Every family has painful, complicated stories that they’d rather not talk about. Family dynamics can be very complex. Often the very people we live with are the ones who can wound us the most. Our text for today pulls all the skeletons out of the first family of faith’s closet. This horrifying story is where we see the messes of God’s chosen ones bubble to the surface and erupt. A day of great celebration for Isaac’s weaning, a day of laughter, gratitude, and playfulness, eventually becomes a day of heartache, anguish, and betrayal. We often forget the story of Hagar and Ishmael. It’s not one we American Christians are even all that familiar with. As a child, I sang the song, “Father Abraham,” you know, the one that goes like this: “Father Abraham had many sons, and many sons had Father Abraham. I am one of them. And so are you. So let’s all praise the Lord.” I sang those words, and I didn’t even know the story of Father Abraham’s firstborn son, Ishmael.
It’s a story we often skip over or move on from quickly in favor of dwelling on stories about Isaac. We forget that when Sarah and Abraham doubted God’s promise to make a great nation of them, Sarah took matters into her own hands and had her servant Hagar bear a son for Abraham. Sarah said to Abraham, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” Hagar had no choice, no agency in this matter. She was a slave woman who did as she was told. She did indeed conceive, and when she became pregnant, she looked with contempt on her mistress. God only knows what she was feeling and thinking! Maybe she was glad to be able to have child growing inside of her. Or maybe she looked with contempt upon Sarah because Sarah put her in this awful position of having to carry and give birth to her master’s son. Because of her jealousy, Sarah began to deal harshly with Hagar.
The story in our text for today is not the first time Hagar and Ishmael have ended up in the desert. Hagar ran away from Sarah and ended up in the wilderness in Genesis 16, too. The angel of the Lord found Hagar in the wilderness in chapter 16 by a spring of water and called out to her, “Hagar, where have you come from and where are you going?” The angel told her to go back to Sarah, and made a promise to Hagar that was similar to the promise God made to Abraham. The angel said to her, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.” God told her that she was to name her son Ishmael, meaning God hears, for God heard her affliction. She is the only female in the Bible who ever receives a promise for offspring. She’s also the only woman who names God. After this encounter, she says to God: “You are El-roi.” El-roi means the God of seeing or the God who sees. She asked, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing?” God had truly seen her. God knew she had gotten into this situation because of abuse of power and the unjust actions of others, and God met her where she was, in the wilderness, in her desperation, and made promises to her about her children, her future.
Hagar went back to Sarah and Abraham’s house, had her son there, and raised him. We don’t hear anything about Hagar and Ishmael again until the day of Isaac’s weaning celebration, the day that’s described in our text for today. Isaac would have been about three years old on the day of his weaning celebration, and Ishmael would have been about seventeen years old. Sarah sees Ishmael playing with her son Isaac. Perhaps they are playing in the same way any older brother might play with his younger brother? Sarah catches a glimpse of their playfulness with one another, and it reminds her that they have a relationship with one another, that they are brothers, that they both are set to inherit what belongs to their father, that Ishmael is set to receive the greater inheritance for he is the firstborn. Ishmael is becoming an adult, and her son is just a young boy. Fear and jealousy and greed well up inside of Sarah. She doesn’t need Hagar and Ishmael anymore, and her selfish desires lead to great cruelty. Sarah goes 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.” Abraham is torn and distressed. Danna Nolan Fewell, who retells the story from Hagar’s perspective, imagines Hagar’s inner dialogue. Fewell imagines Hagar silently screaming to herself, saying: “I have a name. I have a name. My name is Hagar. My son has a name. His name is Ishmael. God hears. God hears. God, are you listening now?” Looking at Hagar with anger and betrayal exploding inside her, she says, “How can you do this? You forced me to have this child. And now, when we are no longer convenient, you throw us out? How can you do this? God of my seeing, are you seeing me now?”[i]
God tells Abraham to do whatever Sarah says. God reminds Abraham that it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for him, that God’s covenant will be fulfilled. And then God lets Abraham in on God’s promise to Hagar and Ishmael; God tells Abraham that God will make a great people out of Ishmael, too. It’s a disturbing text because it feels like God sides with Sarah, telling Abraham to listen to her, to cast out Hagar and Ishmael. But it’s also a reminder that God doesn’t control us like puppets, that our actions have great consequences for other people, and yet God will work in and through us despite the messes we make of our lives and other people’s lives.
Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away with meager provisions. With a little bread and a skin of water, he sends them out into the desert. He had the power to give them more sustenance, and yet he chose not to do so. Before long, they are out of water, and Ishmael is dying of thirst. It’s an excruciating moment to witness; it’s every parent’s worst nightmare. Hagar cannot bear to look upon the death of her child, so she sits opposite him and weeps. God hears the cries of Ishmael. And the angel of the Lord once again appears to Hagar in the wilderness, this time saying, “Do not be afraid. God hears. God hears your son. Go and lift up him and hold him fast with your hand. Remember my promise. I will make a great nation of him.” At that moment, God opened her eyes to a well of water, and she was able to give her precious son water to drink. God does not take away their pain or their strife, but God does make a way where there was no way. God opens their eyes; God was with them; God hears them; God gives them sustenance. Ishmael becomes a man of great freedom, surely a dream come true for a woman who had spent most of her life as a slave. Hagar continues to provide for her son; she goes and obtains a wife for him from her very own homeland, a job normally reserved for a child’s father. Though Sarah and Abraham treat Hagar and Ishmael as disposable, God steps into their lives and sees, hears, and makes great promises to this excluded son of Abraham and his mother.
If the matriarch and patriarch of our faith are capable of acting on their worse fears, of letting their greed get the best of them, of allowing their sinfulness to wreak havoc on others’ lives, I think we have to recognize that we too are capable of such harm. In what ways do we use other bodies and cast them away when they no longer serve our purposes? In what ways do we treat other’s bodies as disposable? In what ways have we chosen jealousy and greed over compassion and mercy and hospitality? In what ways might we have sent people away into the wilderness to die, casting them off so that we would never have to even know about their suffering, much less look upon it? When have we had resources, wealth, provisions that we chose not to share with those in need, with the outcast, the refugee, the poor, the orphan, the distressed? We often treat bodies based upon how similar or different that they are from ours. We distance ourselves from people of different races, sexual identities and orientations, and ethnicities. Our relationship with those who descended from Ishmael is still tenuous. We tend to prioritize the bodies of those who most look, act, live, and think like us.
In late June of 1964, during what we now call Freedom Summer, three young men –Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, disappeared near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Schwerner and Chaney worked for the Congress of Racial Equality in Meridian, and Goodman was one of the hundreds of college students across America who volunteered to work on voter registration, education, and Civil Rights as part of the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project. One day they visited Neshoba County’s Mt. Zion Baptist Church, a church where Schwerner had spent time working; they had come to see the remains of the church as the Ku Klux Klan had burned it to the ground after beating several people who were having a meeting there. While driving their station wagon back to Meridan, their car was identified as a Congress of Racial Equality vehicle; the police stopped them and arrested all three. Chaney was charged with speeding, and the other two were held for investigation. A sheriff’s deputy escorted them to jail around 4pm that afternoon. Despite the fact that fines for speeding were posted on the wall, the deputy told them they would have to stay in jail until the Justice of the Peace arrived to process the fine. Folks began calling to look for them. The deputy returned around 10pm and collected the speeding fine, with no appearance from the Justice of the Peace, and then told them to get out of the county. They left the jail, but they were never seen alive again.
In 1964, Mississippi was the only state without a central FBI office, so agents from the New Orleans office showed up the next day and started a kidnapping investigation. One day later they found the young men’s station wagon still smoldering from an attempt to get rid of evidence; they began a search for their bodies. The case began drawing national attention, in part because Schwerner and Goodman were white Northerners. When Schwerner’s wife was interviewed she said, “The slaying of a Negro in Mississippi is not news. It’s only because my husband and Andrew Goodman were white that the national alarm has been sounded.” Throughout the entire month of July, investigators searched the woods, fields, swamps, and rivers of Mississippi, finding the bodies of eight black men that they hadn’t even been looking for. Two were identified as Henry Dee and Charles Moore, college students who had been kidnapped, beaten, and murdered in May of that year. We still know nothing else of the other six, other than one of them was wearing a Congress of Racial Equality t-shirt. They remain unnamed black bodies. Finally after a tip from an informant who was a police officer, the investigators found the bodies of Schwener, Chaney, and Goodman at an earthen dam on the Old Jolly Farm outside Philadelphia. Court trials later revealed that right before he released the three young men, the sheriff’s deputy picked up the phone and called a man named Edgar Ray Killen, a leader of the Ku Klux Klan and a Baptist minister, to give him a head’s up that the three men would soon be leaving the jail. Edgar organized Klan members to go after the three young men, shoot them, and bury their bodies with a bulldozer.[ii]
Ella Baker, one of the most influential civil rights activists and organizers, most well-known for her role in creating the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was created right down the road at Shaw University in Raleigh, responded to the dragging of the rivers that summer by saying, “Until the killing of black men, black mothers' sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother's son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.” Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon later wrote and performed a song with her heritage group inspired by these words. Dr. Reagon titled the song, “Ella’s Song.” Stephen’s going to sing part of the song for us…
We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes
Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons
Is as important as the killing of White men, White mothers’ sons
Ella’s song calls us to repent for the ways in which we continue to value the body of Sarah’s son over the body of Hagar’s son. Ella’s song cautions us that none of us are really free until we honor and respect all bodies, for all bodies, all sons and daughters have someone who loves them dearly and all bodies are children of our God. Our God is the God who hears the cries of the vulnerable, the mothers, the fathers, the sons, the daughters, the children, the poor, the ones dying without resources, the ones being murdered in our streets, the refugee, the orphan, the distressed, the bodies that are bought and sold and at our disposal. God sees the bodies of Hagar and Ishmael. God is with them. God will open their eyes to water; God will give them sustenance. God makes promises to be their God, too. Will we see the vulnerable as our family, as the siblings we’ve gained when we joined the body of Christ? Or will we, like Sarah and Abraham, cast them out into the wilderness and blind ourselves to their suffering? Let us hear the voice of Ishmael crying out, and let us not rest until all God’s children, like Ishmael, are set free.
[i] Danna Nolan Fewell, “Changing the Subject: Retelling the Story of Hagar the Egyptian” in Genesis: A Feminist Companion to the Bible, edited by Athalya Brenner, 188.