March 24, 2019
Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”
Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.
When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”
“Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.
The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”
“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.
Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”
The angel of the Lord also said to her:
“You are now pregnant
and you will give birth to a son.
You shall name him Ishmael,
for the Lord has heard of your misery.
He will be a wild donkey of a man;
his hand will be against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he will live in hostility
toward all his brothers.”
She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.
So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.
Last Friday night I walked into a mosque for the second time in my life, and I was scared. My first time in a mosque was in college- I was taking an Islamic Studies class and we attended morning prayers with our professor as part of an immersive experience. I don’t remember much about that visit, other than the reverent quiet in the space that we rowdy college kids interrupted as we walked in.
Friday night, however, was a different story.
I had heard about the shooting in New Zealand that morning, watching in horror as yet another faith community was gunned down as they prayed. I saw the news coverage, the broadcasters reading their copy with a seasoned professionalism that reflected the fact that they had read almost the same words before. Countless times now. The massacre in Christchurch is the latest in a long line of tragedy, a line so long that we are in serious danger of becoming numb, paralyzed, or terrified that the violence is unstoppable. The darkness is real, and it seems to be spreading.
Later that afternoon I was texting with David, planning the next steps this church will take in response to the hate we experienced here just a few weeks ago. He mentioned that Zainab Chaudry, the spokeswoman for the Center for American-Islamic Relations, was organizing a prayer vigil at a local mosque directly after evening prayer. I felt a tug, one that from experience I have learned isn’t keen to go away no matter how much I try to ignore it. That tug put me in my car, pointed me in the direction of Masjid Fatima, and drove me there, trembling. I parked in a packed lot, just in time to see the last few folks run into the building to avoid being late for prayer. I stayed in my car for a moment, trying to gather courage and remember what I had been taught about the customs of Islam, before following them in.
My fear came from two places- first, I was simply afraid that my presence in their place of worship- my white skin, my uncovered head, my ignorance of their religion, would further traumatize an already-traumatized community. I was afraid my presence would be unwelcome. Secondly, I was afraid that I would have to actually speak to someone. What is there to say to a community whose very existence in the world is seen as a threat? What do you say to a child who sits with his father, looking out the window every 5 seconds in case the “bad guy comes here too.” What do you say to two teenage boys who saw the shooter’s video online, their worst fears coming true right in front of their eyes? What do you say when thunder suddenly claps, sending a ripple of adrenaline through the room because it sounds like a gunshot? What do you say to the Imam and the elders who jump up, positioning themselves in front of the windows and door, acting on sheer instinct to protect the precious people inside?
As I contemplated turning right around and going back to my car before I made any eye contact, the Imam met me at the door. He smiled, gestured at me to come in, and through his translator said, “We are so glad that you are here.” In that moment, I remembered a line my mother says sometimes. There is ministry in showing up. Presence matters and showing up might have been the only thing God was requiring of me in that moment.
Our text this morning centers around Hagar, an Ethiopian slave woman in Abraham’s household. Abraham and Sarah had been given a promise by God that Sarah would have a baby. Sarah was getting older and continued to be barren, so she decides to take matters into her own hands. She gives her slave Hagar to her husband, and Hagar conceives a son. Problem solved! Abraham now has a son who would be given to Sarah, and Hagar’s usefulness is gone so she could be, quite literally, thrown away. Seems like an easy fix to Sarah. Why wait for God to build her family? She was given a promise, and she intended to claim it. The problem was, however, that Hagar was a person. With feelings. Strong feelings against this mistress who violated her, allowed her to be used as nothing more than a womb. Animosity grew and all of a sudden, Sarah’s perfect plan began to fall apart. Not content with the arrangement any longer, Sarah sends Hagar away- a pregnant slave, abused, in a foreign land, with no hope for survival.
Hagar flees and falls by a spring in the desert, overcome and hopeless, ready to die. And then God shows up. God askes Hagar two simple questions- “Hagar, servant of Sarah, where did you come from and where are you going?” Hagar answers the first question- she is fleeing the harsh abuse of her mistress. She leaves the second unanswered- she sees no future, no place to go. Why does God ask Hagar these questions? Does God not know the answers? God, who knows Hagar’s name and her station in life, surely also knows where she is going. I believe that God asks Hagar these questions to show her that she is valuable. God breaks in on this earthly drama, this played-out story of oppression and abuse, to enter her pain and come close.
Hagar, the lowly, disenfranchised, used and abused nameless slave, matters to God. God shows up, names Hagar, and blesses her. “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered.” Hagar, the slave, the foreigner, the forgotten, is given the same blessing that her master, Abraham was given. “I will make you the mother of a nation. I will be with you. I see your pain, and I see your beauty. You matter to me, and you are part of my story. You have a past, but your future is mine. I will be with you and I will protect your son.”
“The God who Sees.” This is the name Hagar gives to God, this God who shows up. “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.” Here, in this desert, God and Hagar behold each other. Hagar, who is never named by her masters, is called by name and blessed. This God sees. This God shows up.
And then this God does something even more baffling. God tells Hagar to return to Sarah. To return to the very place she fled, to the very people who mistreated her. Why does God do this? Isn’t it cruel? Doesn’t this seem to go against everything God has just said? Honestly, I don’t know why Hagar is commanded to return. Could it be that, armed with this new promise and assurance of God’s presence, she is being called to go back into the darkness with a light that can overcome it? Could it be that sometimes God tells us to return to dark places so that we can illuminate the violence, shed light on the injustice, cultivate a new spark of God’s power?
As I followed the Imam into the mosque on Friday, I was greeted with smiling eyes. Hands reached for mine, arms wrapped around me, and I was given a chair, a water, and a cushion, just in case the chair was too hard. I listened to the Imam welcome us, listened as he called us all brothers and sisters, listened as he called for unity and love instead of fear and hatred. I listened as members of the Catonsville community, representatives from the police force and the County, rabbis and ministers each took turns at the lectern. Their message was the same- We see you. We are heartbroken for your loss. We are grieved with you. We will stand with you and do whatever is in our power to protect you. We will decry the forces of evil that seek to harm you, and we will advocate for you and center your voices as you begin the hard work of healing, yet again.
We were seeing each other. We were beholding. And God showed up. The fear I came with melted away. The eloquent words I could not form whittled down to just a few. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I see you.
Mary Oliver has a line in one of her most famous poems (you didn’t think I’d be able to get through a sermon without a Mary Oliver quote, did you?) “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” As we sat together and allowed our despair to fill the room, named it just as Hagar did, the presence of God was palpable. At the end of the evening, the Imam was again at the door. As we filed out, he said to each of us, “You are a light in the darkness. There is always light in the darkness.”
So what can we learn from Hagar? What can we learn as we seek to organize a loving response to our own pain and fear? Perhaps we can simply remember God’s questions and ask them of one another. Where have you come from, and where are you going?
As we seek to see, seek to build relationships with those who are different from us, seek to blaze a way forward, these two questions can act as a springboard. Tell me about your past. Where are the places you have experienced pain, grief, loss? Where have you come from?
And let’s imagine a new future. Where do you see God’s hand in your life? Where is God taking you, and what do you envision the result could be? Where are you going?
May we be people who see. May we be people who know that we are seen and loved by the creator of the Universe. And may we go forth into the dark world knowing that, in the midst of our fears and uncertainties, we are ministers of showing up together. We just might see the light of God in the most unexpected eyes.