sermons, songs, etceteras
This sermon was originally preached on February 5, 2023 at Redeemer Lutheran Church in North Minneapolis.
The service may be viewed here beginning around the 27:00 mark.
Morning Texts: Psalm 110:1-10 | Sermon Text: Genesis 16
**I am indebted to womanist scholars, in particular Rev. Dr. Wil Gaffney, Renita J. Weems, and Monica A. Coleman, whose explorations of the Hagar-Sarai narrative have so profoundly guided and shaped my own understanding of these texts. For further reading: Making a Way Out of No Way (Monica A. Coleman), Womanist Midrash (Rev. Dr. Wilda C. Gafney), and Just a Sister Away (Renita j. Weems) **
May the God who Sees, who Is, and who is Love + go before, hover over, root our feet, and have our back as we consider the message of Their first prophet, who spoke truth to the one who is Truth and gave to God Their first personal name. Amen.
Good morning, Redeemer! It is a joy to be back with you today. In every real way it is a coming-home, and I am honored to return in this capacity, leading worship with Pastor Babette, a prophet in her own right, and exploring the God Who Sees with people who see me in ways I didn’t fully understand and still cannot fully appreciate, much as I may try. I am grateful.
Today I want to talk about my favorite prophet. But first I think it’s important to establish how I understand “prophecy.” It is not future- or fortune-telling but rather, Truth telling -- specifically, prophecy is speaking Truth to Power. For a long time, I heard “speaking truth to power” as “speaking truth in a powerful way.” But I now understand that Prophecy is speaking Truth to those who have power, and challenging how they use it in relation to those without. It is always subversive to the status quo, and it is always creative in its challenge to those who are so comfortable with what is that they have no need to imagine what could or should be.
And so it is crucial that when we encounter the Biblical prophets or explore their modern expressions we locate ourselves rightly in the social, cultural, religious, economic, and ecological power structures that form and inform the world around us.
So with that said, I want to talk about a prophet who isn't usually called one but definitely is.
As her story unfolds in Genesis 16 and 21 we see an Egyptian woman enslaved by a woman and her husband, a man of extraordinary wealth and power. A couple who, despite the privileges of their social location, remain childless. She is enslaved by a woman to whom God has promised a literal nation numbering the stars, but whose lack of faith in God, Their power, and Their promise compels her to try and force God’s hand. Rather than seeing God’s promise as what womanist theologians call “Making a Way out of No Way,” this woman sees only her own peril, her own limits. All she sees is No Way. She is a barren woman in a world and culture where a woman’s worth is inextricably bound to her ability to bear children for her patriarch husband; and God’s promise seems no match for her lack.
Now let me interject and say here that as a barren woman myself who nearly died of blood loss after delivering my first and only son, and who was saved by an emergency hysterectomy that spared my life but stole my future, I identify with this wife. I feel in my own body the ache, the loss, and the hopelessness she might have felt. I have laughed out loud when people said “anything is possible with God” because while that is true, humans don’t spontaneously re-grow uteruses. I get the feeling of unwomanness. Of unbecoming. Of worthlessness apart from my ability to do the one thing that women are supposed to do. And I understand the impulse to take another person’s baby and make them my own family. Barren women and infertile women and trans women...so many women get it. Her disbelief and distrust of such a ridiculous promise is utterly reasonable.
So with the privilege she does have, in proximity to power as the wife of a great and wealthy patriarch, the barren woman sacrifices the body of her slave to the god of unfaith. And we meet the prophet Hagar.
Hagar’s body is not her own. She is enslaved to Sarai, who does with her as Sarai pleases. And what pleases Sarai, for now anyway, is to exploit Hagar’s body for her personal family gain. Hagar the enslaved is given to Abram, taken by Abram, raped by Abram, made pregnant by Abram.
Is it any wonder then that Genesis 16:5 describes Hagar as despising Sarai? And yet Sarai still sees only __herself__ as a victim, first of her barrenness and now of her slave. So she abuses Hagar to the point where Hagar believes her best and only shot at survival is to run away by her pregnant self into the wilderness.
It is there in the wilderness that God finds and meets Hagar, asks her what she’s doing, and then -- in a twist -- sends her back to Sarai. I hated this part of the story until I read it from Monica Coleman’s womanist perspective, because through my eyes it looks like cruelty. But as Coleman underscores in her book ‘Making a Way out of No Way,’ God sends Hagar back as a means of survival which is “often inadequate in terms of full liberation, but is one of the ways in which God saves.” Indeed, by sending her back to her abusive, cruel, resentful enslaver God not only ensures Hagar’s immediate survival but also guarantees her an enduring legacy. Because her unborn son -- whom she will name Ishmael meaning “the Lord has given heed to your affliction” -- this son would become a great nation and a living prophecy, and she the Mother of Islam.
And here we come to the center, the seed, of Hagar’s story: In reply to this command to return, which must have felt like another defeat, Hagar speaks Truth directly to God and names Them “The God Who Sees.” Not only is she is the first in the Biblical witness to give God a personal name, but the Name she chooses is important because it does more than express gratitude for what has already been done. It commands future action, too. One who Sees cannot unsee, or return to blindness. God cannot live in denial of what has been revealed, or God is a self-deceiving liar and hypocrite. Sight always transforms, always subverts, always commands action from the Seer.
So Hagar returns to Sarai with God’s promise, and all is quiet until Genesis 21. After Sarah has given birth to Isaac and no longer has need or want of Hagar or her son, she only sees them as a threat to her own access to power and banishes them to die. There in the wilderness, once again alone, hungry, out of Ways, and feeling certain of her and her son’s impending deaths, Hagar lifts up her voice and weeps to God as her son lay dying under a tree.
This, again, was a prophetic wail of Truth to Power, a cry for The God who Sees to see her again. And this, friends, is how we know she is a prophet: God answered to the Name. God saw. From the depths of grief and fear and hopelessness, Hagar and Ishmael’s Truth were their wails lifted to the only Power they could access, and Power answered. God reaffirmed Their promise that Ishmael would live and opened Hagar’s eyes to water in the wilderness.
In other words: When Hagar and Ishamel spoke Truth to power, that Truth came out as a wail, a groan, the kind too deep for words but which Romans 8:26 says the Spirit joins and intercedes with before God -- Power answered and gave them both hope for the future and water for right now.
All else we know is that they lived, and that God spent their power to deliver on the promise. Hagar’s story may be relatively small within the grand narrative of Scripture, but it is profoundly instructive. She is the first to name God, and she is the first enslaved person to be seen and liberated into healing, wholeness, and legacy. Her child, the son of a slave and a child of rape and forced birth, became a wild ass of a man at odds with those who cast them out. He was a living prophecy, a breathing, enfleshed witness before Abraham, Israel, and all God’s people of the intergenerational trauma and conflict that always result from the sin of choosing to trust the lies of patriarchy, power, and supremacy against the promises of God.
Let me say that again: Ishmael was the living prophetic reminder of the intergenerational curse born of the sin of trusting the lies of power against the promises of God.
So where does this leave us? As I said earlier, when we approach the prophets we must locate ourselves properly in the narrative. And speaking as a white cisgender leader in the ELCA, plus what I already shared, there can be no question that I’m not Hagar. As a white woman in America, raised with both proximity to and as a beneficiary of white christian patriarchy and supremacy, I know I am most like Sarai, inclined to see seats of power as something to be attained rather than unmade. I am a woman who dwells too often in my perceived lack and am inclined to weaponize what privilege I do have to exploit those with less.
And so, given my inclinations, it is incumbent upon me to resist the lure of power and instead follow God into the wilderness to search for Hagar. Today, that means seeing her in the prophetic leadership of Black, Indigenous, Immigrant, Queer, Non-binary, and Women of Color. In 2023, as more is unveiled every day and we continue to see ourselves as we really are rather than as we’re conditioned to believe we are, these leaders are already around us speaking Truth to Power -- both calling on God to see and sustain them with water for each moment, and calling out those of us in proximity to power to realign ourselves. We can aspire to positions of power and believe the lie that once we arrive we will handle the power differently; or we can accept Dr. Renita Weems’ invitation to the kind of siblinghood and solidarity against hierarchies that extends and transforms privilege.
Specifically, I can see and heed the voice of Hagar in the cries of Black families in our poorest cities who lack access to clean water and clean air, affordable housing, and proper groceries. I can see and heed the voice of Hagar in our trans and non-binary siblings fighting for reproductive justice and bodily autonomy against legislators who are doggedly denying them the right to their own bodies.
And I can feel and heed the voice of Hagar heavy on my own chest, clawing at my own throat, ringing in my ears, burning my eyes, and boiling in my blood, as her Black sons cry out for their mothers from the streets on which they die under the knee and fist and gun of white supremacist state violence.
Like Hagar’s and Ishmael’s, these Black and Brown bodies are enfleshed, apocalyptic prophecies that show and tell us both who God is -- the God who sees and heeds the afflicted -- and who we are. They live and die at odds, sometimes necessarily riotous odds, with our entrenched power structures.
And they invite us, as Dr. Wil Gafney says, to resist “the temptation to exercise whatever privilege we have over someone else” and choose instead to “stand with them in shared peril” and thus be transformed.
So that is my challenge for us going out of here today. Will we, like Abram and Sarai, doubt God’s promises and pour our privilege into perpetuating cycles of oppression? Or will those of us with money, access, and power commit to imitating God in the story of Hagar, and leaning on the promise of a just and blessed future made so by God's own people through God's own power? May God give us the courage to see and heed Hagar among us, and to align ourselves with her when we do. Amen.