(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on June 25, 2017, Proper 7)
A Tale of Laughter
Last week we laughed with Sarah. “Who would ever have said” that a couple as old as Abraham and Sarah would have a child? When a messenger of God had visited Abraham and Sarah the year before and promised them a child, Sarah could not help but laugh. A bitter, cynical laugh. She did not believe it.
But no matter. Soon she conceived and bore a child. And Sarah laughed again. This time a joyful laugh, full of life. She could not believe it! She exclaimed, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Gen 21:6). Even the child’s name is full of laughter. Isaac means, “He laughs.”
The joke is on Sarah! Quite literally, by the story’s end, when Sarah holds him in her loving hands. The joke is on Sarah, and she’s happy to laugh along and to spread the laughter among others. The good news according to Sarah is that life comes after us even after we have given up on it. The good news is that we are made fools—but fools for God, fools whose lives stage the grand comedy of life, where God fills what is empty and barren and raises to life the lifeless and the lacking.
The Bible Is No Fairy Tale
Last week would have been a great way to end the story. The barren woman bears a child. Bitter laughter turns sweet. Abraham finally has the son whom God promised.
But the Bible is no fairy tale.
Oh, that’s the way it looks outside the tent of Abraham and Sarah. Outside the tent, in the public eye, it’s a beautiful story of birth and blessing: Abraham and Sarah and their miracle child Isaac. I imagine it’s the kind of feel-good story that would make the local headlines today. There’d be interviews of the proud papa, who’d say things like, “We’re just so blessed. You know, it wasn’t a thing we did. God just blessed us.” There’d be snapshots of the merry mother, her face glowing, her mouth wide open in laughter.
But every story has a flipside, and this one is no exception.
Step inside the tent, and the picture-perfect family is broken almost beyond recognition.
Years back, Sarah had concluded that she would never have a child, and so she made a decision that was not uncommon in her day: surrogate motherhood. What happens next reminds me of the dark histories of old southern plantations. Sarah and Abraham decide to have a child by the womb of their Egyptian maidservant, Hagar. But once Hagar has conceived, Sarah almost immediately regrets her decision. In her eyes, Hagar has become “uppity” (cf. Gen 16:4-5). In response, she treats Hagar so poorly that the pregnant maidservant runs away to the wilderness. Eventually, however, she returns and bears Abraham a son.
So by the time that Isaac is born, there are actually two sons in the household. And two mothers.
And that’s where the trouble brews. Isaac is three or four years old. He doesn’t understand the family dynamics. All he knows, we can imagine, is the joy of companionship. So when his half-brother, Hagar’s teenage son, introduces him to the fun of games like hide-and-seek or build-a-fort, Isaac doesn’t think a thing of it.
But Sarah does. She boils with jealousy. Her resentment is so great that she cannot even say the names of the maidservant or her son. “Cast out this slave woman,” she orders Abraham, “[along] with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac” (21:10). The demand distresses Abraham, of course, for the son of the slave woman is his son too. But after he receives a word of assurance from God, he consents to this family breakup. The next morning, Hagar and her son leave home and wander into the wilderness.
God in Laughter, God in Tears
How quickly the laughter of last week has faded. The Bible is no fairy tale. It knows that many stories of celebration have a dark underbelly. On the other side of last week’s birth and blessing is bitterness and brokenness.
Indeed, Hagar and are son are driven to their breaking point. As they run out of water in the wilderness, Hagar gives up. She places her son in the shade of some bushes and then sits down a ways on the opposite side so that she will not have to watch the death of her own child. Then she weeps.
If the gospel of Sarah last week was that God is in our laughter, then the gospel of Hagar this week is that God is in our tears. For no sooner have she and her son cried, than a messenger of God cries out to her: “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.” Then her eyes are opened, and through her tears she sees a well of water! Where did that come from? Was it there before? Had she missed it in her despair? No matter…she fills her skin with water and gives her son a drink. There is no laughter this time around, but don’t be fooled. God is here in Hagar’s tears just as much as God was in Sarah’s laughter. In both blessing and brokenness, God fills empty bodies with life.
“God Hears the Outsider”
That is gospel enough for one Sunday. But there is something that niggles me still. Have you noticed anything missing in all this talk? I have followed the lead of the scripture and refrained from using one name. The name of Hagar’s son. Nowhere in today’s story is it mentioned. Sarah cannot bring herself to use it. God does not use it. The narrator does not use it. Why is it missing? Why can no one say the name of Hagar’s son? Is it because this story is painful enough as it is, and using the name of the boy would only give him a face, would only make the story more painful? It is symbolic of how Abraham and Sarah are coping with the experience? Is the story repressing this boy’s memory as his father and stepmother are?
What is his name, by the way?
The name carries within it an entire history. Ishmael is the father of Islam. The name also carries within it a reminder that much of our world has forgotten or repressed: Ishmael means “God hears.”
Who does God hear? Not only Abraham and Sarah, not only the in-crowd. God hears Hagar. In one sense, the story of Ishmael and Hagar is a simple story of names. Ishmael means “God hears,” and Hagar means “the outsider.” What’s the story? Put the names together. God hears the outsider. God is in their tears as much as God is in the laughter of the blessed.
There Is No Way to Separate Islam from the Promise “God Hears”
Ishmael. It is a challenging name, because it contains both the history of Islam and the promise that “God hears.” In the name of Ishmael, there is no way to separate Islam from the promise, “God hears.” Who does God hear? Just us? Abraham Heschel, a compassionate and devout Jewish theologian, once wrote: “Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.” Which is to say, a God who is exclusive to certain interests—Christian, white, male, whatever—that God is nothing more than self-worship. It is an abuse: God remade in our own image.
I know that this can be a touchy matter in our world today. Rather than speak in generalities, which often become little more than battle lines for one position over another, I’d prefer to share from my personal experience. A friend from Libya, to whom I helped teach English several years ago, recently sent me a short message: “Hi John, how do you do? I hope you are good. I ask Allah to protect you.” If we’re talking about protection, she needs much more than I do, living as she does in a much more turbulent world. But she prayed for me. Did God hear her prayer? Ishmael.
I wonder if Hagar or Ishmael prayed for Abraham and Sarah. They’d have every reason not to. But I have my suspicions to the contrary. Because when Abraham dies, guess who shows up? Isaac, yes—but also Ishmael (25:8-9).
Perhaps God Hears Others and Is on Their Side
I have a tendency in my reflections to twist scripture to fit me. In other words, today’s scripture would mean that whenever I am crying, or whenever I experience rejection, God hears me and comes to me. But I wonder if for once I shouldn’t stay put, and let the other characters be other characters. Perhaps the tears of Hagar and Ishmael are really the tears of others, of folks who are different than me, of Muslims and black folks and women. And perhaps I have hurt them. And perhaps God hears their hurt and is on their side. That’s what the name Ishmael would suggest.
And perhaps—perhaps they are praying for me, and one day by the grace of the God who hears and cares for us all, our broken histories will be water under a bridge of love, and we will gather together like Isaac and Ishmael after a long, tearful history and put it to rest. And perhaps there life will come from death, and blessing from brokenness, and the reconciliation of Christ will become flesh and blood among us.
God of laughter,
God of tears,
Thank you for opening
The door to life
Whatever our circumstance;
God who is all ears
To the cries
Of the outsider—
Give us your ears
That we too might
Hear the cries of others
And share life with them.
In the name of this broken world’s reconciliation, Jesus Christ.
 Abraham J. Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966), 86.