There is so much that is wrong in the world of this morning’s Scripture. Theirs is a world infected with slavery. Abraham and Sarah enslave Hagar – and they have the power to use her body as they see fit. Patriarchy is at work. The women in the story have little power relative to men – their value in their world reduced to their ability to bear children. This slavery and this patriarchy work together to produce even more violence – as Hagar and her body are used to bear and birth a son, and then discarded when she and her son become a perceived threat to those with more power than her. It’s not a pretty story.
Last week, I said that the story of Sarah and Abraham being promised a son was a moment well into a long story. This is another part of that story – it’s Hagar’s story. And it starts a few chapters before this morning’s Scripture:
God has promised Abraham again and again that God will make Abraham into a great nation. But for years and years, Abraham and Sarah remain childless – so long that they take matters into their own hands.
Sarah says to Abraham, “I have a slave woman, Hagar, take her as a second wife, and have a child.” Abraham and Sarah force Hagar into surrogacy – and she gives birth to Ishmael. But while she’s still pregnant, Sarah starts to have second thoughts. All of the sudden – in this world of patriarchy – Hagar has a bit more power than Sarah – Hagar is going to give birth to the firstborn son, and there is power in that. And Sarah can’t stand it – so she mistreats Hagar, mistreats her so badly that Hagar flees into the desert. And Abraham sits idly by while all this happens. An angel of God finds Hagar in the desert, asks her what’s wrong, and promises her that she, too, will bear a son who will become a great nation. Hagar takes all this in, and she names God – “The God who sees” – and she names her son Ishmael – which means “God hears.”
Ishmael is born to Hagar – and then finally, finally – Isaac is born to Sarah – and we come to this morning’s story. Isaac is born at last – Sarah finally has what she has been longing for, for so long. And she looks out one day, and sees Ishmael (son of Hagar) playing with – some translations say “mocking” -- her son Isaac, and Sarah says, “Oh no, oh no, this won’t do. There’s no way that her son will inherit along with mine”. And so she tells Abraham to turn Hagar out. “Send her away.” Scripture says that this was “distressing” to Abraham because of his son (apparently not because of the well-being of Hagar). But Abraham (concerned, but not convicted) goes along with Sarah’s demand – in fact, the Scripture says that God tells him, “Don’t worry, I’ll make Ishmael into a nation too.”
And so Abraham rises early in the morning, he takes a bit of bread and one skin of water, and he puts them on Hagar’s shoulder, and he sends her on her way. And Hagar goes out, wandering in the desert.
Now, you may remember, last week I said that in the desert hospitality is a fundamental moral obligation – it’s so important because, in the desert, hospitality is a matter of life and death. If you don’t welcome the stranger – in the desert – the stranger dies. I want to be clear: When Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael into the desert, he is effectively sentencing them to death. The bread and the skin of water will last them just long enough that they can travel far enough away so that Abraham and Sarah will not have to witness the carnage that their choices have wrought.
There is so much that is wrong in the world of this morning’s Scripture – and we have to name that before we can look for any living, liberating word for today. I say that because in my reading this week I’ve run across a number of explanations of this text that almost justify what happens here – as if it were somehow OK – maybe you’ve heard something like that in Sunday School. Something like: “Oh, what happens here is OK, because God had a plan. What Sarah does to Hagar – Hagar’s suffering – is just a part of that plan.” Readings like that have been used for far too long to justify and perpetuate the oppression of far too many people – they have kept us from naming as wrong things that are plainly wrong.
We have to remember what we are doing when we approach these ancient texts of Scripture. We come to these texts in the context of our world, with all its troubles and its systems and structures – and we encounter their world with troubles of its own. The world we encounter in scripture is not necessarily normative – not necessarily the world as it should be. Yes, we take their world and their lives seriously. And we also look at it critically, for meaning, through the lens of all of Scripture – through the lens of everything we have come to know about God
And we know that God stands against slavery and the oppression of people. There is after all the Exodus. We know that God created men and women – every gender – in the image of God. We know that God affirms the dignity of all people – and always stands, as Dr. Thurman says, “with those whose backs are up against the wall.”
What Abraham and Sarah do here to Hagar is violence. It is the violence of slavery. It is sexual violence as they force her into surrogacy. It is violence through which they will ultimately abandon her to her death when she is no longer useful to them. What we see here is power-over at work in their world – in Abraham and Sarah and in the systems of their day – doing great harm. What we see here is not something endorsed by God. What we may get a glimpse of here is what God can still do – what God can still create – with the mess that we make of our lives, and of the world.
When we name all that, what we are left with are these three people living their lives within systems and structures that give them different levels of power. We have Abraham who has the most relative power – who is somewhat distressed about the whole thing – but who chooses to do nothing. We have Sarah who has power over the woman she holds as slave, but who also should understand what it is to be pushed down by patriarchy – who, even so, chooses to initiate Hagar’s exile. And we have Hagar, with the least bit of structural power, whose son also becomes a nation – as she makes a world out of what one scholar has called “a theology of survival.”
What we are left with – when we name all that – is Hagar, alone in the desert, crying out. When the bread and the water have run out, as the sun pounds their weary flesh, Hagar puts her son under a bush, and goes a good ways off – the distance of an arrow’s shot – and she says, “Don’t let me look on the death of my son.” And she cries out and weeps. What we are left with is Hagar’s lament – and this whole story pivots with her lament.
Lament is a powerful presence in both Jewish and Christian traditions – and throughout our Scriptures. One-third of the Psalms express some form of lament. The people of God wail out to God at the pain of the world, in the pain of their world. Our prayer of confession today used the lament of Psalm 13: “How long, O God? Will you forget me forever? How long will I carry this grief, day after day, year after year?” Lament breaks something open. It proclaims something true in the world – often beyond what words can express – that something hurts – that something is bad wrong with the world. Lament calls this out – and demands to be heard. As Walter Bruggemann describes it, “Lament summons God.” Lament calls God into the moment of suffering, and seeks to mobilize God to help and to heal and to set free.
We live in a world full of lament. Black Womanist scholars – like Renita Weems and Delores Williams – have looked to this story of Hagar and seen in Hagar resonance with the experience of Black women. Hagar is a woman held in slavery, forced to be surrogate to those who enslave her. Hagar lives and works within systems that endeavor to push her down because of both her gender and her race. Hagar cries out for her child who lives at constant risk of death. And throughout the story, Hagar creates powerful ways to survive and thrive and create within those the systems that oppress.
In our world, we hear the lament of the mothers whose Black children are cut down by vigilante and police violence. Think of the change that we are seeing in our world that flows from George Floyd’s lament. As the power of racism was literally pressing down on his neck, Floyd cried out, “I can’t breathe.” That is lament. As George Floyd’s life was taken, he calls out to his mother. That is lament. And that lament has called forth a movement.
The world is full of the lament of pandemic – the cries of families as so many perish – the cries of families who cannot be with loved ones in hospital. And we have our own laments in these days – the laments of loneliness and isolation and fear of disease – our sheltering prayers. I could make an argument that this nightly howl carries an element of lament – it began as a way to remember nurses and doctors working round the clock to tend the sick and the dying – a nightly reminder of the hurt they see – night after night – a liturgy of lament – a nightly howl.
Lament calls out the pain of the world and makes it plain. You hear lament – and you can’t not know. It is the cry of those in pain saying I will not be forgotten. “How long O God? Will you forget me forever?” Lament breaks something open in the world and calls forth God or somebody or anyone who will listen – calls them forth to do something.
This is the power that Hagar invokes with her lament. She lays her son in the only shade she can find, and goes a ways off – “God don’t make me watch” – and she wails and laments. And look – how the story pivots on her lament – look what God does – look what God and Hagar do.
God hears Hagar, and God sees Hagar – and she knows this from before – she is calling out to the God she already knows as the “God who sees,” she calls on God to help her son whom she has named Ishmael – literally, “God hears.” God sees and God hears, and God says Hagar, “What is troubling you?” Lift up your son, and hold his hand, and I will make him into a great nation.
And look what Hagar does – she opens her eyes, and sees a well – and she provides for her son – this woman, still moving through this patriarchal world, she makes her way – she provides for them – she finds a wife for her son – and he thrives – becomes an archer – he becomes a nation.
Notice the power of lament – how God hears – how God honors our lament and works with us to move from lament into hope. Lament announces that something is bad wrong. Lament summons God and the world to act – to stop the harm – and to create a new and a better world. In the power of lament, we summon God into the pain of the world, and God summons us and the world to create something better and new.
So our something to do this week is to listen for lament – the world’s and our own:
· What are the laments you are hearing in the world right now?
· How are they moving you?
· What are they calling you to see as true? What are they calling you to do – or to stop doing?
· What is your lament? What pain is it naming? How can we help?
· And all these laments echoing around in our world – what is the hope to which they are calling us – what is the better world that we can create together?
This notion of lament somehow someway pointing us to hope was actually the theme of this year’s General Assembly – From Lament to Hope – the national church standing in the lament of this world, joining in the lament, tending the pain it names, and claiming hope for a better day.
We enter into these ancient stories of Scripture – from the mess of our world entering into the mess of theirs – and we ask the Holy Spirit somehow to let us hear a Word that will help us live life today.
Hagar’s lament – all those millennia ago – out of that ancient world – the lament of every mother since who has ever feared for her child – the lament of every person whose back is up against the wall – the lament of every hurt –
Out of that ancient world, Hagar’s lament is still calling us forth today – calling us into the pain of our world – so that we can claim together God’s creative power to tend and to mend the world God loves. And to hope.
© 2020 Scott Clark
 This reading is drawn from and shaped by Renita Weems, Just a Sister Away: Understanding the Timeless Connection Between Women Today and Women in the Bible (Warner Books, New York: 1988, update 2005).  See Renita Weems, Just a Sister Away: Understanding the Timeless Connection Between Women Today and Women in the Bible (Warner Books, New York: 1988, update 2005), discussing the complex dynamics of the relationship between Sarah and Hagar.  Delores Williams, as cited and describerd in Emily Peecock (2002) "Hagar: An African American Lens," Denison Journal of Religion: Vol. 2 , Article 2, http://digitalcommons.denison.edu/religion/vol2/iss1/2  See Walter Brueggemann lecture, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxqmtft4WYM  See Renita Weems, Just a Sister Away: Understanding the Timeless Connection Between Women Today and Women in the Bible(Warner Books, New York: 1988, update 2005); Emily Peecock (2002) "Hagar: An African American Lens," Denison Journal of Religion: Vol. 2 , Article 2 (summarizing Delores Williams’ work with the Hagar text), http://digitalcommons.denison.edu/religion/vol2/iss1/2  Id.  Id.  Id.  Id.