This is a version of the sermon I preached for worship at BBUMC for Sunday, June 28, 2020, the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost. This is part of a summer-long series of sermons from the Book of Genesis, often using texts from the Revised Common Lectionary (but likely a week behind the actual lectionary).
This sermon is based on Genesis 21:8-21.
Today, we’re continuing in our summer series through Genesis. Genesis is, as the book name suggests, an origin story. Like any origin story – like in comic books or sci-fi films – Genesis reminds us of who we are, whose we are, and how were called to be, so that, in the present, we can live more fully into our identity as God’s people. God inspired the writers, collectors, and translators, as well as us as readers, of Genesis so that we’d know God and ourselves better.
Most of the time, we think about this section of Genesis as the story about Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. We remember them and their family as as the visual fulfillment of God’s promise to bless them so that they can be a blessing to all creation. But in today’s passage, the central person is Hagar, so let’s first consider her story by reading between the lines of Genesis 12-21.
In a moment of desperation, Sarah thrust Hagar, her Egyptian slave girl, into the bed of her husband Abraham, hoping to create God’s blessing since they were getting quite old (Sarah was 76 and Abraham 86). Critiquing this biblical marriage that flies in the face of our customs isn’t necessary today. Hagar didn’t have a choice in the matter. She was a slave, acquired when Abraham and Sarah had lied to the Pharaoh (Gen 12:10-20). She had no say, no freedom. Her back was up against the wall. And, as she did what she was told with Abraham, she likely prayed for a son, because a son might give her a little bit of security – she’d be the mother of the patriarch’s son.
Hagar did get pregnant, but it was far from freeing. As you might expect, Hagar’s pregnancy only made Sarah angrier – perhaps she felt useless, or, after suffering another disgrace from Abraham, perhaps she feared she’d be replaced. Sarah treated Hagar so badly that Hagar ran away into the desert (Gen 16). Near a spring, the Lord’s messenger came to Hagar, assuring her that God, the God of Abraham and Sarah, had heard her cries. God assured her that God had heard her cries and promised to bless her with offspring who had something she didn’t: freedom. And that day, Hagar did what no one else in scripture has done: she named God El Roi – “God who hears, or God who sees” (v. 13).
So Hagar returned to Sarah and Abraham and gave birth to a son, whom she named Ishmael, which means, “God hears.” Ishmael would always be a sign to her that God is not just El Shaddai – God Almighty – as God called Godself to Abraham (Gen 17:1). To her, God was especially El Roi, the God who hears and sees the cries of the outcast.
Years passed, and eventually God made the seemingly impossible happen: Sarah gave birth to Isaac. Ishmael was fourteen when Isaac was weaned, and on that day, Sarah’s anger and fear erupted again. She cast out Hagar. Perhaps Sarah feared that Ishmael was a threat to Isaac’s future inheritance. Or, perhaps Sarah couldn’t stand to see Ishmael laughing and playing. She was the one who laughed; her laughter mattered most to her. And so, again, Hagar encounters God in the midst the wilderness. Again, God hears the cries of the outcast, assuring Hagar that, while Ishmael won’t inherit from Abraham, he will nonetheless be blessed by God. God hears Hagar’s cries and gives her courage to walk faithfully with God into the unknown.
Of course, there is always more to the story, other angles to pursue, but today I’m drawn to Hagar. I wonder, in what ways do we see Hagar in our midst? Perhaps some of us can relate in some ways to Hagar’s story. Have we suffered. Have we been mistreated in ways that made us feel like we’re cast out from those we thought cared for us? Unfortunately, we may know too well the feelings of fear, uncertainty, and loneliness that Hagar felt.
In those moments, we are heartbroken, crying out to God, praying and hoping that God truly is, as Hagar said, “God who hears and sees.” And if we’re in those experiences, surely God is God who hears and sees, encouraging us to walk faithfully with God through the struggles of life. We sing of such faith weekly, as in our songs today, that it is so sweet to trust in Jesus, and praising God who is our refuge and strength in every time of trouble. God truly sees and hears us, giving us courage to walk faithfully with God.
However, it lets me off to easily to say simply that I am like Hagar, cast out and struggling. Quite frankly, I don’t feel like Hagar. Perhaps many of us don’t. And if that’s the case, then God is stirring up something else in the midst of this story of origins. And this is admittedly uncomfortable, because if we’re not like Hagar in the origin story here, then the other options are that we’re like either Sarah or Abraham. So let’s turn to them briefly, with questions more than accusations.
Sarah effectively cast out Hagar twice, likely out of a mixture of fear and jealousy. Perhaps she was afraid and jealous of the special treatment Hagar might receive if she continued in their household. She was, after all, the mother of Abraham’s firstborn child. That’s a special thing. And, likely she was also afraid of the loss of power and prestige that having a rival heir in the household might create. As readers of Genesis, we know, like with Cain and Able, that sibling rivalries can have devastating consequences.
If that’s Sarah’s story, then how might we be like Sarah?
- How have we fed the jealousy and fear of our hearts?
- How have we feared that someone we think is inferior to us might receive something we think is our right to possess?
- How have we effectively built walls, in our hearts, our communities, or elsewhere, just to keep people out, to ensure that we have and they have-not?
Building on those questions, let’s think about Abraham. If he’s supposed to be the hero of the story – a big if – he’s a pretty poor example. Each time the family dysfunction rises, he basically watches without action. In Genesis 16, he basically tells Sarah, “Do with Hagar what you want. She’s your slave” (v. 6) And in today’s passage, while he’s brokenhearted at Hagar being cast out, he does nothing to stop it. Of course, we could give him a pass because God explicitly tells him essentially, “Don’t worry about Ishmael. I’ll bless him too” (Gen 21:12). But still, do we really think well of him for packing up Hagar and Ishmael and shipping them off into the unknown?
And so, we have to ask, how are we like Abraham?
- How do we receive the cries of protest and anguish of others with deaf ears?
- Are there people crying out in our lives or the world with anguish, longing for justice, that we are unwilling to hear?
- Have we made our figurative care packages of “thoughts and prayers,” and patted our crying neighbors on the backs, while turning away, assuring them that God will take care of them without concern for how?
The stories of Genesis are our origin stories – the stories of who we are as God’s people. But today, let us be mindful that we may not always be the heroes and heroines of the story. Let us also be mindful that Genesis is not just the origin story of us as God’s people, but more so, that Genesis is the origin of story of God revealing Godself to a people prone to forget who they are. God is God who hears, God who sees. God is not just our refuge, but refuge of those who are cast out. May we be a people shaped by God who sees and hears. May we be a people through whose actions, those who cry out, those who are cast out, experience the God who sees. For God gives us courage to walk faithfully with those who are cast out.
- One way of reading scripture is to ask, “How do I see myself in this passage?” or “With what person/character do I relate?” With whom in the story do you most relate: Hagar, Ishmael, Isaac, Sarah, Abraham, God?
- This telling of the sermon, admittedly, emphasizes Sarah and Abraham’s shortcomings, failures, or sin. Do you find this to be a fair reading of this particular passage? Do you interpret their actions in ways that are different than this sermon?
- If the summaries of Abraham and Sarah’s actions are acceptable and accurate to you, what do you think about the questions I asked of myself and us regarding how I/we relate to Abraham and Sarah? What things do I miss?
- There are subtle references to contemporary social events in the United States in the questions I ask about relating to Abraham and Sarah. How does thinking about Abraham and Sarah’s treatment of Hagar influence how you think about current events?
- The sermon does not expound more on who in our families, communities, nation, and world might relate especially to Hagar and Ishmael. Honestly, who in our world is crying out for justice, fairness, and an equal place at the table?
- Seriously, there are Hagar stories in our midst. This sermon only barely scratches the surface on what our response as Christians should or could be toward the Hagar-figures in our lives. Who does God call us to be in relation to Hagar-figures? How can you live into that calling this week?