Text: Genesis 21:8-21
“Before Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar.”[i] Later would arrive their children, Ishmael and Isaac. Theirs is a story of disappointment and hope; of pain and promise. “The story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar begins with God’s promise of blessing to the man Abraham (Gen.11:27-25:18). The promise involves land, progeny, and inheritance (cf. Gen. 12:1-3). To claim it, Abraham must leave his native land for the unknown land that God has chosen for him. Accompanying him are his barren wife Sarah (Sarai) and his nephew Lot. In time, Sarah proposes that Abraham take Hagar, her Egyptian slave, as a second wife in order to have the child Sarah cannot have. Abraham consents. The child, in turn, would enhance Sarah and become the progeny that God promised. As property, Hagar herself plays no role in the decision. When she becomes pregnant, however, she acquires a different view of Sarah as well as of herself. The distance in status between the women begins to shrink. Resenting the change, Sarah afflicts Hagar, who then flees to the wilderness. There she receives divine assurances about the coming birth and future of her child, to be named Ishmael. She learns that he cannot be the child of promise even as she receives instructions to return to Sarah and suffer affliction.”[ii]
The story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar unfolds with tremendous pain—a barren and resentful wife, an Egyptian slave woman, and two children: one blessed and the other cast aside. Today, we enter the narrative at the climax of its pain. As Genesis 21:8 begins, Abraham is giving what one might call a “coming of age” party for Isaac. The story reads, “The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.” But at some point as the party progresses Sarah observes her birth son Isaac playing with Ishmael, the son of her Egyptian slave and her husband. Unable to bear seeing her son, Isaac, playing with her husband’s concubine’s child, Ishmael, (even though it was her idea for her Egyptian slave to be her surrogate) Sarah tells her husband, Abraham, to “cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit [the blessing] along with my son Isaac.” (Gen. 21:10)
Distressed and disheartened, Abraham does as Sarah tells him to do. And for those of us reading this story today, the most distressing and disturbing part may very well be that it is God who tells Abraham to do as Sarah has instructed. We read, “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.’”
At that point the story descends even further into the depths of pain. Abraham, the story recounts, “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.”
Of Hagar’s struggle, Phyllis Trible writes: “The danger that begins when Abraham sends away Hagar and the child increases as they wander in the wilderness of Beersheba. Unlike the wilderness of Shur, where a spring of water nourished Hagar (Gen. 16:7), Beersheba provides no water (even though the word means ‘well of seven’ or ‘well of oath’). Receiving Hagar in forced exile rather than voluntary flight, this second wilderness is an arid and alien place. Once the water that Hagar brought is gone, mother and child face death.” Trible continues, helping us understand Hagar’s actions: “Sensing the nearness of his death, Hagar ‘puts the child’ under a shrub. Of various uses in scripture for the verb ‘put’, one describes lowering a body into a grave. That meaning suits well this context. Contrary to some translations, Hagar does not cast away, throw out, or abandon her son; instead, she prepares a deathbed for ‘the child’.” Hagar then sits “near” or “across from” her son and awaits his death. At some point, in her pain and grief, Hagar lifts her voice and weeps.
Trible concludes, “In this touching portrayal Hagar becomes the first character in the Bible to weep. She becomes the mother of all weepers. Yet she does not cry out to God. Instead, her voice sounds and resounds in the desolate wilderness of exile and despair. A madonna alone, she laments the approaching death of her only child.”
From there the story shifts and the focus is now on Ishmael, the child. We are told that “God heard the voice of the lad.” The response indicates that God heard Hagar’s weeping and that the danger of death may finally be passing. And for the first time in this story, “the divine hearing signals hope and help over against death…Following the divine words, the narrator completes the story. Hagar’s weeping ceases. The God whom she saw long ago in Shur opens her eyes, enabling her to see a well of water at the site of the ‘well of seven’…[And] the water of weeping yields to the water of life.”[iii]
Pain and promise. This story is a very familiar story to me. As a child, it was told to me in Sunday school. As a seminary student I did extensive exegetical work on it. But it wasn’t until I read it this past week that I realized how profoundly it speaks to the reality that is life—the reality that if we live long enough we experience both pain and promise. In a world that can force us into either/or scenarios, the truth is that life is rarely about either/or. Most often, it is both/and. It is both despair AND joy, disappointment AND excitement, grief AND gratitude, pain AND promise. So, for the next few minutes, I want to share with you where I see the water of weeping (pain) yielding to the water of life (promise).
I want to start on a small scale. Just this past week a Wake County judge issued a temporary restraining order against three parts of a controversial set of building rules passed by the NC General Assembly lawmakers this summer. The new rules were an attempt to silence the Moral Monday protests. With the ruling of Judge Fox, pain gave way to some promise. But on a much larger scale, I have watched over the past year a diverse people from all over North Carolina gather on Mondays to share in the pain felt within our state over the regressive policies that our current legislature has put into place. As I have attended Moral Mondays, I have listened to the painful stories of people who have been denied healthcare in our state. I have listened as doctors have shared the emotional pain they feel in not being able to prescribe the best treatment options for their patients. I have stood beside men and women who are enduring the pain of job loss and with that not being able to provide for their children. I have heard North Carolina teachers weep as they are given fewer and fewer resources to teach our children. But in all of that pain, promise has been palpable as people have come together to share in their vision of a common good for our state. Indeed, there has been much promise in the midst of so much pain.
Pain and promise. Our country has for years struggled through the pain of marriage inequality. As we look back over history, we learn that certain groups of people have always been designated as ineligible for marriage and denied its privileges and benefits. And it is not only gay people who have been denied the social, cultural, and economic advantages afforded to heterosexual couples with access to recognized, state-issued marriage certificates.
Prior to 1967, when the Supreme Court ruled that anti-miscegenation laws are unconstitutional, twelve states outlawed marriages between whites and Native Americans, fourteen states banned white-Asian marriage, and many more banned white-African American marriage. Forty years ago, the pressing political question was, “Are you for or against interracial, interethnic or cross-cultural marriages?” not “Are you for or against gay marriage?” So much pain for so many people. But within the last year, our country has reached the tipping point on this issue. Marriage equality for all people living in our country is becoming a reality. The waters of weeping is yielding to the waters of life. Pain is giving way to promise.
Just this past week the Chancellor of DC public schools, Kaya Henderson, posted the story of Rashema Melson, a young woman who was homeless through much of her high school experience, yet she graduated this year as valedictorian of her class. Pain yielding to promise.
And finally, let’s take a look within our own congregation. Through the civil rights movement, when churches in the South were still very segregated, our church was known as a welcoming place for African-Americans—a faith community that advocated for the rights of African-Americans. But in the 40 years since that time, we have largely failed to deliver on the promise of a truly integrated place of worship on Sunday mornings. Today, on Sunday mornings, our congregation is more racially diverse than any other time in our history. There are yet miles to go to become who we hope to be, but pain is yielding to promise.
I wish we had time this morning to hear from one another our personal stories of pain and promise. I imagine we would hear stories where the pain is still real and raw—stories where we are still waiting for the promise to break through. I imagine some of us would tell stories in which pain and promise are co-existing right now with one another. And I can also imagine that we would hear stories that give witness to times when the pain yielded to promise.
The truth of our lives is that we experience both pain and promise just like Hagar and Ishmael and, yes, Sarah and Abraham. The truth of our faith is that we live in the hope that the water of weeping, at some point, whether in this life or the next, yields to the water of life. That pain, if it doesn’t yield to promise on our timetable, still lives in the shadows and hope of promise.
I asked Beth Barnwell to be liturgist today because of something she said in lectionary group this week. As we were winding down our conversation, and without any introduction she said softly but with confidence, “God heard.” Several of us looked at her and said, “What did you say?” She said again, “God heard. That is the most powerful part of this story to me. It is actually an article of faith. It is enough. God heard.” In all the pain we experience in this life, of all the pain and suffering in this world, “God hears,” is the promise. The promise is not that God will take away our pain. The promise is not that God will hear and do as we ask. The promise is not that God will bless us more than others. The promise is that God hears. Like Hagar and Ishmael, in our wilderness places, collectively and individually, a central article of our faith is that “God hears.” We are not alone. And at some point, the water of weeping yields to the water of life. And the pain we experience and see in the world and in our lives transforms into promise, if by no other way, than through our trusting that God hears us when we call. In Phyllis Trible’s words, “The God who sided with Sarah to expel Hagar and Ishmael continues nonetheless to provide for them and remains with them.” Pain and promise. The waters of weeping do yield to the waters of life. That is the good news of our faith.
[i] Phyllis Trible and Letty M. Russell, Hagar, Sarah and Their Children