A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on June 25, 2023 by Revd Sally Hitchiner
Readings for address: Genesis 16 and 21
Do you ever wish someone really listened to you? Do you sometimes feel as if no one really sees who you are beneath all the ways they need you?
Today’s Old Testament reading is a study in paying attention. What happens when we don’t pay attention to each other, and what happens when we do. We should start by setting the scene.
God called Abraham to leave his homeland with his large household. As a mark of friendship, God promised Abraham that he and his wife Sarah would have a child even though she was beyond childbearing age. Their son would become a great nation, as numerous as the stars of the sky. But then nothing happened. Twenty years went passed and eventually Sarah decided that God might need some help. Sarah is often criticised for her proactiveness as women should be passive. But the real issue was what she did the lack of attention she paid to those involved.
Our vicar, Sam has a phrase that the word “rich” is the label we use to mask someone’s poverty and the word “poor” is the label we use to mask someone’s riches.
Sarah looks at Hagar, a teenage slave girl she has acquired in Egypt. Some traditions suggest Hagar was a junior princess given to Sarah in response to an embarrassing faux pas that happened when she and Abraham visited. Sarah looks at her slave and sees, not an emerging woman with complicated thoughts and feelings, but a thing she can use as an easy solution to her problem. She gets Abraham to take Hagar as his second wife. Second wives had lower status than the first wife but had higher status than servants. Sarah had not considered Hagar’s complexities in her proposal, but she also hadn’t paid enough attention to herself.
Her actions show poor self-esteem as well as poor esteem of the other woman around her. The promise had been to Abraham and Sarah but Sarah sees herself as negotiable. As long as the man is involved, it should stand.
Hagar quickly becomes pregnant, and Sarah finds it incredibly painful to see Hagar’s stomach growing with Abraham’s child. In certain cultures, even today, convention says you aren’t supposed to make eye contact with people of higher status. Hagar’s promotion to junior wife would have meant that Hagar now could make eye contact with Sarah. Convention didn’t hide Hagar’s thoughts anymore. And Hagar, who I imagine was in her late teens, instead of seeing Sarah’s pain and having any compassion, gloats about her ability and Sarah’s inability. Hagar uses the child she’s carrying to rub Sarah’s nose in it. The Hebrew says “Sarah became small in her eyes.”
Sarah complains to Abraham. Sarah uses quite extreme language here. It literally says “I put my maid between your legs and because of the little gift you gave her, she’s looking down on me”. Sarah is angry. She’s out of control. Abraham seems to be looking for an easy life. He responds flippantly without a proper look at the complexity of Hagar’s humanity or of Sarah’s. “She’s still your slave” he tells Sarah “Do what you want with her”.
Sarah responds seeing herself not as the good and noble woman she could be, but as a person with no choices other than cruelty. We don’t exactly know what Sarah did to Hagar but it’s the same word used for making bricks from clay. It was enough of a shock for Hagar, that a heavily pregnant woman fled into the desert. I imagine she ran away once everyone was asleep, and the next scene happens around first light before the camp had realised she was gone.
In the desert, an angel of the Lord finds Hagar near a spring. “Where have you come from and where are you going?” the angel asks. Was this the first time anyone had paid enough attention to Hagar to ask her what she thought was going on?
What’s the plan Hagar? Hagar doesn’t have a plan and the angel tells Hagar to return to Sarah promising that God will make her son into a great nation. She is to call her son Ishmael which means “God listens” as a reminder that God hears her misery. Hagar says to God “I now see who you are. You are the God who sees me.” Then she does something bold. Something no one had done before. She names God. It’s as if she looks God in the eye and gets the measure of God. She names God “El roi” – The One who sees. What did Hagar think about the god of her master? Did she want to differentiate this God from the gods of Egypt? There’s a story about the Greek god Aphrodite having to leave a dying soldier as it would be unseemly for a god to be near death. Gods and suffering usually didn’t mix. Did she imagine that this God would pay attention to her misery? Whatever her experience of faith so far, this encounter is transformative for Hagar.
She returns with renewed strength. She has her child and it’s a boy – an heir. This would have secured her status. Not long after Sarah also has a son, Isaac. Sarah now has the thing she always dreamed of.
In the Iron Age it was one thing to have a child and another thing for them to survive beyond infancy. Our Old Testament reading starts when Isaac stops breastfeeding and they have a party to celebrate he’s got through the first dangerous stage. Little Isaac is now not expected to be at Sarah’s side the whole time. At the party, Sarah spots Ishmael, who I guess would have been 5 or 6 at this point, mocking little Isaac. She suddenly becomes terrified that Ishmael as Abraham’s older son, would now compete with Isaac for his inheritance. Sarah asks Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Abraham doesn’t seem to value Hagar, but he does value Ishmael, his son, so it’s with a heavy heart that Abraham sends them into the desert.
He gives them meagre provisions which quickly run out. As thirst sets in, Ishmael becomes lethargic with dehydration. He cries but no tears come out. Hagar places him under a bush and sit a way off as she can’t bear to hear his cries or watch her little boy die.
But the angel of the Lord appears again to Hagar and says that God has heard the cries of her son. The angel shows Hagar where there is a well nearby and she and the boy are able to go on and make a life together.
Each character in our little saga goes through life without giving enough attention to each other, or to themselves or to God. They see in each other just a fix for a problem rather than complex and wild individuals.
There is perhaps no higher compliment than someone taking the time to see us as we are. When we reduce each other to just one thing – just a barren woman – just a servant – just a patriarch – whether that is perceived as a useful thing or a destructive thing, they shrink in our minds. They become small in our eyes. When we open our imaginations to the possibility that they might be many things – a mystery to be entered into rather than a problem to be solved or a tool to be used, people tend to open up like flowers and do things we could never have predicted.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way “Judgement blinds but love illuminates.” We may be more careful not to use language that uses the experienced of people who have visual impairments to talk about morality, but you get the idea.
When Hagar meets the angel the first time, the angel asks her open questions. “Where have you come from? Where are you going?” The angel invites Hagar to tell her own story.
God sees her and sees what she wants more than anything else from her life. He gives Hagar a similar promise to the one he gave to Abraham. She too will be the mother of a large and great nation – traditionally the Arab nation. This sense of being understood and valued by God is transformative for Hagar. What could Sarah possibly do to her if God had said all this would be true?
This is interesting, but why is the story of Hagar in the Bible?
The Old Testament was put together from various stories and scrolls when Israel was in Exile towards the end of the time covered by the texts. As they were looking back, Abraham was the great patriarch of their race. If history is written by the winners, why would they bother still listening to a story that leaves Abraham and Sarah in such a bad light? Why would they care about Hagar’s story?
Hagar is not just remembered as the mother of the Arab people. Hagar also embodied the start of many of the experiences that would come to mark the Jewish people. She is enslaved, born in Egypt like Israel was in the Exodus and Exile. She is called into her destiny at a spring and a well, like Rachel and Rebecca, the great love stories. She weeps over her dying child like so many Jewish women after her in Egypt and in the Exile. Perhaps most significantly she is the first woman in the Bible to look God in the eye. She is the first woman to speak with God and the first person of any gender to name God.
We think that God chooses people based on a good characteristic. God chose Abraham because he was open to being God’s friend. But if it was that simple, why would we hear about people’s bad characteristics? Why would God bother with Hagar if she wasn’t needed for the Plan? God, it seems, does not evaluate people based on how useful they are. God sees people as complex and multifaceted individuals and reaches out to us on those terms.
The real revelation in this story isn’t that God saw Hagar, but that Hagar saw God. More than Hagar longing for someone to see that she wasn’t just a slave, God was longing for someone to see that God wasn’t just absent. This story is in the Bible not because it says something about Hagar but because it says something about God. God was listening all along. God is a God of attentiveness to our misery. God is “El roi” – the God who hears suffering.
God still wants to be known so God puts messy characters in the Bible, not because they are good examples for us to follow but to get our attention that the Bible knows about the complexities of real life. The Bible has the reality of interpersonal battles. The Bible has the realities of injustice and patriarchy. We’re supposed to say “Oh this isn’t some pristine moral story that doesn’t know how hard life is for me.” The Bible wants to gain our trust, so we listen, when it tells us what God is like. The Bible is really about God.
But there’s more… From where we sit in twenty first century London, we still must struggle with why God seems to support Sarah and Abraham and reject Hagar.
For Christians the fact that God seems to reject her is the key to this story. Think about it. This is a person who was at the heart of God’s covenant. This is a person who embodied Israel’s exodus and Israel’s exile. This is a person whose suffering seemed to be required if Israel was to fulfil its destiny. This was a person who came to her own and was rejected. A person who was cast out and, in her moment of deepest agony, wondered why God, her God, had forsaken her. This was a person who was despised, rejected, and acquainted with grief. Does this remind you of anyone?
This story is in the Bible because Hagar’s story, the story of exodus and exile and rejection by woman and man and even by God, is the story of Jesus.
They say you cannot really know someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes. God takes Hagar’s life and listens to what it is like from the inside.
For Christians, the story is in the Bible to make sure we remember that Jesus looks more like Hagar than he does like Abraham.
But there’s no sentimentality in this story. Hagar is no angel. The point is not that Jesus identified with the honest but browbeaten oppressed peoples of the earth. The point is that Jesus is to be spotted among those who have may well have contributed to their own downfall, but are, in all likelihood, more sinned against than sinning, and either way are to be found today wandering, weeping, scorned and rejected. It’s a complicated story, with intense feelings, laced with cruelty, betrayal, terror and despair. It’s complicated, but in the light of the gospel it’s maybe actually quite simple.
God is still waiting at that spring for you to arrive, in all your complexity. God has space for the whole of who you are. God has space for the complexity of Jew, Christian, Muslim and every other person who has ever lived. God’s kingdom is more than you could ever dream of. Because it is nothing but love that bids us welcome.