Good morning. Thank you for welcoming me to the pulpit. It is a joyous occasion that has emptied this pulpit of our own Pastor Mike and we all wish the Gregg family – and especially Baby Ford continued growth and strength. I am glad we are a congregation that supports paternity leave.
We are going to dive into the Hebrew Scriptures today. I chose this text, of our lectionary choices, because I take seriously, and I am going to quote Delores Williams here…“the assumption that the Bible is a male story populated by human males, divine males, divine male emissaries and human women mostly servicing male goals, whether social, political, cultural or religious.” There are so few women in the Bible – of the approx. 1700 people named in our text only 137 are women. And many of those 137 – even those with incredible faith and witness – like Shiprah and Puah the Israelite midwives who save the baby Moses – did not make it into our lectionary. Year after year, they are excluded. Even those women included in the lectionary, often get overlooked as we tend to preach the Gospels and Epistles more than the Hebrew Scriptures. I think you know this – but it never hurts to be reminded – our children and our grown folks need to hear a variety of stories told from many different perspectives in our text – it is what allows our multifaceted God to speak through. Hearing the witness of many, women included, is what keeps the Bible a Living Word for us – not an antiquated historical document but a connection to the Divine in our here and now.
After sharing my best inclusive intentions with you – let me admit this was a hard Scripture. Is there an equivalent phrase for “the grass is always greener” for lectionary texts? Last week Abram and Sarai were the epitome of good role models. It was the story of Abram welcoming three strangers to his home. Abram’s treatment of the strangers at his door was exemplary – he gives them water, washes their feet and feeds them his best meal - and God, lifting God’s disguise bestows on them both a great promise of a son – which contains the Covenant that is so important to so much of our theology (God-speak).
The Scripture you heard today is not full of such shining examples. Abraham, now with two sons, is willing to send his eldest and his mother, into the desert wilderness with only bread and water. He does this at the request of Sarah, a woman who is willing to prioritize the inheritance, and by this we mean the degrees of wealth and power, of her son over the very life of another child and his mother. Both a child and mother who Sarah is 100% responsible for – by law and by practice, she has authority over their actions and their futures.
If we step back and look at the larger story of the relationship between Sarah and Hagar – even God seems to be partial and discriminating – often choosing Sarah’s side over Hagar and prioritizing His promise to Sarah and Abraham at deep cost – the pain, suffering and assault of Hagar. God never liberates Hagar…it creates a tension in my faith…it has been said over time by thinking women (again Delores Williams), “when my feminism and my religion met…the problem was God.” Often words and behaviors attributed to Yahweh – leave us wondering if this is a God we want anything to do with. So where in this story is the Living Word – that which might sustain us or give us cause for hope?
We must turn to the story of Hagar (found in Genesis 16 and Genesis 21) …There once was a young woman, a young Egyptian slave-girl, who came to be owned by Sarai, wife of Abram. We do not know why or how Hagar came into their possession. Sarai bore Abram no children – and according to the law of the day – went to Abram and offered Hagar as a means to conceive an heir. If a child was conceived – in the eyes of the family and by law – it would be Sarai’s child – she would increase her status as a mother and would expect the child to care for her into her old age. Hagar was expected to follow Sarai’s directives and the law – and conceived a son with Abram. We have no history of the relationship between Sarai and Hagar – but there are hints in the choice of Hebrew language used that Sarai had protected Hagar from the sexual exploitation that often befell young slave women. Once Hagar conceives, there is contempt between the two women – Abram washes his hands of the situation and gives all authority to Sarai who “deals harshly” with Hagar. The Hebrew word used also describes the treatment of the Israelite slaves at the hand of Pharaoh – so we can assume it is serious deprivation or violence.
Hagar frees herself (or tries) by running into the wilderness. The Angel of the Lord – which in this text is God’s own self – finds her at the well and asks where she has been and where she is going. She explains she is running away from Sarai and God, naming her Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, tells her to return to Sarai – but promises that she will have a son, and he will be named Ishmael (which translates ‘God Hears’) and offers a parallel promise to the one of Abram – that her son will have a multitude of offspring. Hagar names God, not an invocation she had heard others use or a name God had used about Herself, but Hagar actually creates a name for God, based on her own experience, which has been preserved for this many thousands of years, El-Roi, “God of seeing.” She asks, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” The well is named for the God of seeing and becomes a sacred place. Hagar returns to her slavery.
The encounter is one with a God of survival. A pregnant Hagar in the wilderness could not have survived alone and could not have made the long trip with no resources to Egypt. As God has promised – Hagar bears a son, Abram names him Ishmael, and he is circumcised – which marks him as one of Abram’s household – and grows. Sarai, becomes Sarah, conceives her own son and gives birth to Isaac. At the feast of Isaac’s weening, she sees Ishmael playing with the toddler and tells Abraham, “cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of the slave woman will not inherit along with my son Isaac.” Please note that Sarah no longer uses Hagar or Ishmael’s names. Abraham is distressed – Ishmael is his son – and truly to cast out one woman and one child is to offer a death sentence. But God said to Abraham – “do as Sarah says, for your offspring will be named for Isaac. Cast them out – I will make a great nation of “the son of the slave woman” for he is your offspring too.” Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and water and placed it on Hagar’s back and sent them out. Hagar is now free – but this is not a liberation – it is an abandonment, a banishment.
Hagar wandered about the wildness – and when her water was gone – she placed the child away from her because she could not bear to see him die and sat opposite him, lifted up her voice and wept. God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called 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. Come, lift him up, hold him fast, I will make a great nation of him.” Then God, the God of Seeing as named by Hagar, opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God does not liberate Hagar; God helps Hagar survive. God does not do for Hagar, God provides so that Hagar can do for herself and her son. We know that Ishmael reaches adulthood, marries and has many generations that claim him as patriarch.
We are left to wrestle with Hagar’s God…in this we turn to Delores S. Williams, a womanist theologian who wrote a powerful, and monumental book, Sisters in the Wilderness in 1993. Womanist theology is that which is written by black women – taking black women’s religious, personal, cultural, social, psychological and biological experiences seriously. I first heard Williams speak in Minneapolis in 1993. She was in her mid-50s and was so smart and spoke so quickly that as an undergraduate I was blown away by the sheer content and depth of God-speak (theology) she proposed. It was life changing. Delores Williams and many other brilliant black women walked onto a stage already set – academic theology had been done primarily by Western men – who believed they worked with value-free objectivity – but in our post-modern world this can be disproven easily – their affirmation of Abraham and the Divine blessing of patriarchy was, in part, rooted in their own experience of privilege. Also on the stage for several decades were Feminist theologians – they were asking important questions and revisioning our God-talk but they also had a very different life experience then People of Color who did theology in the ever-pervasive backdrop of racism. Also on stage were Black theologians like the brilliant James Cone who spoke of God as the God of the oppressed, the Divine Liberator. Then there were Black women, who not only suffered under the racism of white theologians and white America but also the sexism present in Black churches that barred women from preaching or speaking with authority in the pulpit. So women like Delores S. Williams started writing and teaching – first as a student and then professor at Union Seminary in New York.
Williams begins this process – from early African theologians – Anselm and Augustine, of faith seeking understanding…and she enters into the story of Hagar with her life experiences – born in the 1930s, she grew up in the South surrounded by strong and faithful black women. Williams can resonate with the Egyptian slave-girl – she can reach back into the history of her own people and name slaves. She can resonate with the complications of surrogate motherhood – slave and Southern black women often raised white women’s children or were forced into pregnancies not of their own choosing. She also resonates with the positive understanding of wilderness, for slaves - the woods and river, the wild places - were where they met God. Either in the quiet as individuals or in spiritual church gatherings – wilderness was a safer place. It was the place away from the oppressive plantation where you met God on your own terms and in your own words.
Delores Williams says, and she brings so much wisdom to the text, God is not always the liberator. Black women can tell you that they have not always been liberated from their trouble. God is the God of survival and the God of new resources. God will give you strength, bit by bit, to make your quality of life better. According to Alice Walker and Delores Williams, if you hear from women in the Black church, this is what the Elders and Mothers of the Church will tell you – we base our faith, our perseverance, our ability to work hard on the God who helped us make a way when there was no way. So today, we are presented with a God who helps Hagar make a way when there is no way. A God of survival, a God who sees and hears. We find living hope here - we can all relate to yearning to be seen or heard. We can all relate to fear, in times of illness, for our own survival or the survival of the people we love – especially during Covid.
There is more though, when you listen to Delores S. Williams, she says that black women know that you can’t wait for anybody to help you out or do your work. God will give you strength and then on your own initiative you seek change and liberation. You do the hard work and the hard walking. So today, be comforted knowing God is seeing you and hearing you. But as a people of God, I hope we also know to respect the witness of Hagar, to respect the witness in the intelligence, faith, writing and art of Black women – we must be people who see and hear. We do not wait for God to liberate us, we begin the work of liberation based on the fact that God will constantly reveal to us new resources. At this time in America, as in all times in America, there are communities that are barely surviving. We need to see and hear from them and take initiative in change. We need to see and hear stories from the folks we have not listened to before. When the way forward is dark – we need to know that God will always be a God that reveals new resources. We can never be satisfied with status quo, this is not yet a land where the Kingdom is near, not yet a place of justice and equality. That is our work – we must believe in the God that will make a way when there is no way. That is the people we are at Royal Lane.
So may you be seen and heard and may you go out and see and hear and may you have peace this week. Amen