Hagar Among US

02 Aug Hagar Among US

Hagar Among Us
Genesis 21:8-21
August 2, 2020
Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church

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“Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat … Loneliness is the most terrible poverty.”  Those words, spoken by Mother Teresa, are a fitting introduction to today’s text which tells the story of a mother who is alone and unwanted, with no food, no water, and a son who’s dying under a blazing hot desert sun.

Mothers and fathers know what it is to worry about their children, no matter the age of that son or daughter.  Parental concern is a dynamic that cuts across all the usual boundaries people erect between themselves.  Parents from West and East, North and South, from tycoon to peasant, from the well-educated to the illiterate—parents of all stripes want their children to be healthy, to have adequate food and shelter, to be good citizens, to have loving and supportive relationships. 

This is where today’s text starts to come into focus because it tells the story of a particular parent, a mother, who is gripped with love and concern for her son.   Yet, parental apprehension for Ishmael is not the only emotion that drives the story of Hagar and Sarah in Genesis 21.  At first glance it’s pretty easy for those of us with modern sensibilities to view Sarah’s actions as harsh and Hagar’s plight to be a grave injustice.  But the writer of Genesis doesn’t seem to see it that way.

By the time we get to chapter 21, we already know that Isaac, Abraham’s son through Sarah, is going to be the child through whom God’s covenant promise will be realized.  Sarah, of course, had impatiently tried to circumvent the process by having Abraham sleep with Hagar, her Egyptian slave girl, in hopes of finally having an heir.

When Hagar conceived, though, the slave girl treated her mistress “with contempt” (16:4).  Which was a big mistake.  Even though Hagar was a slave and a subordinate wife to Abraham, her pregnancy gave her status over Sarah in her childlessness.  Reacting to Hagar’s contempt, Sarah treats Hagar harshly which leads Hagar to run away into the desert.  She returns only after God has makes a covenant with her about her son.  The anxiety level is sky high, but the writer seems to understand that both women want to do right by their children (16:5-15).

When Isaac is finally born, the conflict between the mothers reaches its climax.  Sarah wants no competition for her son’s rightful inheritance, and Abraham cannot bring himself to disagree.  Though Ishmael is, indeed, the firstborn son of Abraham, the preferential order of rank is given to the firstborn son of the primary wife (21:10-11).  Sarah’s demand that Hagar be “cast out” is distressing to Abraham, but God reminds him that this is part of the covenant plan (v. 12). God will fulfill a covenant through Ishmael as well, making “a nation of him also” (v. 13).  This scene reminds us of many things, not the least of which is that God’s all-embracing and inclusive love is beyond our comprehension.  When we think we understand God, God does the unexpected.  Yes, through Isaac, the Abrahamic covenant will be fulfilled; but God has business with Hagar and Ishmael as well, and as we’ve seen throughout Genesis, God keeps God’s promises.  “God was with the boy, and he grew up” (v. 20).

Still, we can’t help but feel the pain of this story.  As Sarah’s home goes from empty to full, from barrenness to abundance, from tears to laughter, Hagar’s home has been ripped from her grasp and her fate given over to the harsh aloneness of exile in the desert.

Walking the desert with her son, Hagar is the one we see when we watch news reports of refugee mothers fleeing war-torn countries while clutching their frightened children.  We see Hagar when we pass by single mothers trying to eke out a living and raise their children in the violence of the inner city, or when we hear the story of a young and pregnant runaway lost and alone.  We feel for her because we know the stories of women who have to raise their children in a world that, regardless of its prosperity, still does not know how to care for the widow, the orphan, the outcast, and people on the margins.

But while we turn our heads, turn the page, or change the channel to distract ourselves, Genesis wants us to know clearly that God never forgets a mother’s love.

Hagar wandered the desert with her son, no doubt rationing the water that was left and giving most if not all of it to her child (v. 15). When it was all gone, she laid him under a bush, hoping for just a little shade, a little comfort before he succumbed to thirst.  She separated herself “a good way off” from the boy because she could not bear to watch him die, could not stand to hear him calling for her when she had nothing to give him.  The last of the water left in her own body was given over to her tears of grief (v. 16).

If Scripture tells us anything, though, it is that God always, always hears the cries of the outcast.  “God heard the voice of the boy” says Genesis, and God’s messenger speaks to Hagar. “Do not be afraid … come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him” (vv. 17-18). God then puts a well of water in the middle of a desert and puts hope for abundance in the midst of Hagar’s desperate circumstances.  The boy and his mother are revived, and God’s promises are kept.

There are a number of different ways we are invited to step into this story.  One of the most obvious, I think, has to do with awareness.  The reality is that there are Hagars walking down our streets every day, clutching children on their shoulders or by the hand, and wondering how they will take what’s in the pantry and eke out one more meal, or wring one more trip out of what’s left in the gas tank or squeeze the last drop of hope to give their children a better future.  They are standing waiting at the bus stop at the edge of Calvary’s lawn; they are in line behind you at the grocery store.   Their needs and the razor-thin edge on which they live have been exacerbated, of course, over the past six months by COVID-19 with so many parents thrown out of work or trying to work while their childcare has been severely disrupted.  

Particularly for those of us who do not occupy the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder, the Hagar story asks us to be as aware and attentive to the plight of the poor and marginalized as we have recently become more aware and attentive to the experiences of racial minorities.  Poverty is as systemic as is racial injustice.  It surrounds us.  It is literally everywhere; yet, we so seldom actually see it and its effects.  Far too often, our blindness leads us to blame the victims of poverty, just as we have blamed the victims of racial discrimination.  Hagar’s eyes were opened to the presence of a well in the desert.  Some of us need to have our eyes opened to the desert that is poverty and the people in it.

 The story also invites us to live in hope for God’s promised provision.  As I mentioned at the outset, this is not Hagar’s first foray into the wilderness, and it is also not her first encounter with an angel of the Lord speaking as God’s messenger.  When Hagar first runs into the desert in chapter 16, God meets her there and makes a promise to her about a covenant that God will enact with her son.  In chapter 21 Hagar is in such despair that she seems to have forgotten all about God’s covenant with Ishmael.  She needs to be reminded, as we all do, that God always keeps God’s promises.

I will be honest with you:  I am not a great fan of the desert.  I seldom go there willingly because in my experience, the desert is a dark, lonely, painful place—necessary, at times, but painful all the same.  But, like Hagar, we discover that the desert is also a place of promise and beauty.  A place where God’s word comes to us full of life and hope.  It is a place where we grow and learn—about ourselves, about God, and about what faith really is.  It is also a place where, for all its loneliness, we are never truly alone, because one of God’s favorite hangouts seems to be the desert.

 I am struck by the angel’s question to Hagar.  I find it to be both poignant and profound: “What’s troubling you, Hagar?”  Doesn’t the answer seem obvious?  “Well, for starters, dear Angel, we’ve been kicked out of our home and my son’s father has abandoned us.  We’re out in the desert without any water, and I can’t bear to watch my son literally die of thirst.”  Hagar doesn’t have the chance to say any of that, because the angel’s question is immediately followed with words that angels say a lot in scripture: “Do not be afraid.”  Then the angel goes on to say, “God has heard the voice of your son.”  

There is plenty that is troubling us, is there not?  We are quite adept at making a long list for God of all the concerns and wrongs and problems that need God’s attention, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  The angel’s question invites us to name our worries, our complaints, our struggles, to tell God what is burden-ing our hearts.  But Hagar’s story reminds us that God already knows what is troubling us and in fact, is already ahead of us, working in our lives and in our world in ways that lead to redemption, health and wholeness for all people.  Because of God’s actions and promises, we have nothing to fear.  But it can be hard to see God’s activity sometimes—as hard as seeing a well in the desert.

Still, God hears us, just as God heard Hagar and just as God hears all the Hagars who are living and working and walking among us.  The question is, are we listening to the hurts and needs that surround us?  How are we, as Christ’s church, responding to the Hagars of our community?  As the gospel of John will tell us, Jesus Christ offers us living water by offering us himself.  As we drink from that never-ending well, let us recognize that we, as Christ’s body, are the well God has placed in the desert where those who need it can find comfort and refuge.  “Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody—friends, we exist to ensure that no one suffering the poverty of loneliness.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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