Our story is the story of Abraham; the story of Sarah. The story we like to tell is story of a promise, of an impossible child, of a blessing, of the creating of a nation out a hopeless situation. It is a story about God bringing fertility where there was only barrenness; the story of faith; the story of a miracle, the story of a God who provides, who protects, who leads, who transforms. The story we like to tell is the story of a man who trusts, and the story of woman who is named and blessed, who laughs and then bears a child called laughter. That is OUR story.
THIS is not our story. THIS is the story we never tell; the story we want to forget. The story we wish was not there. THIS is Hagar’s story and her story is, well inconvenient.
This is the story of Hagar and Ishmael alone in the desert; abandoned by their family and cast out by our matriarch and patriarch whom we revere. She is out of food, and she has run out of water. She has nowhere to go and no one to whom she can turn. She is at the end, not just her wits end, or the end of her rope, she is at The End. She has no alternatives, she has no opportunities, she has no choices. This is the end; for her, for her son. She is: Alone: in the desert without anything to sustain her; absolutely and completely alone.
So she takes her son, she puts him under a bush and then goes a little ways off, puts her back to her son, because she cannot bear witness to his dying. As she sits there, back toward her son, far enough away that she cannot hear his hunger cries, she too begins to wail.
And how did we get here? Is she cast off because she has done something wrong? Is she banished because she has committed some heinous crime? No she is sent away because her son was laughing and playing with Sarah and Abraham’s son, Isaac, at Isaac’s party.
Why is she here? She is here because Sarah and Abraham decided to take God’s promise into their own hands and find a way for Sarah to have a son w/o actually HAVING a son. She is a here because she is a slave; she is Sarah’s slave. She is here because they decided to use her as a surrogate to gain a son for themselves but then once Ishmael is born, Sarah and Abraham do not accept him as Sarah’s son. He is here because Ishmael is treated as her son and hers alone.
So let’s back up for a second. Let’s go back to Heron. Heron is where Abraham and Sarah are originally from. While in Heron, God comes to Abraham and promises Abraham that he will be the father nations. All Abraham has to do is trust God and go to the land where God will lead. So Abraham packs up all his things and he and Sarah, follow God across the desert in search of the place to which God will lead.
On several occasions over the following years, God comes to Abraham and renews this promise in varying ways. God promises that Abraham and Sarah will have a son. God promises that he will father a nation. God promises Abraham’s descendants will be more numerous than the stars in the sky, or the sands. God promises Abraham will be a blessing, that the world will be blessed through him.
But it does not matter how many times God promises, or in how many different words, Sarah does not have children. Not one, not even a girl. So Sarah and Abraham decide to take matters into their own hands and do what they believe is the only culturally responsible thing, for a woman of Sarah’s standing, who is barren, to do. She has her slave girl, Hagar, serve as a surrogate, to bear the son for her. And I reiterate what I said last week, the Old Testament never directly condemns polygamy but whenever polygamy enters the equation in the OT, it never goes well, not once. This is just the first time in a long line of stories which show us how many ways polygamy can go wrong.
Also slavery! Although we see instances of slavery in scripture, it is never portrayed in a positive light. In fact the formative narrative of the the Israelite people is a story of them being released from slavery. Slavery is never seen as a good thing any where in scripture.
And so we come back to Hagar (I should also note that neither Abraham nor Sarah call her by name throughout scripture). So Hagar actually gets pregnant, Sarah gets upset. Sarah goes to Abraham and complains, to him telling him that she does like the way Hagar looked at her. “Abraham, I don’t like the way that woman is at looking at me.” And Abraham deals with it in a responsible fashion, by saying, “She’s your slave girl, you can do with her what you want.” Yep, he eschews his responsibility toward the pregnant mother of his own child and allows his wife to “do with the slave girl as she wills.” And what Sarah “wills” is to mistreat Hagar. The pregnant Hagar does not take kindly to the abuse and flees.
It is by a well along the road, where God finds her and calls her by her name. God gives her the dignity she deserves, as a human being and says what the word which neither Abraham nor Sarah say, God says the word, “Hagar.” God tells Hagar to return to her mistress, that she will bear a son and he will be the father of a nation. God extends the promise given to Abraham and Sarah to Hagar. Hagar will also be the mother of a nation. And she calls God, the God who sees, El-Roi. I should also note at this point in scripture God has not been named.. Hagar, names God even before God reveals God’s own name. She names God the God who sees.
When no one else in her life values her enough to call her by name, when she has no advocate, God steps in and brings value to her life. God names her and sets her worst fears to rest. Her and her child will not be destroyed they will live, and they will thrive. God gives to her a promise of descendants and of a nation. God gives her back her dignity. God sees her, when no one else does.
Hagar returns to Sarah and Abraham and bears them a son, named Ishmael, which means God hears. God heard Hagar when she was fleeing and frightened, God heard Abraham and Sarah and finally gave them a son. God heard. For a while they probably believe that Ishmael is the child of the promise. Sarah and Abraham have a son who socially counts as theirs. And it seems that this must be the way that God’s promise can be full-filled, after all God has promised Hagar that this child will be the father of a nation. The promise associated with Abraham and his son. The trio moves forward, Sarah’s cruelty and Abraham’s negligence seemingly forgotten.
But that is not the way the story ends. God comes to Abraham and tells him that THIS is not the way. God did not intend for Abraham and Sarah to use Hagar in this way. God intends for Abraham and Sarah to have a child of their own. And God fulfills this promise. Despite the odds, overcoming her barrenness, and in spite of her age God allows for Sarah to bear a son and they name him Isaac which means laughter.
And things seem to go well for a while, that is until Isaac is weaned and they throw a party to celebrate. While at the party Sarah sees Ishmael playing with Isaac. What is interesting here, is the word, in the Hebrew, has its root in the word “to laugh.” So Ishmael is almost literally laughing with the child of laughter. And Sarah sees this and instead of being happy that the two boys get along so well, she gets agitated. She becomes afraid that since Ishmael is technically her son, he will be treated as the firstborn and that he will inherit instead of Isaac.
Sarah goes to Abraham and insists he throw that slave girl and her son out of the camp, “because I will not have him inheriting alongside of my son.” Sarah does not even acknowledge him as her son, or even as Abraham’s son, she does not even acknowledge that technically he is the firstborn, perhaps not wanting to remind Abraham of these facts.
Abraham is deeply disturbed, but being assured by God that Isaac is the child of the promise, Abraham feels free to give the boy and his mother some bread and a skin of water and send them into the desert. But the desert is huge and a loaf of bread and skin of water do not go very far and soon they find themselves alone, in the desert, with no provisions.
The people of God have failed. They have tried to take God’s promise into their own hands; they have mistreated and abused another human being. They have disregarded her life and disrespected her as a person. They act in ways that neglect their responsibility toward her and her son (toward their son). They cheat her son out of his rightful place in the household and steal his inheritance to give to their other son. And when her usefulness no longer suits them they send her away; out of sight, out of mind. To them, she is disposable.
Let me clear, we cannot clean this up AT ALL, Abraham did not give her enough provision to make it to anywhere. Abraham did not send her away with the hope that she could find another family; some kind hearted people who would be willing to take in her and her son. He did not direct her toward Egypt (the country of her birth) with the expectation that she could make her way back there and start a new life for herself and her son, perhaps find her own family. He gave her just enough food and water so that she and her son would be far away when the two of them died of exhaustion, dehydration and exposure. If he does not see it happen then perhaps it does not happen. If a woman and her son die alone in the desert, where nobody can see them or hear them, do they really die?
But God is El-Roi, the God who sees, and God the one who hears. God sees! God hears! And God shows them a well and provides for them and they both survive.
And this is Hagar’s story, the story we don’t really like to tell. The story we would like to hide away, to leave in the desert under a bush out of sight, forgotten. This is the story where the people of God fail, and fail again and then try to cover up their failure. They try to hide it.
THIS. IS. WRONG.
Sometimes the people of God do things that are wrong; participate in societal systems that are wrong, treat others in ways that are wrong.
This is Abraham, the father of faith, the one whom Paul commends for his faith, telling us that it is Abraham’s faith which makes him righteous. Abraham and Sarah could be described as many things, when it comes to Hagar, but righteous is not one of them. Let’s face it they act sinfully toward Hagar in almost every way. They do not treat her as a human being. They treat her as an object which can be used, abused and thrown away when it no longer has value, when it no longer serves its purpose, when she becomes inconvenient to have around.
When it comes to Hagar, Abaham and Sarah fail, and have failed not just once but over and over again. Hagar is punished for their failure and in doing so, they fail again. The first fact we must face in Hagar’s story is that there are times when God’s people fail. They fail to do the right thing. They fail when they participate in culturally appropriate activities. They fail when they do not stand by what they do. They fail when they are jealous. They fail when they are afraid. They fail when they see other human beings as disposable. Too often, and more than we would like to admit the people of God fail.
The truth is we fail and sin in our failings more than we like to admit. And sometimes, even saved and sanctified Nazarenes act in reprehensible ways toward other human beings. We ourselves, personally, act inappropriately toward others. We turn a blind eye, look away, and deny its happening, when people around us are misused or abused. It is easier to ignore these stories; to forget them and think of them their stories, other people’s stories that have nothing to do with us.
It would be easier to think of Hagar’s story as someone else’s story, since the people of God do not trace their heritage back to Hagar. It would be so much nicer for us for us to come to believe that their story, whomever they are, story is not OUR story. So what does it really matter? We want to think as Abraham and Sarah thought, “out of sight, out of mind.” We come to believe, “if I don’t see it happen, then it must not be happening”, or even, “I am not actually aware of it when it happens, then I am not responsible for it happening.” But this is not their story. This is OUR story.
When we turn a blind eye to abuse; when we try to ignore the people all around us who are being misused; when we participate in culturally sanctioned activities and systems which do harm or allow abuse to happen to other people, when our words tell half-truths about the lives of others who are being victimized, we are Abraham and Sarah. When we find that we are participating in systems and paradigms that allow other people to be abused, misused, and enslaved, we are being Sarah and Abraham. We are throwing Hagar and her son into the desert so they can suffer somewhere far off where we cannot see them and remain unaware of what is happening to them.
Let us be better than that! The people of God ARE better than that. We cannot call ourselves the children of God. We cannot call ourselves Christians and turn a blind eye or stay silent or even participate in the abuse of other human beings. Let us stand up and say, “No,” when we are witness to a person being harmed in anyway” Let us stand up and say, “No,” when we realize we are participating in culturally sanctioned activities or benefitting from long standing systems which crush and demoralize other people, let us do our best to extricate ourselves from these things. Let us not continue to prop up systems and common practices which bring harm to others. Let us be better than Abraham and Sarah, let us not us not fail as they did. Let us truly be the people of God! Let us remember Hagar, let us tell her story and let us not allow this to continue to happen! Let us tell Hagar’s story.