Monday, June 26, 2017

Sermon: The God Who Hears

"The God Who Hears"
Genesis 21: 8-21; Psalm 86: 1-11; 16-17
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
June 25, 2017

The child [Isaac] 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 after 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.
- Genesis 21: 8-21

Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you;
save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; be gracious to me, O Lord,
for to you do I cry all day long.
Gladden the soul of your servant,
for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer;
listen to my cry of supplication.
In the day of my trouble I call on you,
for you will answer me.

There is none like you among the gods, O Lord,
nor are there any works like yours.
All the nations you have made shall come
and bow down before you, O Lord,
and shall glorify your name.
For you are great and do wondrous things;
you alone are God.
Teach me your way, O Lord,
that I may walk in your truth;
give me an undivided heart to revere your name.

Turn to me and be gracious to me;
give your strength to your servant;
save the child of your serving-maid.
Show me a sign of your favor,
so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame,
because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me.
- Psalm 86: 1-11, 16-17

There is more to a story than meets the eye. Last week we heard the story of Abraham and Sarah laughing at the prospect of bearing God’s promised son Isaac. This week we hear the back story as time stood still for the couple in waiting in Genesis.

When God did not seem to deliver on the promise fast enough, Sarah and Abraham took matters into their own hands. Sarah gave her slave Hagar to Abraham as a surrogate mother. As soon as Hagar conceived, the dynamics within the household changed. Feeling she was solely a means to an end, Hagar had contempt for Sarah. It did not take long for Sarah to tell Abraham all about it. He advised Sarah to do to her slave girl as she pleased. So Sarah dealt harshly with Hagar (Genesis 16).

Pregnancy in an abusive environment was more than she could take so Hagar attempted to run away. God found her in the wilderness and told Hagar to return to her mistress. A blessing of descendants was promised through this child Hagar carried, for she would bear a son who would be called Ishmael (Genesis 16: 10-12). It is interesting to note that in Hebrew “Ishmael” means “God hears.”

After Ishmael was born, Isaac came into the world. And in our text today something caught Sarah’s attention. She heard laughing as the two half-brothers played together. Maybe she was afraid for them to grow up as equals – the son of a slave and the son of a matriarch. What were the chances that Ishmael could take the birthright which God had promised Isaac?

Suddenly the slave woman and her son were cast out into the wilderness. It is a hard and bitter truth to say that Sarah looked down upon Hagar and Ishmael with rejection. Sarah felt the two no longer belonged to Abraham’s household.

Theologian Phyllis Trible says that Hagar’s story is important because “all sorts of rejected women find their stories in Hagar. She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless woman, the indigent relying on handouts from the power structures, the welfare mother, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others.”[1]

How do we respond to the Hagars of life?

In order to answer that question, we must first inquire how did God respond?

As Hagar wandered in her wilderness she was no longer a slave but no more empowered to thrive. She had no support system, no family to lean on, no resources. She sat her son under the shade of a bush and she cried tears of grief.

And God heard. The angel of the Lord called to Hagar. In the Genesis story Hagar only heard her name spoken two times during her struggles. The only One to say her name was the voice of God (Genesis 16:8; 21:17).

God called Hagar’s name restoring her value, sense of worth, and belonging to him. God encouraged Hagar to hold her son fast for God held them both in the hands of God’s blessing. And God provided nourishment and new life for them.

God’s faithfulness is rooted in compassion. The Psalmist cries out for God’s compassion and in his words I can hear Hagar’s voice, saying “Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy…Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer; listen to my cry of supplication. In the day of my trouble I call on you, for you will answer me” (Psalm 86:1, 6-7).

Compassion comes from a willingness to suffer with another. And we see that as God draws near to Hagar, as Jesus draws near to the outcasts, and as Christ died for the ungodly. God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:6,8).

I have certainly had my own personal hardships and dark nights of the soul, but as a woman with a privileged life, I will never truly know the hardships, sufferings, and perseverance reflected in the stories of the marginalized in this community, in our country and in the wider world.

But God’s Spirit persists to open our eyes and ears to see and hear brave women, children, and men who strive day after day to reveal stories of hardship as they search for a sense of belonging to the human race and to God’s universal family.

Fannie Lou Hamer was a notable Civil Rights activist for the state of Mississippi. Her grandparents were slaves and her parents were both sharecroppers. Fanny Lou had nineteen siblings. She had to quit school at the age of 12 to work the cotton fields. Fanny Lou married a sharecropper and her efforts in Civil Rights were getting blacks registered to vote. The plantation owner forced Fanny Lou to decide between revoking her voter registration or leaving her work and family on the plantation. Fanny chose to leave instead of sacrificing her dignity and chance for equal rights.

Fanny Lou joined forces with Septima Poinsette Clark, of South Carolina, to register blacks to vote in Charleston. When the charter bus returned to Mississippi, Fanny Lou and her supporters were arrested for a lunch counter sit in; they were beaten in jail beyond recognition. Fanny Lou persevered through incredible suffering and adversity to help pave a way towards God’s freedom. Fanny Lou often said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”[2]

Shavon is a seminary and clergy colleague of mine. She is married and has two beautiful children. She had a harrowing experience while serving her first church. One night she and her family drove back to the church manse, where they lived. As soon as they parked the car, they saw blue light flashing behind them.

The officer came to the car and began questioning Shavon and her husband in an aggressive manner. Shavon told the officer she was the minister of the church; the officer did not believe her. There had been no driving violation, only racial profiling. Since that night Shavon has deep concerns as her son grows up with racial tensions still high across the country.

Sawsan Gazzar is grieving the senseless death of her seventeen year old daughter Nabra Hassanen. Nabra was murdered after leaving worship from the Mosque in Sterling, VA last Sunday night. Mothers and fathers are afraid for their Muslim children in these times of religious tension.[3]

In response to this tragedy this past week, a rabbi in the Sterling community tried to comfort the youth at this Mosque by listening to their stories. The rabbi was grieved to hear that every youth in that circle had been called slurs like “terrorist” or “ISIS” from classmates in school. And yet what a display of compassion for this clergy member to step outside of his tradition and into the wilderness our Muslim sisters and brothers are wandering in.

The struggles continue for the Hagars of the world today. We have a choice to cast out their stories or listen with a faith that seeks understanding.

The Rev. Dr. Leanne Van Dyk is the tenth president of Columbia Theological Seminary. She states, “When the church is deaf to the voices of women, children, powerless men and other people at the margins the health of [the church’s] faith and witness is compromised.”

It is more important than ever for the body of Christ to ask God’s Spirit to lift up the voices that society tries to silence. These voices have a rich diversity of cultures and experiences that bear the fruit of wisdom. Their stories of suffering and hardships reveal the heart of endurance, character, and hope against all odds. Their stories open to us new glimpses of God’s deliverance for “God is the God of all the world including the outcasts.”[4]

The reason that label of “outcasts” exists is because throughout our history humanity has said this person or these particular groups of people do not belong; and yet we all are created from the love of God.

May you and I go forward today asking the Lord to teach us his ways, that we may walk in God’s truth and revere the Lord’s name with a heart that is not divided by contempt, fear, difference, or stereotypes (Psalm 86:11).

We honor God’s name “The God Who Hears” as the Spirit moves us to listen with hearts of compassionate; for compassion is the key to seeing and hearing as God sees and hears.

In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

[1] New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: Volume 1 Genesis (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), p. 152.
[2] Chana Kai Lee, “For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fanny Lou Hamer” (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000).
[3] David Smith, “Muslim Girl, 17, Killed on Way Home from VA Mosque,” The Guardian, June 19, 2017.
[4] New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: Volume 1 Genesis (Nashville: Abingdon Press, Inc, 2015), p. 152.

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