Genesis 21:8-21; Matthew 10:40-42
One of the things I love about super hero movies, is that it is so very clear who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. There’s so little ambiguity in superhero movies that it makes them fun because you know who to cheer for; you know who will win in the end; it’s so much simpler than real life.
When we were young and were taught the Bible stories in Sunday School, that is often how they were portrayed then too— after all, kids’ brains don’t learn to develop abstract thoughts until later, so we learned about David defeating Goliath; Noah saving the animals on the ark; and so on and so forth. But when we read these stories as adults, it is obvious that they are much more complex. For any of you who didn’t grow up in the church, I actually think you have an advantage in many ways of hearing and reading Scripture more accurately because you don’t come to the text with the simplistic versions of the stories.
Take this morning’s story. This is not a story we often read in church or talk about it anywhere. Abraham and Sarah are the usual heroes— they are the ones God chose to be God’s people. It is Abraham who sat out at night, counting the stars because God told him that his ancestors would number more than the stars in the sky. It is Sarah who laughed when the angels told her that she would have a child— after all, in her 90’s, she had now spent more of her life knowing she wouldn’t have children than she had praying that she would. These are the ones we lift up as heroes of our faith— Abraham and Sarah and their son Isaac whose name means “laughter” and who became the father and mother of the Jewish faith and of the Christian faith many years later.
But like all human stories, theirs is a bit more complicated than that. Because Sarah didn’t trust that God would give her a son. Understandably, she thought maybe Abraham had had a bit too much moonshine that night God spoke to him, and that she would help things along by making sure that Abraham had a son with her slave, Hagar. And so Ishmael is born. Ishmael, who for a short while has all of the hopes of Abraham and Sarah resting on his shoulders; until indeed Sarah does become pregnant and gives birth to Isaac— the one who will carry on the line of God’s people and yet, disturbingly to Sarah, is now the second born— not the one who will inherit everything.
And so, on a day that was supposed to be a celebration— even as they are having a party for Isaac and rejoicing that he is a healthy child— Sarah finds herself gazing at Ishmael and wishing he was not in the picture; regretting what she has done; angry at the patriarch that has made her feel less than for having the second son and doing the only safe thing to do— which is to lash out at the woman who has no status; no voice; no power.
We are introduced to Hagar not as the hero of her own story, but as the scapegoat of someone else’s story. A woman who has been used for her ability to have a son in the first place, and then thrown out precisely because there is no masked villain to fight against. Sarah has altered God’s plan; and she is so filled with rage about it, that instead of choosing now to turn to God, she makes the very same mistake by taking matters into her own hands and channels her anger, her desperation, and her fear towards the one who cannot fight back— Hagar.
But lest you are tempted to see Hagar as merely a victim— to reduce her, as Sarah reduces her, to being less than a full person with her own dignity and grace, the writer of Genesis won’t let you get away with it. Hagar, the one who ironically is “freed” from slavery by Abraham to fend for herself and her son in the desert, is never left alone by God. I’m not going to stand before you and defend God’s actions of letting her be sent away— I can’t pretend to understand why God sided with Sarah this time; but this is Hagar’s second time being in the wilderness with her son; the second time that God comes to her in the wilderness; the second time that she has the faith to call out to God in her despair— to call out to a foreign God, remember, because she is Egyptian— and God hears her cry. The first time Hagar is in the desert she actually names God as “El Roi” — the one who sees her. This is a big deal in the ancient world, for if you name something, it is yours. She is one of the few people in Scripture who names God, claims God as her own, and she is outside of the covenant God makes with Abraham.
Do you see what’s happening here? God chooses Abraham and Sarah to be the ancestors of God’s chosen people— and yet, even as God is creating a covenant with them, God is also fulfilling God’s promises to those outside of the covenant. Already thousands of years before Jesus begins to break down who is in and who is out, God is revealing God’s true self. God is already sharing God’s blessing with those on the outside— the slaves; the marginalized; those dying in the desert. God hears Ishmael’s cries (which is a pun since Ishmael’s name means “God hears”) and God tells Hagar not to be afraid; that God will make of Ishmael a great nation— the same promise given to Isaac— and it is in that moment of blessing that Hagar is able to open her eyes and see a well nearby and know that she and her son will live.
Without Hagar’s story of determination to survive; of courage to call out to God; of faithfulness to believe that God will hear her cries, we might be tempted to believe that God’s blessing only falls on the chosen. Instead, we have this incredible story with very real people and how it is that God chooses to bless them all, though in different ways, in order for God’s promises to be fulfilled.
As Christians, it is important that we sit up and take note of this story. We trace our faith ancestors through Isaac to Abraham— connecting ourselves with God’s promise because we have been adopted into the faith through Christ. The Jewish people trace their faith ancestry directly to Abraham through Isaac. And our Muslim brothers and sisters trace their ancestry back to Abraham as well— through Ishmael— the one God chose to bless.
God will make a way. When we refuse to listen and take matters into our own hands, God will make a way. When we begin to doubt and hurl insults at each other, God will make a way. When we are caught up in systems of abuse that we can’t seem to shake, God will make a way.
For us as Christians, Christ shows us the way— the way of forgiveness, the way of peace, the way of self surrender which could’ve changed this story dramatically. If Sarah had been able to find healing instead of hatred; had listened to the love of God in her life choosing her, and had been able to treat Hagar differently out of her own sense of worth as a child of God, how differently this story may have ended.
In Matthew Jesus says that everybody who gives even a cup of cold water to one of his followers will certainly be rewarded. And so I leave you with the good news that God will make a way when there is no way— that nothing is impossible with God even when we screw it up royally. And I will also leave you with a question: what situation in your life is being amped up because you are your own villain? Who in your life needs a cup of water in the desert of their lives, needs a kind word or a sign of forgiveness, that you can offer so that God can show them water in the desert? What kind of hero will you be so that someone can know that God will fulfill God’s promises to them?