3rd Sunday after Pentecost Year A
I am indebted to Sam Wells, the former Dean of the Cathedral in Atlanta for the ideas in my homily today.
Reading Hagar's story is like peeling an onion, each layer you take off makes you cry harder. Let’s begin with the bare bones story and then peel down a few layers to see what we find.
God promised Abraham he would be the father of a great nation. But his wife Sarah was old and childless. Sarah and Abraham didn't know a way for God's promise to be fulfilled so they took matters into their own hands. Sarah suggested Abraham have a baby with their Egyptian slave Hagar. Hagar conceived and began to look down on her mistress Sarah. Sarah complained to Abraham, Abraham said "Do what you like," so Sarah was cruel to Hagar and Hagar ran away. An angel of the Lord met Hagar in the wilderness and told her to return and submit to Sarah and look forward to having a great many descendants. Hagar had a son named Ishmael. Later Sarah had a son Isaac, but Sarah still demanded Abraham throw Hagar and Ishmael out. God backed Sarah up but also promised that Ishmael would become the father of a great nation. Abraham packed Hagar off to the wilderness with meager provisions, which soon ran out; Hagar placed her son under a bush and wept to watch him die. Feel the tears take effect when you hear Hagar say, "Don't let me look on the death of the child." But God heard the boy's distress and called to Hagar, and she saw a well of water and God saved them.
Now let's look at the story a little more closely and peel off another layer. Hagar's story is Israel's story. She's a slave, just as the children of Israel later became slaves under the Pharaoh. Just as Israel became a threat to the Pharaoh when she grew in number, Hagar becomes a threat when she has a son. Just as Israel ran away from bondage in Egypt, so Hagar runs away from the cruelty of her mistress. And just as Moses met God in the wilderness, so Hagar meets God in the wilderness. Just as God promises Abraham that Israel will become a great nation, so God tells Hagar that Ishmael will also be a great nation. Hagar's story is Israel's story.
If the first definitive moment in Israel's story was the exodus, then the second definitive moment is the exile. Just as Hagar is like Israel in running away from slavery and having her own exodus, so later she's like Israel in being thrown into exile. Like Israel, Hagar knows both exodus and exile. And just as it is for Israel, exile for Hagar is an agonizing and purifying time. She and her son survive and adapt and meet God there too, just as Israel did in Babylon.
But it's not just in exodus and exile that Hagar mirrors Israel's story. Over and over again we are being told that Hagar's story is Israel's story. And yet there's this constant irony and paradox that Hagar is the person steamrolled to make Israel's story possible. It's as if Israel looked into a puddle and saw reflected back the face of Hagar. The story of Hagar and Sarah is the story of Arab and Jew. What are we to do about this disturbing story that shakes us out of any simple notions of God's call, God's promises, and God's faithfulness.
It is an education in human complexity. No one comes out of it terribly well. Who among us hasn't doubted God's promises? Who among us hasn't turned our head from injustice and simply wanted not to look? Who among us hasn't said "Yes" in a vindictive way when "Yes" really meant getting one up on someone who has often been mean or cruel to us? Who among us hasn't blamed God for situations we really got ourselves into?
So to read this story is to realize that the story of salvation is not a simple story of progress from wilderness to destiny. It's a whole lot more human than that. Every character in the story is deeply flawed - just like you and me. And this story seems to portray a God who not only lets people suffer, but actually prefers some people to others
Why then is this story in the Bible? If the story of Abraham was a simple march to destiny, you'd think this story would have been left out. If it really is the winners who write the history, why would they bother to waste time on the losers, especially the losers they treated so badly?
Maybe those who looked back on Israel's history realized who Hagar really was. She's a pretty special woman in many significant ways. But we still have to struggle with why God seems to reject her. And for Christians, the fact that God seems to reject her has to be the key to this story. This is a person who was at the heart of God's covenant. This is a person who embodied Israel's exodus and Israel's exile. This is a person whose suffering seemed to be required if Israel was to live. Yet this is a person whose suffering was exacerbated and even brought about by the character flaws in those who were God's chosen people. This was a person who was cast out, and in her moment of deepest agony, wondered why her God had forsaken her. This was a person who was despised, rejected, and acquainted with grief. Sound familiar? This is why the story of Hagar is in the Bible. Because her story, the story of exodus and exile and rejection, is the story of Israel, the story of the suffering servant, and the story of Jesus.
For Christians, the story is in the Bible to make sure we remember that Jesus looks more like Hagar than he does like Abraham. For Christians, the story of Hagar means that there can be no freedom, no good news, no salvation, no gospel, that's won by treading down and expelling and abusing and exploiting Hagar. Jesus identified with the honest but browbeaten oppressed peoples of the earth. Jesus is to be found among those who may well have contributed to their own downfall, but are, in all likelihood, more sinned against than sinning, and either way are to be found today wandering, weeping, scorned and rejected.
It's a complicated story with intense feelings, laced with cruelty, betrayal, terror and despair. It's complicated, but in the light of the gospel, it's maybe actually quite simple. We've just read a story in which one person seems to have to suffer so that God's people may flourish. We all know people who are on the underside of life, on the underside of history, who find themselves in the rear view mirror of destiny. You may be sitting here feeling like you're looking for Jesus. And maybe, in meeting Hagar, we just found out where to find him.