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Sunday, July 30, 2017
Scripture: Psalm 102-1-11 & Genesis 16:7-15
Rev. Jill VanderWal
“We recall with ease the narratives of scripture that include a triumphant climax— a battle won, a giant slain, chariots swallowed by the sea. But for all its glory and grandeur, the Bible contains a darkness you will only notice if you pay attention, for it is hidden in the details, whispered in the stories of women.” So today listen to a story of a woman named Hagar.
This story is often overlooked, rarely preached on in the mainline church but it is a text that seems relevant for the world we live in and one that invites us to see scripture from perhaps a minority view. A question we might ask is: what does Hagar’s voice have to say to us today?
In the story of Abraham, Sarai and Hagar we find the origins Judaism, Christianity, and Islam which all trace their faith lineage to Abraham. Muslims see both Isaac and Ishmael as legitimate heirs, says Khaled Keshk, assistant professor of religious studies at DePaul University. In the Islamic tradition, if a man sleeps with a slave, he says, “the slave is free, and the son is never born a slave.” They credit Ishmael and Abraham with together rebuilding the holy city of Mecca; many of the rituals of the sacred pilgrimage, or hajj—including a sacrificial feast—are symbolically tied to the story of Hagar and Ishmael.
Genesis 16, Abram and Sarai are desperate for an heir, so Sarai (claiming God has prevented her from having a child) gives Abram her slave girl to have a child with. This is customary in their culture. When Hagar becomes pregnant she looks at Sarai with contempt. Sarai is furious and maybe jealous. She brings her complaint to Abram who says, she’s your slave, do with her what you want.” Sarai treats Hagar badly and Hagar runs away. The angel of the Lord comes to Hagar at a spring in the wilderness and asks, “Where have you come from and where are you going?” The angel promises a great multitude of offspring, tells her she will bear a son, to name him Ishmael, and says the Lord has seen her hurt. The angel then speaks about how Ishmael will be a wild donkey of a man. Hagar responds by naming God, the God of Seeing. Hagar does return the Sarai, Ishmael is raised as Abraham’s son, and as a teen he is circumcised along with Abraham into the covenant of God. However, when a new heir arrives (more next week) Sarah is again jealous and fears having to share the inheritance so she tells Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness. God again provides for them in the wilderness but they do not go back. Gen 21 says they lived in the wilderness and “God was with the boy as he grew up” (Genesis 21:20). Genesis 25 tells us Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father.
This story is one of strong emotions on all sides. It begins with doubt and fear which leads to anger and jealousy and ultimately abuse. It must have been pretty bad to cause Hagar to leave. Deciding she could not continue to live in her situation, she runs away. I can only imagine the despair I would feel if I was in her situation. To feel hopeless, destitute and invisible. Can you relate to the fear of suffering, alone and unseen? This is why Hagar has come to be a symbol of the oppressed whom God sees, whom God hears, whom God saves. In fact, her story introduces a major theme in Hebrew scripture and the ministries of Jesus. Jesus came for the despised, downcast and rejected.
Hagar’s voice and story speak of the true, unconditional and phenomenal love of God which can reach us in the most isolated of places. Her voice is saying: God sees, God hears and God understands – and when there seems to be no way, God makes a way. Her story reminds me of the song, “his eyes are on the sparrow.” The chorus says, “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free, for his eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.”
What’s amazing about this story if we view it within the entirety of scripture is…
God sees you, and invites us to be people who see. People who see the oppressed and poor in our midst, who do not turn away from the dark places in the world and unsavory realities. It makes me think of Matthew 25, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, you will inherit the kingdom 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.” When we see, hear and respond we are a conduit of God’s mercy, love and blessing.
Hagar had no influence, no power and no resources. A slave, she represents many poor and abandoned souls in our modern world. People who have been abused, rejected and even murdered by their fellow man. People who have been “left to die,” so to speak, and who desperately require a voice of hope crying in their wilderness.
So we light a candle to remember Hagar. When cold winds of unemployment, rejection, homelessness, starvation and loss of status and power blow in like a hurricane, suddenly narratives like Hagar’s take on a completely different meaning. So we light a candle, reminding us of light that shines in darkness, of love that overcomes fear. We light the candle and claim hope for all peoples and nations, hope in the true and living God who sees them and us.