Sunday, June 25th, 2017 – A sermon on Hagar and El Roi and Genesis 21:8-21

You can listen to this sermon here.

Genesis 21:8-21
8 The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 

9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” 

14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. 15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 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. 20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

Throughout the history of the church we, the church, and we, individuals,  have emphasized and deemphasized certain parts of Scripture as we strive make sense out of the life we live. We have put certain texts in the center of our faith and others at the margins of our faith.

And for good reason. There are parts of Scripture that seem to carry more weight and meaning for our lives. For example, Psalm 23 means a lot more to many of us than say….Paul telling Timothy to take a little wine for his upset stomach.

Or if you just take a moment and think about the Bible stories or Bible verses you more or less know by heart, by doing so you’ll start to see what parts of Scripture the church has lifted up over the years and what we have found valuable.

But, I’ll be honest, I think we are moving into an age where we are called to start shining a light on some of the dustier parts of our bible. Some of the passages and stories that we’ve dismissed or overlooked in the past few centuries.

For example, we have spent so much time teaching people the story of the so-called Original Sin through Adam and Eve and thusly shaming people as sinful and fallen creatures (which we are), but we have emphasized it to such a degree that we can barely accept and hold onto (or have ever heard, for that matter) the story of the Original Blessing – when you and I and all people are made in the image of God. What would happen to a generation of people if that were their foundational bible story?

Or the Church for a long time now has been in the after-life business, of splitting hairs about who gets into heaven and who doesn’t. But what would happen if we started holding on to the passage from the Gospel of Luke that says, “All flesh shall see the salvation of God”? How would that change the work and mission of the church?

Or over the past few weeks, as we have tried to debate what is justified and unjustified killing of a black person, perhaps we ought to gather around the text from Ezekiel that says, “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord.” What if we started there?

So, I think that’s what we are being called to do – to venture with a flashlight into the hidden and unseen parts of scripture and to look around a bit and shine a light on other words of God.

With this in mind, this morning, you and I have an opportunity to learn (or re-learn) and reflect upon a story for scripture that has too often been neglected in the life of the church – the story of Hagar and her son Ishmael. A story that for some reason doesn’t exist in our children’s bible. A story that, as you can read in Nathan’s beautiful reflection on the first page of your bulletins, is given almost no attention in our church hymnody.

Now, in order to hear and know Hagar’s story, we have to go back a bit.

Last week, we heard about Abraham and Sarah – an aged and barren couple through whom God promised to make a great nation. That their descendants would be a numerous as the stars. And through them, the entire world would be blessed.

But that didn’t happen right away. Month after month, old Sarah remained childless. And so Sarah starts to wonder if she’s the problem – that God’s promise of offspring is a promise for Abraham and not a promise for her. So, they take matters into their own hands and try to help God along a bit and Sarah gives her Egyptian slave-girl Hagar to Abraham as a wife. So that’s how Hagar comes on to the scene. She is their Egyptian slave-girl, through whom they think they can have children.

Now, one of the painful truths about this story is that it includes both economic and sexual exploitation. For Hagar’s sake, let’s give voice to that truth –that Hagar was owned by another human being (economic exploitation) and that no one asked her consent (sexual exploitation). Some scholars will say that there is no reason to judge this behavior – it was commonly understood and well within Sarah’s right to do so. Yeah, well… in this day and age? We know that people can be well within their rights to do something and for it to still be wrong. In this day and age, when we have to create $1 million anti-sex trafficking campaigns simply because the Super Bowl is coming to our state…we darn well better name and condemn the sexual exploitation happing within our own Holy Scriptures and within our own culture.

So, Hagar gets pregnant with Abraham’s child – and then the conflict begins. Hagar looks at Sarah with contempt. Sarah looks at Hagar with contempt. Eventually, Abraham gives Sarah permission to do what she wants with Hagar. So Sarah does what most of us do, we take our internal pain and grief out on others around us. Sarah begins to mistreat Hagar and Hagar runs away.

And then the story follows….Hagar. Into the wilderness. In fact, it says, God found her there. God has chosen Abraham and Sarah for descendants and blessing, but God follows the outsider, the exploited one, into the wilderness.

And then notice…God is the first one in the story to use Hagar’s name. Before she was just referred to as “the slave-girl”. But God calls her by name. I have called you by name and you are mine. We know that Scripture.

God says, “Hagar, where are you running from and where are you going?” All Hagar can tell God is where she is running from – Sarah. She can’t tell God where she is going because what kind of future could a girl like her possibly have.

Well, God has a future for her. And yes, God tells her to return to Sarah and Abraham. But she doesn’t return empty handed. She doesn’t return the same as she was – because God, in the wilderness gives Hagar her very own promises – “I will greatly multiply your offspring, that they cannot be counted for multitude.” What we learn is that God is now committed to the life of Hagar and her soon-to-be son, Ishmael.

At this moment, something happens that never occurs in the rest of Scripture. Hagar, the unchosen and victimized, but also strong and courageous slave-girl, is the only person in Scripture who gets to rename God. “You are El-Roi” she says. The God who sees me.

Hagar – a foreign woman, outside the “chosen” people, gets to give God a new name. El-Roi.

So, Hagar returns to Abraham and Sarah. And the years pass, and as many of us heard last week, Abraham and Sarah give birth to a child, Isaac. Our reading this morning picks up with Isaac being weaned (likely 3 years old) and suddenly the conflict starts up again.

Sarah wants Hagar and Ishmael gone, not wanting Ishmael to receive any of Isaac’s inheritance. Both would have legally had a right to the inheritance, but you see when it’s my child whose future is at stake, too often – like Sarah- our vision, our own seeing, is narrowed to exclude the children of others.

Now, God tells Abraham to let it happen, but God does so while also reiterating the promise that God will make a great nation out of Ishmael as well. And so Sarah and Abraham cast out Hagar and Ishmael.

And then, again, the story follows…Hagar. Not the chosen people. But the outsider, the unchosen ones…Hagar and Ishmael. Out into the wilderness. And then we hear these heart-shattering words, “When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes and sat down a good way off because she could not look upon the death of her child.”

And then it says Hagar cried.

And then it say God heard…God heard the voice of the boy. Sarah and Abraham may have cast Hagar and Ishmael out of their lives, but Hagar and Ishmael cannot be cast out of the life of God. God hears the voice, the cries of the boy. God has ears for the wailings of the little ones. Surely God heard the cries of Diamond Reynolds’ daughter as she says to her mother in the back of that police car, “It’s okay. I’m right here with you. Momma, please stop crying, I don’t want you to get shooted.”

God hears the voice of the child. Surely, God heard the voice of that child.

And then God promises, again, to Hagar that God will make a great nation of Ishmael, and then God opens her eyes. God sees her –El Roi – but then God helps her to see, and shows her a water well, to give the boy a drink. And then verse 20 says, “And God was with the boy.”

So that is the powerful, but often unknown story of Hagar and Ishmael. Why do you think we have, like Sarah does to Hagar, cast this story out into the wilderness of our story-telling and memory?

Listen to this quote from my former Old Testament professor, Terry Fretheim: “I cannot recall having heard a sermon on these texts. One wonders why this story has been so neglected or considered a story only with a negative purpose. Is it because Abraham, that exemplar of faith, does not come off so well? Is it because the main characters are women? Is it because Hagar and Ishmael stand outside the community of faith? Indeed, Hagar has several strikes against her: she is a foreigner, a slave, a woman, and probably black (at least African)…Is it because Muslims track their roots back into these stories, and understand themselves to be heirs of Abraham as much as do Jews and Christians? Is it possible that the story of Hagar and Ishmael is neglected because God makes promises to them..?”[1]

Did you know that our Muslim brothers and sisters trace their lineage back through Hagar and Ishmael and back to Abraham?

We don’t know why the story has been cast out, but today is a good day to shine some light on it. Because our Muslim brothers and sisters have just finished their Holy month of Ramadan, and I’m sure they would be overjoyed to know that their Christian brothers and sisters were thinking of them.

Today is a good day for us to shine a light upon this story because just this past week, religious leaders from around the world released videos asking people to befriend people of other faiths.

We are so used to saying the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What if we started adding Hagar’s name to that list. We believe in the God of Hagar.

We believe in the God of Hagar because in Hagar we have a story where not everything that we do to others and not everything that is down to us is God’s will. God did not intend for Abraham to have offspring with Hagar. Our own plans, our own misunderstandings of what God wants can disrupt what God would have happen in the world. But…the God of Hagar will use and can even bring blessing out of our moments of distrust or unfaith.

We believe in the God of Hagar because in Hagar a story where Hagar’s life matters to God. Ishmael’s life matters to God. God will not be deterred by the ways we try to cast aside and hide others from our life. The lives of the marginalized and the oppressed and the vulnerable matter to God.

We belive in the God of Hagar because in Hagar we have a story about a God who has other stories. And other promises. And other people. God is not exclusively committed to us. Which reminds us (and frees us) that we never have and we never can know all there is to know about God. Yes, God loves you. Yes God is with you. But not only you.

So may the God of Hagar see you. May the God of Hagar hear you. And may the God of Hagar stretch you into a love that is gentler, a mercy that is wider, and a thirst for justice that is greater.

Amen.

[1] Terence Fretheim, Abraham, pg. 93.

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