(Genesis 21: 8-21)
Our sermon series on the Women of the Old Testament continues with the story of Hagar. As we look into the stories of the women of the Old Testament, many of the stories we find are often untold and unfamiliar stories but stories which have a profound impact on our faith and on our life. We listen to each of these stories asking ourselves how the stories of these women shape our stories of faith.
Today we come to the story of Hagar, the slave girl of Sarah. This morning we read the two accounts in the bible that include Hagar.. We need not know much more than the context these passages give in order that we may hear them. I invite you to open your ears and open your hearts as we hear this second scripture reading of Hagar’s story:
The word of the Lord
Thanks be to God
Will you pray with me? Holy God, stir your presence among us this morning, help us to hear your voice as it calls out to us, help us to listen for your voice as it stirs within us, allow us to hear these words with grace and understanding. Lord, move your Spirit that in hearing you, we grow in discipleship and service, in faith and peace. Amen.
This story often gets ignored, it gets skipped over in lectionary readings, passed over in favor of reading the more familiar story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac which follows or the preceding text of the miraculous birth of Isaac by a thought to be barren Sarah. But this story needs to be heard, it needs to be read and thought about and prayed about and listened to. This is a story of a woman who is crying out for help, it’s the story of a woman on the margins, it’s the story of a voice that often gets ignored or pushed to the side.
This story is a mess. Its absolutely tragic, its absolutely horrible. The two passages we just read from Genesis 16 and Genesis 21 tell of the use and abuse of a woman in an inferior position, and following that abuse it tells the story of her being neglected and outcast from the very people who abused her. As hearers of this story before we begin to make sense of this story we need to first sit in the tragically uncomfortable reality that is the abuse of Hagar, the neglect she experiences, the shunning she experiences, the terror she faces alone in the wilderness cast out after abuse.
And as we sit with this uncomfortable truth, we must also remember that Hagar’s story is not unlike the story of present day women. Its not a unique or unfamiliar story. Hagar’s reality is one that woman today, in 2017, in our world and even in our community experience. Hagar’s story of being used and abused and ignored and cast out is one that so many experience.
Old Testament scholar Phyllis Tribble writes of this passage, “all sorts of rejected women find their stories in [Hagar]. She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless woman, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures, the welfare mother, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others.”
Hagar’s story is a story of so many oppressed women in our world. Women who are trying to get by, women who are shamed, women who are tossed aside, women whose voices are not listened to. So we must ask ourselves:
How does our community of faith respond to the Hagar’s of the world?
Do we respond like Sarah and Abraham? Probably. We turn our eyes from the face of hardship, we see the need of others as a threat to our own wellbeing. We offer aid with half open hands.
Sarah responds to Hagar by being threatened. She sees Ishmael and Isaac playing and sees that as a threat to her and to her son. What’s interesting about the translation I chose for us to read from this morning, the NRSV, is that it most accurately correlates to the Hebrew of Genesis 21 where Ishmael is recorded as “playing with Isaac.” In some earlier translations translators and scholars attempted to shift the original meaning to suggest that perhaps Ishmael was attacking Isaac, but that’s not what the text tells us. Scholars and translators attempted to explain what Sarah did, casting Hagar and her son away, by suggesting that Hagar and Ishmael were a threat, which is simply not what happened.
But I wonder, how often do we do this? How often do we do what Sarah does – assume that there is only enough of God’s promise to go around for one or assume that someone else’s claiming of God’s grace means that we can’t share it or revel in it together?
How often do we see someone sharing life and joy with another as a threat to our own privileges?
Perhaps we respond to the search for one’s own rights assuming they might threaten ours? Or that someone seeking their welfare might threaten our welfare?
We may not like to admit it, but we respond like Sarah.
Or perhaps we respond like Abraham. In this story Abraham isn’t the bad guy, he does what his wife asks of him. He doesn’t choose to cast Hagar out, he is just doing what he has to do. But he casts her out with just enough to get her through a day, some bread and some water. Enough bread and enough water to keep Hagar and Ishmael from immediate death but enough to make him feel like he tried, enough to make him feel like he did right by them.
Perhaps this is a tad closer to our response to the Hagar’s of the world. We respond by saying we did all we could, we give them some bread, but never fight for their well-being. We give them some water, but never advocate for their life. We give them enough to ease our minds but not the gracious response they deserve.
We may not like to admit it, but we respond like Abraham.
But this story isn’t about what Abraham and Sarah did to Hagar. This story and this sermon are about Hagar and God. This is after all a biblical story, so where is God in all this, how do we see Hagar’s story within our story of faith, how do we understand God in the midst of this story?
In the midst of tragedy, where is God?
Hagar runs away from the harshness of Sarai’s treatment. And as she sits by the spring of water in the wilderness, God finds her, God speaks to her, God makes promises to her. Hagar sitting by the spring of water hears God speaking to her, loving her, promising things to her. So she names the God she speaks with “El-roi” which may sound like a name but its not just a name, it’s a description. It means “you, God, see.” You, God, see. God sees. God sees Hagar in her distress, God knows Hagar in her pain, God loves Hagar. God sees.
And God hears. When Hagar is cast out from the house of Abraham and Sarah, she is left in the dessert. She has been left to certain death by Abraham’s half-hearted concern for her. She is left in the wilderness with a young child and no water to care for him. And as the child cries out and Hagar is left in the impossible situation of hearing the cries of her son but having nothing to do to care for him, God hears. God hears the cries of Ishmael, and God hears the pain of Hagar. God hears their pain and opens Hagar’s eyes to the spring of water near her. God hears the cries of those in pain. God hears.
God sees, God hears.
Thanks be to God, we worship and serve a God who sees hears. A God who recognizes pain, a God who looks past our humanity to see the needs of the world.
While the responses that surround our world, the ones that we often give ourselves tell us to look out for ourselves, to give in comfortable ways, the God we serve shows us a much more gracious response. So we worship and we follow a God who shows us the way – that we see and that we hear.
And we take heart in this, in the midst of tragedy and unbelievable circumstances, horribly messy stories, tragic dramas, unseemly circumstances, God is at work and God sees and God hears the needs of God’s people. Thanks be to God.
Frederick Buechner writes, “The story of Hagar is the story of the terrible jealousy of Sarah and the singular ineffectuality of Abraham and the way Hagar, who knew how to roll with the punches, managed to survive them both. Above and beyond that, however, it is the story of how in the midst of the whole unseemly affair the Lord, half tipsy with compassion, went around making marvelous promises and loving everybody and creating great nations like the last of the big-time spenders handing out hundred-dollar bills.”
Unlike the selfish and half hearted responses of humanity, God abounds in compassion, God pours out blessings and care and love with an ever flowing abundance.
God is at work in the midst of these most tragic and horrible of circumstances, God is pouring out blessings upon blessings because there is no end to God’s ability to bless, there is no cap on God’s love, there is no limit to God’s goodness, there is no wall up for what God loves.
For our God is a God who sees, a God who hears.
For God does not see the world as we do, God does not ignore that which we cast out, God does not hurt that which we hurt, God sees the tragedies around us, God hears the cries of the pains in the world. God sees, God hears.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, Amen.