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The Voice of the Boy
Austin Seminary Intern Rachel Watson
June 28, 2020
A Reading from the Book of Genesis
The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.
But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 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. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”
So Abraham 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. When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
Our story begins at a birthday party. Isaac is turning three. In an era when infant mortality is high, this birthday is a milestone, a celebration of hope and a promise of a life to be lived.
Sarah is there, of course. She’s Isaac’s mom. Abraham’s wife. Who could have imagined that she, who had hoped for a baby for so many years, would be blessed with a child at the age of 90? It seemed impossible. But God had heard her prayers, and when hope was all but lost, had given her what she needed most.
And Abraham is there. The proud father. Two sons! Who could have asked for more? And each of them a child of God’s promise. Each of them destined for greatness. Each of them destined to be the father of nations. When he feared for his oldest son’s future, God had heard his prayers and promised that both of his children would prosper.
And Hagar is there. Ishmael’s mother. Sarah’s servant. Handed over to Abraham in hopes of bearing a son. Her life has been written by ones with more power than her. When she rejoiced at the prospect of motherhood, she was brought low by the jealousy of her mistress. When she managed to escape, she was brought low by the scarcity of water in the desert. But God heard her cries and showed her a way where there seemed to be none.
And Ishmael. Abraham’s teenage son. Hagar’s baby. Ishmael, whose name means God hears, because God heard Hagar’s sorrow and came to her. He is joyful today. Playing and laughing. Perhaps playing at being a man, standing beside his father as the host of the party. Or playing with his sibling, a big brother caring for the younger. Or playing by himself, laughing and amusing himself as the crowd celebrates his baby brother.
And Isaac. Sweet Isaac. Sarah’s baby, whose name means laugher. His mother proclaims that all who hear of his birth will laugh with her.
But, as it turns out, not everyone has the right to laugh with Sarah today. She sees the son of her maidservant laughing alongside her son, a sibling and fellow heir. Her joy turns to fear. To jealousy. To anger. And her story begins to repeat itself. She struggles to trust a God whose concepts of time and worth and wealth are different from her own. She always has. In moments of trouble, Sarah takes matters into her own hands. So, here, Sarah scrambles to make sure that she, who hasn’t always had enough, enough safety, enough wealth, enough joy, she makes sure that she procures for her son the very best. This other child, this Ishmael, with his carefree laugh, cannot laugh with her. What if there isn’t enough, enough time to raise Isaac to manhood, enough wealth to be split between the boys, enough power for Isaac to come out on top?
It’s uncomfortable for us to hear our story in Sarah’s story. But we do. I sat in a workshop a few years ago and heard the presenter speak about the myth of scarcity. That there was plenty of money and food and shelter in the world for everyone to have what they need. And it’s true, but that’s not the lived experience for many. We scramble for our piece of unevenly distributed resources. And even when we have enough, we fear that if we give any away, it won’t be there when we need it, and nobody will share it with us. So, the lived experience is often one of scarcity … or fear of scarcity.
So, Sarah tells Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael out. And Abraham despairs. He loves his sons. Both of them. The one that brought joy to his beloved Sarah. And the one that has grown into a man before his eyes and at his side. But he has faith in an ever-faithful God that God will step in and make it right for him. He prays and is given a promise that God has it covered. But he gives Hagar a little bread and water as he sends them on their way. Perhaps he thought it was enough to get them to the well where Hagar had found safety in the hands of God before. Perhaps he thought it was enough to get them to Egypt, to her home, where her own would care for her. Perhaps he simply thought it was enough to get them far enough away that he wouldn’t have to watch this child die.
We see ourselves in him too. We trust in an ever-faithful God who watches out for us and makes it right for us. We pray, hoping that God can fix what we can’t, because God can. And God does. So, we wait, within power structures that oppress, slapping Band-Aids on the problems, sending our thoughts and prayers.
Cast out, Hagar is in the wilderness, separated from all that is familiar, all that is safe, suddenly on her own to care for her child with nothing. This is so sudden. There was no warning. Does she even know why the proverbial shoe has dropped?
This is how it is for people who live on the edge. One paycheck. One temperamental boss. One unexpected medical bill. Statistics vary wildly on how many Americans live this close to disaster, varying from 30 percent to 70 percent, depending on if you’re looking for those that have no savings or those who have less than one month’s savings. People who live like Hagar. Today, you’re doing okay. But you’re one step from the edge. The things that you balance just to stay there—economics, education, age, gender, health, color—they stack on top of each other, each addition multiplying the struggle and threatening the precarious balance.
Wandering in the wilderness, Hagar is now lost and out of resources. And Ishmael is dying. In despair, his mother sets her son in the only shade she can find. It is all she can think of to offer him. And she walks away before dropping to her knees a little way off. And she prays. She lifts up her voice to God to see her again. To hear her again. To save her again.
I get that. To look away and cry out in despair. To hide from the injustices and the hurt and the grief that seem to leave me with not enough. I feel it now. A virus that has locked the nation away and uncovered how many of us live so close to the edge. A racial divide cracked wide open that threatens the lives of our brothers and sisters because skin color. A political system that divides neighbor against neighbor and makes it hard to know fiction from fact. A health crisis that keeps us from loved ones and threatens to steal even our goodbyes. I lift up my voice and call out to God to fix it. To make it end.
And I know God can and God will. There is no shadow of turning with God. God is always faithful. Always watching out for us. Always for us.
But God is also with us. Always calling us into the relationship with God. Calling us be with God so God can work great things in us. To do the work with us right here. Right now.
Listen again to verse 16-18. In the grand movement of the story, the message of this moment can be lost. Ishmael is dying. Hagar has walked away. The scripture says, “She lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand.’”
God hears the voice of the boy. In the verse before, Hagar is lifting her voice. We hear her. But God hears Ishmael.
The text doesn’t record his words. If they were even words. Maybe it was one last raspy breath before death. Maybe it was a weak whimper born of thirst and hunger. Maybe it was a plea for his momma in final desperation. We don’t know.
We do know that God hears the boy. And then calls to Hagar. And tells her, “Do not be afraid.” Tells her, “Lift up the boy and hold him with your hand.”
I have no doubt that God could have gone to Ishmael first. God’s power is great, and God’s faithfulness is without question. The scriptures share story after story of people who are lifted up by God. Even Ishmael’s family – even Sarah, and Abraham, and Hagar.
But, here, God hears Ishmael and calls to Hagar. Not the most powerful. Not the most perfect. Not the one with the longest relationship with God. And God does what God does over and over and over again. Calling imperfect people, non-powerful people, people who are on the brink of losing hope, into relationship in God and with each other. God invites us to be together. To have radical faith and do the hard things that put us in uncomfortable spaces. To care for each other with everything that we have, having the courage that God will provide what we need. God cares for us with us. Through us, the fires of justice burn.
Ishmael. It means God hears him.
God hears our Ishmael. The one who is dying right now. The one who is suffering right now.
And God calls to us. As long as there’s still voice in us, however small, however battered, however imperfect. As long as there’s still life in us, God is inviting us into relationship with God and with each other. To not be afraid. To hear what God hears. To laugh when God laughs. To cry when God cries. And to lift up our voices to God who is for us.
… and lift up Ishmael, our brothers and sisters whose lives are in danger right now, to God who is with us, and to hold them fast, because even when we feel inadequate, even we can’t do much because we are hurting too, God is with us and for us.
We may be small, but with God, God does great things with us, and for us.
God has heard the voice of the boy and calls to you.
Who is your Ishmael? Who are we called to lift up with our hands together with God?
The vulnerable to disease who need you to wear that uncomfortable mask and stay home?
The people of color who need you to call out racism in your friends and in yourself?
The lonely and depressed who need you to pick up the phone and listen to their voice?
The victims of police brutality who need you to say their name and let them breathe?
The marginalized who need you to value their diversity and cast your vote?
The hungry poor who need you to share what you have in abundance without fear?
The warming earth who need you to give up luxuries for the longevity of the creatures on it?
The immigrants who need you to demand they be able to wash and eat and breath?
We are so small. We can’t do it on our own. But God, who is faithful, is for us and with us every day and binds us together with God and with each other. And with God, we can do great things. And perhaps this world could be about to turn.
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