Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | August 7, 2022
When I was five years old a new shopping center was built ten blocks from where we lived. The Lloyd Center – the largest shopping mall in America at that time.
One Saturday afternoon Bruce Black happened by. Bruce was five years older than me and a troublemaker to his core. He was on his way to Lloyd Center and asked me to go with him. I knew for certain that my parents would never let me go there on my own, let alone with Bruce.
He told me that one of the new grocery stores had escalators that you could ride up and down. He said he did it all the time and it was really, really fun. When I said my parents would never let me go there, he said the magic words: “Come on John, don’t be a chicken. It’ll be fun. They’ll never know.”
Well, okay then, if they’ll never know, then let’s go!
As promised, Lloyd Center was a grand adventure. We rode the escalators up and then slid down the middle part over and over again. The store manager chased us out, but we waited until he wasn’t looking and went back to it.
My adventure came to a crashing halt when I was astride the black handgrip riding the escalator up when Bruce came sliding down the middle. Bruce was a big boy. When we collided, I went flying off the handgrip and tumbled down to the bottom of the escalator. Fortunately, nothing was broken, but I was scraped up with escalator imprints all over me.
I remember a bunch of people crowding around and the store manager saying, “I told you boys not play there!”
There was the long walk home, knowing to the depth of my being that “They’ll never know” often turns into, “Life doesn’t always go according to plan.”
But that’s life. We might ask “Where is God when life happens?” The ancient stories of the bible tell of God’s care in and through life even when life goes bad. Once you take a bite of that forbidden fruit, you never know what might happen. But God is there in the long view.
The story is told that Sarah and Abraham were promised a child. God told them they would have a child who would be the beginning of a great nation. It was always thought that Sarah could not have children, that she was in the terms of that time and place a “barren” woman. God made this promise and it was slow in coming, so what to do?
Hagar was a slave in the household of Abraham and Sarah. She was the property of Sarah. In the Abraham and Sarah household, slaves did what they were told.
One way to get at the heart of these stories is to look at what the names of the people mean. The name Hagar doesn’t mean anything. Which means something for the story. To name someone Hagar was like calling a dog “Spot” or a cat “Fluffy.” It was about on a level with “Hey You.”
The promises God made were to Abraham and Sarah. “I will make of you a great nation. Your offspring will number as the stars in heaven.” When God says, “Thus says the Lord,” people often get impatient for the promise to come true. When God said that Sarah would bear a child, she wasn’t exactly in the bloom of youth. As the years went on and on, she began to wonder about exactly how the promise was going to happen.
One myth as old as the hills is that “God helps those who help themselves.” It’s a myth because it’s usually not applied by people who believe God is actually going to help them. God helps those who helps themselves tends to mean, I’ll do it my way and God can sign onto it. Then when the harvest rolls in, or the reward or whatever the positive payoff, which comes with the opportunity to lay one’s gifts at the altar of thanksgiving, the mythmakers tend to say, “Where was God when I was doing all the work?”
Sarah, who viewed it as God’s fault that she didn’t have children, thought that God could use some help in fulfilling the promise. She decided that she would use her slave Hagar as a surrogate. As her property, if Hagar had children, they would belong to Sarah. So if Abraham got Hagar pregnant, the child would belong to Abraham and Sarah.
Sarah could only play the cards she was dealt. In a patriarchal society, if a woman couldn’t have children, then it was obviously her fault. A man was never sterile in those days; it was the woman who was barren.
Hagar was handed over to Abraham so that he could have sex with her, get her pregnant and when the baby was born, she would hand it over. She had no choice in any of it. The plan worked to a point; that point being the inherent dignity of a human being named Hagar.
Slaves have a certain range of emotions at their disposal. They can be happy, or they can be sad. But what they cannot do is show contempt to their masters. But she did. Her response to being impregnated like a brood mare was to show contempt toward Sarah. For Hagar it was probably a contempt born of anger for being used as an object in someone else’s game plan.
Sarah responded like the master she was by trying to beat the contempt out of Hagar. Hagar did what anyone might do in her situation, she ran away. She ran into the wilderness where she would either die or make an escape.
She did neither, because she met an angel who told her to go back. Slave owners in pre-civil war south used stories like this to justify slavery and to promote the idea that slaves shouldn’t run away. But perhaps the angel was telling Hagar to go back and serve as reminder to Abraham and Sarah about the consequences of trying to act like God. In their attempt to accomplish God’s purposes, they overstepped and used people as objects. God never objectified people and treated them like pawns in a game like chess. God made promises that people lived into.
So Hagar went back and she could say, “It was because God told me to.” And that would take her out of the equation of Abraham and Sarah and put her into her own storyline with God. The angel told Hagar that when her child was born, she was to name him, “Ishmael.”
Ishmael means, “God hears.” It might not seem like it, but God hears. God hears what’s going on in life. God hears the crying in the night, the unspoken prayer, the whispered longing, and the silence of a broken heart. God hears it all.
The child was born and they named him Ishmael. As much as the plan was for him to be the child of Abraham and Sarah, he was Abraham’s son, but his mother was Hagar. He might have been the property of Sarah because she owned Hagar, but he was Hagar’s son. As time went by one and all thought perhaps that was the way God had worked it out.
But then, some years later Sarah did indeed become pregnant with her own child. God’s She gave birth to a son whom they named Isaac. Isaac means, “Laughter.” He reminded them of when Sarah first fell over laughing at the promise, she would have a child.
One thing you will not find in stories from the Old Testament is the tag line, “and they all lived happily ever after.” Now that there were two sons on the scene there could be no happily ever after. Sarah and Abraham could very well have worked it out so that Isaac would be the inheritor of the family fortunes. Abraham could have designated either of his sons as heir. The intent was that he would make Isaac his heir.
But one day Sarah noticed Ishmael teasing Isaac. Ishmael was around 16 years old by then and he was playing just a bit too rough. Sarah was worried that when the time came when Abraham was no longer on the scene, it wouldn’t matter what the will said. Like a lot of those matters were resolved in a patriarchal tribal society, might makes right.
She went to her husband and said, “You have to send Ishmael away. Him and his mother.” As much as it pained him to do so, Abraham agreed. Hagar and Ishmael were banished into the wilderness to fend for themselves.
They wandered around until their supplies ran out and they prepared to die. Ishmael sat down in the shade of a tree and waited. Hagar walked off a way and began to pray. “Please God,” she prayed, “just don’t let me witness the death of my child.”
In response to her prayer an angel came by and said, “remember when Ishmael was born and you thanked God? Do remember how you referred to God then?”
She did. She had thanked “El-Roi” the “God who sees.”
“God sees you now,” the angel said. The angel pointed off in the distance at a grove of palm trees. “Look over there. What would that growth of trees indicate to you? Think about it.”
She looked into the distance – palm trees – oasis – water!
They made their way to the oasis in the wilderness. There was water and they survived and made their way to Egypt. Hagar and Ishmael were free and in time they prospered. The descendants of Ishmael added to the countless numbers of Abraham and Sarah’s offspring.
The children of Abraham through the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac have been at odds with each other since the story began to this very day. It’s not a “they lived happily ever after” story.
If there’s a moral to the story it’s in the names – God hears, and God sees. What we might “do” in response to the story is up to us. At the very least it is perhaps to listen to God who hears and learn from God who sees. Amen.