St. John's, Centreville
June 25, 2017
Proper 7 A
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Last Sunday, we heard the Old Testament story of Abraham and Sarah having a son Isaac in their old age, as promised to them by God. God had told Abraham that he would have as many descendants as the stars in the sky.
But what the lectionary skips over is what happened before Sarah gave birth to Isaac. As she was already up there is years, we might say, and was past child bearing years, and seemed not to be able to have children, Sarah gave her Egyptian slave girl Hagar to Abraham in order to bear him a son. In this culture, surrogate motherhood was an accepted practice, and the offspring would be considered Sarah's. So Hagar and Abraham had a son named Ishmael, to whom God had also promised many descendants.
But then, as God has promised, Sarah does get pregnant and bears a son named Isaac. Now that Sarah has her own son, she wants nothing to do with Hagar and Ishmael. She wants nothing to interfere with her son Isaac being Abraham's sole heir. Sarah insists that Abraham send them away, out into the desert, a certain death sentence for a woman and a young boy. Abraham does not want to do this but God tells him to listen to Sarah and send them away. God promises that Ishmael will also have many descendants.
So Hagar and Ishmael are cast out, with only some bread and water, out into the wilderness of Beer-Sheba. When they run out of the bread and water, Hagar feels totally abandoned, and cannot bear to watch her son die. She cries out to God and an angel answers her. "Do not be afraid, for God has heard the voice of the boy." When she opens her eyes, she sees a well of water. And God was with the boy as he grew up and had many descendants.
I don't know about you, but for me there are some hard parts to swallow in this story. Hagar is the property of Sarah and she has obeyed Sarah who gives her to Abraham so that he can have a son, an heir. When Hagar conceives, another story left out of the Sunday readings, Sarah thinks that Hagar is looking at her with contempt and treats her so harshly that Hagar runs away. But God tells her to return to Sarah, which she does. Hagar has done everything she has been asked to do.
Then when Sarah gives birth to her own son, Sarah wants to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Abraham objects, but God tells him to listen to Sarah! God is on the side of sending Hagar and Ishmael to their deaths in the desert?? How can that be? How could a loving God do that? How can God condone this self-centeredness and injustice? There are no clear answers. But God promises that God will look out for them and God rescues them from certain death.
So what are we supposed to take away from this story? One thing is that no matter what awful circumstances we are in, God hears us. Whether we are facing injustice or unfairness or grief or helplessness, God hears us.
Often times when we are in desperate situations, we close our eyes and ears and hearts to anything going on around us and we focus only on what is happening to us. We then don't see what God is showing us, what God is doing in us and for us. We insulate ourselves from God's presence.
When we are wandering by ourselves in the desert, like Hagar and Ishmael, we feel deserted and abandoned. How could God allow this to happen to me if God really loved me? If God was really with me, this wouldn't be happening to me. If God really knew me, God would know that I can't take this much pain. If God loved me, God wouldn't let me suffer. How can I believe in the resurrection when all I see is death all around me?
I think in times like this, God calls us to look beyond ourselves, to see God working in and through our lives, no matter what situation we are in. And that is not always easy. It is not easy to take ourselves out of the center and focus on God rather than ourselves, particularly when we are suffering.
We don't have all the answers as to why we have to suffer in this world. We don't have the answers to the question "why me?" We don't know why innocent children die from starvation or war or violence. We don't have the answers to many questions.
But what we do know is that God loves us so much that God sent his Son to live and die for us. And the God who loves us hears our cries, hears our laments, like he heard the cries of Hagar. And the God who hears us sees us, not from a distance, but from inside us, being fully present with us.
The fact that God is with us may not change the outcome of a situation. A beloved member of our family may still die, even though God understands our pain. Our cancer may still return even though God is with us. We live in a world that is filled with uncertainty and disease and pain and death. But we can live in this kind of world BECAUSE we know that God is with us, loves us, and will give us strength to endure, until God calls us home.
And through all that some of us have had to go through, pain or suffering that has stretched us to our very limits, we can still have joy and love and peace and see the beauty of this world because of God's love for us. It is God's strength, God's love, God's presence that gives us the strength we need to endure our crosses.
God redeemed Hagar, as God redeems us. God redeems those who feel abandoned and deserted, and those on the margins of society, but God needs us to do our part. God redeems those who are neglected and calls on us to join God's work of redemption. We can't sit idlely by as those who most need our help are ignored, marginalized and neglected. We need to do our part to love the lonely, feed the hungry, house the homeless, provide health care for the sick, all because of our love for God.
We are called by this story of Hagar and Ishmael to join God's work of love and redemption, which moves us from death to life and from slaves to children of God. Amen.