Lent V, 2019
Self-Development of People
Mom loved to travel and she hated to travel. She adored the idea of going new places. As a head injury survivor she struggled with the challenges posed by travel. A normal daily outing presented her with two hours of preparation, from bathing and dressing to making her list to packing what she needed for a brief run of errands.
So when her first grandchild was born it was with a mixture of excitement and anxiety that she prepared to fly from San Diego to Richmond. Her daily two hours of preparation took a full two weeks as she made list after list, packed and re-packed, and carefully planned her route with a travel agent. Her father had worked on aircraft design, so she even had prejudices about what “equipment” she would fly and not fly.
Finally travel day arrived. Her cab was met at the airport curb by a porter who was told under no uncertain terms would she ride in anything but her wheel chair, which was to be gate checked after she had boarded. Her bags were tagged, she boarded, making sure her chair would be at the gate where she would change planes. She had covered every base. That is until she changed planes in Cincinnati! As she waited at the gate for her second flight taking her to her first grandchild, a spring storm grounded the flight, overnight. She was stranded in a strange city. She had her chair, a carry-on with a bit of extra medicine and some make-up, but that was it. She had not planned for this sudden interruption. She was vulnerable, uncertain, feeling alone and scared.
I wonder if something like this has ever happened to you. Have you ever experienced a time when you were in the wilderness? Have you ever felt vulnerable and alone without any idea how you were going to accomplish what you needed to do? Or worse, have you experienced a time when you were cast out and cast off by others in your family or community? Have you discovered yourself pushed out into the wilderness wondering how your future would be secured?
The themes of wilderness and family show up throughout scripture, particularly in the Old Testament. In the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, we enter into the tension building within a family as questions about who will carry the family line emerge. Who are the chosen ones? Who falls outside the circle? Who will be pushed to the sidelines, even forced to travel alone?
There are five main characters in this family saga, Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael. Abraham and Sarah are familiar, it is their son, Isaac who becomes ancestor of Israel. Hagar is more of a stranger to us. Scholars note that her name derives from the Hebrew ger meaning stranger, resident alien, or immigrant.
In Christian and Jewish thought, Hagar’s story is often told as a tale of a woman being sent out with her young son into the wilderness by a barren and jealous wife, Sarah. Sarah is the one who holds the privilege and power within the patriarchal family structure. Yet she experiences a wilderness of her own. She is barren and unable to conceive of a son in a society and family that traced its origins to the father, valued motherhood as the primary fulfillment of a woman’s identity, and the birth of sons as social security. If Sarah had no son, then who would be Abraham’s rightful heir? Who would inherit his fortune? If something happened to Abraham, who would secure Sarah’s future?
Tension abounds in this story. There is tension about who has or does not have wealth, security, and continued promise of prosperity. Sarah tries to solve the situation by sending Abraham to Hagar so that the Egyptian girl, Sarah’s slave, can bear a son.
Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible describes Hagar as the “prototype of all mothers in Israel.” Hagar is the first woman to bear a child, in the Old Testament, “the first woman to hear an annunciation of descendants, and the first to weep for her dying child. Yet even with these “firsts” Hagar’s reality is the ultimate contrast to that of Sarah’s. Hagar is young, fertile, and most vulnerable with the least privilege, but she holds the greatest promise to build her power and her authority in the household by giving birth to a son.
Johanna van Wijk-Bos professor emerita at Louisville Seminary points to the importance of the Hebrew wording used throughout the story of this family told in Genesis 16 & 21. She invites us to look for words that refer to the senses. Emotions are palpable throughout the narrative—words are used to describe seeing, looking, hearing, laughing, and weeping. The text draws us into the emotions felt by the characters, inviting us to wonder who is seen, what God sees, what Abraham sees, what Sarah sees, and what Hagar sees. We have to look at their world through their eyes and listen for who laughs and see who smiles; take notice of who hears or who is heard.
Once Hagar “sees” that she and Abraham are pregnant, she becomes of no account in Sarah’s “eyes.” She flees. And in the account announcing the birth of Hagar’s son, an angel of the Lord appears to her and asks where she is going. The angel tells Hagar to return to Abraham’s house and to name her son Ishmael, meaning “God hears.” Here is the first thing that strikes us, Hagar calls out God’s name, interrupting the story that defined ancient patriarchy. Neither her son, nor the continuation of the family line will bring Hagar freedom. Rather it is the Lord, “the God who sees me” the God who sees and acts for the most vulnerable in the story.
Eventually Sarah tells Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Abraham gives her bread and a skin of water and sends them out into the wilderness. When the water gives out, Hagar weeps and calls on the Lord. And the Lord hears Hagar and provides a well. Here we lose sight of Hagar in the biblical story. Abraham seems to have nothing more to do with Hagar or Ishmael, and it is Isaac, Sarah’s son, whom “God smiles upon.”
In this family saga, we find a God who sees, hears and acts within family tensions about power, privilege, fertility, barrenness, insiders, outsiders, chosenness and distribution of resources. As van Wijk-Bos observes, the “lines of kinship seem to be less sharply drawn and God’s blessing does not remain confined to one group alone.” For in the end, God promises both Isaac and Ishmael great nations.
In our culture we have a tendency to think of things, events, ideas, and stories in light of our own individual experiences. But this narrative is not a narrative of division between an “us” and a “them,” but rather a story about how to forge a future between “us” and “another us,” a story of “us” and “others.” The “I” is never independent from the “we.” Family in this context is interrelated and bound by a covenant that reaches beyond ancient kinship and traditions.
For each of the traditions that trace its origins to Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, the same destiny and desires are true—discovering community in the wilderness; abundance and sustenance for one’s daily life; victory over artificial social boundaries of gender, class or color; being seen, remembered and heard by others and God. Perhaps the most important in this particular story is that the actions of women are visible, seen and remembered. Both Hagar and Sarah become mothers of faithful peoples. In different ways, they create life out of barrenness, dryness and wilderness.
In the Muslim traditon, this story continues in a way that challenges us to consider the importance of calling upon God’s name in the wilderness. Neither Hagar nor Sarah are named in the Qur’an. Hagar’s name in Arabic is Hajira, a name that means going into the wilderness for the sake of God’s mission. Hagar’s name conveys her willingness to build God’s household out of nothing but the sand in a barren, dry, deserted land.
She is not understood to be the victim of a jealous woman, but rather a survivor who shows that neither class nor privilege can deter any one who has faith in God. Riffat Hassan, an Islamic scholar, observes, “When one is in the wilderness, without the protection of any familiar framework or faces, one’s faith in God and one’s self is put to a real test.”
For Muslims, the story of Hagar does not end when she is sent away. Abraham continues his relationship with both Hagar and Ishmael. When Hagar goes out into the desert, she does not beg Abraham to return to her previous home. Her exile is not a place of destitution. Instead she is Abraham’s partner in building God’s house in a land with few resources. Her wilderness becomes a place of agency, inspiration and empowerment that leads to new creation, the creation of a new community.
Earlier I told the story of my mom’s wilderness experience in the Cincinnati airport. As challenging as that was for her, she would have been the first to admit there are far more challenging places to be standing and questioning whom we will see, how will we be seen, who is with us in the wilderness, and how we will call upon God’s name to fulfill a covenant promise for all of us. In the stories of Sarah and Hagar, in our own experiences in the dry and barren wilderness, we too, find a God who offers blessing to all, to the “us,” and the “other us.” Asking to be partners with us in building God’s household in the wilderness.