A little over fifty-two years ago, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stood before striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, and spoke these words in answer to a question he posed to himself. First, the question: “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?”
After surveying a long span of human history, Dr. King addressed his own question,
“Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.’” King
continued, “Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around.”
Things really haven’t changed very much, have they? The world is still messed up. The nation is gravely ill. Even the planet totters on its axis. Many of us rise every morning with more than a dash of wariness and trepidation. Perhaps this morning even more trepidation than usual as we rise to a country where hate stalks the land snatching mostly black children and brown children and poor children from their mothers and fathers; a country where the ravages of disease and poverty and violence—be it passive like incarceration or active like military policing—disproportionately fall on brown people and black people. Against this backdrop we hear the story of Hagar and Ishmael. And in their story, we hear echoes of our own day, our own time.
Hagar, a young Egyptian woman given—some by Sarah to Abraham for a night or maybe more so that he might have the offspring God has promised. Hagar gets pregnant. Sarah gets upset. She beats Hagar who flees to the wilderness. Pregnant, desperate, and despairing, Hagar has no place to turn, nowhere to go. Not even a plan.
A messenger of God finds Hagar by a spring, consoles her, and sends her back to the place from which she has fled. But there’s a twist: Hagar is sent back with a promise from God—a promise that her offspring will be so many that they can’t be counted. After she receives that promise, Hagar becomes the first person—the only person—to name God.
So Hagar goes back—back to the tents of Abraham and Sarah. First Ishmael—Hagar’s son—is born and then some years later Isaac—Sarah’s son. That’s where the story we just heard begins. Sarah gets mad. Hagar and Ishmael get sent packing. Today, we meet Hagar in the wilderness. We meet her in her tears; we meet her in her desperation; we meet her in her despair as she hears her son cry out in the distance, “Momma.” A mother weeping in despair; a son crying out in fear. A scene we’ve witnessed far too many times in our recent past.
We know a mother’s tears; we witness a father’s anxious pleas; we hear sons and daughters crying out—“I can’t breathe.” The frame freezes. We find ourselves suspended in time. What happens next? And what is our part in all of it?
But the story of Hagar and Ishmael does not end with the tears and the fear and the deep sadness. There’s more to their story: A messenger of God hears Ishmael’s cries and sees Hagar’s deep grief and then rouses her from her despair saying, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid….Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”
A messenger of God—neigh God herself—to the rescue. That is grace at work in human life.
You and I, we are living in troubling times--
times that call us to examine our most cherished assumptions and our most convenient excuses;
times that cause us to wonder, “Will things really turn out all right?”
times that turn our faces squarely into uncomfortable truths—about ourselves and our country.
You and I, we are living in what some might call a crisis.
You and I, we, know what the Chinese character for crisis consists of—two characters combined: challenge and opportunity.
Those of us who follow Jesus of Nazareth might change that up just a little. We might say that crisis consists of moments of challenge and moments of grace, as does life.
In the wilderness times in her life, Hagar met agents of God, agents of Grace, who helped her find a way out of no way.
So it is with you and me and us—the people of this land and the peoples of the world.
Agents of grace abound—sometimes challenging us by turning our eyes to the truth of our lives; sometimes standing witness to justice and mercy and righteousness as they play out in our national life; sometimes forging paths through the wilderness of racism that has shaped our history but that need not form our future; sometimes calling out what Abraham Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.
At the end of this service, while David and Kellie lead us all in singing Amazing Grace, you will see pictures of some of those Agents of Grace. Then look around. Maybe even look in the mirror. You might just see more Agents of Grace.
Please join me in a prayer of Dr. Cornell West:
“Let us hope through God’s grace and our struggle, that we will be able to overcome our prejudices and hate that separate us, and thereby empower us to become the one people God created us to be.” Amen.