Sunday, October 12, 2014

Hagar and Ishmael – Racism Cries Out to be Seen and Heard

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade
Genesis 16:1-16; Genesis 21:8-21
October 12, 2014

Keywords:  Racism, White privilege, Ebola, slavery, Africa, African American men, incarceration, Michael Brown

In our church, we are in the midst of a sermon series on the Book of Genesis.  We started in September and, after taking a break in Advent/Christmas, we'll go through Lent.   Genesis contains the foundational stories of our faith, many of which we don’t hear within the three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary used by many churches.  The lectionary leaves out a lot - including Hagar and Ishmael's story.  It’s no wonder the editors of the lectionary decided that this story wouldn’t make the cut.  It’s a troubling story to hear, and difficult to understand.  It shows us a side of Abraham and Sarah that is embarrassing and shameful.  But this story holds a mirror up to us today.  What we see will be embarrassing, shameful, troubling and difficult to understand.  But in this mirror we will also see the work of God. 
You’ll recall that Abraham and Sarah were an elderly couple when God called away them from their comfortable retirements in the land of Ur to undertake a long, perilous journey to a land God was promising to them.  Not only that, God promised that even though they had been childless all these years, they would be the forefather and foremother of so many generations of children, they would outnumber the stars.  But as the two of them looked at each other’s eighty-year-old bodies, gnarled and road-mapped with wrinkles and scars, and they doubted that God could make this happen.

So they took matters into their own hands.  And that’s where the trouble began.  Sarah owned an Egyptian slave-girl named Hagar, and she decided to give this girl to her husband as a second wife, hoping to obtain a child through her.  It was customary in those days for a man to have more than one wife.  It was also a fact that slavery was an acceptable practice.  Earlier in Chapter 9 of Genesis, Noah cursed his son Ham and his descendants to be slaves to the other two of Noah’s sons, Shem and Japheth and their descendants.  Shem’s descendants settled in Asia, Japheth’s went north to Europe.  Ham’s descendants settled in Africa.  We do not hear about slaves again until Chapter 16 when Hagar, a daughter descended of Ham, is, indeed, a slave of the descendants of Shem -- Abraham and Sarah.   And, as is typical of slave-owners, Abraham and Sarah were brutal, cruel, and without mercy toward their chattel. 

This is not the portrait of the patriarch and matriarch we usually see.  We like to picture them as the laughing, loving elderly parents of little Isaac.  But we need to hear this part of the story, too.  We need to come to grips with the fact that the chosen ones of God were not paragons of virtue.  They devised a scheme wherein a dark-skinned girl was forced into giving her body to her master, who impregnated her.  When her belly bulged with the child Sarah believed she would never have, Hagar was treated with bitter, resentful cruelty. 

As the theologian Dolores Williams notes in her book Sisters in the Wilderness (Orbis Books, NY, 1993), this story bears uncanny resemblance to the experience of African women and girls enslaved on American soil over 200 years ago.  Like Hagar, they were taken captive against their will, brutalized, and forced to work in a land far from their home.  When they would try to run away, they were often sent back to their plantation prisons, just like Hagar. Their bodies were ravished by their masters.  And when they bore white men’s children, they were treated even more cruelly by the jealous wives of the masters, just as Hagar suffered under Sarah.   After the Civil War, the women and children were often expelled from their homes with no resources for survival, sent out into the wilderness by cowardly Abrahams who would take no responsibility for the choices they had made and forced onto these innocent ones.

What is also confusing is God’s treatment of Hagar.  We know Hagar has been oppressed.  When she runs away while pregnant, we know she is alone, no family, no true husband, no friends, completely isolated.  We think of God as the liberator of the oppressed, so we would expect the angel of the Lord to come to Hagar and say, “Follow me.  I will lead you back to your people in Africa.  I will lead you to freedom.”  But that’s not what he says.  He tells her to go back and submit to her mistress.  Why?
Dolores Williams reminds us that infant mortality rates in that time were high.  If Hagar tries to make this trek in the desert by herself, she and her unborn child will surely perish.  And so she returns to the life of a slave once again.  But not before the angel of God gives her a blessing: 
“Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;  you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.  Your son’s life will be marked by conflict.  But he will be his own man.”

And how does Hagar respond?  She names God.  She calls God El-roi, “El” meaning God, “roi” meaning “to see.” Elroi can mean either “God sees” or “Seeing God.”  This is an incredible turn in the narrative.  Hagar is the only person in the Bible who gives a name to God.  It is always God who does the naming.  Remember how God changed Abram to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah?  Lots of other characters are named or renamed by God:  Jacob is renamed Israel.  Simon is renamed Peter.  Saul is renamed Paul.  But this time it is God who receives a name.  And look who it is who does the naming:  a pitiful African slave-girl, her body beaten and violated, alone in the desert with no hope and no future.  The lowest of the low.  But she is the one who has the power to name God.  God sees me.  I see God. (Williams, pp. 20 – 23). 
This is a critical moment for Hagar.  Certainly, Sarah would have liked nothing more than for this slave girl to have disappeared.  But Hagar came back.  She has been seen by God.  She has seen God.  And she will not go quietly away to disintegrate into the desert.  She comes back and demands to be seen. 

Not only is this a critical moment for Hagar, but for all dark-skinned or enslaved women who find themselves trapped between a desert and a life of oppression.  The world would like nothing more than for these troubling figures to disappear.  We would like to ignore the 20-30 million women and children who are still traded as slaves on the black market today (  They are invisible to us, and we wish the problem would just go away.  But Hagar assures us, they are seen by God.  And God is calling us to see them.  And to respond.

Six months ago, the world tried to ignore the dark-skinned men, women and children in the deserts of Africa dying of Ebola, refusing to address the problem, hoping it would just go away.  They were invisible to us, but they were, and are, seen by God.  And God is calling us to see them.  And to respond.

You see, the problem of problem of light-skinned privilege was as much an issue in the age of Genesis as it is for us today.  Later, after she has given birth to Ishmael, and her mistress gives birth to Isaac, Hagar finds herself alone in the desert again.  The two boys were just playing with each other, like children do.  One with dark skin, one with lighter skin.  And like so many mothers in the time after slavery, for the next 200 years, and, let’s face it, for some mothers and fathers even today – the idea of their white child playing with a black child is so repugnant, so offensive it simply will not be tolerated.  It may not be as overt as it was between Sarah and Hagar, but the hatred and fear of the black child, the black male child, is alive and well.  Just ask the mothers of slaughtered black sons – Michael Brown, Trayvon Williams, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford and Dante Walker, just to name a few black men recently shot to death in America by armed men.

As the columnist Leonard Pitts recently wrote, “[T]he fear of black men [by whites] is downright viral. That doesn’t mean [we burn] crosses on the weekend. It means [we’ve] watched television, seen a movie, used a computer, read a newspaper or magazine. It means [we live] in a nation where one is taught from birth that thug equals black, suspect equals black, danger equals black.”

Sarah’s words to her husband echo like a horrible scream we can’t get out of our ears:  “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave shall not inherit along with my son!”

Cast out those sub-human savages in Africa, those thugs on the streets in America.  The sons and daughters of slaves shall not inherit along with our sons and daughters!  Sarah’s words issue from us even today.  They are often denied.  And we may not even be aware of their sound.  But those unspoken words echo in the chambers of our hearts and minds.

And so, once again, Hagar finds herself in the desert.  The first time she was running away.  This time she was dragged away.  And that is the double meaning of Hagar’s name – it can mean either “fleeing,” or “dragged away.”  And again she is alone, without food or water, and so deep in despair, with her son thirsting and starving to death, she cannot bear to watch or listen to his suffering.

But God listens.  God hears.  God hears the cries of the boy Ishmael.  For that is the meaning of his name:  El means “God.”  Ishma mean “hear.”  I hear God.  God hears me.  God hears Ishmael and opens his mother’s eyes to see the water in the desert.  They will not perish from this earth.  They will not go away.  They will not be disappeared.  They will survive and they will thrive.  They will be seen.  They must be heard.

The Hagars and Ishmaels of this world must be seen and must be heard.  The one million African-Americans imprisoned in this country must be seen and heard.  The 10 million African Americans living in the deserts of poverty must be seen and heard. That is one reason why a group of us will be walking in the CROP Walk this afternoon.  Not only do we walk to raise money for those experiencing food poverty, we walk in solidarity with the Hagars and Ishmaels of this world who have been cast off and left without the means to survive.  The 1 billion Africans enslaved by drought, poverty, disease, and lack of access to medical care and education must be seen and heard.  They have so much to teach us about what it means to survive, to rely on God when all else has failed.  And we have so much to learn from them about what it means to come to terms with the demons of racism and white privilege that still hold our country and our world in their grips. 

God said to Hagar:  “Do not be afraid . . . come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”

God says to us:  “Do not be afraid . . . come, lift up the children of Ishmael, the descendants of Hagar, the dark-skinned ones, the ones trapped between the wilderness of oppression and the house of slavery.  Hold them fast with your hand.  For I will make a great nation of you, of all of you, together.” 

It is time to loosen our grip on hatred and fear and hold the hands of the ones whom God hears . . . and the ones whom God sees.  Amen.


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