Grant Helbley Sermon: “Hagar Wept ” (June 21, 2020)
Sermon by Grant Helbley
Presented to Ashland UCC on 6/21/20 Father’s Day
Gen 21: 1-2, 6-10, 14-16, 19-21 NRSV
Our story today, on Father’s day 2020 is about Hagar and her son Ishamael. Father’s day perhaps more than any other observed holiday is complex for many of us. No role is more respected, mythologized, and celebrated than father. Even if we do not believe it, we have all been told that a good father will make you a good law abiding citizen, a financial success, and a straight. Yet, the power dynamics of patriarchy and the gender role expectations of toxic masculinity often complicate and challenge father-child relationships, and if you are a person of color it is also statistically more likely that your father was incarcerated, murdered, or too constantly stretched by financial insecurity to be fully present. Isaac, the beloved child of Abraham’s old age may have had warm feelings about Fathers day if he were here to celebrate it with us, but what about Ishamael?
Some of us grew up on the stories about Faithful Father Abraham and virtuous Sarah who laughed first in disbelief and then in joy when against all odds and all science God comes through at the last minute and she becomes pregnant with Isaac, the miracle child that God had promised. The story teller concludes with Because for those who believe All thing are possible and God always keeps His word. Amen.
However, If you did grow up with these stories, you know that Abraham was not a faultless spiritual hero. If you didn’t, Let me give you some background. Genesis 16
Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; 2 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. 3 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. 4 He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.
When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. 5 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.”
6 “Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.
7 The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. 8 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.
9 Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”
11 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,[a]
for the Lord has heard of your misery.
12 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[b] all his brothers.”
13 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[c] the One who sees me.” 14 That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi[d]; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.
15 So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.
Ishmael means God Hears
Many of the stories of Abraham are disturbing, from lying about his relationship with his wife so that he could use her to secure political alliances with other rich and powerful men, to enforcing male genital mutilation on every man in his large household, to impregnating allowing the abuse of and then abandoning a woman he had taken as his wife as well as the son she had birthed for him, to finally attempting to kill and sacrifice one of his sons, Abraham would hardly look like a paragon of virtuous behavior if the narrator did not constantly step in to point out that Abraham’s most appalling actions were in some way commanded by or blessed by God. Interestingly, Abraham is able to be bold and take great risks when he saves his nephew Lot from a marauding army and when he negotiates with God in defense of innocent people in Sodom and Gomorrah but he is unable or unwilling to stand up to Sarah or to stop the domestic violence and suffering that is occurring in his own family. He would rather abandon his concubine and child in the desert with a bottle of water and a sandwich than anger his wife, the same wife he literally tried to trick two different kings into taking off his hands. Something tells me that Sarah was a force to be reckoned with and Abraham would rather take his chances with God than her. All was not well between Abraham and Sarah
When we read this story through a Western lens, it’s tempting to jump to the drama triangle of victims, rescuers, and perpetrators, but that’s more of a Western story plot. The reality is more complex than good guys and bad guys. Everyone is hurting in this story.
Sarah is clearly a perpetrator of violence on Hagar in this story. What is not so clearly explicated is how she and Abraham are also victimizing each other. Twice Sarah is neglected and betrayed by her husband who is quick to deny that she is his wife when it is convenient for him. It’s almost as if he is trying to get rid of her. If he can trick another powerful man into “stealing” her, he’ll get a rich dowry and a chance to marry a younger woman who is more likely to be fertile. Sarah could not have missed this. In her insecurity and hurt, Sarah tries to use Hagar to earn her husbands love with a baby and then when she sees Hagar pregnant with Abraham’s child, betrays and mistreats Hagar out of jealousy. She tries to win her husband’s affection and validate her position as wife by first stealing Hagar’s body and then by eliminating the competition so that there will be no other possible objects for his affection
Abraham is afraid, afraid of his wife, afraid of neighboring kings who are more powerful than him, afraid of not having descendants and a legacy, afraid for Lot, his nephew, the closest thing to a son he has, and the last connection to his dead brother and father. Maybe even afraid of disappointing God. He is the last of his family, childless, and old, concerned about what his life will have meant when he dies and the brunt of a Divine bad joke. He’s also trapped in a seemingly unhappy arranged marriage with his infertile half-sister who he has tried more than once to get rid of but God, or maybe Sarah, keeps telling on him.
Hagar is from Egypt. She was presumably part of the appeasement gifts given to Abraham by the Pharaoh. The pharaoh intended to establish a peace treaty with Abraham by taking his sister in political marriage but when he learned that she was actually Abraham’s wife he was scared and returned her with gifts to avoid angering a potential political ally. Hagar was either born as a slave into the Pharaoh’s household or given up by her people as tribute. She is then given to Abraham, who gives her to his wife, Sarah will later give her back to Abraham, who when Sarah becomes jealous, will then give her back to Sarah again until she is of no more use to either of them and she is abandoned entirely. often depicted as young and beautiful with rich brown skin and features that would have set her apart as different from the majority of Abraham’s household. She was the exotic other woman, a political tool and pawn, used and traded like an object. We do not even know her name. Hagar is not an Egyptian name, it’s a Hebrew word that means foreigner or stranger. Deprived of her agency, her humanity, and her name, she was known only as the foreigner.
Families are messy. Often, it is within family that our deepest wounding happens and our least attractive selves are most on display. It’s tempting to say that Abraham’s family is particularly dysfunctional but some of us may have family stories that are just as messy.
Maybe Hagar treated Sara with Contempt. Perhaps taunted her for her barrenness. Or maybe the simple act of being pregnant and insisting on her worth and humanity felt threatening and taunting to an already insecure and fragile Sarah.
Sarah abused Hagar and bullied Abraham into submission
Abraham used and abandoned them both pitting them against one another with the same detached neglect.
If you think about it. Maybe you can see some modern paralells.
Abraham lived in a world that organized itself by tribes and nations rather than the smaller nuclear units we think of today as family. If we think broader, I suspect we all are becoming more and more aware everyday of how complex, dyfunctional, and full of trauma our national family is. I was at a protest in downtown Portland on Friday night and from that vantage point is impossible to ignore that Our patriarchs have fucked up and played favorites, everyone is fighting for their piece of the inheritance, Some of us are insecure and fearful that letting others in will mean we are left out, Some of us are detached and indifferent. Some of us are angry and spiteful, Some of us have been neglected, some of us are being abused, Some of us have neglected or abused others, Some of us are using the words of God to justify turning others away or avoiding getting involved at all, some of us feel fragile, and some of us have been abandoned and shut out entirely. We’ve got some dysfunction. It feels painfully familiar. And whether you are aware of it or not, it’s probably poking all of your family stuff.
Not all families are safe. And some families are safe for some members but not all. There is nothing Hagar did to deserve being abandoned and nothing she could have done to avoid it. The problem was not her, it was that the system saw her as disposable. She did not have the power to change the system or the outcome and yet Hagar despite being subject to forces she was powerless to change, acted with more personal power and agency than Abraham and Sarah. Hagar refuses to act like a victim or play powerless and her awareness of her personal power scares Sarah and becomes a source of conflict as Sarah continually tries to bring her down, remind her of her place, and dehumanize her.
She was powerless and disposable in Abraham’s family system but those were reflections of the system, not her. Hagar’s true identity was powerful and important and while Abraham and Sarah may have never seen that, God did. God blessed Hagar by affirming her true value and Hagar blessed God with the name the one who sees me. Perhaps being Fully seen was easier for Hagar. She was already vulnerable. She had less to lose, less to defend and protect.
In contrast, being seen can be terrifying for some of us. both Abraham and Sarah act powerless in ways they are not. They are not seeing Hagar in her wholeness and the thing about shutting myself off to the true humanity and value of others is that I lose connection to my own humanity and wholeness in the process. they are also not seeing themselves in their strength and wholeness.
Sarah accuses Hagar of acting disrespectfully toward her and tries to get Abraham to take sides and rescue her but in her blindness and pain she cannot see the violence she is perpetrating on Hagar.
By demanding that Abraham rescue her from a disrespectful slave, Sarah is denying her own power and in doing so, also avoiding being held responsible for the way she uses her power over Hagar.
By refusing to take sides, telling Sarah she can do whatever she wants, and remaining detached, Abraham is denying his power as patriarch of the tribe and in doing so is also avoiding being held responsible for the abuse and abandonment of his wife and son.
It is easy to see why Delores Williams pioneer of womanist theology who wrote “sisters in the desert” paralells the experience of Hagar and black women (abuse by white women and experience of being a single mother) and why the story of Hagar has resonated with many black Americans. But maybe you can see some of these dynamics in your nuclear family as well.
Does your family have a favorite? A black sheep? A fragile parent? A detached parent? Hidden power dynamics and rules? What is your role? Do you know what it feels like when that role is activated in you? Can you feel your true self disappearing? Have you ever read a comment directed at you on Facebook and experienced a deep old childhood pain all over again? It is a story that plays out in systems on both a large and small scale.
Families hurt each other. There is no way around it. Sometimes it’s intentional, often it is not. If we live closely enough with others for long enough (and unless you are sheltering alone you know this intimately right now) we are going to hurt one another. It’s inevitable. It is not uncommon for families to develop habits, patterns, and systems around the way we harm one another. Certain harmful patterns become so familiar that they are hard to see and hard to change. When power and favoritism is at play, the potential harm is greater and the system becomes harder to change.
I can’t fix anything for Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham, and maybe they don’t need me to rescue them, just to witness their story. But there are some principles from family therapy that I can use when I see myself utilizing the same kind of scapegoating, avoidance of responsibility, triangulating, manipulation, and fragility that Abraham and Sarah demonstrate.
The solution to breaking the cycle is to identify when it is happening and name it. This can be painful. I would rather remain detached like Abraham or become angry and defensive like Sarah than engage the shame inducing process of seeing and admitting the ways that I hurt others. Something about admitting when I cause harm is deeply threatening to me because there is a hurting child inside me that I never let anyone see but it feels like admitting I have hurt others will erase or invalidate that child. I can be hurt and hurt others. Those can both be true.
Some things I know help when I feel trapped in a drama triangle of hurting and being hurt is
Admitting when I’m wrong and when I have hurt others and then changing my behavior
Speaking up when I’m hurt and clearly identifying the behavior that is hurtful
Treating others with kindness and respect even when I am hurt
Learning to recognize my triggers and sore spots and care for them
We have a lot of work to do as nuclear families and as a national family, especially those of us who are white, and what better way to learn the skills we will need to engage the truth about ourselves and practice holy imagination about another way of being if not in our families?
What is your power? What kind of power do you have in your family? Is there power you are afraid to use? Is there power you use but don’t want to name because you are afraid to be held accountable for it? Are you using detachment to avoid risk? Are you ready and willing to face up to the way you may have harmed others? What does it feel like to be seen? Are you willing to name and accept the abandoned and abused parts of yourself? Are you willing to see and to be seen?
the Hebrew book of Genesis was redacted during the Babylonian Exile from collected writings, oral traditions, folktales, and mythologies. The Priestly scribe who compiled and redacted the story of Abraham into the present form that we know was writing a nationalist origin story to explain why it was the children of Isaac and not any of the other descendants of Abraham who were the rightful, God-ordained, heirs of the land.
A redacted nationalist history leaves out and obscures many things, often it is impossible to recover the true history behind it, but we can use Holy Imagination to consider the possibilities. In Genesis 25 after Sarah dies, we read that Abraham had married a woman named Keturah who is described as his concubine and she had 6 sons. Some Hebrew scholars and Rabbis have imagined reconciliation in the story. They believed that Hagar’s real name was Keturah. Keturah was the wife of Abraham after Sarah and is described as a concubine. Is it possible that Abraham regretted his treatment of Hagar and that after Sarah died, he felt free to find her again. The name Keturah means incense, sacrificial smoke, or smoky one. If Keturah and Hagar are the same woman, it is possible that her name was a reference to her status as a tribute or sacrifice to the Pharaoh just like the incense that was a central part of worship in Ancient Egypt, or to the dark smoky color of her skin. This is not a happily ever after, not then, not now but happily ever afters are for fairy tales.
The reality of reconciliation is much more challenging. You may never have warm feelings about your dad. You don’t need to. Healing is a long long road. I don’t know all of the terrain on that road because I haven’t gotten there but I know that it begins with the courage to see myself and others, especially those who wound or threaten me, in all of our wholeness.
What does it feel like to be seen? Who are you having a hard time seeing in all of their humanity?
Rescuer needs Victim for identity (I’m moral) and Perpetrator for projection (they are immoral)
Victim needs Rescuer for identity (I’m safe) and Perpetrator for projection (they are unsafe)
Perpetrator needs Victim for identity (I’m a winner) and Rescuer for projection (they are losers)
If your world is divided into good people and bad people you might identify as a rescuer.
If your world is divided into safe people and unsafe people you might identify as a victim.
If your world is divided into winners and losers you might identify as a perpetrator.