Not So Churchy
January 18, 2016
14So 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. 16Then 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. 17And 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.18Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ 19Then 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.
There is much to notice in this reading we have this evening. There are so many things I have to say about this story, and how this story intersects with our story, about all the ways that it was messy back then and how messy it is now, and yet the point of sermons is to leave 99% of the good ideas you have on the side and focus on one point, if you can.
Here is the point I want to get to, you can tell me later if I got there: Hagar uses her voice to petition God until God responds. Hagar persists. As a last ditch effort she uses her voice, strong and clear, as a crying out. How God responds is, however, not in ways that a 21st century reader might find acceptable, or even respectful necessarily.
Many years ago when I began a process of intensive psychotherapy I remember clearly, and with panic, one moment when my therapist asked me a question: “What defines you to be you? Do you know who you really are or do you take on who people say you are?” Through many more sessions, it became clear to me that I took on what and who other people thought I was, I wasn’t actually able to claim for myself who I was, who God had made me to be. I barely knew the distinction between my own thoughts and feelings and the experiences of others around me that I was taking on. Some would call this bad boundaries. And it is bad boundaries. The boundary didn’t exist so well between me and outside of me. What I did for many, many years was to not really know the difference between myself and others—I found myself vascilating on a dime, unable to be strong in my own voice, my own reality, my own God-created human being.
This, I have to tell you, is exhausting. I am not sure if anyone else can relate to this, the result of not being grounded and centered in who I am resulted in constant anxiety and occasional debilitating depression.
I share this with you as an entry point into our reading for this evening—knowing how very impossible it is at times to know what it means to “find your voice,” as this went between being impossible and terrifying for me for quite some time. Finding your voice can sound almost loopy-doopy new agey annoying, but it is a real and a hard and a trusting thing to do, especially as we are bombarded with everyone else’s expectations of us—it is one that can’t happen without bumping up against the Sacred.
Way back in the time of Hagar and Ishmael, in the book of Genesis, only 21 chapters in, God had already gotten into a few messes and in the interaction between God and God’s people, the stage for manipulation, deceit, competition, forgery, and the like had already been set. In short, life was a mess.
Focus in on Abram and his wife Sarai. In chapter 11 it says that she was barren and could have no children. And yet in chapter 12 God tells Abram (not Sarai), that God will make of him a great nation, which means, of course, that offspring will come. Abram was 75 years old in getting this news. God provided Abram land to build on, for his offspring. Abram and Sari then, went through a lot—fast-forward through the rated R part of this reading along with a famine and confusion, and Abram started getting frustrated that he was still childless.
They took matters into their own hands and took Hagar, their Egyptian slave-girl and Abram impregnated her, something that I have read as being fairly typical in that time and place. Then there was a bit of a woman’s quarrel between Sarai and Hagar, and Sarai “dealt harshly with her” and then she ran away.
An angel of God comes to Hagar, finding her by a spring of water in the wilderness and asks where she was coming from and where she was going.” She answered. The angel, annoyingly, tells her to return to Sarai. Oh, and to submit to her. But there was a caveat, her offspring would be multiplied! The angel tells her to name her son Ishmael, which means God hears. Indeed God hears the cry of the people all throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and tries to respond time and time again. Then she names God—she claims God and gives a name to God as El-roi, which means God of seeing, or God sees. Hagar is the first person in the Bible to use her voice to name God.
We are up to chapter 17 now and moving to the conflict at hand, Sarai, who has been renamed as Sarah, was promised that she would have a son. Swiftly moving through the next chapter there is yet more rated R behavior—where Abraham again passes Sarah off as his sister, not his wife, and this didn’t go very well. Sarah finally conceived and gave birth to Isaac. Abraham was 100.
The jealousy and issues between Sarah and Hagar continued, because their children hadn’t yet been hardened by the ways of the world and played with each other. Sarah told Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness. Abraham was distressed but God told him not to be because his offspring shall be named through Isaac and Ishmael will also have a nation for himself too. Without telling Hagar about this little chat with God, he woke up in the morning and sent her out with Ishmael with bread and a skin of water.
Problem is that Abraham didn’t communicate any of these of God’s promises to Hagar, so she really didn’t know what she had in store for her. She just had this God who she realized, earlier, sees her afflictions.
A skin of water can’t last that long, and so when it was all used up she put Ishmael under a tree and went away, for she had not a thing more that she could do. In Hebrew it says “she sat down and she wept and then God heard the voice of the boy.” As you can see here God has little communication with Hagar. The communication, the messages between God and Abraham don’t necessarily make it down to the women, and yet Hagar insists on communicating. She has needs and she talks to God until they are heard. Hagar communicates, she literally uses her voice and weeps and yet God hears the voice of the boy, not Hagar, and then an angel of God calls to Hagar and tells her not to be afraid. That’s the offensive part.
Let us remember that Ishmael means “God hears” in Hebrew. First we have Hagar who names God as a seeing God, and then we have a God who hears the cries of Hagar through Ishmael. Hagar, through direct and indirect ways, finds the Sacred through the literal use of her own voice. The prayer group talked about this reading for our last session together and the mothers of the group felt this reading in a particularly intense way it seems. I can imagine that you find your voice, and you use it, no matter how hard that might be, when you are with your child, out in the wilderness, and dying. You find it really quick. All the bullshit gets put on the side.
But let’s think about the strength that Hagar finds, her conviction, her belief in her own self in the face of such trial. She is a second-class citizen as a slave. She has suffered under the whims of her owners. She has been a victim to the lack of Abraham and Sarah’s trust for a child of their own. She never directly hears God’s voice. Her voice itself is squashed down, time and again due to her position in the world that she was born into. It is what Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting against, this reality that those born into the world who don’t have the power that those who hold dominance do have their voices squelched. They are seen as less important. They are seen as less legitimate and less worthy. And yet, she persists, she pursues, she keeps speaking. In a little gem of a book I have been revisiting lately called Learning to Hear with the Heart the author says that “Patience is staying engaged with God, no matter how frustrating the discernment process gets.”
If she can do it, this level of patience, staying engaged with God even though God seems rather ambivalent on how much God stays engaged with Hagar, we can find what we need to say, we can find our own voices, somehow or another.
I was reminded today that Martin Luther King Jr. was only 39 years old when he died. That is my age. To have used his voice with such strength, to have made an impact that we continue to grapple with today in so few short years—it is remarkable.
So, what is it we have to say? What area of your life needs voice? How can we use the strength of Hagar and of Martin Luther King Jr. to find our own voices? What are your roadblocks? As Hagar named God, how do you name God? Where do you find God in your life, and how is that finding leading you to use your voice? I hope and pray that through our time together this year we might hear each other’s voice ring loud and ring true—and that in the midst of figuring out how—we can experience God’s voice clear and true too.