Genesis 21:8-21

Consider the name you were given. Are you named after someone or after a place that your parents treasured? Has anyone ever given you a nickname? If you have children, consider the names you bestowed to them – where did they come from? Why did you choose that name? What did it feel like the first time you spoke their name, claiming them as your own?

Consider the names you’ve been called. Perhaps this is a wholly other list than the names you’ve been given. Have any names stung you, leaving a lasting pain? Do you remember someone hurling an insult to you across the playground or the family dinner table? Or just as painful but in the way that hangs heavy like regret – do you remember the names you’ve called other people? Someone you loved or someone you chose to dislike? Names that flew off your tongue and names you would do anything to take back?

The story of God and God’s people reminds us time and time again that names matter, that how we speak to one another and how we describe one another bears meaning. The same is true for our narrative from this morning – the second part of Hagar and Ishmael’s Genesis story.

To understand Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion from Sarah and Abraham, we need to go back to Genesis 16. As Chris said last week, Abram and Sarai did not trust that God would provide a child for them so Sarai insisted that Abram take Hagar – her maidservant – by force. When Sarai sees that Hagar is with child, she begins to abuse Hagar to the point of Hagar running away. In the desert, an angel of the Lord – which we know in these stories is actually the Lord – appears and instructs her to return to Sarai and that her offspring will produce so many children that they cannot be counted. The angel tells her – “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.” Hagar would know that the name Ishmael carries the very promise of God’s presence in it for Ishmael’s name means “God Hears” – God hears your cry, hears your pain. And then, an even more remarkable thing happens and only happens this one time in all of Scripture – Hagar sees God and names God, names God “El-Roi” – “The God Who Sees.” The list of Hagar’s distinctions – of her claim by God – is long and will grow as we hear her story but so far, here’s our running list: Hagar is “the first person in the Bible to flee oppression; the first runaway slave; the first person whom a messenger of God visits; the first woman to receive an annunciation; the only woman to receive a divine promise of descendants; the only person to name God…”[1]

Hagar returns to her masters, to Sarai and Abram who by our story this morning have been re-named and claimed by God as Sarah and Abraham. This is the day of Isaac’s weaning, a day of celebration and distinction for it meant he survived at least his first year of life and could enter childhood healthy. And like any mother who has weaned her child, I imagine Sarah is full of emotions as her body and spirit adjust to a new reality. She glimpses Ishmael and Isaac playing and the thought enters her mind that Ishmael – not her son Isaac – is Abraham’s firstborn, the one to whom all blessing should flow. All that she prayed for, worked for, nursed to life seems to be threatened by the young innocence of Ishmael and so she does what people do when they feel threatened – they react out of fear. She tells Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”  This slave woman…her son. Sarah speaks with sharpened fear, drawing a harsh boundary between herself and her son and Hagar – a child-turned-woman she enslaved and abused and Ishmael – the child who first brought her husband lineage. Get them away from us. And so, Abraham follows Sarah’s instruction and in cowardice and grief, sends Hagar and Ishmael out to the desert, giving them only a small portion of water and bread, knowing that in this arid land, the only fate is death.

As you’ll see in your bulletin insert, the Hebrew in this text – or rather, more specifically, the authors of this text – consistently divide Hagar and Ishmael from Sarah, Abraham, and Isaac. Ishmael’s very name – the name given to him by God – isn’t even written in this passage. This is a profound act of exclusion, an attempt to make him a non-person, to make it clear that Ishmael’s story is not to live on beyond his death in the desert. Instead of lifting up the beautiful words “God Hears,” – Ishmael – this child who has done no harm, has been born from violence into a life of violence – is called “that boy,” and “the child.” Stripped of name, stripped of claim, Ishmael is put under a bush so that his weeping mother does not have to watch him die. And Hagar – although mentioned by name – is cast out not only in body but also in spirit for she is named multiple times not as Hagar but as “this slave woman.” Hagar, the remarkable matriarch who carries within her the story of divine promise, of annunciation, of seeing God and living, of survival, of strength beyond measure – Hagar is demeaned and defined by her relationship to her fearful, abusive slave masters who are meant to be our foremother and forefather in the faith.

Names matter. How we talk about people, how we describe people, how we define our relationships to people matters.

That boy…that one who looks like he’s up to no good.

That daughter of yours…that one who cannot keep her mouth shut.

Your father…that one who keeps calling and won’t leave us alone.

Your president…not mine.

She is such a spoiled brat…I cannot listen to her whine again.

He’s your child, not mine…I’m done with him today.

I asked you earlier if you’d ever been called a name that stung you or if you called someone else a name that you know hurt deep in their bones. As painful as it might be, I ask you to recall that name and hold it close as we remember what happens next in the story…

Hagar lifts up her voice and weeps, drawing God near to her in her suffering. God attends to Hagar and asks, “What troubles you, Hagar?” Not “What troubles you, slave and concubine?” Not “What mess have you gotten yourself into now?” But rather – “What is wrong, my Hagar? Be not afraid for I am with you and with Ishmael. Open your eyes and see before you this well of water that shall sustain you in your journey.” I hear you, God says. I see you, God says. I am with you, God says. You are free, you are mine, you are not alone. Hagar and Ishmael live, thriving in their freedom, Hagar gaining the distinction of being the first free slave.

We hear of how “God was with the boy” which seems wonderful and dear, right? And yet, Ishmael is still unnamed. This story was written by those who were in power, by those who wanted to privilege Isaac, privilege Sarah, privilege Abraham but Hagar and Ishmael’s story cannot be repressed. Hagar surpasses Sarah in finding her son a wife – Sarah dies before Isaac marries Rebekah. Ishmael becomes the father to a nation of his own and the patriarch to our sister faith of Islam. For Father Abraham had many sons and many sons had Father Abraham and I am one of them and so are you… God names us and claims us and nothing nor no one can remove such promise, no matter how hard we try to divide ourselves.

A Rabbi once asked his students, “how do we know when the night has ended and the day has begun?” Immediately the students thought that they grasped the importance of the question. There are, after all, prayers that can be recited and rituals that can be performed only at night. And there are prayers and rituals that belong only to the day. It is therefore important to know when the night has ended and day has begun. So the brightest of the students offered an answer: “When I look out at the fields and I can distinguish between my field and the field of my neighbor’s, that’s when the night has ended and day has begun.” A second student offered her answer: “When I look from the fields and I see a house and I can tell that it’s my house and not the house of my neighbor, that’s when the night has ended and the day has begun.” A third student offered an answer: “When I can distinguish the animals in the yard – and I can tell a cow from a horse – that’s when the night has ended.” Each of these answers brought a sadder, more severe frown to the Rabbi’s face – until finally he shouted: “No! You don’t understand! You only know how to divide! You divide your house from the house of your neighbor, your field from your neighbor’s, one animal from another, one color from all the others. Is that all that we can do – divide, separate, split the world into pieces? Isn’t the world broken enough – split into enough fragments? No, my dear students, it’s not that way at all! Our Torah and Jewish values want more from us. The shocked students looked into the sad face of their Rabbi. One of them ventured, “Then Rabbi, tell us: How do we know that night has ended and day has begun?” The Rabbi stared back into the faces of his students and with a gentle voice responded: “When you look into the face of the person who is beside you and you can see that that person is your brother or your sister, when you can recognize that person as a friend, then, finally, the night has ended and the day has begun.”[2]

It is time to cease dividing ourselves over and against one another. It is time to break the false boundaries we cast out of fear, out of ignorance, out of hatred. It is time to bring forth the dawn and see one another as named and claimed by God. But to do that means that it is also time to start the simple yet somehow disarming work of learning people’s names and stories. On the front of your insert are a few questions to lead you in beginning to wonder how you might be a part of God’s enduring promise of claiming and caring for all. I invite you this week to pray with these questions. You might even stay in your pews after the postlude and greet one another by name, meeting a new friend. You might call someone on our prayer list and ask how you can pray for them. You might stop yourself from labeling strangers as you checkout at the grocery store or drive past people on the street. You might take that painful name given to you without asking and cast it aside, hearing only the name that God gives you and give us all: child of God, named, claimed, never-forsaken. May it be so. Amen.

[1] Phyllis Trible, “Hagar, Sarah, and Their Children,” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), p 61.

[2] I learned of this story from Thomas Friedman’s book “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.” It comes from the oral tradition of rabbinic stories.