The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday June 21, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church’s FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Last week Jamie noted that over the summer the lectionary has us reading a number of stories from Genesis and that it is his intention to focus on those stories when he preaches. I reserve the right to change my mind, but that’s my plan too.

He also called today’s reading from Genesis a “doozy,” which it is, and which might just be why I love it so much.

We can’t cover all the stories found in Genesis over the next couple of months, so I would encourage you to take some time to fill in the blanks by reading through the book on your own.  Even with just one character like Hagar, there is so much more to explore than what I am going to have time to say today.

Let’s start by highlighting a few things from earlier chapters of Genesis that I think provide some important context, starting at the very beginning.

Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning God created…”

I don’t think it’s important to get bogged down in the hows of creation, but I do think it is important to regularly remind ourselves that this world and everything in it, including each one of us, was created by a good and loving God.

That basic understanding should be the foundation of all of our beliefs and our actions.

We are not cosmic accidents, we are God’s creation.

And so is everyone else.

It’s important and healthy to realize that you are unique and special in God’s eyes.

It is dangerous and unhealthy to think other people need to be considered less special as a result.

God’s economy doesn’t work that way. God’s economy is so much bigger than that.

And we see that reflected in today’s story.

Whenever I hear people say that they want a traditional Biblical marriage, I think of marriages like Abraham and Sarah’s and I think, “Really?”

Because that’s not a relationship I would ever want to emulate.

Let’s talk about Sarah for a few minutes. In that time and place,  Sarah would have found her sense of self and identity in her relationship to other people and in particular, in her relationship to her husband, and her children.

Her relationship with her husband is complicated.  Throughout their marriage, Sarah comes to learn that she is expendable and so she can’t just relax and trust that her position is stable. She can’t trust that she is safe.

Abraham has a bad habit of throwing Sarah under the bus, or under the nearest Pharaoh.  On several occasions, Abraham senses danger and his solution is to treat Sarah like a commodity.

She is more of a chess piece than a life partner. She is expendable.

Abraham’s abusive treatment of Sarah is traumatic and we see some of the manifestations of that trauma in her treatment of Hagar.

In that time in that culture you ideally wanted to have a large number of children. Children were a part of your workforce and helped ensure economic stability. If you didn’t have a large number of kids, you at least needed one son to be your heir. That was the bare minimum.

And for most of her life, Sarah has failed to provide that heir. She’s a failure.

Well, she is not actually a failure and if you don’t have children, you are not a failure either.

Society will constantly make you feel like a failure even to this day, but you are not a failure.

For most of Sarah’s life she does not have children and so for most of Sarah’s life she will be viewed by everyone around her as a failure. They will stare, gossip, and offer pitying looks.

They will say ignorant and hurtful things.

And Sarah will know. She will know that they think she’s a failure. She might even, having been formed by that society’s norms and expectations, agree with them.

So towards the end of her life Sarah makes a plan. A plan that may seem odd to us, but a plan that was perfectly acceptable in her time.

She finds an enslaved woman, named Hagar, and forces her to have a child with Abraham. A child Sarah can claim as her own.

This was a common practice, the biological child of an enslaved person was also the property of the slave owner. So Hagar’s child could actually become Sarah’s child.  Hagar is not meant to be this child’s mother, she is merely the container used to achieve Sarah’s dream.

If you have read the book or watched the HBO series, this is the root of the story of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Women and children tend to be treated like commodities in Genesis. It’s one of the most problematic aspects of the book. It doesn’t end with Genesis – think of the book of Job, in that book, all of Job’s children are killed towards the beginning of the story and by the end, he is given a bunch of new kids –  as if children are simply replaceable.

Everything goes according to Sarah’s plan – at least at the beginning. Hagar has a son, so now Abraham has a male heir.

And then the impossible happens, Sarah gives birth to a son and Sarah no longer views Hagar’s son as her own, rather she begins to see Hagar and her son as a threat.

Abraham decides to hold a feast to celebrate Isaac and Sarah’s insecurities begin to surface. She goes to Abraham and says, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” (10)

Abraham is “distressed,” but God tells him to do what Sarah wants and God promises Abraham that although his lineage will be traced through Isaac, Ishmael will also be blessed as the founder of a great nation. (13-14)

So Abraham sends Hagar and their son away into the wilderness.

Hagar carries Ishmael on her back  – which calls to mind modern day images of refugees fleeing persecution – and they travel until they run out of water. Then Hagar stops and, assuming they are both going to die, she puts Ishmael under some bushes and goes “about the distance of a bowshot” away from him so she would not have to watch him die. Then she “lifted up her voice and wept.” (17)

And while she is weeping she hears a voice saying, “What troubles you Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.  Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him. 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. And God was with the boy, and he grew up… He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.” (17-21)

God was with the boy.  God does not abandon Hagar or her son. God[1] remains with them.

Here is one more story about Hagar from earlier in Genesis.

Names are important. They shape how we see ourselves and each other.  Abraham and Sarah both received new names at one point in their lives – shifting from Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah.

People continue to change their names to this day for a variety of reasons, and the church has acknowledged this reality by creating a liturgy to bless a new name. If that is something that you would be interested in exploring, I would love to talk to you about it.

Hagar in our story isn’t just Hagar, she is alternately Hagar the Egyptian or “the slave.”  These names mark Hagar as both a foreigner and as Sarah’s property.

And so perhaps, Hagar, more than any person in this story understands the power of a name. She knows how being marked by her ethnicity and status in Abraham’s household has hurt both her and her child. She knows the dignity of the right name, and the damage of the wrong one.

Hagar and Sarah had a contentious relationship long before the events in today’s reading. Things became so bad when Hagar was pregnant that she ran away.

While she is alone in the wilderness, Hagar had a life changing encounter with a supernatural being.

Dr Wilda Gafney explains that “This messenger of God is a supernatural being. But there is more to this messenger; in 16:7, the messenger [] functions as God in disguise, or perhaps better, God in (human) drag. The holy messenger uses the first person in 16:10, speaking as God, and in 16:13 Hagar realizes she has seen God. (Womanist Midrash, 42)

During this encounter, God promises Hagar that she will be the mother of a great nation and tells her to return to the home of Abraham and Sarah.

After this encounter, Hagar gives God a name: The God Who Sees (16:13) and in doing so, she becomes the only person in the Bible to give God a name.

People in the Bible name other people and places and things, but only Hagar gives God a name.

Only Hagar.

What does it mean to be seen by God? What does it mean to be chosen by God?

Well first of all, here is what is does NOT mean.

It does not mean that because we are special other groups of people are less special. It does not give us the right to expect to be treated well at the expense of others. It does not mean that we don’t need to listen to other people or consider their needs and their perspectives when making decisions.

It’s pretty easy to find stories of people who want to proclaim that they are special and that their specialness implies that other groups of people are well, not special.

You could find examples of this in stories this week of some Manitoba churches who want to be exempt from current public health guidelines and in stories of an American president who chose to ignore local health guidelines in order to hold a rally.  You can see it in some of the unhealthier views of middle eastern politics.

The God Who Sees sees things very differently than we do. The God Who Sees is a God of abundance. The God Who Sees is a God who can declare a covenant with one group of people – calling them special and chosen – and simultaneously declare that others are special as well.  In God’s economy both Sarah and Hagar become matriarchs of great nations.

And because the God Who Sees is God, the math all adds up.  It doesn’t have to make sense to us, it just has to make sense to God.

Hagar’s story serves as a reminder to us to resist the false narrative that we are special and other people are not.

Hagar’s story is a reminder, a warning, a corrective.

This story should have been considered an embarrassing but ultimately unimportant one and it should have been edited out.

But the God Who Sees, saw Hagar, saw Ishmael, sees all the people who most of us refuse to see, refuse to listen to. The God Who Sees Hagar declares that her story matters. The story of an enslaved woman from Egypt matters. It will not be forgotten.

The Bible will continue to trace the story of a particular people who were chosen by God, the Israelite people, but that does not mean that those people, who we as Christians tend to think of as “our people,” have an exclusive claim on God’s love. It doesn’t mean that we can claim that God cares more for us or loves us more than God loves anyone else. God’s love is not limited, it never runs out.

God makes the same promise to Ishmael and to Isaac, and God keeps both promises. Both men become great nations. Both men experience God’s presence and blessing. (Amanda Benckhusen.)

Towards the end of today’s reading it says, “God was with the boy.” (20). God was with Ishmael.  God’s care and provision did not end when Hagar and Ishmael were cast out of Abraham’s family.

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker encourages us to pause and consider what Ishmael’s story tells us about God’s care and providence noting that there is a beautiful old hymn that reminds us of this truth, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” “We cannot limit God’s mercy,” she says, “God hears the cry of the abandoned. God hears the cry of the outcast, and God saves.”

May we learn to see as the God Who Sees sees. May we try, in all that we do, to live into God’s wide, wide mercy and may it shape both our thoughts, and our actions.

In the name of our loving God Who Sees who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Amen.

[1] I was shocked when I heard the podcast of this sermon that I said “He” here as I work very hard to stop doing that. I don’t believe God is a “he” but the tapes of referring to God as “he” are clearly still there and impacting my choices. The work continues.