Texts for this Sermon:
Genesis 16:1-16; Genesis 21:1-21.
On occasion I get asked: “Why are you a Christian?” And to be truthful, it would probably benefit me at the University if I weren’t identified as a Christian. Indeed, I’ve had students tell me that they’ve been attacked for their faith in classroom settings. Christianity for many elites has become a term of opprobrium. With a majority of American evangelicals supporting Mr. Trump, this pattern may well intensify. And among my undergraduate students, very few want to be associated with the Christian faith or with Christianity more generally. More than a third of the millennial generation has no faith or no interest in the faith—and it’s much more intense in higher education. There are many reasons for this—but let’s be clear, claiming faith is not the road by which anyone boosts their reputations in the field of higher education.
So, why do I remain a Christian? In a word, it’s because of Hagar. Think of it this way, Genesis is a text from an ancient culture, its traditions go back nearly four thousand years; it was probably written down in the form that we see today around 2500 years ago – that is a long time ago, and at that time, the world was different, and women, and certainly slaves had few or no rights. Humankind, for all the wrong reasons, has been patriarchal and slave holding for most of its history. Strong men owned slaves and women and these men did what they wanted. Indeed, in the cultures of the Greeks and Romans, patriarchy reigned—women and children were at best servants and at worse dispensable. The Jews and eventually the Christians valued the vulnerable in ways that were unique to their time and in some ways unique even in our world today.
And so into the midst of this very tough ancient world, we get the early stories of an obscure tribe called the Hebrews, who come from out of nowhere, from the East, and begin to tell a different story, a story about a God who calls a man, Abram, to take he and his wife, Sarai, to a new place, a promised land, a land of plenty, at least that is what is said. And then they tell the stories of their origins, of their God. This God, sometimes called Elohim, sometimes called Yahweh, speaks to his people, calling them to a covenant. But this covenant is not typical of those early human communities. Yes, of course, there is slavery and there is patriarchy, but right from the beginning, a new story is being told. A story that says, “Oh yes, you will have slaves, and there will be concubines, but you will treat them differently.” Or at least, this God, Yahweh, will ask you to treat them with respect, and their progeny won’t be slaves to make you rich, instead they will be blessed too.
The Hebrews will be a chosen people, but this God will also bless others, and create a legacy for them as well. The Ishmaelite’s, they too will be a great nation. Yahweh, it appears, is not the normal tribal God, but a God who thinks more broadly–this God loves not just the ones who tell his story but also the ones who may not know him at all, but will know him and want to know him. The Jews, of course, but after them, those of us who are called followers of Jesus, and then, not long after that the followers of those within the great Islamic tradition who worship what they call Allah, which in Arabic is not a name, but simply a generic term for “the God” – and indeed, Muslims name Jesus as one their great prophets.
So, yes, I claim the Christian name because this God cares it seems to me about the whole world, not just our tribe—not just our empire, like the Greeks and Romans, but this God also cares about the least, the lost, the last, the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the one who is ignored. And here we go back again to Hagar, the symbol of the slave, the cast off one, the one who is alone in the desert who is not calling to anyone anymore because she has lost all hope. But Yahweh sees, this God says, “I have heard your son’s cry and I will save him and save you and I will not abandon you.” Yes, this God, the one who sees this lonely, anxious Egyptian woman, this is why I still claim that I am a Christian.
This tradition of caring for the least and last and lost is in the Jewish religion first, and it comes into the Christian faith in Jesus who is not only the Lord of the Christian tribe, or anyone single interest group, or any one country, but this is a Shepherd who loves all, and particularly loves those who are the outsiders, the ones who are not chosen, the ones with mental illness in our cities; the ones with opioid addictions in our small towns; the ones who are marching in the Pride Parade today in Seattle; the Muslims in our country who live in great fear that they may be deported; the ones who are here from Mexico, trying desperately to work and keep their families alive; our African American brothers and sisters, who are terrified of being of pulled over by the police. Our God cares about these ones, these ones are our Hagar’s, the ones who nobody in power cares about, the ones who are thrown away, the kids in our schools who aren’t the elite, these ones our God cares about, these ones who have few opportunities, these ones who are the invisible, these ones our God loves and sees.
So yes, why am I still a Christian? It’s because of the Hagar story, that is why I remain in the faith, challenged by it, called not just to my tribe of over-educated, privileged professors, but to everyone–the ones who have no education, the ones who are dispensable, the ones who are invisible.
But it goes deeper than this … it always does. I am a Christian because of Hagar for very personal reasons. I’ve known what it’s like to be lost in a desert, where you don’t feel any hope. I know that desert. And you all know that desert as well; it’s the place where things don’t seem to taste the way they used to; it’s the place of loneliness, where there is no one to give you a hug, no one saying, I love you; the place where no one is looking to come over; the place where you don’t want to get out of bed, or you can’t because no one is there to help. You all know what I’m talking about, we are all a person like Hagar at some time or some point in our lives, because we are human and humans are incredibly vulnerable. And that is our destiny, at one time in our lives, we will face that feeling of hopelessness, when there is no place to turn, and we will wonder: “Where is my God?” Or maybe we will say, “There is no God.”
But here is the thing, that is where Hagar was, crying, lost, yearning for death, helpless and hopeless, and yes, into this place comes our God, who Hagar calls El-roi, (maybe this God has a little southern accent), saying, “Hey, I know you, I see you, and I love you ….”
I’ve been in that place too. You all know my story, the loss of Annette more than three years ago. My world fell a part, for more than two years, I stopped reading. I couldn’t concentrate, I was lost, I was in that desert.
But one day, on a Saturday night, in the middle of Winslow, I thought, where does a lonely guy go on a Saturday night, when all his friends are married and with their families … where does one go? I ended up at Marche, eating by myself at the bar. A young guy starts out serving me and then an attractive woman takes over, and I thought hm … “I think she is flirting with me.” And then I asked her, “Hey, when do you get off tonight?” And she said, “In an hour…” and well, after that night, I asked her out every night for more than a year …. And now I do the same thing each night, I ask her, “Will you walk with me and talk with me and be my love.” And she says, “Yes, yes, and yes!”
Brooke saw me, she sees me now. For me, it’s a love story. It is the same with Hagar and her God—God says, “I see you, I see you, I see you.” It’s a love story.
And for each of you. We all just want to be seen. Jesus says, “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock, and it shall be opened to you.”
So, yes, ask my friends, but maybe like Hagar, you can’t ask, but you know you are in need. God is there, that is the ultimate promise, the One who sees you, sees me; loves you, loves me; forgives you, forgives me; glories in you, glories in me; the One who has not given up on you, has not given up on me; that God, that is the God who refuses to give up on any one, and that God has not given up on any of us.
This God who sees each one of you in all your humanness, in all your vulnerability that God loves you and will be with you every step of the way.
So that is why I still believe. Amen.
Footnote: Brooke Wellman wrote an exegetical essay on Hagar that was amazing and helpful to me. So, much of my insight from these texts comes from her. She wrote it for her Hebrew Scriptures course at the Seattle School for Theology and Psychology. She received an “A”, of course!