Rev. Rebecca Heilman-Campbell
We heard that Michael Brown’s last words in Ferguson were, “I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting.” We heard about Noah, an Uvalde elementary student, playing dead to survive. We recall Serena Williams recounting that, “No one was really listening” as she became a near death statistic in the delivery room, naming a reality for many women, especially women of color. We heard that George Floyds last’s words were “I can’t breathe” and that he called out for his mama. We recall the Emanuel Nine welcoming a stranger into their Bible study. Every year, we hear the words, “I am thirsty” from the mouth of our Lord and Savior as he hangs upon the cross. We’ve heard all of this, all these terrifying reports, probably several times, but have we really listened? Listened, not heard. The verb, to hear, is a passive action, that is related to the perception of sound, disconnected from what is being said, the emotion behind one’s words, or the desire to be in conversation. To listen is an active verb, requiring curiosity, purpose, and effort. It can lead to a meaningful conversation, evoking internal behavior of the body and mind. And so we’ve heard the last words of those heinously killed by gun violence and we’ve heard the truthful words of women whose lives are considered less important than power or opinions, and we’ve heard about our children learning to survive in mass shootings.
We’ve heard all of this. But have we truly listened?
The Rev. Dr. Katie Genova Cannon, a beloved professor of mine and the first African American woman ordained in the PCUSA denomination, often said that there will be times in our ministry when we, as pastors, as lay leaders, followers of Jesus Christ, as a congregation centered in love, and as a child of God – that we won’t be able to keep quiet. That we will have no other choice, but to speak and to listen. With our country as divided as ever before, with people’s rights at stake, with violence around every corner, this is one of those times. There are words that must be spoken as believers of a God, who undeniably welcomed the stranger, loved the other, flipped tables, and wept with empathy. And so our Scripture today is a hopeful, but not a happy story, it’s text on terror, a story that many have never heard, a story that we may not want to listen to, but a story that many people in our community, within and beyond these walls know all too well. And we must listen if we are to be Christian people. The main character is a mother of color, Hagar, and her son of color, Ishmael. A mama and a son. An undervalued woman and illegitimate boy to Abraham. An Egyptian and eventually, a leader of a great nation. A survivor of abuse and an outcast in the Jewish world. A child of God and a child of God.
Hagar’s story starts back in Genesis, chapter 16. From the beginning, Hagar is defined as an outcast. HaGar in Hebrew means, “the foreigner,” “alien,” or “sojourner.” She is living in a land that is not native to her. She is an Egyptian, someone who bears darker skin and is an alien in Abram and Sarai’s company. Hagar is owned and enslaved by Abram and Sarai. You see, last week’s story has yet to occur. Sarai doesn’t know that she will bear a son at an elderly age. And so, Sarai gives Hagar, her slave-girl, to Abram to bear children. When Hagar conceives, Sarai “looks with contempt” on Hagar and deals harshly with her. And this abuse in the Hebrew text, according to the theologian, Wilda Gafney, “does not capture the physical violence that is represented in the (Hebrew) verb, anah. In fact, Sarai’s oppression of Hagar in Genesis 16:6 is the same as Egypt’s oppression of Israel in Exodus.” Hagar escapes the abuse and runs off into the wilderness, unseen by anyone, except God. God fully sees Hagar and easily finds her and comforts her in the desert. Hagar names God, “God of seeing, El Roi” and she is “the only person in the canon to give God a name.” God tells Hagar to go back the Abram and Sarai’s household and God will provide for her and her child, Ishmael, whose name means, “God hears.” In just a few verses, we learn with Hagar that God both sees and listens, even to the lowliest, the outcast, the foreigner owned by the father of Judaism.
So, with this back story, we jump forward to Genesis 21, the second part of Hagar’s story. God has renamed Sarah and Abraham. And just as we read last week, Sarah bears Isaac, her son. One day, Sarah saw Isaac playing with Ishmael and asked Abraham to cast out this slave woman and her son for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with her son, Isaac. So Abraham packs a bag, and sends Hagar and her child out into the wilderness of Beer-sheba for the second time. Hagar’s water has dried up. Ishmael is dying from starvation and dehydration, with Hagar not far behind. And so, Hagar places Ishmael under a bush and goes to sit somewhere else. She cries and weeps out to God, “Do not let me look on the death of my child.”
And it’s in this moment that Hagar’s cries ring out in the ears of mothers, black mothers, brown mothers, parents in America, women, children, people who can give birth, black men, migrants. You see, it’s difficult to not read this story through the eyes of our black siblings who can’t enter a grocery store nor simply walk down the street without the fear of being shot. It’s difficult to not read this story through the eyes of our children hiding under desks just like a desert tree to escape death. It’s difficult to not read this story through the eyes of the parents watching from afar, like Hagar, as the police don’t enter the building. It’s difficult to not read this story through the eyes of women and people who can give birth who are forced into pregnancy as poverty, hunger, abuse, maybe even death looms over them. It’s difficult to not read this story through the eyes of those under oppressive systems pushed into deserts to neither strive nor survive. It would be an injustice to look at this text in any other way. Hagar and Ishmael were sent to their death. How long would they wander in the dessert? How long did Abraham think they would travel before their food and water dried up? How long before people would look down on them in disgust because Hagar can’t provide for Ishmael, when she was forced out with no resources, no family, no support? Who would help them? Nobody in the ancient world. Hagar was enslaved woman, an Egyptian, lower than low. Of course, they were on the brink of death. They were sent out to it.
Women, children, trans people, people of color, black people are being sent out to their deaths in our modern America. How are we to expect people to strive and survive as we do if the resources, support, and systems are not there to help them do so? Just last weekend, from Friday to Monday, “well over 500 instances of shootings” were documented nationwide with 11 of those documented as a mass shooting.  According to the organization, Save the Children, black babies in America are more than twice as likely to die before their first birthday as white babies. Additionally, in the U.S., the maternal mortality rates for Black women are 3 times as high as rates for white women. According to the USDA, more than 38 million people, including 12 million children, in the United States are food insecure. And the pandemic has not helped. Shakenly, many households that experience food insecurity do not qualify for federal nutrition programs. It’s not as easy as giving food stamps. It’s more than just one problem, one injustice here in there, it’s a cycle. From the systemic racism at its root to the lack of affordable healthcare. From pay inequalities to the lack of affordable housing. We’re watching from afar as people in our community are being pushed out to the very corners of our societal margins, just like Hagar and Ishmael, knowing that there’s no way they will be able to strive and survive. Are we hearing their cries or are we listening?
God sees it all and God is listening to it all. God sees Hagar and then she names God, God of seeing. And now God listens to Hagar and Ishmael’s cries by engaging in a conversation with her by sending Gabriel, an angel of God, down to ask Hagar “What troubles you?” Such a simple question, but a question is a blanket of care behind it. God asked because God cares. God shows up because God can’t stand to hear the cries of God’s people.
Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer, an activist, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and the author of Just Mercy, tells his story of working with people on death row. He reveals the unjust system of mass incarceration and how he found story after story and case after case of people falsely accused of crimes. Walter McMillian is one of those people. And while Mr. McMillian was on trial, his black community – friends, family members, members of his church and community gave their testimony of his innocence, as well as sat in the court room as support. They were there as advocates, naming what is wrong in their community. One morning, when Stevenson arrived to the courthouse, he noticed McMillian’s community waiting outside. They told Stevenson that the police would not let them in. Stevenson resolved the issue and they walked through the door and security, but a Mrs. Williams could only go so far…she had spotted the police dog. Stevenson talked to Mrs. Williams afterwards and she told him, “Attorney Stevenson, I was meant to be in that courtroom, I was supposed to be in that courtroom…I wanted to be there. I tried, I tried, Lord knows I tried, Mr. Stevenson. But when I saw that dog – I thought about 1965, when we gathered at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and tried to march for our voting rights. They beat us and put those dogs on us. I tried to move…I wanted to move…I just couldn’t do it.”
The next morning, Stevenson was preparing for court when he saw Mrs. Williams standing at the door with her scarf and hat. She was speaking to herself, “I ain’t scared of no dog, I ain’t scared of no dog.” Then she held her head up high as she walked through the metal detector and right by the dog repeating to herself, “I ain’t scared of no dog, I ain’t scared of no dog.” Then when she had made it all the way in, she belted out, “I ain’t scared of no dog!… Attorney Stevenson, I’m here! …you didn’t hear me, Mr. Stevenson, I’m here!” Stevenson nodded and smiled. The judge came in, everyone rose, including Mrs. Williams, but as everyone else sat down, she remained standing. With silence around her, she leaned her head back and shouted, “I’m here!” Everyone in that courtroom and God above listened and saw Mrs. Williams. Mrs. Williams wasn’t another body in that room, she was there to be an advocate, a woman who carries love and hope in her heart that something must be done for a life to strive and survive.
Gosh, are we listening? As Christians, are we listening to Mrs Williams, Hagar, Ishmael, George Floyd, Noah from Uvalde, people who can give birth, Jayland Walker, Emmitt Till, abused women, migrants. Are we listening? Or are we just hearing their cries and sending them further out into the desert? Do we see God’s image in each other? In every wrinkle, every glimmer of hope in our eyes, or the fear in our brows? Or do we only see our face as the face of God because our country is so divided between the left and the right? Are we listening to stories? Are we asking the question like Gabriel, “what troubles you?” Or are we complying with the systems that fit our needs so well that we can’t believe others experience something different? How have we, like Sarah and Abraham, thrown out the Hagars and Ishmaels to fend for themselves in the desert? Instead, are we willing to advocate, to be present, to speak up for what is right, what is just, what would simply let people live their lives with full bellies, basic human rights, and a roof over their head? What would help those in our community to strive and survive as well as we do?
I’m not just pulling this from the Old Testament story of Hagar and Ishmael. In Matthew 10, Jesus tells the disciples, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the rooftops” (10:26-27). And so, let’s shout from the rooftops, let’s yell out in court that we are here, let’s be advocates for those in the desert, and let’s listen and ask the caring questions like Gabriel, “what troubles you?” And let’s pray that that will be enough for all of God’s children to strive and survive.
 Wilda Gafney, Womanist Midrash on the Torah, 42.
 Stevenson, Just Mercy, 179.