Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras Genesis 21 June 21, 2020
When you feel blue or face a challenge, you need support. What do you usually do to lift your spirits? What do you do when people lie about you, stab you in the back, or confuse your motives? What do you do when you see your loved one get sick or your children struggle in their lives? How can you thrive amid a global pandemic? You might read Scripture. What part of the Scripture will you read? We usually read Psalm 23, “the Lord is my shepherd.” Or Isaiah 43:2 “When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.”
Maybe you would read Matthew 6:25-26 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”
These verses and many more like them make us feel good. How many of you would read the story of Christ’s crucifixion or story about Israel and Judea exile, or genocide in the book of Joel to be comforted or have hope for tomorrow? Church-going believers usually ignore biblical stories that include traumatic events. We do not dwell on these stories to help us to grow in faith. I have learned that these kinds of narratives point me at the resilience of the people of God. They teach me to hold on to my faith for the sake of Christ and to withstand trials. One of the stories that has taught me resilience is the story of an Egyptian slave woman, Hagar. Hagar is my heroine, not Sarah.
Hagar means “resident alien.” She was an African slave woman held in slavery by Sarah (Genesis 16:1). What a name. It seems that Sarah and Abraham did not bother to give her a real name. They were satisfied to call her “a stranger.” Many of you are familiar with her story. Sarah fails to bear a child to Abraham. She gives him her slave, Hagar, to provide him with a child. Sarah decides to have a child through a surrogate Hagar so that the child will be hers. That was the custom in their times. So, Hagar conceives and looks down on Sarah, which leads to Hagar’s expulsion from Abraham's household. God orders Hagar to go back to Sarah, which she does. Later she gives birth to Ishmael. Finally, Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac. Here, we reach today's reading from Genesis 21.
After Sarah has given birth to Isaac, she forced Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham leaves Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness with minimal provisions to face their fate alone. How cruel. Hagar sees her only son Ishmael dehydrated and close to death. She cries and weeps. God listens to her voice and saves her son.
Even though this story is painful and puzzling, we can empathize with Hagar’s anger, pain, and distress. Hagar takes everything she has to God. She brings her anger, emotions, and worries to God.
Hagar’s story and her relationship with Sarah and Abraham are as real as this world. Her story is the story of the relationship between free people and a slave woman. The racism that defines people based on their skin color is deeply rooted in our culture. We saw on the news the murder of George Floyd, a black man, at the hand of a white police officer. The result was demonstrations against police brutality and racism. Our city of Wausau participated in this demonstration. As God heard Hagar’s cry and saw her affliction, God is inviting us to listen to the voice of our disadvantaged sisters and brothers. God calls us to respect the minorities in our community. We are called to speak up for them and with them.
Hagar’s story is the story of a woman who is unable to protect her body from getting abused and used. Raped women, prostitutes, and battered women empathize with Hagar’s pain. Women and men who see their children go hungry or lying in hospital suffering can also empathize with Hagar. Hagar’s resilience and perseverance speaks to each one of us. Resilience is the ability to bounce back and the ability to keep going. “Real resilience is the process of coping with disruptive, stressful, or challenging life events in a way that provides the individual with additional protective and coping skills than prior to the disruption, that results from the event.” (“Resiliency in Schools” 2003).
Hagar's resilience and perseverance to keep her faith sets an example for us how to live our faith. I am not talking about surviving tough trials. You build resilience when you learn and grow from trials. This is precisely what Hagar did.
It is good to seek comfort from comforting passages in Scripture. It is also essential to read the most challenging stories in the Bible because these stories teach us resilience.
Jesus says, “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38). He also says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Hagar’s cross was her slavery. She carried her cross despite her pain. She kept carrying her cross, and finally, God rewarded her.
The author of Genesis 21: 20-21 tells us that “God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. 21 While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.”
“Our faith can be a pillar we lean upon at moments when it can be hardest to find meaning and purpose from our lives.” This faith helps you to be resilient in the face of challenges. Your faith assures you that our God is always on your side. As God was with Hagar, God, through the work of the Holy Spirit in you, will help you to be resilient and to grow in faith.