Text: Genesis 21:8-21
“An artfully arranged sentence begins the story of her actions…‘Now Sarai, wife of Abram, did not bear [a child] to him, but to her [was] an Egyptian maid whose name [was] Hagar.’” (Phyllis Trible) It is one of the most troubling, unimaginable, and haunting stories in the biblical text. “Sarai the Hebrew is married, rich, and free but also old and barren. Hagar the Egyptian is single, poor, and slave but also young and fertile. Power belongs to Sarai; powerlessness marks Hagar…Sarai proposes a plan to acquire a child.” (Trible) The text reads:
And Sarai said to Abram:
‘Behold, God has prevented me from bearing children.
Go, then, to my maid.
Perhaps I shall be built up from her.’
Abram goes to Hagar. Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. Sarai raises Ishmael as her own child. But then last week happened. I mean the lectionary text from last week. That part of the family story where God announces that Sarai will become pregnant in her barren years and bear a child. Still laughing at God, Sarai does become pregnant and she gives birth to Isaac—blood of her blood, flesh or her flesh. For a brief while, all seems well with the blended family. The children grow and play together, nurturing the bonds of brotherhood. Then came the day of the big weaning party and the story takes that haunting, unimaginable turn.
“But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”
Jealousy is a powerful and destructive emotion. But jealousy is not my focus today. And as much as I would enjoy saying what I think about “Abram doing as Sarai told him,” I will reserve those thoughts for another day, too. But let me say this. I don’t care if you think God is talking to you, you don’t send a mother and her child out into the wilderness to die; or for that matter, a father and his child. Yes, I know. Abram took Isaac to that mountain and was ready to make him a sacrifice as well. But two wrongs don’t make a right. It just makes two wrongs. So, I’m not sure who Abraham was listening to either time but I rather doubt it was God.
But let me get to what I do want to talk about this morning. Returning to the text, we read:
When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. [Note: the Hebrew picture here is that Hagar prepared a grave under the bush for Ishmael.] Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar 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 up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”
How easy it would be to skip over the troubling parts of this story and jump to the happy ending. How convenient it would be to preach on Abraham’s complete trust in God. How opportune it would be to lay out an argument about God’s faithfulness and how ultimately God cares about the poor and the powerless and those sent out into the refugee camps to die. Maybe, we could imagine, that in the by-and-by God will make a great nation of them also. Maybe we could just pretend that the writer of Genesis 21 had a warped sense of humor when he threw in the question to Hagar as she sat watching her son die, “What troubles you Hagar? Do not be afraid…” As I said at the beginning, this is one of the most troubling and haunting stories in the biblical text. And I am wary of gleaning some holy and sacred lesson from it about trusting God or God’s faithfulness or how in the end God’s will is done. I do believe there is teaching in this text, but I believe part of getting to the teaching is resisting the easy out of “God’s will.”
What I find helpful in this story is a question it raises: How do we respond with love to a crying suffering world? Consider this invitation from Hagar:
“And as she [Hagar] sat opposite him [Ishmael], she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy…”
She lifted up her voice and wept; and God heard the voice of the boy. That is the teaching. And I haven’t been able to get it off my mind this week. Why didn’t the text say that the boy wept and God heard the voice of the boy? Or even that Hagar wept and God heard her voice? The text doesn’t say that. The text says: Hagar lifted her voice and wept and God heard the voice of the boy. Think about that for a moment: When you lift your voice and weep for those suffering and dying, God hears their cries, their voice. I want to be careful here. I’m not saying that God doesn’t hear the voices and the cries of those suffering and dying. But what I am suggesting is that the way we respond with love to the suffering of our world is by lifting our voices and weeping out loud with those who are suffering.
Last week, George Yancy had an opinion piece in The New York Times titled, Is your God dead? Listen to these excepts from his article.
So, is your God dead? Have you buried God in the majestic, ornamental tombs of your churches, synagogues and mosques? Perhaps prosperity theology, boisterous, formalistic and mechanical prayer rituals, and skillful oratory have hastened the need for a eulogy.
Perhaps by remaining in your “holy” places, you have sacrificed looking in the face of your neighbor on the street. You know the one: the one who smells “bad” because she hasn’t bathed in days; the one who carries her home on her body; the one who begs. Surely you’ve seen that “unholy” face. I’ve seen you suddenly look away, making sure not to make eye contact with the “unclean.” Perhaps you’re preoccupied with texting, consumed by a work or family matter. Then again, perhaps it’s prayer time and you need to face east, or perhaps you’re too focused on holy communion as you make your way to church. Your refusal to stop, to linger, to look into her eyes, has already done its damage. Your body has already left a mark in its absence, in its fleeing the scene.
When we turn away like this we behave as if our bodies had boundaries, as if our skin truly separated us from the Other. But what if, as I would argue, our bodies don’t have strict edges? What if we could develop a new way of seeing the body that reveals that we are always already touching, that we are inextricably linked to a larger institutional and social body that binds us all?
In meditating on these questions, I have found that the prophetic voice of Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), a Polish-born Jewish-American rabbi and activist, can help us toward an answer. Heschel… warned frequently of the dangers of theological and religious shallowness, of our tendency to “worry more about the purity of dogma than about the integrity of love.”
Heschel cautions…while there are many who worship in churches, synagogues and mosques, who understand that religious truth must be lived, who make a point of looking into the eyes of the woman on the street and show her mercy, too many of us refuse to look, to stop.
As the religious scholar Elisabeth T. Vasko writes, “to be human is to be a person in relation.” And it is this social and existential relationality that ties you to, and implicates you in, the life of that destitute woman. Heschel writes, “How dare we come before God with our prayers when we commit atrocities against the one image we have of the divine: human beings?” If there is a shred of life left in your God, full resuscitation might begin with remaining in the presence of that suffering face. If your God is dead, the possibility for a resurrection might be found in attending to the pain and sorrow of that image of the divine there on the street.
Heschel suggests that we should be mortified by the inadequacy and superficiality of our anguish when we witness the suffering of others, the sort of anguish that should make us weep until our eyes are red and swollen and bring sleepless nights and agonizing days.
Vasko writes, “Through lamentation, voice is given to pain.” Yet our lamenting, our mourning for those who suffer, is far too short-lived. And our charity to those who wail in the night only temporarily eases their pain. Heschel asks, “If all agony were kept alive in memory, if all turmoil were told, who could endure tranquillity?” Heschel and Vasko help to remind us that we ought to be suspicious of our tranquillity.
In fact, I would ask, what if that tranquillity, that peace of mind, rests on the rotting corpses beneath our feet? What if as we pray and rejoice in our churches, synagogues and mosques, we are throwing handfuls of dirt on God’s casket? After all, prayer and rejoicing can also function as forms of narcissism, as ways to drown out the screams of the poor, the oppressed.
Heschel writes, “The prophet’s word is a scream in the night.” I wait to be awakened by that scream. I have not yet heard it. It is that scream, that deep existential lament, that will awaken us to the ways we are guilty of claiming to “love God” while forgetting the poor, refusing the refugee, building walls, banning the stranger, and praying and worshiping in insular and segregated “sacred” spaces filled with racism, sexism, patriarchy, xenophobia, homophobia and indifference.
This past week, I made it my spiritual practice to listen—to listen for the cries of those around me, to listen for the cries of the world, to listen to the groans of creation, to look suffering in the face and not turn away. Many days I park under the over hang at the Cox building. And so many days, when I get out of my car I have my eyes fixed on the back door of the church. Or when I am going to my car I keep my focus on my car. It’s hard to look on the suffering—the woman wrapped from head to toe in a blanket with her body awkwardly contorted to fit on the bench under the shelter of the over hang. Or the other woman arranging the cardboard on the cement ground as a barrier to the hardness of the cement then precisely arranging her sleeping bag on top of the cardboard. Or the other woman in the far corner sitting upright with all the clothes she owns on her body, rocking back and forth talking to God or some imaginary person who brings her comfort. But this week, each day, I tried to not look away. I tried to look suffering in the face and in doing so, I spent more time this week lifting my voice and weeping.
Will it change anything? Will my attempt to look suffering in the face make any difference? I don’t know if it will make any difference to those suffering. But it has reminded me that if I want to be in relationship with a God who is not dead, I must attend to the pain and sorrow and suffering of this world; and that I need to be suspicious of my tranquility in a world that is suffering.
How do we respond with love to a world full of suffering? We do as Hagar. We lift our voices, and we weep. We look into the eyes and faces of those suffering long enough to see them—to really see them. We stay, we see, we do what we can to help, and we love through the suffering. “Hagar lifted her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy…”
That is the teaching from our sacred text.