21st June 2020
2nd Sunday after Trinity, proper 7
Revd. Cheryl Collins
May I speak in the name of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
Everyone has a blind spot.
That’s part of being human- none of us have 20/20 vision when it comes to seeing one another, or even seeing God. All of us will, at one time or another, let our preconceptions and prejudices get in the way of truly seeing someone else, or even a whole group of people.
I discovered that even heroes have blind spots when I pulled out my Genesis commentary the first time I had to preach on this text. The commentary is written by one of my heroes, biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann who uses his understanding of what God is saying to us in the Old Testament to hold a mirror up to the way we live now. He reminds us that our God is a God of Shalom, that is the kind of peace that means I can’t be comfortable if I have left someone else in an uncomfortable situation. He speaks up for justice, for God’s concern for the oppressed, the rejected, the destitute. As I turned to the pages about Genesis 21, I was looking forward to reading what he had to say about this story- the story of Abraham and Sarah’s treatment of Hagar, the slave woman who was forced to have sex with her master, to be a brood mare for the covenant because Abraham and Sarah didn’t really trust God’s promises, but reasoned that ‘God helps those who help themselves’. And when God had delivered on his promises despite their disobedience, they decided that the slave woman and her son were an embarrassment, a threat to Isaac for his mother Sarah, no longer wanted in the story. So, they sent them out to the desert to die.
Imagine my surprise then when Brueggemann didn’t deal with any of this in his commentary except to say that ‘no moral judgement need to be rendered against the alternative device for securing a son (that’s rape or at least sexual coercion) as this may be attested as a proper legal practice elsewhere in the Biblical period.’ I’m sorry, that’s it, all you have to say! I know we can’t judge the biblical period by our own standards, though that argument would work better if 4,000 children weren’t dying every day from water-related diseases or if an estimated 20-30 million women and children weren’t traded on the black market as slaves today, many of them for sexual purposes. The sad truth is that Walter Brueggemann read this story and failed to see Hagar, and if we’re honest there is always someone we fail to really see for who they are not who we have already decided they are, if we bother to notice them at all. Lest you think that I think God is a Guardian reader, let me tell you about a blind spot of my own. I was busy recounting a story about someone who had spoken with horror about a girl having to attend the local Primary school with ‘those sort of people’. And my indignant response that I was ‘those sort of people’ and proud of it was halted when my listener gently interrupted me. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I hate when people make assumptions about my partner just because he went to private school and speaks with a ‘posh’ accent. They assume they know everything about him before they bother to get to know him. Ouch!
So, what does Hagar tell us about the people that we don’t see?
First of all, there is some dispute about whether Hagar was actually her name or just her role description, because it means ‘other, outside, stranger’. In Abraham’s story she was just a bit player, passed around like a thing rather than a person. But in God’s story Hagar is much more important. This is not the first time she has left the camp. In Genesis 16 she ran away from Sarah’s harsh treatment, out into the desert. There she met God’s messenger who called her by name, not just ‘slave girl’ and promised her that her son Ishmael, which means ‘God hears’ had a good future of his own. Hagar then does something that no one else in the entire Bible does, she gives God a name. That name is El-roi, the God who sees me.. Hagar may be an outsider in Abraham’s dysfunctional family, but God knows her intimately and treats her like part of God’s family. Now Hagar and her son are facing what seems like certain death. Who can fail to be moved by the mother who cannot bear to watch her child die? God sees Hagar’s tears and the hears the cries of her child. He opens her eyes to his provision for her, a well in the desert; and like the devoted mother she is, she hurries to give the first drink to her child.
God’s actions remind us that God cares for everyone, even the outsider or the stranger. God is not the pet God of one group of people, but Lord of the whole earth. And, after God has led the descendants of Abraham out of slavery and into the promised land; the instructions that God gives this new community stress care for the outsider and the stranger as a core practice for his people. The story of Hagar, the slave girl who was seen and rescued by God, is a story that has brought hope to generations of African American women, treated as chattels by slave owners. Hagar is also the mother of Islam. In fact, the sacred pilgrimage or Hajj which Moslems make to Mecca is to the site of the zamzam well, claimed as the well that God showed Hagar. Hagar is African, we are told she is an Egyptian, and she is the foremother of Islam so we don’t have to look very hard to identify two groups that she represents who are regarded as ‘other’ in our white, post-Christian society. Hagar reminds us that black lives matter to God, but she also invites us to challenge ourselves about other groups and people we might not truly see- those with disabilities, the elderly, the mentally ill, those whose sexualities and gender pronouns don’t fit into our categories. Hagar invites us all to hold a mirror up to our own preconceptions, prejudices and blind spots and to remember that Shalom can only be present when all are included and welcomed equally.
Matthew’s gospel was written for a community who were experiencing persecution because they had claimed a new identity as followers of Jesus. They spoke the kingdom of God where only God could have power over others, not the Emperor, not the pater familias whose word was law in his family, not the slave holder, but only God. They were following someone who welcomed outsiders; from the shepherds and foreign sages of the nativity to the penitent thief at the crucifixion and the angry persecutor of the Damascus Road. Paul tells us that Christ is our peace, he has reconciled in one body by the cross those who are near and those who are far off. Those who claim the privileges of the chosen people, and those who stand unseen or distorted in our sight at the margins. He came to bring recovery of sight to the blind, that’s all of us, not just those who wear glasses. The question that Hagar’s story asks us to reflect on is ‘Who is at that I’m not seeing clearly, and how can I be part of God’s plan that everyone is seen as the beloved child of God that they are?