8 The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10 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." 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 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. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring." 14 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 Beer-sheba. 15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 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. 17 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. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him." 19 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. 20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
We have just begun summer, a time for rest and relaxation, good times and nice stories, right? But then here comes this text, which is neither relaxing nor nice. It is just plain rough. It is a text that is richer than any romance novel or soap opera, with mistresses and rivalry.
As you recall, Sarah could not have children, so she enlisted her servant, Hagar, to bear them a child by Abraham. Hagar had no choice in the matter; she was a foreigner, a slave, a woman. But as she got pregnant, while Sarah could not, Sarah got jealous and sent her away to the wilderness for the first time. There, Hagar, this foreign female slave, heard the voice of God. She returned to give birth to Ishmael, a name meaning, “God hears.”
So, years later, Sarah learns that she is to conceive. This was laughable, and Isaac’s name means “laughter.” And that’s where the story picks up today. Abraham throws a weaning party for Isaac, and Sarah sees that Ishmael and Isaac are playing together. Her jealousy takes hold. She realizes that because Ishmael is Abraham’s firstborn son, he would be the heir to his (their) name and property. And God had promised them a nation. That’s a lot to hand over to some “bastard” child, from Sarah’s perspective.
Now, Sarah was a strong, independent woman, who told her husband what to do. Sometimes our independence gets in the way of our kindness, and what Sarah commanded was not kind at all. She insists that Abraham send Hagar and her son out to the wilderness to basically die. Where was a foreign single-mom slave girl and her boy supposed to go?
Abraham was conflicted for a moment, but God assures him that they would be taken care of. So he packs her a sandwich and a thermos. And Abraham sends her and his firstborn son on their way, doing as his wife demands.
Sarah and Abraham certainly are not painted in the best of light in this passage. It is almost a wonder how this episode made it into the canon of the Hebrew Bible. But it did, so there must be a reason.
The story isn’t about them. It is about Hagar and Ishmael. They have been cast out to the middle of nowhere, to wander alone, aimlessly, to die.
I can’t help but think of the many, many immigrant mothers and children who have left their homes and native countries, to traverse the wild and scary landscape of the desert to cross the border. A recent story, a mom said that 50-60 people were crowded into one room for days, with hardly any place to sit down, let alone sleep. No showers, no beds. Young immigrant mothers standing, holding crying babies. Can you imagine? I can’t. But Hagar can.
Human smugglers now specialize in moving children, without an adult chaperone, at great cost to the families. Can you imagine a situation so dire that you would pay someone to transport your baby in the inner tube of a tire across the river and hopefully find dry land and a border patrol agent? I can’t. But Hagar can.
When the food and water run out. Hagar can’t bear to watch her son die, so she sets him under a bush and goes far enough away that she can’t hear his suffering. And all she can do is pray.
This outcast woman, literally cast out from her home and security, is visited by an angel of God, again! And we hear those words, that angels use, “Do not be afraid.” They say this because of course Hagar was afraid. Of course, the shepherds and Mary were afraid. But there is always good news after the angels’ initially greeting.
God has heard his cries. The cries of the boy Ishmael. The prayers of momma Hagar. Sent away without papers or birthrights or money or enough food for the journey, God hears.
And God makes a promise. Yes, God promised to Sarah and Abraham that their son, Isaac, would have a great nation. But God promises to Hagar that her son, Ishmael, will also have a great nation. Abraham may have sent his heir out to die, but God calls Ishmael one of God’s own children. And just as a parent can hear the cries of her infant in the middle of the night through two shut doors, God hears the cries of her own son, dehydrated and in the wilderness. As a new mother goes into feed her hungry baby, God delivers life-giving water to her thirsty children.
It doesn’t matter that the child was conceived out of love or wedlock. It doesn’t matter that his mom is a not-from-around-here slave with no means. It doesn’t matter that his dad abandoned him. It doesn’t matter the color of his skin or ethnicity. It doesn’t matter their religion. God hears. And God provides.
When Moses’ mom put him in a basket to send down the river, God heard his cries and provided a caretaker. When Moses’ people were wandering in the wilderness, God heard their cries and provided them manna.
God hears. And God provides.
The Hagar and Ishmael story is so significant because they were outside the covenant people. They were not part of the Jewish lineage. And as you know, Ishmael’s nation became the religion of Islam. This is the promise that God made, providing for all God’s children, from whatever circumstance or culture or creed.
Who are we to ignore the cries of those who are different from us? If we are true believers of One God who made everything in the beginning and continues to create order out of chaos in every corner of the earth, who are we to pit brother against brother, sister against sister? Who are we to decide who is in and who is out?
Who are we? We are God’s ears on this earth. And God hears.
God hears the cries of the outcasts.
God hears the cries of the parents who save up money and pay a criminal to smuggle their babies across the border.
God hears the cries of the infants on their mother’s breast in a holding station.
God hears the cries of the innocents in prison cells.
God hears the cries of the refugees, more than we have seen in most of our lifetimes, in the unsanitary and unsafe crowded camps.
God hears the cries of the victims of violence and war.
God hears the cries of the caretakers of elderly parents and sick children.
God hears the cries of creation, which groans under our weight and excess.
God hears the cries of the churches, which are growing and dying, making difficult decisions for inclusion and justice.
God hears the cries of the hungry and the homeless and the disheartened.
God hears the cries of those with depression, anxiety, post-partum, and PTSD.
God hears the cries of the children on the streets of Chicago, in the factories in Cambodia, and in forest of the Congo.
God hears the cries of the children who are cyber-bullied and physically abused for being too short or too tall or too smart or too quiet or too loud or too talented or too pretty or too different.
God hears the cries of our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers who have been cast out of churches, families, and financial stability, who only wish for equality and compassion.
God hears the cries of the parents, too.
If God hears all, and I mean ALL, and we are God’s ears here in this place, who are we to ignore anyone based on sex or sexual orientation or socio-economic status or race or religion?
“Do not be afraid.”
God hears our cries, too, as we struggle to find a better way in this world, seeking justice for the oppressed, making peace in a world at war, standing up for those who have been shut down, speaking out for those who have been silenced.
God hears and God provides.
May we be attuned to the voice of God in our lives so that when we hear the cries of any of her children, we may respond with compassion, sharing that living water of which we drink. May it be so.
Former international fashion model Rev. Sarah Renfro seeks to boost the body image of young women by educating them on the myths of media and focusing on divine within. She also preaches and teaches about marriage and divorce, motherhood, ministry, and mental illness.