Sunday, October 15, 2006

Today we will consider the point in Israel’s history when an Egyptian slave woman named Hagar experienced God’s grace. Our text for today enters the story partway through the saga, so a little background information is necessary. Back when Abraham was still Abram, God promised that he would be blessed with many descendants. But Abram and his wife, Sarai, were barren. They had no children, and so God’s promise seemed impossible. Sarai was tired of the impossible promise, and tired of the shame her culture heaped upon her for being childless. So she did what women of means could do in such a situation. She volunteered her slave, Hagar, to be a surrogate mother. Once Hagar conceived, Sarai detected contempt in the eyes of her slave. Abram took the hands-off approach to his quarreling wives, and told Sarai that Hagar was hers and she could do whatever she wanted. So Sarai was cruel to Hagar, and before long Hagar fled to the wilderness. There, by a spring of water, Hagar encountered an angel of the Lord. She received some good news and some bad news. She was to return to her unkind mistress and submit to her authority. But she was also informed that the child in her womb would also be the patriarch of many descendants. So Hagar returned to her masters’ house and gave birth to a son, Ishmael.

Soon after, Sarai and Abram become Sarah and Abraham, and despite Sarah’s old age, they also become parents to the long-promised boy, Isaac. At this point we encounter Hagar and her boy in Genesis 21: 8-21.

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, "Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac." The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, "Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring." So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba.

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, "Do not let me look on the death of the child." And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, "What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him." Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt. (NRSV)

Her name means “stranger.” And that is what she was to her masters, Abraham and Sarah. They did not know her; even though she lived under their roof and bore Abraham a son, she was nothing more than a stranger among them. We can count what we know about her on one hand: she was an Egyptian, a slave, a mother, an outcast. But she encountered God in the wilderness twice. We do not know her, but she knew God. And so the stranger becomes part of our spiritual history. What does she teach us?
The book of Genesis tells the story of the beginnings of the Israelite people; it is an account of their formation as the chosen ones of God. Abraham and Sarah are the great ancestors of Israel; through their son, Isaac, a nation was born. Yet it would be hard to argue that this story is told from their perspective. If they told the story, surely they would have softened Sarah’s cruelty, and made Hagar out to be more of a troublemaker. There they were, the family chosen to give birth to God’s great nation, and Abraham and Sarah were far from perfect. They were complicated people, neither all good nor all bad… which is to say that they were human.

The Old Testament is composed of stories that bear witness to God through the language and history of the Hebrew people. And as with any account of a nation’s history, we are bound to hear about the nations and peoples they encountered along their journey. We cannot understand Israel without spending some time in Egypt; we cannot know King David without getting acquainted with his enemies the Ammonites. Their stories are intertwined, woven into a shared history. For the most part, we hear the story from the perspective of the Israelites. But this unique family drama from the early archives of Israel’s history seems drawn through the perspective of Hagar, the Egyptian.
We don’t get to stay back with Sarah at the Oaks of Mamre to witness the great feast celebrating Isaac’s birth and the promises it fulfilled. Rather, the narrator invites us to wander into the wilderness with Hagar. We see her hope draining away as her water supply dwindles. We witness her despair as she leaves her child beneath a bush, knowing that he cannot survive the harsh wilderness without water. And we hear her wretched cries resound through the vast and unforgiving desert.

We were not led into the desert to watch Hagar mourn her son. In the wilderness we see a miracle unfold, a spring of water burst forth in a land where no water has any business flowing. We might expect, as the spiritual descendants of Isaac, that God would pour all of his care and blessing into the chosen son, the legitimate child of Abraham and Sarah. Certainly, this is what Sarah expected of her God. Instead, even while the feast for Isaac is being served, God saves the son who was not chosen, the forsaken son of the Egyptian slave-woman. God hears the cries of the boy and sends his angel to comfort and counsel Hagar to pick up her boy and take him to the wellspring. The boy and his mother are delivered.

One of the overarching themes of the Old Testament is God’s habit of rooting for the righteous underdog. Time and time again, the stories and prophecies of the Hebrew Witness proclaim God’s compassion for the oppressed. God will deliver his people from slavery and proclaim a year of Jubilee, a time for all debts to be forgiven. God will send prophets like Isaiah to bring good news to the oppressed and proclaim liberty to the captives. The thing is, the righteous underdog is usually Israel. After all, throughout Israel’s history, enemies constantly threatened the small nation. The former slaves would become exiles, and later, in New Testament times, inhabitants of an occupied land. The Israelites knew through all of those trials that the God of justice stood with them.

And yet way back in the Genesis of Israelite history, here is a story where God’s mercy and justice is extended even to one who is a stranger. God’s desire for justice could not be contained within the chosen people; when Sarah and Abraham cast out an Egyptian, she was not denied God’s mercy.

The boy who cried in the wilderness, Ishmael, was the son of a stranger. But his name bears witness to the God we know: Ishmael means God hears. In the wilderness of Beer-sheba, God heard his cries. And this is what the story of Hagar and her boy teaches us: God hears when his children weep. No matter if the child is celebrated or cast off; God hears.

People are often very keen on determining just how wide God’s mercy really is, just how far his love reaches. Some almost seem to prefer that salvation be limited to the ones they deem worthy of God’s love and forgiveness. Sarah believed that her status as the chosen mother of a chosen son made Hagar and Ishmael unworthy to receive their inheritance of God’s love. She could not imagine a household that had room for both of Abraham’s sons. But our scriptures reveal that God’s compassion reaches beyond even the ones that he has chosen. God chooses, God hears, God saves. Thanks be to God it isn’t up to Sarah; thanks be to God it isn’t up to us. Amen.

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