One of my favorite experiences as a preacher is when God moves a sermon in a way I hadn’t intended. Like a sudden change of wind hitting a ship caught in the doldrums, I arrive somewhere far better and richer than I could have gotten on my own. As I struggled to prepare for this week’s sermon, a change in the weather was already developing, months before I realized it. I turned to the lectionary in the hope that it would provide at least a reminder of another text, if not the text itself. The designated texts for the day all revolved around God’s faithfulness to hear when we cry out to him, but Genesis 21 stood out, grabbing my heart.
In Genesis 21, we are told of Hagar and Ishmael’s ordeal in the wilderness. Ishmael, the son of Abram and the servant Hagar, is only conceived because Sarai waivers in her faith in God’s promises of progeny and offers her servant to her husband Abram as a surrogate mother. As soon as he is conceived, Ishmael becomes an object of jealousy and ire for Sarai, eventually leading Sarai to request that mother and son be sent out into the wilderness. With no home behind them and probable death in front of them, they set out as strangers in a strange land, hoping that somewhere out there lies a hope and a future. When their meager supplies run out, Hagar lays her son, her own flesh and blood who grew inside of her for nine months, under a bush out of sight because she can’t look on the slow death of her child. It seems the fruit of and living monument to Sarai’s selfishness and impatience will leave the earth before his life can offend anyone else.
Until God hears his cries.
Until God reaches out.
It would have been easy for God to take the same approach as Sarai, letting the results of sin simply disappear under the desert sun. But God refused to hold Ishmael’s origin against him, sending life-saving water to Ishmael and promising that he and his progeny will succeed.
We live in a world filled with people whose back stories are choked with pain, many through no fault of their own. Children of sexual violence. Children with broken families. Children caught in poverty. Children surrounded by violence and hatred from the moment they take their first breath. Children who, both as children and later as adults, we as a society disregard and dismiss. “That’s just how it is,” we say. They’ll always be poor. They’ll be just like their parents. They’ll get divorced, too. They’ll hurt you. They’ll take advantage of you. They’ll never be anything.
But when they cry out, God hears their cries, not our condemnation of their origins. Because he, like Hagar, cannot stomach the sight of His children dying. And He expects us, His church, to reach out, helping to build a hope and a future for those discounted by the world.
In the days before I preached this sermon, a developing news story delivered the culmination of a change in the wind. Over the last several months, a seemingly endless tide of unaccompanied children have attempted to cross the southern border of the United States. Children barely old enough to attend school. Children with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Children beset by the dangerous, broken humans who patrol the lonely places of this planet. Children convulsing with fever. Terrified. Alone. They set out as strangers in a strange land with nothing but violence, drugs, corruption, and poverty behind them and probable death in front of them, crossing through hundreds of miles of desert and danger in the search for a hope and a future in front of them. Though their parents know chances are slim, they can’t stand to look on the slow death of their children where they are. Many likely die on the way, as evidenced by the discovery of yet another mass grave, filled with stacks of human beings whose cries went unheard. Others may reach the US and are left to wander our streets. But many are caught, rounded up, and are being housed in makeshift camps, warehouses of humanity while politicians, talking heads, and armchair policy experts debate whether or not the blame rests on Barack Obama. Yes, there is a political conversation that needs to happen regarding the overall reality of immigration and what to do with the US border. But there is also church conversation that needs to happen about viewing these immigrants as human beings, regardless of where we stand on the political issue. And it is far, far more important.
Because we are and were strangers in a strange land, separated from God. Many of us are beset by the failures of our origins, and even more have been sent out into the wilderness by our own failures. We cry out for hope and a future. Instead of seeing us a mess to be disposed of or ignored, God sees as as human beings, as His children slowly dying as thirst clenches our throats. And God heard us. And God reached out.
As Hagar knew, our God hears and reaches out to those caught in the wilderness, whether or not their own decisions sent them there. Our God heard the cries of Ishmael, born of giving up on God. Our God even heard the cries of Paul, once committed to the destruction of the church before doing so much work to define its future. And today, he still hears cries. He hears the immigrant dying in the desert. He hears the selfish, broken and cut off by the weight of their riches. He hears the first dark realization when the violent and lawless find only pain in their actions. He hears the pain as our failures eventually catch up to us, sending us out with no home behind us and probable death in front of us. When a fellow human being of any race or stature or origin story, whether crossing the border on foot, or born of a broken family or even no family, or raised in poverty or violence, or raised imprisoned by their own wealth and privilege, or even caught in prisons of their own failures, cries out alone, may we the church be a people who hear their cries. May we be a people who reach out.