Sunday, June 21, 2020
Before I continue the series on our faith ancestors with Hagar and Ishmael, I want to first say, “What a doozy of a Father’s Day gospel reading?!” “I have come to set a man against his father…and whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me,” Jesus says. It’s certainly not anything Hallmark would put on a Father’s Day card. Without going too far astray from the topic before us, I want to say that this passage does remind us that family relationships are sometimes difficult, and Jesus asks us to put God first in loving and honoring God before all else. Jesus doesn’t say “Don’t love your father and mother,” but he does acknowledge that sometimes our relationships with our parents can keep us from loving God, and he is speaking to his twelve disciples who have had to leave their families behind.
Speaking of leaving family behind and of messy relationships, I did not find it surprising that in preparing for my children’s sermon this week I struggled to find a good children’s Bible retelling of the story of Hagar and Ishmael. There are cultural realities that don’t make sense anymore to us: Sarah gives her Egyptian slave to Abraham so that he might have a son. This story that includes polygamy and slave-holding at first is hard to relate to, Abraham essentially kicks out his own son Ishmael along with Hagar so that Isaac can have the full inheritance. At first read, we might think similarly to our gospel reading for today, “What can I possibly get out of this passage that is lifegiving or reassuring for my situation today?”
Well, in the midst of Jesus cautioning us to love God even more than we love our parents, we also have Jesus telling us that we, ALL of us, are of more value to God than many sparrows, and that God knows even the number of hairs on each of our heads. And with this same indiscriminate, compassionate, and abundant love, God hears the cries of Hagar and Ishmael when they are at the end of their rope, ready to die, nowhere else to go, and saves them.
If you were able to go back and review Abraham’s whole story from Genesis 12 to 25 last week, I recommend you review Hagar and Ishmael’s story, which is just chapters 16 and today’s reading in Genesis 21. You’ll see in Genesis 16 that Hagar has been in the wilderness with God before, when Sarah’s harshness to her caused her to run away while pregnant. The first time in the wilderness, too, God hears Hagar and speaks with her. God promises her what he promised Abraham and Sarah: she will also have many descendants through her son Ishmael. God tells her to name her unborn child Ishmael, which means “God hears.” And one of the reasons I like Hagar so much is that she is the first person in the Old Testament to give God a name – she calls God, “El-roi,” which means “God sees.” So when Hagar and Ishmael find themselves back in the wilderness the second time, it is no coincidence that God speaks to Hagar reassuring that he has heard them twice, and then God repeats his promise that God will make a great nation of Ishmael. And as the writer of Genesis tells us, “God was with the boy, and he grew up.” God hears, and God sees: especially when we are at the end of our rope, lost in the wilderness, wondering if we can survive another day, on the brink between life and death, God hears our cries, sees us, and stays with us. God’s name for Ishmael and Hagar’s name for God, Elroi, are powerful witnesses to us still today that we have a God who hears us and sees us, especially when we are suffering.
Often I will ask others where they have seen God at work, or times when they have heard God speak, whether directly, through dreams, or through other people. Today, thanks to Hagar and Ishmael’s story, we remember that our relationship with God goes both ways. Not only do we look for God and listen for God, we know that God sees us and hears us. When we may feel that God is silent or absent, God still hears and sees us. When we pray fervently and wonder if anyone is really out there, we trust along with Hagar, Ishmael, and countless other saints who have gone before us that God hears and sees us. So another question to ponder this week might be not only when we have heard God or seen God at work, but when have we simply felt the presence of God with us? When have we felt deep within us that God has heard us and has seen us?
Our reading from Romans is one that may be familiar because we use it in our funeral liturgy. Paul speaks pretty plainly about life and death matters. Hagar sits the distance of a bowshot away from her only son so that she does not have to watch him die. Their banishment to the wilderness is a matter of life and death. She is not just at the end of her rope; this is it, she thinks. So much for so many empty promises from God, from Sarah, from Abraham, or anyone else. At her moment of despair, God intervenes. At the moment of our despair, Christ intervenes, Romans tells us. “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Even death itself cannot keep us apart from the love of God in Christ Jesus, who knows every hair on our heads, who loves us enough to not even withhold his only son to die for us. As Christians we know this love God has for us most powerfully through Christ’s death on the cross and the resurrection life we share. God hears and sees us, and God will not abandon us. Thanks be to God. Amen.