There’s more to the story of Hagar we just heard. Beginning with her name.
Her people call her Hajar. That’s what we will do today. We’ll call her by her rightful name. It’s the least that we can do.
Legend has it that Hajar was an Egyptian princess living in Pharaoh’s palace. It makes me wonder—was that how she got hooked up with Abraham and Sarah? Do you suppose that Pharaoh gave Hajar to Sarah and Abraham when he sent them packing? A kind of consolation prize.
We first meet Hajar in the book of Genesis. Just five short chapters before the section we read this morning. Sarah and Abraham—that old and rich and very privileged patriarch have been waiting some time for God’s promise of descendants as numerous as all the stars in the heavens to produce even one descendant. Sarah takes on the role of marriage broker and gives her handmaid Hajar to Abraham as a secondary wife. A kind of consolation prize.
The magic works. Hajar gets pregnant. Then the trouble begins. The way our Bible tells it, Hajar gets uppity and Sarah gets nasty. Hajar and the child growing in her womb flee to the wilderness—the desert beyond Abraham’s and Sarah’s camp. She stops beside a spring. There she meets a messenger of God. “What’s up?” that messenger of God asks the tearful woman bending down to take a drink of water. I can imagine she had quite a story to tell that messenger of God. Quite a story of desolation and distress.
What was God’s response to her distress? “Back you go,” God said to Hajar, “this wilderness is no place for a woman growing heavy with child.” But before God sent her packing, God equipped her with a promise—a promise almost as great as the one God gave to Abraham. To Hajar God said, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted.”
At that moment, Hajar looks up at that messenger of God standing before her face and says, “You are El-Roi”—the God who sees.
Here I must break in to the story and add a parenthetical note: Hajar is the only person in the Bible to name God. Just sit with that for a moment or two. A person in exile, a runaway slave, a stranger in the land, a refugee, a person darn near undocumented in the Abrahamic tradition, an illegal immigrant in the land of promise—is the one who gives a name to God. The only one to give a name to God.
Hajar returns to Abraham’s and Sarah’s camp fortified by the promise she received and maybe just a bit emboldened by her act of naming God.
The scene shifts. Time passes. The child born to Hajar approaches adolescence. And the child born at last to Sarah turns six. Abraham holds a feast—a weaning feast. Two mothers watch their children as they play. One swells with pride as she watches her son on the verge of manhood—so confident, so skilled, so bold. The other burns with anger as she watches the two at play. “That slave girl’s child will never take my son’s place,” Old Sarah promises herself. Then she goes to Abraham demanding he cast out that slave-girl Hajar and her bastard son Ishmael.
Rising early the next morning his heart heavy with grief and resignation, Abraham leads Hajar and their son to the edge of the wilderness supplying them with but one jug of water and one loaf of bread; dispatching them to an almost certain death.
Hajar, her heart heavy too, tells young Ismael to lie down under the shade of a bush. Perhaps she adds, “Stay here while I look for water and forage for food.” Then she goes off. Some distance away. She lifts her voice to the heavens and howls as only a grieving mother can howl.
But it’s not her howl God hears. God hears Ishmael’s silent tears. God then offers Hajar yet another promise—a promise that her son will be the father of a nation. Then and only then does God open her eyes to the spring of water right there at her feet.
Some time later, Hajar goes off to find Ishmael a wife from her Egyptian homeland. There the tale ends. But Hajar’s story endures. You see, sacred story comes to life in the lives of ordinary folk—yours and mine and the people we meet along the way:
*Hajar taking the shape of a pack-laden homeless man riding his rickety bike down the streets of Albuquerque just looking for a place to pitch his tent;
*Hajar dogging our memories of that weird kid no one wanted to sit by or eat with or pick for a team when we were in middle school;
*Hajar and her husband, fearing what will happen to their children as ICE agents stop their car and then arrest them;
*Hajar, languishing in an immigration detention center where guards address her not by her name but by the number of her bed;
*Hajar—could her name now be Susanna—taking sanctuary in church in a town not far from here;
*Hajar in the face of an Iraqi man, ICE closing in while he waits for sanctuary and hopes he’s not sent back to certain death.
You and I—we meet Hajar at the edge of the wilderness of our day and time—a wilderness of rabid xenophobia focused largely but not exclusively on Muslims–a people who trace their lineage from Hajar’s son Ishmael. We have a choice: will we hear their cries? Will we address their needs?
For us here today at St. Michael’s those questions have taken on a certain urgency.
That man I just mentioned, the Iraqi who is facing deportation hearings and can’t find a place in sanctuary, just learned his ICE check-in has been pushed up. It’s tomorrow.
If he is seized and then sent back, things won’t go well for him. You see he’s a refugee from Iraq. He fled in the early 1990’s. He worked for the U.S. training soldiers then sent to Iraq.
Do we give him a jug of water, a loaf of bread and then send him on his way? Or do we do what we can to show our support for this shape Hajar is taking at this moment in this place?
Sometimes sacred story comforts us; sometimes sacred story inspires us; sometimes it alarms us; sometimes it challenges us. Today, both the story of Hajar and the Gospel challenge us. Remember what Jesus said to those within earshot: “…. Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
The choice is ours.