I can’t tell you how elated I was to find that our lectionary text today is part of the Hagar Narrative. The story of Hagar is very dear to my heart. In fact, I devote 3 years and 100 pages to theologically ground my Doctor of Ministry project in Hagar’s story. I was drawn to the story because it is a story shared by 3 different religious traditions. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share this story and interpret the story in ways that are similar and in ways that are very different.
The Hagar story unfolds in two scenes. The first is in chapter 16 and today we read the second scene where we find Hagar and Ishmael in danger.
Hagar’s name means “The Other.” Let that sink in for a moment. “The Other.” Hagar is “the other” in the story because she is a woman in a man’s world-she doesn’t get to keep her heritage or her own religion because she is absorbed into the house of Abraham; she is baptized into the God of Abraham without her consent. She is a slave in the house of her master and so she does not get a say in what happens to her body; she is property and can be used for surrogacy. She is the other because she is Egyptian; she is not one of them; she does not know Abraham’s people or Abraham’s God. Hagar does not even have a voice until God speaks to her. Hagar is three times the Other. Are we seeing Hagar a little more clearly? Can we begin to hear her voice a little more clearly now in the story?
In chapter 16, we find Hagar running away from Abraham and Sarah because she was being treated harshly. God searches and finds Hagar, and asks her where have you come from and where are you going? This is the first time in the Hagar narrative that she is given a voice. God listens to Hagar’s response and Hagar feels seen. This scene marks the beginning of her healing and transformation. She marks this moment by being the first and only person to name God. She names God El Roi, the god who sees. But she will have another challenge to face. God sends her back to Abraham and Sarah. This is a very confusing story because it seems that God is sending Hagar back into the hands of her oppressors. Delores Williams a womanist theologian points out that according to the law of the time, Hagar must be returned to Abraham to save her life and to secure her freedom. Otherwise she will be seen as a runaway slave. Abraham must set her free and God promises Hagar that her son will have this freedom. God doesn’t just give her a promise that puts her son’s freedom under the umbrella of the Patriarch Abraham, but God sees Hagar in her Otherness and offers hagar and Ishmael a promise similar to the promise of Isaac.
Hagar returns to the house of Abraham where she is again low in status as a woman, as a slave, and as an Egyptian. But she returns with the hope That the God who sees will fulfill the promise given to her and her son.
Now, in chapter 21, we find Abraham setting Hagar free. God first speaks to Abraham and assures Abraham that Ishmael will be a leader of a great people with God’s blessing which makes Hagar a Matriarch. Abraham gives her food and water and releases her from slavery. This is Hagar’s Exodus experience. I can almost hear the cry of Moses saying, “Let my people go!” But we don’t think of Hagar as our people do we? Have we ever taken the time to listen to Hagar’s story in such a way that we find ourselves in her story? We know the Exodus story of Israel being released from the hands of the Godless Egyptians as our story. But well before that story, we have an Egyptian woman experiencing her own Exodus from the hands of the oppressors who we have considered our people. Let that sink in a moment.
When we shift our gaze from the central story of those we consider one of us to listen to the character on the margins, we are given the most beautiful gift. We hear the Other naming the God of her experience as the God who sees and naming her son God hears. Brian McLaren says that this story reminds us that God sees and God hears The Other
Say, “I think Beyonce gives the invitation of our sacred text. She shares what we are to do and how we are to be for Others.Let’s Listen.” Listen for Hagar. Listen for the voice of The Other.
Play to 1:34 then stop.
God found Hagar in the wilderness, asked her a question, and then listened. This is the first time in the hagar narrative where Hagar has a voice. God is showing us how to show up for people; how to put into action the great value that God places on one particular life; We are learning How to listen. Leaders from President Bill Clinton to President George W. Bush are calling out for us to Listen. So let us understand what it means to truly listen.
1-Listen is paying attention
Just think how naturally we hear something, we turn our face towards the noise, and then we are invited to pay attention. The first two might be automatic, but paying attention is a choice.
Seth Horowitz who is an auditory neuroscientist at Brown University writes, “Hearing in short is easy. You and every other vertebrate have been doing it for hundreds of millions of years. It’s your life line, your alarm system your way to escape danger and pass on your genes. But listening, really listening is hard when potential distractions are leaping into your ears every fifty-thousandth of a second—and pathways in your brain are just waiting to interrupt your focus to warn you of any potential dangers.
Paying attention is the key to move beyond just hearing into listening. When we actively focus on what we are hearing our brain works like a set of noise suppressing headphones for those sounds that are not as immediately important. Then, we become able to attend to the words of the person and beyond the words to the cry of their heart. I think this is what I intuitively knew as a child. I’m sure my mom heard my endless chatter, but was she paying attention enough to listen.
2-Listening is also requires intention. For the past year, I facilitated listening groups. It began as my doctor of ministry project and then continued beyond that initial experience. When I gather with my listening groups, we make commitments to each other before every session. These commitments help us create a safe enough space for people to participate. The first commitment is to seeing each other’s inherent goodness. To say out loud that every person was created with a core of compassion and goodness. The second is to notice judgments when they arise; to notice our perceptions, to notice the stories we have created about a person; to no longer deny what is inside of us, but to offer it love and compassion, and then return to recognizing their inherent goodness. The third commitment is to listen to each other as though God speaks through and from within the other person. This shapes the quality of our listening. If I am listening as though God is speaking through you then I am open to changing my view or seeing a situation through a new lens. My heart is open and receptive.
A conversation I had with a dear friend of mine gives us an example of how to listen. I was in a crisis having just resigned from a job that I thought was a dream job. I was feeling wounded. I was feeling that people where pushing me into a box where they could not see me or hear me. My friend knew a summary of my experience, but wanted to give me an opportunity to share my story. As we sat down at a table in a coffee shop, she took my hands, looked into my eyes and said, “I want you to know that I see you.” She turned her attention to me and she shared her intention which was to see me: to see me in my pain, to see me in my failure, to see my pain as love lost, to see my inherent goodness, to see God in me. As I shared my story, she listened with her whole body. As she reflected back to me what she heard, she was able to recognize how an experience that she had in her life had some similarities so that she could say, “I understand your pain.” Although our stories were very different, in our suffering there are similaries so that we could offer compassion to each other. This is a deep level of listening that honors differences while celebrating our connection.
3-Listening invites us to challenge our perceptions
There is a lot going on inside when we set our attention and intention to listen. And so we also have to recognize what is bubbling up…do we feel threatened when we listen, do we feel challenged, does the story we are hearing resonate with our own experience, do we feel overwhelmed when our listening gives us new information that changes the way we have viewed something for a long time.
Let’s think about Hagar’s story…
What story had you heard about Hagar before today? Was she the one who was a threat to the promise child Isaac? Was she the sin of Abraham because he did not have patience? Was she the slave who looked down on her mistress and deserved punishment? Or was her story just absorbed into what we call the Abraham and Sarah narrative? We say that our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but what about the Matriarch Hagar and what about her son, A leader of a great people blessed by God? For a long time, I had only heard her story through the dominant narrative of the chosen people.
In Galatians, Paul writes that those who continue circumcision are of the line of Hagar, slaves to the law. Those who no longer circumcise are of the line of Sarah, free and blessed by God.
Letty M. Russell writes that this is Hagar’s second rejection: first in her representing the non-chosen people in the Hebrew Bible and now in Hagar being linked to the Jewish people who were the chosen ones in the Hebrew bible, but are now considered outsiders by Paul.
We have failed to see Hagar even in our own sacred text, even in our own religious house. She is a Matriarch. Her son is the leader of a people who have God’s blessing. But today, we have done the work to listen to her story a little more clearly. To see past our perceptions or the narrative we the dominant chosen people have created about who she is.
If we did not listen to Hagar, we miss a very profound moment that has shaped three faith traditions: her experience of God seeing and hearing the outsider. In Hagar’s story, God models a way of being in the world that we are called to emulate. As people of faith, we are called to embody the gospel and that is what my friend offered me..she offered me her face, her eyes, her ears, her hands. I return to this memory over and over because this simple conversation in a coffee shop marked the beginning of my healing and transformation.
In these uncertain times, where it feels difficult to see the way forward…We follow what God is teaching us and we listen. We turn our face towards those on the margin and we choose to pay attention. And we just might find ourselves in a new story of healing and transformation.
May God bless you and keep you.
May God’s face shine on you and be gracious to you.
May God hear you and turn her face toward you and give you peace.