Homily, July 2

In Genesis chapter 16, Abram and Sarai get tired of waiting for God to fulfill the promise to give them a son, and take matters into their own hands. Sarai tells Abram to spend some private time with her enslaved Egyptian servant, Hagar.  Hagar gets pregnant, and tensions arise between Sarai and Hagar. Sarai treats Hagar so harshly that she runs away into the wilderness. But the Angel of the Lord finds Hagar, sitting near a spring in the desert, and tells her to return to Sarai and submit to her. The Angel also promises Hagar that she will have many descendants, more than can be counted – which sounds a lot like the promise to Abraham! The angel gives Hagar’s son a name: Ishmael, meaning, God has heard you. And Hagar in turn names the being who addresses her,  “You are El-Roi” – meaning, The god who sees me. 

Wait – isn’t it an angel who addresses her, not God? Yes and no. Often in these early parts of the Old Testament, there is not a clear distinction between God and angel. Chapter 18 begins, “The LORD appeared to Abraham…” and goes on to describe the visit of three men. Those strange visitors are later described again as the (singular) Lord, and then as messengers or angels (which are the same word; “angel” or “messenger” is a translation choice). So: We think of angels as separate and lesser beings, but for this part of the Biblical text, it’s not that clear. Hagar knows she has encountered God, and she’s not wrong. 

We need that story to fully understand today’s Genesis reading, from chapter 21, which takes place when Isaac and Ishmael are children. Let me say that we’re taking things out of order – the binding of Isaac, which we heard last week, happens after this – and that the editing in this part of Genesis is a little sloppy; a few verses earlier it said that Ishmael is thirteen years old, but here it sounds like he’s a very small child again. 

Anyway: Isaac is born, a baby half-brother for Ishmael, and Abraham and Sarah dote on him. But Sarah’s jealousy smolders. One day Sarah sees Ishmael and Isaac playing together and gets angry. She tells Abraham to cast them out – “for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 

Abraham is distressed about this! But God tells him not to worry, and that Ishmael, like Isaac, shall become the father of a nation. So Abraham gives Hagar some bread and a canteen of water, and sends her and the child out into the desert. Bye! Good luck! 

When the angel of God speaks to Hagar, as she sits weeping and waiting for death, they are meeting again – not for the first time. God repeats the promise that Ishmael’s descendants will become a great nation. And this time God does not send Hagar and Ishmael back to Sarah’s abuse, but lets them start their own lives as free people. 

I love the story of Hagar and want to make sure it’s told, every three years when we cycle through the book of Genesis in our Sunday readings. I think it’s important for me because – very early in the story of God’s people – the Biblical text is already laying out some central, holy paradoxes that will carry through. Yes, God calls Abraham and Sarah to be the parents and grandparents of a special, set-apart nation, God’s covenant people; Yes, God also claims Ishmael and makes him part of God’s larger plan.  Yes, God appears to Abraham, making him the honored faith-ancestor of three world religions; Yes, God also appears to Hagar, an enslaved woman of another ethnicity. 

Hagar names God as “The one who sees me.” God as the one who sees – and cares about – those at the margins, the pushed out, the excluded, the vulnerable and those in need, is a strong theme throughout our Scriptures, Old and New Testament alike. 

Many of the founding figures of the United States – and many people today – talk about America as a Christian nation, a country that should enshrine and embody the values and ethics of the Bible. I wonder what it would look like to build a nation on a foundational commitment to this core Biblical value: seeing, honoring, caring for and uplifting those who are poor, vulnerable, excluded, and at risk.