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  • Writer's pictureVanessa Ryerse

The God Who Sees Hagar

A sermon for Vintage Fellowship

Last week we began an unsquinting look at the way the patriarchy has formed us. This conversation is part of the year-long exploration of the many angles of justice. It is an uncomfortable topic for many of us because we know academically that we have what is called unconscious bias. We have it about race - which we will be exploring later this year - and we have it about gender. To bring our bias to our conscious awareness is unsettling. It brings up shame, regret and other negative emotions. In this time of upheaval, I am mindful of not wanting to make anyone’s load heavier. And yet, as a creative and pastor, I am aware that the waves this pandemic has created might just be the power we need to make long-needed changes. The event has revealed many of the vulnerable points in our collective experience and awakened our need and desire to make things better. 

Last week I shared my story, exploring how The Patriarchy - a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it - affected my life personally. Like patriarchy does, it clouded my sense of identity and value, career and education, sense of safety and well-being and ability to interact with confidence in the world. This system of hoarding power has so many problems: preventing people from living lives of wholeness, sheltering violence, forcing artificial gender roles on people, often leading to entrapment in socio-economic burdens. The research is unequivocal that when women are given the resources of power and agency, that entire cultures benefit, and yet, we still live in a world where we have hamstrung our own well-being by keeping women from education, leadership roles, and decision making spaces, sadly, often in the name of God. I shared how even after all this time, I only recently was able to extricate myself from the deeply held belief that God was the author of hierarchies. In the coming weeks, I hope to hear your stories as well. 

Today I want to look at a story from the Bible of a woman deeply entangled in a system that diminished her in every way and how God responded to her. Her name is Hagar, and her story is found in Genesis 16. 

One of the most famous Patriarchs of all, Father Abraham, has been promised by God to become a great nation with many descendants. But decades and decades pass with no child being born to him, and his wife Sarai attempts to solve the problem by giving her husband her servant Hagar to him as a surrogate mother.  In a world that valued women primarily for their fertility, Sarai was giving up on her dream for what she probably considered the greater good.  Her Egyptian servant girl is rumored to have been a gift from the Pharaoh … his own daughter … as repayment for the “little misunderstanding” between Abraham and the Pharaoh about Sarai’s availability for marriage when they spent some time in Egypt during a famine. Hagar - in their tongue meant foreigner, alien, stranger. In Islam, she is known as HaJar, which is closer to “nourishing” and “splendid.” Her body, not her own, is given to Abraham in sexual union that leads to a pregnancy that gives her some weight and value. She forgets herself and fails to protect her mistress's fragile ego. Sarai demands that God judge between them and when God is silent on the matter, Sarai takes up her frustration with her husband. He fails to protect Hagar from Sara’s jealousy, appealing to the hierarchy in place: Sarai is the mistress, Hagar is the servant, and so the language tells us that Sarai is brutal to Hagar. She endures such violence that the girl takes her life in her hands and runs away into the desert. It’s there that she encounters her first mystical experience with the Angel of the Lord. She will encounter God this way not once but twice, which is unheard of in most of the Biblical narrative. Also unusual: Hagar is one of the few to not express fear at the sight of God's messenger. God comforts her, gives her a plan and a promise for her future: go back to Sarai, submit to her, but name your son a wild man. Her son is Ishmael, the son of Abraham who fathered Islam. God names her son, but Hagar gives God a name: El Roi. The God who sees me.  

No matter how she has been invisible to Sarai and Abram, God sees her. A little more than a decade passes before Ishmael’s little half brother Isaac is born; Ishmael is perhaps a bad influence on the little boy, teases too much, is too rough on Sarai’s long awaited dream baby and she demands that Hagar and her son be sent away from their camp. Again, Abraham lets Sarai have her way and sends away his son with the boy’s mother, giving them some food and water for a journey to who-know-where. When their water was gone, the middle-school-aged boy crying under a bush, Hagar is at her wits end, the hot desert sand about to consume them and she can’t stand to watch. It is then that The Angel of the Lord comes again to this desperate woman, shows her life-saving water and reminds her that she is a woman with a future. Some of the Jewish stories suggest that "the Foreign Girl" goes on to become "Keturah" - Abraham’s second wife after Sarah dies, and Keturah bares Abraham more sons.   

With our modern eyes, we see modern concerns: an African girl is enslaved. Her body is not her own. Another woman uses her rank and socio-economic position to keep Hagar down. She becomes a single mother. She is a foreigner in the land. These are all issues that layer together in what we today call “intersectionality.” Hagar’s plight is made worse by a symphony of circumstances that make her more and more vulnerable in a system where she has no rights, no power, no agency.  

This is the woman that God comes to, not once but twice, to comfort and protect. Names are so important in the story - Hagar’s name and the name she gives God.  When everyone else around her has failed to see her - to value her, think of her feelings, care about what happens to her, protect her, provide for her,  God does. 

God sees Hagar and Hagar sees God. There is a taking of each other in, an understanding, a meeting, a connection. Hagar knows God in a mystical, experiential, desperate way. 

For so long, a brief, poetic passage in Genesis and a handful of letters written centuries later to specific groups of people with particular social quirks have been used as the reasons to not see women. These passages have been fleshed out to explain “Biblical manhood and womanhood” while ignoring dozens and dozens of other parts of scripture that show women as strong, all people as equally valuable and free, and God - God’s very self - as a relationship of equals, Father, Son and Spirit without jealousy or hierarchy. Instead of lording over us, God appears to us in the vulnerability of a baby and invites us into relationship with Godself in Christ.  

So many of us, though, have not seen God clearly, but instead have experienced God through a distorting lens, maybe multiple lenses. Most of us have only been formally taught about what God is like from white, male preachers. And those preachers were taught about God in academic environments that only relatively recently allowed women to learn with them. They were kept out of learning environments because of “great” teachers like Augustine who believed women weren’t even human enough to be made in God’s image. He was influenced by the science of his day that believed women were just poorly developed men, who lacked the sufficient heat and energy to develop their sex organs completely on the outside of the body like a proper human. Even today, the medical understanding of women’s bodies is incomplete, based on years of misinformation, including a distorted skeleton chart of women’s bodies with a tiny head and a giant pelvis meant to show that women couldn’t think and were only good for baby-making. (In reality, women's pelvis bones are not noticeable bigger than mens and their skulls are not smaller.) Such ideas were valuable for propping up the systems that kept women from testifying in court, owning land, and voting. The combination of being a woman and a woman of color meant that in our own country, many black women have only been able to vote since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That’s not much longer than I have been alive. Most of us have only learned history that was recorded by men, read literature written predominantly by men, and interacted with more artists that are men. And to further complicate things, the invention of the idea of complementary roles only emerged relatively recently as a product of the enlightenment, playing up the slight differences between the male and female to suggest that they aren’t equal of course, but rather that they just fit together. So an influential writer like John Jaques Rouseau advises the founders of our country The women’s entire education should be planned in relation to men. To please men, to be useful to them, to win their love and respect, to raise them as children, care for them as adults ... these are women’s duties in all ages and these are what they should be taught from childhood.” 

Is it any wonder that the cumulative effect off all this social conditioning means it is still difficult for us to think of God as anything other than a man? And especially as a man that is over us. We have been taught to relate to God not humbly, but humiliated. We continue to relate to one another in subconscious hierarchies. If we are ever going to see God as God sees us, we have to acknowledge the fact that we wear these lenses. We read our own understanding into the Bible and who God is.  

An example of reading with a lens: for years, I read the passage in Psalms “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” In my mind, whenever I read those words, I pictured Laura Ingalls in a covered wagon, crossing a dangerously swollen river with the dramatic music from Little House on the Prairie” playing in the background. That is a series of lenses … American, 1970s, colonialism, with a patriarchal hero and a spunky pioneer girl who obeyed her parents at dangerous moments which kept her safe from harm. But the real Hebrew actually means, “when you are in a river of piss, I’m with you.” It’s an idiom about misery, not American expansionism. 

Another woman I heard from recently, a Ph.D. in medieval literature who is currently studying to become an Anglican priest admitted that all her life she read from the letters of Paul and thought he was just mentioning women’s names as if they were nice church ladies who had served sandwiches. Her own evangelical upbringing was a lens that kept her from realizing that Paul was greeting women who were the leaders of the churches.  

We cannot entirely remove our lenses, but we can start by acknowledging they exist. We can go back over our own stories, and name the voices that influenced us. We can identify our cultural identity and our traditions. We can notice the roles our parents and caregivers played and how that affected our sense of what was normal. We can think about how we were treated as children, either with gentleness and respect, or perhaps with the rough hands of authoritarianism. We can simply observe ourselves without judgement and notice what we do without thinking. Perhaps you’ll notice how you came to expect people to act based on their gender. 

Years ago, as psychology became a little more acceptable to the church, there was an acknowledgement that calling God “our father” could be particularly difficult for people with a difficult relationship with their physical fathers. I imagine, as we progressives try to even out the metaphor by using feminine language for God, we’ll be exploring how that brings up some issues around our physical mothers. I hope we’ll take the time we need to unpack all the metaphors that help us understand what God is like. But underneath the metaphors, we know that God is not a man or a woman. If we are to see God as Hagar saw God, and God saw Hagar, we would find freedom and truth by letting go of our expectations of gender.  

I want to suggest that our societal, historical lenses cause us to make too much of gender and especially in the church context, we’ve absorbed rigid ideas about gender roles that science and our own experience just doesn’t support. 

We’ve been watching a lot of the TV show Naked and Afraid at our house lately. The show’s format is usually two people, a man and a woman, agree to spend 21 days camped in a harsh environment with no food, no shelter and no clothes. They get two or three survival tools such as a machete, a pot to boil water in, sometimes a fire starter. Survivalists pair well with a pandemic. It’s very perspective-giving: at least we have clothes and are not getting bitten by mosquitos in our tenderest body parts. It turns out that gender plays almost no difference in the success of the survivalists. Gender doesn’t make fire building easier. As many - maybe a few more men - tap out after a night of cold rain, as women. At least three burly guys from Arkansas have tapped out within the first day or two, leaving their partners to survive the rest of the challenge alone. Starvation, sleeplessness, and hypothermia take out all kinds of people, masculine presenting and feminine. This has often been eye-opening for me, especially while thinking about this series.  

Hagar teaches us that God sees us for who we are. God sees the unjust systems that keep us held down and held back. God sees the warrior with PTSD and the battered wife. God sees the gender queer and the gender conforming. God sees the bright minds and the determined spirits. God sees the cycle-breakers and the questioners who no longer want to participate in the systems but don’t quite know how to stop them. God sees them and the only lens God sees through is love.  

Some practical actions:

Sit down at home and take stock of the division of labor. Have each person write down the things they are responsible for. Try on the idea that gender doesn't exist; there are only tasks that need to be done.

During the pandemic especially, because of Patriarchy, a heavier load is falling on women to keep households running, hold down jobs, educate children. If your lists are out of balance, and if your jobs are based on gender expectations, make some adjustments. Some of ya'll could smash the patriarchy by taking over cleaning the toilet. Be better roommates. Make the kingdom come in your own home.  

Look through your social media feed and check to see if you are listening to all kinds of voices. Subscribe to The Moth story podcast and hear people tell their stories to gain empathy and understanding about people that are different than you.  

Get advice from younger people. At Vintage, we have a rich resource of thoughtful, culturally engaged young adults who have a lot to teach us. Listen to their music recommendations, their movie and book recommendations. Ask them to help you with language as it evolves rapidly so that you can speak to people about their gender and sexual orientation in a respectful and supportive way.

And finally, if someone close to you is beginning a feminist exploration, she may be experiencing a lot of strong emotions as she unpacks her grief and loss. She may be angry and unpredictable at times as she begins to see how the Patriarchy has robbed her over the years. Give her the time to grieve and remember that when women's lives improve, everyone's life improves, including yours.

My dream for us is that we will be people who learn to abandon our cultural, historical - but false - expectations of each other based on gender and that ultimately, we experience each other as Hagar and God do - for who we really are.

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