Saturday, 24 June 2017

God hears us? Hagar & Ishmael...

Genesis 21: 8-21
I wonder if you’re still watching or listening to the News? Sometimes it just seems as if there is so much bad news, one thing after another, I have great sympathy with people who say they are having a rest and not keeping up for a while – they just can’t bear any more.
And yet, we who say we believe in a loving God surely need to watch and listen and hope and pray – and ask ‘where is the love of God in all this?’.

In just the last two weeks we have had the attack on London Bridge, the Grenfell tower fire, the attack on Finsbury Park mosque, and continuing terrible news of the ongoing war in Syria, as well as violence in Pakistan.
That some of this violence happens in the name of God is especially appalling.

But I really believe our reading from the Hebrew scriptures today can help us.

I expect we are very familiar with the story of Abraham and Sarah and their son Isaac; but today we heard the story of another son of Abraham – his older son Ishmael, born to Sarah’s slave-girl, Hagar.

If we read back to chapter 16 of the book of Genesis, it was Sarah’s idea that because she hadn’t been able to give Abraham children, he should have children via her slave. Once Hagar was pregnant, Sarah felt she was looking down on her mistress, and (with Abraham’s agreement) she was harsh to Hagar, and Hagar ran away.

While Hagar was pregnant and in the wilderness an angel came & told her to return to Sarah with God’s blessing. Hagar was told to name her son Ishmael – which mean ‘God will hear’.
Hagar returns, the boy is born, and he is called ‘Ishmael’ – God will hear.

And so Ishmael – God will hear – could be the title of the story we heard today.
Once again Sarah is displeased – this time seeing the older of Abraham’s sons, Ishmael, playing with her son – the younger boy, Isaac. Again Sarah & Abraham don’t care about Hagar, and again she ends up in the wilderness – this time cast out, with the container of water having run dry. Our hearts go out to Hagar as she realizes her son is near to death – and she lays him in the shade and goes a distance away to sob, as she can’t bear to see him die.

But God will hear – hear not only her cries, but the story says ‘God heard the child crying’ and an angel of the Lord comes and shows Hagar where there is a well to revive them both.

Ishmael – God will hear.
God hears Hagar & Ishmael and cares for them, just as he will care for Sarah and Isaac.
God will hear the one who is cast out, who is a slave, who is not the favoured one.

Perhaps the news in our time would be different if people would recognise that God blesses all of the children of Abraham. God blesses Isaac, through whom the ‘chosen people’ of Israel would emerge, whom we would call Jewish; and God blesses Ishmael, through whom the people of the Arabian desert, many of whom will later become Muslim, will emerge. And as for those of us who call ourselves Christian, we too are children of Abraham, through the lineage of Jesus.

Our story tells us that God will hear – hear the Jew, hear the Muslim, hear the Christian. And nothing in this story suggests that God will not hear any other person besides – he is the God who will hear. He will hear the slightest whimper of a dying boy, and he will hear each sparrow fall to the ground, says Jesus.

Frederick Buechner, the American writer and theologian, who is a Presbyterian minister, has said of the story of Hagar and Ishmael:
“it is the story of how in the midst of the whole unseemly affair the Lord, half tipsy with compassion, went around making marvelous promises and loving everybody and creating great nations like the last of the big-time spenders handing out hundred-dollar bills.”

This is a story about the great mercy and compassion of the God who will hear, who will bless and who will walk with all people.
Ishmael’s story ends with “God was with the child as he grew up”, and in the very next part of this chapter of Genesis, it is said to Abraham “God is with you in all you do”.

This is close to scandalous – God will hear Ishmael, and will protect him against the evil, callous plans of Sarah & Abraham; God is with Ishmael. This makes some sense – a God who helps the helpless.

But then God is with Abraham, the perpetrator of evil, the callous father of this poor boy – God will hear him, too. What a shocking story this is – God does not take sides in this battle between Ishmael & Isaac, the sons of Abraham and the sons of Hagar and Sarah. There is not a difference between one race, who God will hear and protect, and the other race - those whom God will ignore.
Ishmael – God will hear – and he is listening to the cries of all humanity.

This is the news of a God of love which really could change our world, for here is not only justice for the oppressed, but mercy for the perpetrators.

On the 26th of May this year, terrorists attacked a bus of Coptic Christians in Cairo, and shot and killed 28 people. You might know that the Coptic church, originating in Egypt, is one of the oldest Christian traditions in the world.

Bishop Angaelos of the UK Coptic church, was asked if he had a statement to make about the so-called Islamic terrorists, and these were his words
“You are loved. The violent and deadly crimes you perpetrate are abhorrent and detestable, but you ARE loved.”

It seems barely credible, but the promise of Ishmael is that God hears and loves those who show violence and hatred – even while he stands alongside the victim and the injured.

What would this message of love mean for the driver of the van at Finsbury Park mosque, for the people who should have ensured the safety of the residents of Grenfell towers, for people who plan knife attacks on innocent people going about their ordinary lives…?
Ishmael – God will hear.
God is with you.
You are loved.

And as for us – Ishmael – God will hear. God will hear us when we are confused, or despairing, and when then news all seems bad.
And God will use us to share his good news with the world, if we will let him – you are heard, you are blessed, you are loved.

In the name of God – all merciful, and ever-loving,

Amen.

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