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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

One Family Again

Oasis, week 3 of 6 in a Lenten sermon series on the way God provides more than enough even in the deserts of life, preached Mar 12, 2023 at the 9:30am Worship service


For Lent, our sermon series is called, “Oasis.” Each week, we are highlighting one biblical character or story, and looking for how God generously provides in the deserts, the wilderness of life.

Our first character was Jesus. In the desert, Jesus faced down three internal voices that whisper to us all … the tempter, the liar, and the opposer. He pushed them back with hope, truth, and faith. God tended to him and led him forward.

Last week, after God rescued the people from slavery in Egypt, Caitlan read for us how they complained to their leaders, sure they would starve, not have enough. Still, every morning, God provided. They were told to keep a bit of the manna in a jar as a reminder to future generations. Caitlan put a jar in the narthex and invited us to put in it whatever has sustained us through our desert times.

Today, our character in the desert is Hagar. We are going to read some from Genesis 16, then Genesis 21.

A warning. These can be difficult stories to hear. I’m going to try to be careful and gentle. From these stories, let’s have compassion for Hagar and for any, even ourselves, who may have suffered as she does.

Now, Hagar was an Egyptian slave girl, property of Sarah who was a wife of Abraham. Even though God promised Abraham his descendants would be more numerous than the stars, Sarah and Abraham were getting older with no child of their own. Sarah tells Abraham to take her slave girl, Hagar, and impregnate her, and Sarah would raise that child as her own. Abraham does that to Hagar. Even though Sarah commanded it, she then resents Hagar, and is so rude and mean to Hagar, Hagar runs away into the desert.

Scripture Genesis 16:7-11

7 An angel of the Lord found Hagar by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8 So God’s messenger said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” Hagar said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.” 9 The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress, and continue serving her.” 10 The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted, there will be so many.” 11 And the angel of the Lord said to her,

“Now you have conceived and you shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael,[a] for the Lord God has heard you in your trouble…”

Sermon A One Family Again

How are we doing so far? If any are feeling echoes of old pains or fears, let’s pause together, and take a few deep breaths. 3 seconds to breathe deeply… one, two, three. Hold it for 3… one, two, three. Then, release is slowly over 6, one, two, three four, five, six. Let’s remember, we are safe here. We are safe today. We are safe together.

One reason to honestly tell this story in church is so that we, as followers of this God, will never ignore or excuse atrocities like the ones in this story. God heard, and so should we.

Abraham and Sarah owned slaves. Owners of slaves did what they wanted with slaves. Men did what they wanted with women. Adults did what they wanted with children. Hagar was a slave, a woman, and likely a teenager, and had no say, no choice in any of this.

This story is thousands of years old, but don’t let it feel too far away. At the National Museum for African American History and Culture, a statue of Thomas Jefferson stands near the words he helped write into our nation's Declaration of Independence, that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, … Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Stacked just behind the statue of Thomas Jefferson is a wall of bricks, one for every slave he owned, many of them his own children through female slaves. That is our ancestors, our country, just 250 years ago.

In our world today, there are people suffering and struggling like Hagar. She was an outsider, of a different skin tone and from a different country or culture. Who are the different ones today that we overwork and underpay, that we make do the jobs we expect to be done but aren’t willing to do ourselves? Hagar was a woman, a girl. How are females, especially young females, still dominated in our world? How are they not allowed autonomy or choice over their own bodies? Hagar was a slave. In our time, some say we don’t have slavery anymore. But there are young girls who are bought and sold. Our prisons are filled primarily with “black and brown men who are forced to work for little to no pay under the threat of punitive measures, like the loss of family visits and solitary confinement.”[1]

Of course, Hagar ran. Of course, she was desperate. And this God, the God we worship, noticed and heard. This God did not follow the code, that the baby would be Sarah’s. This God said this will be your baby. This God did not honor male dominance which gave Abraham the right to name the child. God gave that power to the Egyptian slave girl. This God shall be called Ishmael, which means, God hears. God is paying attention.

Let’s go to Genesis 21…

Scripture Genesis 21:8-20

21 The Lord dealt with Sarah as God had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. 2 Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6 Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” 7 And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

8 The child grew and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.[a] 10 So Sarah 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.” 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son.

12 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 for you. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”

14 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.

15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, “Do not make me watch the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard, (and 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. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him close with your hands, and I will make a great nation of him.” 19 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.

20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God)

Sermon B One Family Again

Hagar and Ishmael, their story is told over and over again still today, but not as often in white Christian culture. Her story is famous in communities of color who still suffer the ripples of slavery in the racism that lingers in our policing or prisons or courts, where a person of color is more likely to be stopped or arrested for the same crims as a white person, more likely to be jailed, or given a higher bail than a white person with the same crime, and more like to serve a longer sentence than a white person convicted of the same crime. Hagar’s story is famous among people who feel stripped of autonomy over their own bodies by those in power. Even now, there are laws being passed that do not let young people, with their parents, and medical providers have control over their own bodies. Hagar’s story is remembered and retold by any who are cast out, exiled, or judged to be unworthy of sharing community. All around our world, some in power are still trying to cleanse a community of the others.

And Ismael, his story is highly remembered today. Ishmael is regarded as a prophet and messenger of God to many, about one-fourth of the world’s population, the fastest growing religion on the planet, Islam, Muslims. Ishmael is connected to Mecca and his family line extends to Muhammad. The story of an outcast slave, abused and then abandoned by her captors, who wandered into the sands of the wilderness and was seen and heard by God, and who was cared for and led to an oasis by God, that is one of the oldest seeds of the people of Islam.

In this story, God heard Hagar cry, Ishmael cry. God hears the hungers and thirsts of those who are outcast. God leads them to wells of water, and extends God’s promise to them as well. God’s promise was never meant to be exclusive for Abraham or Sarah. Through Hagar and Ishmael another great people, another great nation of God was birthed.

How much longer will we wait until there are no slave girls? How much longer will we wait to stop outcasting anyone? How many more times will we send someone away with water and bread, but make them go. Every time we cast someone out, send them away, God hears them. The end of this story has to be one table, one family again. The end of this story has to be one family again, with no one out. That is what this God is waiting to hear.



Now blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow, be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.


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