up early in the morning, took some bread and a flask of water, and gave it to Hagar. He put the boy in her shoulder sling and sent her away.
She left and wandered through the desert near Beer-sheba. Finally the water in the flask ran out, and she put the boy down under one of the desert shrubs. She walked away from him about as far as a bow shot and sat down, telling herself, I can’t bear to see the boy die. She sat at a distance, cried out in grief, and wept.
God heard the boy’s cries, and God’s messenger called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “Hagar! What’s wrong? Don’t be afraid. God has heard the boy’s cries over there. Get up, pick up the boy, and take him by the hand because I will make of him a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well. She went over, filled the water flask, and gave the boy a drink. God remained with the boy; he grew up, lived in the desert, and became an expert archer. He lived in the Paran desert, and his mother found him an Egyptian wife.
This is a painful story, and perhaps the most painful thing about it is it didn’t have to end this way.
It is, as one of my professors used to say, “a whole mess of ugly.”
We left Sarah and Abraham last week on a much more hopeful note, laughing with delight over their newborn son. But this week that same laughter goes sour. Because before Sarah and Abraham received the miracle of Isaac, they made some really terrible decisions.
Again, we have to go backwards a bit. Years ago, Abraham received a promise—that he would be the father of many descendants, the founder of an entire people. A people, God said, who would be blessed to be a blessing to all nations.
But Abraham, like many of us, had selective hearing. He didn’t quite get the part about his role being blessing others. He only heard the part about getting blessed himself.
And so he set about chasing that blessing, impatient when God took too long. He and Sarah decided to cheat their way to God’s blessing, forcing their slave Hagar into surrogacy. Hagar has a son, Ishmael, which means “God will hear.” And God will.
Satisfied that the ends justify the means, Abraham and Sarah lean back to receive their blessing. But when it comes, it’s not with more wealth or power (although they have plenty already), or even lots of grandchildren through Ishmael, but through a child of their own, Isaac. God sticks to God’s plan, even though Abraham and Sarah didn’t.
For a few years, Abraham and Sarah hedge their bets, keeping Hagar and Ishmael around until Isaac is weaned, around age 3. In a world of high infant mortality, it only makes sense.
But as they grow more confident that God’s blessing is going to stick, the reminder that they once tried to cheat their way to it grows more and more troubling. Ishmael is the living proof of their unfaithfulness.
Now, humans are unfaithful. We get it wrong all the time. God knows that. I think God even expects that. And so God provides a way for us to come back from that, to turn around and get back on the path.
It’s called repentance. It’s that thing we do every week when we confess our sins.
That should have been Abraham and Sarah’s next step. But it isn’t.
Because they think they’re blessed. They think they’re God’s favorites. They think they’re special.
And special people don’t need to repent.
So instead of recognizing what they’ve done wrong, they turn their anger outward, as so many do. Sarah hears Ishmael laughing as he plays with Isaac.
The Hebrew is ambiguous here. Sometimes translators say Ishmael was mocking Isaac, to try to give Sarah a leg to stand on in her next choice. I think that’s too charitable. All it says was that Ishmael laughed, like children do when they play with their younger siblings.
In fact, just a few verses ago Sarah exulted that everyone would laugh with her when the baby came. But apparently, everyone didn’t really mean everyone. It didn’t mean the son of a slavewoman. It didn’t mean Ishmael. He wasn’t a person to her. He was just a reminder of all those years of ridicule, when she couldn’t have a son and Hagar could.
Sarah lives in a patriarchal world—patriarchal in the most rigid, classical sense of the word. She may have the power and wealth of being Abraham’s wife, and now the status of being a mother, but she knows how precarious her position is. Twice—twice—in her life, Abraham has effectively sold her into slavery in order to save his own skin. Her safety and well-being relies entirely on his actions. And like many women in her situation, she has learned to play the game, learned how to survive. But it happens at the expense of others.
This is the problem with oppression, with relationships that rely on an imbalance of power—it trickles down.
A child who is bullied at school takes it out on his younger sibling. A boss takes out her frustration with management on her employees. And Sarah takes out her years of fear and frustration on Hagar.
She doesn’t even have the power to send her own slave away. She has to ask Abraham to do it for her. She owns Hagar, but Abraham owns her.
Abraham hesitates, not because he understands the cruelty in sending a slave out into the world with nothing, but because of his son Ishmael. A viable heir. Does he really want to give that up on the hope that Isaac makes it to adulthood?
This is the world Abraham and Sarah live in, constantly hedging their bets on the best way to preserve their privileges, get the most out of their blessings, keep their wealth, their power.
This is the point where God steps in, and reminds Abraham what he should have known all along—that God has enough blessing to go around. God isn’t a pie to be sliced up and divided. God is the baker, the maker, the one whose blessings never dry up. A people will be blessed through Isaac, God says, and another through Ishmael.
God tells Abraham to do what Sarah says, and it sounds cruel to my ears at first, God agreeing with Sarah that a woman and her child should be thrown out into the desert for no crime but their inconvenient existence. But here we see the first glimmer of the way God works—Sarah may think she’s casting her slavewoman out, but through God, she’s actually going to give her her freedom.
So Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael into the desert, with a little food and water—enough to ease his conscious, but not enough to keep them alive. And here we get what is one of the most painful scenes to me in scripture, perhaps in all of literature: Hagar, lost and wandering in the desert, runs out of water. She knows she is going to die. She knows her son is. And so she leaves him in the shade of a bush and sits a ways away, so that she won’t have to listen to him die.
And she weeps.
Because this is what it means to be at the bottom of the totem pole, and she knows it: she has been a pawn in a game for wealth, and now she has been cast aside. And she and her son will pay the price with the only currency they own—their lives.
Except her son is Ishmael. Her son’s name means “God will hear.”
And God does.
Ishmael cries out, and God hears.
Hears, and comes to Hagar. Comes to her just as he came to Abraham, to give her a similar message and a similar promise. Comes to make her the founder of a people.
Don’t be afraid, God says. There is life for you yet. You are blessed.
And God makes a well to appear in the desert, makes it so they can live, thrive, flourish there. Stays with them, as Hagar’s partner in raising Ishmael. God blesses them with a life in freedom, a life where they choose how to live, where to go, whom to marry.
God takes this whole mess of ugly, of pain and fear and cruelty, and brings something beautiful out of it—a whole other people, blessed to be a blessing.
This is our God—the one who redeems. The one who can make something beautiful out of something ugly. The one whose blessings are bigger than we expect—or even want.
God makes this work. But I have to wonder what would have happened if Sarah and Abraham had trusted God in the first place, or if they’d repented, or if they’d simply treated Hagar and Ishmael as people. What would have happened if God’s redemption had happened through them, and not in spite of them.
If they had remembered that they were blessed to be a blessing, not a curse.
We live in a world that is a whole mess of ugly. The week’s headlines prove that, not to mention the entirety of human history. And I do believe that God is working redemption in every place, even now, pulling freedom and hope and beauty out of the ashes. But I have also seen what happens when people of faith partner with God in that redemption, instead of pulling wildly in the other direction. I have seen what happens when people of faith choose to be a blessing, and it’s astonishing what we can get done.
God hears the cries of the outcast, and if we wish to be the body of God on earth, that is our task as well. So I wonder, who is it that we have left to die in the desert? Who is it that we have left to bleed by the roadside? Who is it that we have left to drown in a lifeboat? Who is it that we have left to starve under a bridge? Who is that we have condemned, because of cruelty or ignorance or fear that if they get a piece of the pie, we’ll get less? Who is it that we have strung up beside Christ on the cross, because we have forgotten that our blessings were never meant for us, but for others?
There is a stunning piece of art that shows Hagar and Sarah reconciled, running into each others’ arms as their boys play together. What would the world be now, I wonder, if Sarah had simply let her son play with the Egyptian boy? What would the world be now, if Hagar’s life had mattered to Sarah and Abraham, and not just to God?
We can’t know. But we can make a start on creating that world today.
The news is hard and painful. But remember: it doesn’t have to end this way. By God’s grace, it won’t.
For the courage to listen to cries of pain, the strength to repent where we have caused them, and the wisdom to work with God for the healing of the world, we pray. Amen.