A sermon on Genesis 21:8-21 delivered to LaSalle Street Church on 4/30/23. The manuscript is edited below for reading, and you can find a recording in the full service via this YouTube video.
If you ever have the chance to explore the harsh environment of the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona, you might observe rugged, hearty plant life like saguaro cactuses or jojoba shrubs. You might be unlucky enough to come across a diamondback rattlesnake or, on a rare occasion, one of North America’s few wild jaguars. And if you pay particularly close attention, you might stumble across small crosses erected in seemingly random places.
The crosses were placed there by Alvaro Enciso, an artist who travels into the wilderness of the borderlands every week to build these monuments at specific locations where people died in their attempts to enter the United States. He uses an online database that tracks locations where human remains have been discovered. He’s built more than a thousand of these crosses in the desert, which is only a small portion of the more than 3,600 known deaths recorded in the database.
In an interview, Enciso shares that he himself entered the United States from South America in the sixties, and he was fortunate enough to do so with immigration documentation in place. But he describes how he still felt like an outsider, and he began making hikes to visit these sites where people died while they were migrating. In his words, he says, “I went to stand there and see if there was anything there, a vestige of what happened there, the suffering and the disappointment and the failure and everything.”
Eventually, he got the idea to mark these locations with crosses. Again, in his words, he explains how he thinks of art as “making the invisible visible. So I needed to give these people presence. I needed to mark the locations somehow.”
Today’s reading from Genesis calls us back to a very different wilderness that, nevertheless, probably looked a lot like the landscapes where Enciso builds his crosses.
Two weeks ago we read the story of God’s first promise to Abram in Genesis 12. This God who was totally unknown to Abram called him where he was and offered all these fabulous blessings and promises: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, [so be you a blessing].” Abram believed this God, so he and his family picked up and moved to a new land.
Today’s reading takes place many years after that, so let me set the scene. God promised that Abram would bear a child to fulfill this promise of becoming a great nation, but Abram’s wife, Sarai, was incapable of having children. So Sarai suggested that Abram sleep with Hagar, an Egyptian woman who was enslaved to them, as a means of continuing the family line. Hagar did become pregnant, and she was deeply angry at Sarai. Sarai began to treat Hagar harshly. Things got so bad that Hagar attempted to flee into the desert while she was still pregnant, but an angel from God met her in the wilderness and told her to return to Sarai and Abram. She did, and she gave birth to a boy named Ishmael, Abram’s son.
As Ishmael grew up, God continued to promise Abram that he and Sarai would bear a son of their own, and God changed their names to Abraham and Sarah. God told them they were to name their son Isaac, which means, “he laughs,” a name that might be a reminder that when God told Abraham and Sarah they were going to bear a child in their old age, they both laughed at the very idea. Notably, God told Abraham that it would be Sarah’s son, Isaac, who would carry on God’s covenant with Abraham, but God also said that Hagar’s son, Ishmael, would be the father of a great nation, too. When Ishmael was about 14, Sarai miraculously gave birth to a son, naming him “Isaac,” introducing a subtle new meaning to his name in Genesis 21:6: She says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”
I want us to try and hold all these complex circumstances in mind. At this point we know so much about all these people that we must avoid the temptation to think about them as mere stereotypes or caricatures. Abraham and Sarah are people of remarkable faith, people whom God used in remarkable ways that ultimately changed the fate of humanity. But they were still, after all, human. Start with Sarah: I can’t imagine the pressure she felt. Her husband, Abraham, had been chosen by God to lead a great nation, and she had been put in this bizarre situation in which everyone seemed to expect the impossible of her, something she had no control over: to conceive, and sustain, and to birth a baby even when her body was past the age of childbearing.
In her desperation she concocted this plan that robbed Hagar of her dignity and autonomy, and when the plan worked, everything went to hell: Hagar was furious, and Sarah was furious, and Sarah took all that anger out on Hagar. From what we can tell, they never really reconciled, but they kept living together with all that hurt and anger in the air, for years and years, while Ishmael grew up. That was all simmering in the background, leading up to this moment in today’s drama when Sarah simply cannot take it any longer.
It’s difficult to understand exactly what goes down in that moment we heard about today. We are reading a story written thousands of years ago, in a cultural setting that is entirely foreign to us, using language that is subtle and ambiguous. But in v. 9, something goes wrong—my best understanding is that Sarah sees Ishmael, the son of Hagar, playing or laughing. I think it’s that image, laughter, even the word, that triggers something in Sarah: it triggers this memory of Sarah and Abraham both laughing with cynicism and resentment when God told them they’d have a baby. It triggers the memory of Sarah’s utter delight and surprise when Isaac was born as a healthy baby boy. I suspect there might even be a degree to which Sarah thinks, “Ishmael doesn’t get to laugh. Isaac is the child of the covenant. Isaac is the one at the center of the plan. Ishmael was a mistake. Ishmael has no right to joy.”
We’ve seen this, right? When a person who is oppressed demonstrates joy from their position on the margins, it can be a revolutionary act. Laughing, dancing, singing. It’s this prophetic witness that their marginalization is not actually inevitable or necessary, that in fact the oppression they experience might be a grave injustice, and that they have just as much of a right to joy as anyone else.
Whatever is happening in the story, Sarah reacts, and things fall apart. Sarah tells Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” Sarah can no longer abide this complicated situation, this nontraditional, mixed family. She wants to expel Hagar, and to expel Ishmael, and to seek some kind of family purity with only Abraham and Isaac.
Abraham doesn’t want to send them into the wilderness, and in a moment that really baffles me, God tells Abraham to do what Sarah says. That’s not what I want to read in my Bible! What I want to read is God telling Abraham, “Do not push these vulnerable people out. Do not leave them to die in the wilderness. You belong to each other—find a way to stay together!” Remember that when Hagar tried to flee, years ago, it was an angel of God who told her to stay with the Sarah and Abraham. But that’s not what God says here. Instead, God says, “As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” Maybe God knows that things will actually be better for Hagar and Ishmael out there. Effectively, God tells Abraham, “I have plans for Ishmael. Leave him to me.”
The next morning, Abraham packs up some food and water, and he sends Hagar and Ishmael into the desert. As many times as I’ve read this story, I can’t help but experience this moment as an enormous tragedy, the kind of thing that none of these people ever forgot.
This is a tendency we will see again and again and again throughout the Old Testament, even into the New Testament, and one that probably sounds familiar to all of us: We were trying to live in community, all of us together, all our messiness and complicated histories, all our difference. And then something broke, and suddenly the force that was holding everything together slipped, and then the people who had power to do so were pushing out the people who had no power.
You know, this is the third week of our series, “Resurrected Church.” We’re talking about what it means to be the hands and feet of God in the world, to live as the family of God. Last week, Pastor Randall reminded us that Jesus is always faithful—semper fi—and urged each of us to listen and discern how God is leading us to serve here in this church community. Today’s story shows us how that can all go wrong. This is what happens when one of us decides that we’re better off without those people. We separate, and we expel, and those of us who have power take it out on those who do not have power.
But I want us to continue reading. Because if we continue reading, we find that this story will surprise us. Indeed, at two pivotal moments, things do not go as we might have expected. I want to suggest that the surprises in this story offer us good news in the face of the worst tendencies of any community.
Here’s the first surprise: At this tragic moment when Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness, the narrator follows Hagar, not Abraham. Abraham is arguably the main character of the book of Genesis, seemingly the center of God’s covenant and purposes in the world. And in this conflict between Sarah and Hagar, it seems like Sarah has finally come out on top—she has driven Hagar and Ishmael out of the family, out of the story, no longer her problem. We might expect things would return to a kind of calm status quo in the family, and that Hagar would become nothing more than a little asterisk, if she was mentioned at all.
Truth be told, you and I might even be inclined to ignore whatever happens next. It is so easy to ignore whatever casualties or oppression are necessary to maintain our normal way of doing things, our status quo—we talked about this on Palm Sunday, remember? I suspect that for many of us here, it isn’t so much a matter of conscious hatred or prejudice or even ignorance; it’s just that it’s so hard to pay attention, so hard to stay concerned, when it feels like some kind of injustice is involved in nearly every institution and law and even every purchase we make.
In this story, the narrator follows Hagar into the wilderness. God is concerned with Ishmael, too. God has plans and a purpose for Ishmael, too. So even at this moment when God’s chosen people—Sarah and Abraham—decide that Hagar and Ishmael are expendable, disposable, their act of exclusion does not exclude Hagar and Ishmael from the life of God.
Being excluded from this particular family of God’s chosen people does not exclude Hagar from the promises and purposes of God. Let me repeat that: Hagar being excluded from this particular family of God’s chosen people does not exclude her from the promises and purposes of God.
That tells me that it is not up to you or me to determine who is or isn’t part of what God is doing in the world. It’s not up to anybody who ever had power over you to determine whether you are part of what God is doing in the world.
Nevertheless, that exclusion has real consequences, particularly for Hagar the desert. I don’t want us to overlook how truly dire the situation is for Hagar and Ishmael. They are wandering in the desert, and they run out of water. Hagar tucks Ishmael under a bush, because it is too painful to watch him die, and she collapses to the ground, weeping, crying out to God in anguish.
Things should have ended here. People don’t survive long in the desert without water. Alvaro Enciso’s crosses out in the Sonoran Desert remind us just how inhospitable the wilderness can be. But there is another surprise, because an angel appears and tells Hagar, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.”
“God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.” Even in this moment of utter loneliness and despair, even when all hope seems lost, these two souls are not excluded from God’s attention. “God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.”
Earlier I mentioned that this is actually Hagar’s second time in the wilderness. The first time happened fourteen years earlier, when Hagar was pregnant with Ishmael, and things with Sarah got so bad that Hagar ran away. Fourteen years earlier, her circumstances were a little less dire—in that story, an angel found Hagar resting by a spring of water, and the angel told Hagar, “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael—[which means, “God hears”]—for the LORD has given heed to your affliction.” After that encounter with the angel, Hagar was awestruck, and Genesis tells us, “[Hagar] named the LORD who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi’ [that is, the God Who Sees], for she said, ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?'”
Two weeks ago, when we explored the story of God calling Abram, I mentioned that this was a time in the history of the world in which people knew very little about this God. God slowly revealed who God is, and different people noticed different qualities of who God is, and over time the community began to understand more and more, until finally the fullness of God was revealed in the person of Jesus.
I don’t want us to miss that Hagar’s two experiences in the wilderness allow her to perceive something about God that was not obvious to the people before. When Hagar says, “You are El-Roi,” it’s the first time in all of Scripture that a person assigns a new name to God. “You are the God Who Sees.” Even the name of her son, Ishmael, tells us something else about God: “God hears.” Little did she know that when the angel told Hagar to name her baby “God hears,” it was a kind of promise, a promise that paid off fourteen years later, when Hagar and Ishmael were dying in the desert, and God heard them.
Not only is it true that Hagar being excluded from this particular family of God’s chosen people does not exclude her from the promises and purposes of God. It is also true that Hagar’s encounter with God in the wilderness reveals something true about God that is good news for everyone. It is the story of Hagar and Ishmael, driven twice to the wilderness, who teach us that God sees us and hears us, even when all hope seems lost.
If you are carrying some hard responsibility, some battle that you have to fight entirely on your own, Hagar tells us there is a God who sees.
When you are facing a heartbreak that seems impossible to repair, something that nobody else can really understand, Hagar tells us God hears.
If you ever find yourself in a place that you did not expect to be, due to circumstances entirely outside of your control, maybe even that someone else pushed you out of a family or a community where you belonged—if you ever find yourself in the wilderness, Hagar remind us that God has heard the voice of the boy where he is, and God hears you right where you are.
Well, I don’t think we can overstate the extent to which this message from the angel was a literal God-send, a miracle that utterly changed Hagar’s situation. But she is still in crisis, dying of thirst in the desert. Abraham gave her only enough water to last a while, but God opens her eyes to see a well, a source of water that can sustain her, and that does not depend on Abraham’s generosity, or lack thereof. Thousands of years later, another woman will come to a well, looking for water, and she’ll start talking to Jesus, and he’ll tell her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
It is the resurrection of Jesus that makes us the “Resurrected Church.” What does it mean for us to be the hands and feet of God in the world? Well, Hagar tells us that our God is El-Roi, the “God Who Sees.” That means our work and service and ministry in the world includes that act of noticing—noticing the harms and injustices it is easier to overlook. Noticing the victims of the “way things are.” Noticing the people carrying heavy burdens all by themselves. And in some cases, I think, God compels us to act on what we have noticed, to intervene or interrupt, to work towards a different outcome. But first, we have to notice.
That includes noticing the ways that our own communities, including here at LaSalle, might be inhospitable to some. God used Sarah and Abraham for remarkable purposes, but they weren’t perfect. If we are indeed going to live as the “Resurrected Church,” I suppose that resurrection is going to be an ongoing process, a constant re-creation in which we repent of the harms we have committed, intentionally or not.
I don’t know what you need to hear from the story of Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness. Maybe you need to hear that your experience in the wilderness was real, that the promises that God has made to you cannot be undone by any particular group of people. Maybe you need to hear that if you’ve been the one pushing someone else out—if you’ve been the one doing the excluding—even then, forgiveness is possible, and God can still meet people where they are. Maybe you’re called, like Alvaro Enciso, to make the invisible visible, to notice what others have failed to notice, and to call their attention to it. Maybe you’re in the fight of your life, and nobody knows it, and you need Hagar to remind you that our God is a God Who Sees.
Let us cry out to God, let our hearts shout the things we cannot even give words to, and let us believe what Hagar tells us, that things are not as they seem, that God has heard our voices where we are, that our God is a God Who Sees.