Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 25th, 2023 

Readings – Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 69:7-18; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39 


“What troubles you Hagar?   Do not be afraid; for God has heard”  (Gen 21.17)

Two weeks ago I used our first lesson from Genesis to talk about our spiritual journeys and how they bring us to a God who is real and who wants to be known.   Today I want to continue with Genesis to talk about how God does hear and see us, but first I’m going to start this sermon with a little bit of imagination and creative writing, so bear with me.

She had tried to make the water last, but now the it was long gone, the skin was empty.   The sun, a hot ball of flame, beat down on her.   Overhead, the desert birds circled slowly, patient and merciless.   She couldn’t bear to look over her shoulder to the place where her child lay, but now she was so weak that she couldn’t turn her hear to look even if she wanted to .   With cracked lips, her voice a hoarse whisper, she made this prayer.

16Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.

17Do not hide your face from your servant, for I am in distress—make haste to answer me.”

So what I am doing here?   You’ve probably guessed by now that the person I’m talking about it is Hagar from our first lesson, and her prayer is part of our reading from Psalm 69.   I have two reasons for doing this.

I think it’s helpful to try and imagine Hagar as a real person, someone we can identify with and relate to, rather than some minor character from the most ancient book of the bible.

The second is to try and imagine a psalm being used as prayer, a last ditch cry for help at a time of profound despair.    As you know, I’ve preached on the psalms before, and I’ve said that the psalms are prayers that  cover a wide variety of human experience.   ]

The psalms range from a sense of joy and security that we are loved by God, to rage and anger when we feel betrayed by those around us, horror as our bodies sicken and waste away, and dark times when we feel that God is all we have left to turn to.

So I think it’s quite easy to imagine Psalm 69, or words like it, being prayed by Hagar in our first lesson, or really by any person in distress or desolation. 

So let’s try first to think a bit about Hagar, who she is and how she’s come to this, and then let’s think about how the psalms remind us that God hears our prayers.

So I won’t bore with a long lesson on Hagar.  Remember a few Sundays ago, when we heard the lesson from Genesis on how God told Abraham to move to a land that he would show him, and then how Abraham packed all those camels and set off?   Well, Hagar was one of that household, a slave girl from Egypt, a maid of Abram’s wife, Sarai.  Genesis tells two stories about Hagar being cast out of camp (Gen 16 and Gen 21), of which the second is our lesson today.

God has promised Abram that he will have an heir, and his descendants will be a great nation, but Sarai was old and barren, and years passed, so Sarai has the idea of letting Abram have a child by Hagar.   So the plan worked, Hagar got pregnant, but then Sarai got jealous and started acting horribly so Hagar ran away.  God finds her in the desert, by a spring, sees her misery, and talks her into going back because God has plans for her child, who will also thrive and be the father of a great people.  

So Hagar returns to Abram and Sarai, but first she does something remarkable.  Hagar gives God a name.    Usually in Genesis it is God who gives people names, but here a lowly slave girl names God, and she calls God “El Roi”, the God who sees.  And in our first lesson today, God does see.  

So by the time we get to our first reading today, Hagar’s son Ishamel is probably a pre-teen when God does another surprising thing and allows old Sarai to have her son, who is going to be named Isaac.  But Sarai is still a nasty old piece of work, and presumably she doesn’t want Ishmael competing with her son as the heir, so she tells Abram to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael.    

God sees and hears all of this.  God notes Abram’s distress and reassures him that Ishmael will also have a future (and in the Middle Eastern traditions, Ishamel is the ancestor of the Arab peoples, including the prophet Mohammed).   Again God finds Hagar in the desert. God hears Hagar’s weeping and God hears the faint voice of Ishamel, and God saves them.   

So what are we to make of all this?   These stories from Genesis can seem remote and strange, legends to explain the origins of races and peoples, but they can also come to life if we reimagine them as we did with Hagar praying in desperation as she dies of thirst.   How might we reimagine Hagar today?  Perhaps we could envision her as a modern day slave of sex traffickers or as a surrogate mother valued only for her womb.   We might see her as a badly treated domestic or nanny, or as any abandoned wife or mother.   

And what of Sarai?  She’s a nasty old thing to be sure, even though God has given her the same blessing and the same promise of a future that he gave to Abram.  She could have trusted in those promises and shared her blessing with Hagar.   Maybe Sarai is a cautionary tale for us church people, we who are blessed and loved by God, lest we also become bitter and horrible to those we think are beneath us.  Not a good look for church people, and yet we know of Christians who act that way.

So we can thank Hagar, a humble minor character in Genesis, for reminding us that God sees.  The lesson she teaches us is the same lesson that Jesus will teach his disciples when he tells them that his Father sees the smallest bird fall to the ground.  Now someone might hear or read this sermon and say, well, it’s all very good that God sees and hears everything, but why doesn’t God do something about it?

A better question is, what will we, God’s people, do about these things?    Who do we hear?  Who do we see?  How do we see the world?   This week the world held it’s breath for five wealthy people in a submarine, and while their deaths were tragic, at the same time the world barely noticed the deaths of nearly 700 migrants when their boat sank off Greece.

This week I was grateful for several of my clergy colleague who went to Barrie on Wednesday to add their voices and their Christian witness to a protest outside City Hall.  Thanks in part to their efforts, Council withdrew a motion that would have made it illegal to give food and water to homeless and poor people on public property.   As Bishop Andrew said this week, “when our communities are healthy and the most vulnerable are protected, God is glorified and we all benefit”.  

So today let’s take heart and encouragement from knowing that our God sees us amidst our distress.   Let’s give thanks for knowing that our cries prayers, even those as desperate as the psalms, are heard.  But let’s remember also that as followers of Jesus and as the people of God, we were given eyes and ears so that we might also see and hear those around us.  For to paraphrase the words of Jesus, we are all us of more value than many sparrows.