God Heard: A Voice in the Wilderness

June 25th, 2017

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

In the name of God; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sarah said: “God has blessed me with laughter and all who hear will laugh with me.”
God has blessed me with Isaac.
That is where we left off last week in this ongoing saga from Genesis.
Abraham and Sarah, in their dotage, demonstrated that all things are possible with God, nothing is too wonderful for the Lord,
and the covenant was fulfilled through the birth of their son, Isaac.
Their joyful laughter was a prayer of thanksgiving,
a good and right response to God for their miracle.

But this week, we plunge into the counter narrative – the part we might rather forget,
the story of the other woman, a child born out of wedlock,
and the two being cast out into the desert.

The opening scene is a feast celebrating Isaac of course
and the fact that he and his nuclear family have survived his infancy.
But events take a dark turn when Sarah observes an interaction
between young Isaac and his older half-brother Ishmael.
Just for a moment, though, let us back up and recall how and in what way Ishmael and his mother Hagar came to be at this feast.

During her barrenness and in a day when a woman’s worth was measured by her womb,
Sarah availed herself of common cultural practice and gave her maid, Hagar,
to her husband to bear him a child.
Although it was accepted practice at this time,
to have a household employee provide surrogacy,
Hagar was never given a choice in the matter, let alone an opportunity to consent.
Her body was property and she was used.
After Hagar became pregnant, Sarah looked upon her with contempt
and mistreated her terribly, causing Hagar to run away into the desert.

An angel came upon Hagar there by a spring of water, told her to return,
and promised her a multitude of offspring.
The angel told Hagar to name the baby “Ishmael” which means “God hears”
for God had heard her cries.
And in reply, Hagar, called the Lord, “One who sees” for God had seen her.
Hagar then returned to raise Ishmael in the house with Abraham and Sarah.

This is the back story which we missed,
the part that ran alongside the continued saga of Sarah’s barrenness
which we heard last week.
God did indeed promise Abraham and Sarah a child in their old age,
to which they laughed many times, even naming Isaac laughter
as an expression of their delight.

Laughter is a central theme in this story, having been mentioned six times up until this point. And here in Genesis, among these early books of the Bible,
the number seven is especially significant.
So, we know it will appear once more and indeed, it does, but in a tragic manner.

And now we return to the feast celebrating Isaac having been weaned,
the entire household has gathered including staff and families.
There was special food, wine, dancing, and music; a splendid celebration.

Out of the corner of her eye, Sarah saw Ishmael and Isaac together,
they were playing in the yard when she saw Ishmael laughing.
The word is the same, used here for the seventh time by no coincidence.
It is sometimes translated as playing or mocking, but that word is laughter.
Ishmael laughed at Isaac. Ishmael laughed with Isaac.
We can’t be sure of the intent of the laughter,
but Sarah’s reaction is swift and fierce.
She goes immediately to Abraham and says,
“Cast out this slave woman with her son;
for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”

This story is written to enlist our sympathy as it already has God’s.
We are set up to side with Hagar as she is cast out into the desert
with nothing more than some water and a bit of bread.
I’ve spent time hiking in the wilderness of Beersheba
and it is not a place you would want to be alone with a child, lacking water and supplies. It is an unforgiving place, dry desert land with rough terrain.

I don’t like where this story is heading.
What happened to laughing Sarah holding her newborn child
and inviting us to laugh with her?
She has turned into a monster,
casting out a woman whom she has already dehumanized and humiliated, throwing her away along with her child.
The story is painful because it causes us to reflect upon those whom our society throws away; refugees wandering in deserts or crossing seas;
the poor, homeless, and mentally ill members of our community just to name a few.

We so often fail to act or even notice these corporate sins until it is too late,
as was the situation this past week
when Charleena Lyles was killed by Seattle Police officers
at her north Seattle home.
Charleena, a pregnant single mother of four,
called the police for help in a moment of mental distress and anguish
and ended up dead in front of her children.
In hindsight, we can see where one institution and safety net after another
failed Charleena and her family until it was too late
and one more person of color has been killed.

So, what do we do with all the emotion wrapped up in hearing these stories?
How do we honor Charleena and Hagar and their legacy?
Do we pity them? Pity is episodic, random, and moody.
Pity is a wave of guilt and despair over the news without any change of heart or action. God certainly holds no pity for Charleena or Hagar and neither should we.

What they deserve is mercy.
What they receive abundantly from God is steadfast, consistent, and freely given mercy. And for us to move towards that same place,
we must confess and confront the evil in our hearts.
We must focus on what binds us as people of God and not what divides.
Sarah lost sight of that. I lose sight of that going about my daily life.
We, as a society, lose sight of that.

Sarah and Hagar had far more in common with one another than different.
Likewise, Charleena Lyles, differed from us in many ways,
and yet she was a beloved child of God, a mother, a neighbor,
making the best life she could for herself and her children,
and our community failed her.
She deserves our mercy.

When Hagar and Ishmael ran out of water in the desert, they prepared for death.
Hagar cried out and wept, yelling at God, whom she felt had abandoned her.
While Hagar cried, God heard the voice of the boy, Ishmael.
In the Hebrew, this is a lovely play on words.
God hears the one whom God heard because remember, that is what Ishmael means. Just as God heard Hagar in the wilderness during her pregnancy
and told her to name the child “God hears,”
once more, God has heard their cries and God answered.

Once more, Hagar calls God “One who sees” for God truly sees her.
God sees and hears Hagar and Ishmael and offers them mercy and salvation.
God offers provision of a full and abundant life for Ishmael
and commands Hagar to open her eyes.
When she does, there appears a well before her,
living water which sustains them in the wilderness.

In this counter narrative, the story of the other woman and her child born out of wedlock,
God hears the voiceless. God sees those whom others have cast out and abandoned.

What is hard to reconcile is that God clearly does choose Isaac over Ishmael, right?
We know the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The displaced sons, Ishmael and Esau vanish in the texts,
not to mention the unnamed daughters who often never appear
at least not until they bear children, use their wombs,
and “earn” their spot in the history books.

There are two things I want to point out
regarding this choosing God seems to do in these situations.
One, God may choose, but God never rejects.
God chooses Isaac, and promises a great nation for Ishmael as well. Tradition claims Ishmael as the father of Islam and indeed the progenitor of a great nation.
It seems fitting that we reclaim Ishamel’s story this weekend
as the holy month of Ramadan comes to a close for our Muslim sisters and brothers.
As a Muslim friend said to me this week,
“this month reconnects those who fast and pray with deep hope in God’s mercy.”

That’s what Ishmael and Hagar teach us in this counter narrative of displacement and yet hope. God hears those whom humanity has shut out and run off.
God sees those who have been cast out and forgotten.
God remembers those whom we would rather forget.
AND God responds with mercy, compassion, love, and salvation.

So, what do we do?
What do we do when confronted with the Hagar’s and Ishmael’s of our own day
when confronted with Charleena Lyles and her children?
We step into God’s Kingdom and open our hearts to God’s mercy.
We see them. We say her name.
We notice them, the people whose lives seem so radically different than our own due to circumstance, education, poverty, luck, or chance
and acknowledge what unites us.
For we have so much in common.
We are beloved by God, all of us and deserving of radical mercy.

But it doesn’t stop there.
We see them, those who are cast out and ignored by society
AND we give them voice.
Just as God heard Ishmael and Hagar in the desert,
we too are capable of hearing the voiceless among us.
We can hear them and lend them our voice. That is one thing we can do.

We can see. We can hear. And we can speak on behalf of those who have no voice.

Sermon Reflection Questions
1) Who are the people we don’t see or hear in our communities?
2) How can we move our hearts from a place of pity to a place of mercy? What might that look like?
3) Where do you see hope for Hagar and Ishmael? How does that carry over to hope for the cast out and voiceless or our own society?
4) How can we at Epiphany better focus on what binds us as people of God?