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Overlooked: Hagar (Gensis 16:1-16)

June 16, 2019

 

So, today is father’s day. I have so many fond memories of me and my dad from when I was younger. We would play sports together, I would help him work on the house, he would put on a werewolf mask and chase me around while I cried. They were good times; very healthy family dynamics. And as a father myself, I can honestly say there’s few things I love more than being a dad. I mean, the moment my kids were born was just amazing. One moment, you’re there and there’s nothing but screaming, and the next moment out slides a little miracle. Half me, half Amy; one magical baby cocktail. The best days of my life. One time we were having lunch with the Haussmann’s and we were talking about Amy’s labor with Oakley, and I said, JOKINGLY, that there was so much screaming at one point I actually woke up. And right at that moment, Emily “accidentally” spilled her water all over me.

 

Anyway, being a parent or caregiver can be one of the most rewarding experiences in your life, and having a good parent or caregiver can be an amazing experience. But we don’t all have that privilege, right? Some of us come from broken and divorced homes. Some of us may have come from abusive homes. Some of us may have had parents or caregivers who were indifferent at best toward us, and our story this morning about the servant, Hagar, kind of falls in this vein. Hagar is a person in our bibles who doesn’t have someone to watch over her and care for her. She’s left in a place of complete vulnerability and it’s at that moment that God comes into the picture.

Now, at the beginning of this passage, we’re introduced to the great Jewish patriarch, Abraham, and his wife, Sarah. However, this is before the Lord changes their names, so that’s why they’re addressed as Abram and Sarai. And our text starts out by saying that Sarai bore Abram no children. Remember what I said last week: a woman’s ability to give birth and procreate was intimately tied to her social status and perceived worth. So, the fact that Sarai couldn’t have children was something that brought her great shame, both personally and socially. So, she says to Abram, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children through her.”

 

Now, there are a few things happening here, so let's address some of them: First of all, Sarai is speculating that the Lord is the one preventing her from having kids. So, in a way, Sarai is projecting her own frustration and impatience onto God. But secondly, let’s talk about this relationship between Sarai and her slave-girl, Hagar. Now, at the time, holding slaves was a common practice and was not at odds with the underlying religious life of Abram and his family. So, that’s just a cultural norm at the time which hadn’t yet come to be at odds with this faith. But, as with any slavery practices, the slaves were seen as property to be done with as the master wished. So, when Sarai tells Abram to take her slave girl as a wife, it’s a way for her to be a kind of proxy for Sarai so that, should she bear a child, the child would be, first and foremost, the property of Sarai. And if the child was the property of Sarai, he could be an heir to their family.

 

Okay, so after that, Abram takes Hagar and gets her pregnant, and when she sees that she’s conceived a child, our text tells us she “looked with contempt on her mistress.” We’re not exactly sure what this means or what the look is Hagar gave her, but it clearly sets off a conflict between the two women which leads Sarai to “deal harshly” with Hagar, causing her to run away. Now, Hagar’s feelings of contempt toward Sarai are just as relevant today as they were back then, and on several different levels, because those of us who enjoy a place of privilege in this world often get frustrated when those who don’t express their contempt. How often have we heard white people tell communities of color that they need to just get over slavery? Or tell Jews that they need to get over the Holocaust? Or how many times have old, white men touted the lie that all genders are equal?

 

The effects of oppression and abuse ripple out into history and continues to affect people and populations who are directly related to those oppressed and abused in the first place. There’s an amazing musical artist by the name of Joyner Lucas. He’s a rapper who is absolutely brilliant, and he has this one track called “I’m Not Racist” which is kind of staged as a dialogue between a black man and a white man. And, I’m paraphrasing, but the white man basically says, “I’m not racist, but you need to get over slavery. You weren’t even there. Just get over it.” And the black man responds and says, “Just because I wasn’t picking cotton physically doesn’t mean I’m not affected by the history.” And I think he gets it exactly right. I’ve said this a thousand times in here: I'm a straight, white, cisgendered, well-educated, Christian man. I’m the most privileged person in this room right now. I guarantee it, and because of that, I’ve not had to deal with these kinds of responses from people because I’ve never had to express contempt at the status quo. The status quo has never been against me; it’s always been in my favor. But I’ve had good friends who are people of color or are women who experience the effects of historical oppression and abuse daily.

 

Now, I say all this because Hagar has every right to look at Sarai with contempt. She’s been made into a sex slave and now she’s pregnant with a child that her master is going to take away from her. Abram and Sarai are the ones held up as the great heroes of the faith but I guarantee there are any number of people or communities who identify more closely with Hagar than they ever will with Sarai and Abram. Now, after Sarai deals harshly with Hagar, she runs away and the angel of the Lord — which basically just means God in these old texts — finds her, and this is what he tells her: “‘Return to your mistress, and submit to her.’ The angel of the Lord also said to her, ‘I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.’”Now, I talked about this way back before Christmas, so I guarantee you don’t remember. But, as a refresher, Abram is the root of the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And, historically and theologically, we point to Hagar’s son, Ishmael, as the root of the Islamic faith. And pay attention! Notice God’s promise to Hagar: “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.”

 

Our Muslim brothers and sisters ARE NOT OUR ENEMIES. We’re all on the same team. Do we have divergent theologies? Yes. Do we have different ideas about salvation and faith? Yes. But we all come from the same origin and we all stand under the same promise. Our Muslim brothers and sisters worship the same God we do, and considering the current trajectory of Christianity in America, they are, very often, more faithful to that God than we are. We have to stop demonizing the Muslim community because God belonged to them long before he belonged to us. And we see an amazing example of this in Hagar’s response to this promise.

 

Our text says, “So she named the LORD who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi’; for she said, ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” Now, “El-roi” is a Hebrew expression which means “God of seeing” or “God who sees”. It’s an expression of Hagar’s situation in which God has seen her — seen her affliction, seen her fear — and comforted her. Now, this is fascinating, because when we think about God’s name for the Jews, we often point to the name of YHWH; the name God reveals in the book of Exodus. But here, Hagar gives God a different name, and God doesn’t correct her. So, the more powerful, underlying theological question is this: if Hagar can call this god “El-roi”, and we call him “Father", and our Jewish friends can call him “YHWH", who’s to say that our Hindu friends aren’t talking about this same god when they invoke the name of “Krishna" or who’s to say our atheist friends aren’t talking about the same God when they talk about “unconditional love” or “ethics”? I’m not making a judgement one way or another, I’m just pointing out a problem. I’m just posing a question to the wider theological systems we often seem to exist in.

 

Now, again, it’s a point of privilege that I can even make this point. Many of my colleagues don’t have the same freedom I do to point out these things. One reason for this is that many churches have this thing that can probably be referred to as “The Unofficial Committee for Doctrinal Purity, Orthodox Rhetoric and General Theological Correctness.” Self-appointed, of course. This committee was instrumental in my last church. And, to be fair, some might indeed say that making this claim — that all religious traditions point to the same divine reality with different language and philosophical frameworks — is inherently heretical. And that may very well be true. But the folks who would levy that accusation against me have overlooked one little detail, and that’s that I don’t care. As a communicator and as a theologian, my goal is never to be orthodox enough. My goal is to preach the truth wherever it might be found, including in other religious and philosophical traditions.

 

So, I want to encourage you, don’t be intimidated by those folks. I had a teacher when I was in college that I was really close to at the time, but I’ve since drifted away from him just because I grew tired of the kind of purism he thought was necessary to the Christian faith. The kind of purism that keeps people out of the sphere of God’s grace instead of continuing to widen it ever further until it includes the entire cosmos. As Christians, as disciples of Jesus, we have a duty to those who are different from us; to those who are poor and oppressed; to those we find running away, and that’s merely to see them like God sees them. To love them like God loves them. To affirm them and their feelings like God does to Hagar. There are Hagar’s everywhere around us. But our privilege often causes us to overlook them. We have to have eyes to see, because to see someone — and I mean to really see someone without looking right through them — to see someone is to affirm their existence, their dignity, and their worth.

 

So, your homework is merely to open your eyes. Open your eyes to whomever it is you’ve refused to see, be it a faith group or a person at work or a family member you’ve written off. Because the profound truth is this: God sees all the people you refuse to see. God loves everyone you hate. And if we’re not constantly trying to move away from our own biases and toward an all-encompassing love and faith, then we’ve not only overlooked those people, but we’ve overlooked the gospel as well. Let’s pray for God to open our eyes.

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