In the movie, The Rabbit-proof Fence, based on a true story that happened in 1931, three Aboriginal children have been taken from their families and brought down south to the government institution at Moore River, where they are supposed to be trained to fit into white society as domestic servants. But the three girls, Molly, Daisy and Grace, have got no intention of going along with this – they escape into the bush and travel east to the rabbit-proof fence, then north along the fence for over 1500 miles, knowing it will lead them home, trusting that the land will provide for their needs. It’s a David and Goliath story – the sort of story that shames you and inspires you all at the same time – a reminder that behind the big issues there are thousands of individual human stories – stories that sometimes turn out OK, that other times end in predictable tragedy.
Today we read in the Book of Genesis an equally challenging story about survival in the desert. A slave-woman and her child sent out into the desert to die. A story that sometimes makes people feel they have to make some sort of excuse for Abraham and Sarah – the mother and father of our faith! Is there some way we can turn this story around to make it come out as part of God’s plan? Other Christians feel shocking stories like this from the Old Testament shouldn’t be read in churches at all. But here it is.
Long ago, God has promised Abraham that he will be the ancestor of a great nation. He and Sarah were both over 90 at the time – and because they don’t see how it can be possible they couldn’t resist the temptation to help God’s promise along a little – this is in chapter 16, before the bit we read this morning - maybe, they think, if Abraham takes Sarah’s maid, the Arab woman Hagar, they can have a child through her. And so right from the start this story involves oppression, Hagar the foreign slave is not free to say no.
Well, at first the plan seems to work, because Hagar gets pregnant and in due course bears a son. Hagar’s child, Ishmael, is Abraham’s oldest son but it is clear that he isn’t the child of God’s promise. In fact, quite the opposite, he is the child who represents Abraham and Sarah’s attempt to second-guess God – Ishmael’s very existence, especially after Isaac is born, reminds Abraham and Sarah they have failed to trust God’s promise. Actually this little scenario is a good reminder for us as a church that being faithful to God always means trusting in the future – because God can be trusted to reveal himself in the future just as much as in the present and in the past.
So Ishmael is Abraham and Sarah’s attempt at social engineering, just as in The Rabbit-Proof Fence Molly, Daisy and Grace represent an attempt by the Government of the 1930s to engineer the sort of society they wanted. But now he doesn’t fit the plan – Sarah needs to make sure that Ishmael doesn’t usurp her own son Isaac, the one that God really promised her, so she resorts to another ugly attempt at manipulating the outcome. And Abraham, the great patriarch of faith, goes along with the idea – Hagar and her son are given a little bag of bread and water and sent out into the desert to die. It’s a scene that unfortunately isn’t that unfamiliar to us – ethnic cleansing is an ugly fact of the world we live in today – but the truly shocking thing about this story is that Hagar and Ishmael are cast out into the desert by the great father and mother of our own faith, their expulsion is part of an attempt to make God’s promises come true.
We need to think about that. God doesn’t have perfect people to work with, just ordinary people with mixed motives, sinful people who sometimes act out of the best intentions but other times act as though the only thing that really matters is preserving their own power or property. People like us, in other words. Over the last few years we have seen our own Anglican church called to account for inaction and cover-ups over the crime of child sexual abuse. Sometimes we’re blind to the evils of our own day, and the part we ourselves play in failing to call them out. But for all that, God still chooses to call and to use sinful human beings like us – like Abraham and Sarah, like you and me.
But back to the story – and you wouldn’t want to read a more gut-wrenching account of a mother’s despair as she faces not only her own death from thirst, but the death of her child. But before the inevitable happens the narrator tells us that God hears the boy – in fact, that is the meaning of the Hebrew name, Ishmael – God hears him. Genesis tells us that Ishmael isn’t the chosen one, not part of the main plan – but marvellous thing is that this little Arab boy who doesn’t seem to matter much to human beings does matter to God. This is the hope in this story for us, I believe. Forget Abraham and Sarah who can’t see how God’s plans can come true unless they meddle. Focus on the God who refuses to accept that Ishmael is just a statistic, or that Molly and Daisy and Grace are just statistics. When human beings are lost in desert places – literally or metaphorically – God hears. That’s what this story tells us. God hears the cries of vulnerable children.
And that’s also what Jesus tells us – one of the things Jesus tells us – in this mixed bag of sayings in this morning’s reading from the gospel. Jesus shows us – in his life and death and resurrection – a God who refuses to leave human beings in the lurch but comes among us and shares our world with us. A God who is prepared to suffer for us. And Jesus tells us his God is the one who knows and cares for each one of us – not even a sparrow falls to the ground without God knowing. We need to be clear about what is being said and what’s not being said here – sparrows continue to fall, as sparrows always have, and so will human beings – but God sees, God cares and loves every one of God’s creatures individually. Jesus doesn’t answer the question that people have asked all down the ages – why does one child die? Why does God allow it? But he tells us that God cares, that God is not indifferent, that God suffers. And Jesus continues to tell us this even as he knows the inevitable consequence of his message, and as he faces his own agonizing death on a Roman cross.
St Paul also knows about God’s solidarity with weak and imperfect human beings, and he puts it like this in the letter to the Romans: "we don’t even know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit intercedes for us with groans too deep for human words. We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose."  God hears, even when the desert is too silent and too empty for anyone else to hear.
Maybe the story of Ishmael is not just a footnote in the history of God’s plan for God’s people. Maybe it is central – maybe we need to hear it as a preface to the story of Jesus himself, the story of a God who leaves no human cry unheard. The story that tells us that there is no tragedy that is not suffered by God, no human pain that is not held in the wounded hands of Christ and transformed into a work beauty, and love and joy for all who will accept it.
But of course we need to go even further, because we know that our own vocation as God’s people is to love what God loves, and to notice what God notices. The God who loves sparrows and children on the wrong side of ethnic or religious conflicts – challenges us to also notice, to also hear the cries of his little ones. It’s an especially good message right now, after the last couple of weeks of Black Lives Matter protests. We can’t say nothing when some people continue to be treated as less than human because of the colour of their skin, when some people’s lives are treated as less important. As Christians our vocation is to have compassion, to notice those who the world pushes aside, to speak for those who have no voice. We are not always courageous! But this morning’s readings assure us we can be confident in the God who notices when sparrows fall and who guides lost children home.
 Romans 8.27, 28.