Over the next few months, our Old Testament lessons will follow the lives of the great patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith in the book of Genesis. These stories are artful, fun, and spiritually rich, but they can also seem quite strange. There are a lot of unfamiliar social and religious customs, the characters are often deeply flawed and behave in morally reprehensible ways, and what is playful and poetic in Hebrew often comes across as stilted and sparse in English.
But for all their strangeness, the basic point is pretty simple: No amount of human weakness and human folly can stand in the way of God’s love and God’s promise. The whole message is that we can’t screw things up badly enough to thwart God’s love.
Today we get the story of Hagar and Ishmael. Hagar is a slave in the household of Abraham and Sarah, and Ishmael is the son she conceived by Abraham at a time when Sarah and Abraham were convinced they wouldn’t have a child of their own.
Once Sarah and Abraham miraculously do give birth to Isaac, Sarah doesn’t want the slave’s child hanging around as a possible usurper, so Hagar and Ishmael are sent out into the desert wilderness: desolate, rejected, and alone. When they run out of water, in a heart-wrenching moment, Hagar places the baby under a bush, and sits just out of sight and sound, unable to watch her own child die, but also unable to completely turn away. As the story is told, you can almost hear Ishmael’s cries of thirst, and Hagar’s screams of anguish. But shockingly, we are told “God heard the voice of the boy. . .And God was with the boy.”
God was with the boy, in the depths of grief and the agony of thirst. God was with the boy, who was rejected and cast out. God was with the boy, who was insignificant, and illegitimate. God is there, in the lonely, deadly, desert, in the parched screams of a baby and his mother. That’s who God is with. That’s what God does. Ishmael is not the chosen one, Ishmael and Hagar are sent to a sure death out of the jealousy and fear of one of our faith’s heroes, but not even that can stop God’s love and God’s promise. That’s who God is.
The fact that God tends to be with the despised, and lonely, and unworthy is exactly why Jesus tells his disciples that joining up with this God is likely to get you into a whole lot of trouble. We get edgy Jesus in today’s reading. “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.” I have come to set a son against his father, and a daughter against her mother.” When you really join up with the God whose love knows no limit and can’t be stopped, watch out.
The God we worship, the God of Abraham and Sarah, Ishmael and Hagar, King David and Mary and Jesus and the rest, is a God who is always turning the world upside down. The poor are blessed, the hungry are filled, weakness is strength, dying is the path to life, the outsider is beloved and worthy of God’s promise and love. Whenever people really believe that, and really start to live like that’s true, feathers get ruffled for sure.
Even recent Christian history bears that out. Dorothy Day was arrested over and over and over, mocked and criticized and despised for standing up for the rights of workers, and welcoming the poor and destitute into beloved community. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed because he dared to take on the racism built into the foundation of our society. Oscar Romero was shot while saying mass at the altar because he stood with the poor in El Salvador and stood up to the government that ignored and exploited them.
But that’s what it means to sign up with Jesus. It means joining God in the wilderness, sitting with the desolation of Hagar and the cries of Ishmael, hearing those same screams in the laments of mothers whose children are killed by guns; in the desolation of a refugee family who has watched their son wash up dead on a beach, only to meet contempt from the nation they flee to. Following Jesus is about shining a light of love into the dark life of the woman sold on the streets, it’s about taking starving Ishmael into our arms by sharing a table with the homeless and hungry.
God heard the voice of the boy. And God was with the boy. Do we hear his voice today? Are we with that boy, or that girl, that man or that woman?
But Jesus isn’t just edgy in today’s gospel lesson. His warnings of resistance are backed up by re-stating God’s promise that has endured since all the way back in Genesis. “Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” “Even the hairs on your head are counted.” There is nothing that can happen to us, there is nothing we can do, to escape God’s love and God’s commitment to us.
God heard the voice of the boy. And God was with the boy. God hears your voice: scared, broken, angry, doubtful, grieving, filled with regrets, singing with joy. God hears your voice. If God was with Ishmael and Hagar, that means God is with you.
Where do you hear Ishmael, where do you see Hagar this week?
It’s no secret that we Christians are not always particularly Christ-like. The church and church people are just as flawed as Abraham and Sarah and the rest. But whenever Christians start to take Jesus at his word, whenever Christians start to live with Jesus’ heart, they often start to seem crazy. But in a world gone crazy with fear, in a world mad with violence, in a world full of demented divisions, living and loving like Jesus might just make us go sane. Loving wastefully, waging peace, living like Jesus, might just throw out a lifeline of hope and joy, and announce the Kingdom of God has come near. Amen.