Sermon for Sunday, June 21, 2020 || Proper 7A || Genesis 21:8-21
Today, I’d like to talk about Hagar. Specifically, I’d like to talk about Hagar’s vision and how God grants us the same capacity for faithful seeing that Hagar has. First, though, you might be wondering who Hagar is. Hagar is an Egyptian servant (or slave) in the household of Abram and Sarai (who during the course of the Genesis story have their names changed to Abraham and Sarah). When God promises Abram that God will give Abram countless descendants, the old couple don’t know what to do. They’ve never had children of their own, and now they’re way too old. Taking God’s promise into her own hands, Sarai offers her servant Hagar to Abram, saying, “It may be that I shall obtain children by her.” (If this sounds eerily like The Handmaid’s Tale, it is.)
Hagar gets pregnant and starts to look upon Sarai “with contempt.” Sarai begins to treat her harshly, so the young woman runs off into the desert and finds herself at a spring in the wilderness. The messenger of the Lord speaks to her, telling her to return and raise her son in Abram’s house. Name him Ishmael, which means ‘God hears.’
Hagar is astounded by the presence of God all around her, and she names God ‘El-Roi,’ which means ‘God who Sees’ or perhaps ‘God of Seeing.’ In fact, Hagar, a lowly servant girl, is the first person in the entire Bible to make a name for God, to try to understand her interaction with God through naming. Others will do this later, but Hagar is the first.
Hagar returns to Abram’s house and bears Ishmael. Now we need to fast forward fourteen years. Last week, we heard the story of the birth of Isaac. This is where today’s reading picks up. Sarah has a son of her own, and she doesn’t want Isaac to have any competition for Abraham’s affection, so she tells Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael from the household. This distresses Abraham to no end because he loves both his sons. But after God assures Abraham that Ishmael will also have a great nation spring from him, Abraham relents to Sarah’s wishes.
And this is where the story gets a little weird. I’m going to point out the weirdness, and then I’m going to ignore it because it’s not that important. Today’s story treats Ishmael as if he’s little more than a slightly older baby than Isaac, even though 14 years have passed since his birth. This is either due to counting years differently or (more likely) combining different sources of the Abrahamic story into one larger tale. So if you were wondering why Hagar put her teenager under a bush so she wouldn’t have to watch him die, then you’re not alone in being perplexed. Again, just ignore Ishmael’s age here because the important thing is what happens next.
Hagar is wandering about the desert with her son. Her food and water have run out, and she thinks they are about to die. And for the second time in the wilderness, Hagar stumbles into God’s presence and hears the voice of God’s messenger. “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is [Ishmael – “God Hears”]. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”
And this is how the book of Genesis narrates what happens to Hagar after these words: “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.”
Remember, earlier in the tale, Hagar had found a spring in the wilderness and had named God ‘El-Roi,’ the God of Seeing.
Then God opened her eyes.
In the moment of her distress, Hagar could not see beyond her fear and her anxiety. The water in the waterskin was gone, and she said, “That’s it. We’re going to die.” But God had promised long ago to make a great nation of Ishmael, and God is faithful and trustworthy. God sees Hagar. God beholds her. God holds her in the hope of the promise. And because God sees Hagar, Hagar sees. She sees beyond the narrowed field of vision, the opaque box her fear and anxiety had trapped her in. She sees a source of abundance in the midst of the wilderness of scarcity. She sees the presence of God moving her life along the path of the promise.
In these days of long term isolation, terrifying disease, and exposed injustice, fear and anxiety can create wilderness around us. All of the stressors in our societal system – no matter if they are leading to death or to new life – can rob us of our sight. We can become spiritually nearsighted, unwilling to look beyond or within our current distress. When this happens, we can remember Hagar. We can remember the God of Seeing opens her eyes. And we can see ourselves, see in the midst of wilderness the wellspring of God, from which flows the sustaining water of life.
This vision may look like new clarity after a long bout of confusion. Or the stamina to remain in the middle of confusion while new clarity gestates. This vision may look like a closer look at a situation that appears hopeless from one angle but not from another. Or good news to celebrate while most news is cause for lament. Or the courage to take a stand for justice where you never really engaged before. Or the release of long held perspectives that no longer align with the person God is calling you to be. This vision may let us see many things, and it will always focus us toward abundance, justice, and love.
When I was fourteen (like Ishmael!), I started getting really bad headaches. Migraines. Migraines so bad that one night my dad took me to the hospital for a CAT scan because he thought I had meningitis. The doctors prescribed me some serious meds – beta blockers – to fight the headaches. I took them for a while until I went to see an optometrist. Turns out, my migraines were due to my need for glasses, not some phantom high blood pressure. I got glasses, and the headaches ceased. And for the first time in recent memory, I could see clearly.
But, like any self-conscious teenager, I hated those glasses. Not that my daily sweatpants marked me as the height of fashion, but glasses were a bridge too far! The thing is, I was a really, really good Little League center fielder throughout elementary and middle school. When I was about ten, my coach nicknamed me “Hoover” because of how I vacuumed up fly balls. I wanted to try out for the high school baseball team my freshman year. But I had just gotten those horrible glasses (you know, the ones that made it so I could see baseballs flying through the air). That spring I made a boneheaded choice that I’m still kicking myself for nearly 25 years later. I decided not to go to the tryout because I didn’t want to wear my glasses.
I think we’re all like that sometimes in our walks with God. We refuse to see even when El-Roi, the God who Sees, is showing us the path of God’s promises. But today, Hagar is our guide, for she is the one who sees. As we look out over the wilderness of this modern moment, we too can find it a place of springs as we pray for God to open our eyes.