Bless This Mess: (Abraham), Hagar, and Ishmael

Cat Goodrich
Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore
June 6, 2021

Bless This Mess: (Abraham), Hagar, and Ishmael
Genesis 21:8-20

School is not out yet, but this is the first Sunday in June. And it’s gonna be a hot one. Anyone who went outside yesterday can attest – it feels like summer is here!

The last church I served had a tradition of doing summer sermon series – a chance to delve into parts of the Bible you don’t always get to hear, if you stick with the lectionary. Series can be thematic, and fun – I heard Christa did one on Noah’s ark! And they offer something different, a change of pace during the summer.  Today I’m starting a series is called Bless This Mess: Stories of brokenness and redemption. I landed on this theme because the past year has felt a little messy.  Really, really broken at times. Messy personally, as Dary and I juggled the stress of working full time and parenting full time and trying to teach and care for our girls in the midst of the pandemic, especially at the start. I remember feeling like I was trying to do three jobs at once and doing a bad job at all of them, exhausted, worried, overwhelmed and barely holding it together.

And things have felt pretty messy and broken nationally and internationally. Our catastrophically bungled response to the pandemic. Continued violence – police violence against black and brown people, mass shootings, and a quagmire in Myanmar, Israel Palestine, and here in Baltimore, nine people shot over Memorial Day weekend.

The Bible is full of powerful stories about problematic people in messy, complicated situations. Throughout in our salvation history, God chooses to work through imperfect people in difficult, conflict-ridden realities to bring about redemption and healing. Over the next 8 weeks, we’ll revisit some of the stories of our ancestors, stories that don’t always get told because they aren’t neat and tidy, and hopefully find reassurance and good news there.

I have to admit, if I was hoping for a summer theme that would be fun and light, I may have missed the mark. Because this story of Hagar and Ishmael is a doozy. It’s awful. It’s what Phyllis Trible calls a text of terror.[1] Womanist theologian Delores Williams says Hagar’s story is a story of slavery, surrogacy, poverty, rape, exploitation, desperation, “homelessness, single parenting, and radical encounters with God.”[2]

Hagar and Ishmael are imbedded in the longer story of Abraham and Sarah, the matriarch and patriarch of our faith.  And as much as their story is about God’s promises, progeny, and unbelievable blessing, the chapters that include Hagar are painful and traumatic – they leave us wondering why God would allow such things to happen. A quick summary to refresh our memories:

Abraham and Sarah go to Egypt to escape a famine. At the border, Abraham lies to save his own neck by saying Sarah was his sister, allowing her to be taken into Pharaoh’s harem. The rabbis surmised that Hagar was a gift from the Pharoah when Sarah left to return to Israel – how else would an enslaved Egyptian woman come to be possessed by an Israelite?

God covenants with childless Abraham that his descendants will number more than the stars. As the years pass with still no bebe, old Abe and Sarah worry and doubt that God will fulfill God’s end of the deal, and decide to take matters into their own hands. Sarah gives her handmaid Hagar to Abraham, and he takes her. Look at the cycle of trauma: Sarah, who was exploited and abused in the harem of Pharoah becomes the oppressor, treating her handmaid like an object, a thing to be taken or given at will.

Sarah immediately regrets this decision, it seems, because when Hagar conceives, she treats her harshly, abusing the girl such that Hagar is forced to escape into the wilderness. But an angel meets her and sends her back – back to the abuse, back into slavery, so that Hagar’s son Ishmael is born in the house of Abraham.

But God remembers God’s promise, and when old Sarah finally learns she is pregnant the hills ring with her laughter…she names him Isaac, which means he laughs. As the children grow and play together, Sarah’s jealousy becomes too much, so worried is she that Ishmael will supplant her son as the firstborn. Sarah demands Abraham send them away, into the desert, to their deaths. So he does. As Hagar casts her babe beneath a bush and leaves him there to die, God finally intervenes, sending an angel to help her find water in the wilderness, guiding her to a well that will save their lives, promising again that Hagar’s descendants will outnumber the stars.

This is a terrible story.  My Hebrew professor says, “in this story, no one is without blame – not even God.”[3] To help us make sense of it, and to uncover a bit of good news in the midst of the mess, I want to tell you about names.

First, the name of Hagar…that was probably not her name. Sure, scripture names her Hagar, but that word means foreigner, sojourner in Hebrew – Wil Gafney says, her Egyptian mama didn’t name her that![4] Gafney points out that in Islamic tradition, she’s called Hajar, which means splendid, nourishing. A fitting name for the mother of the children of Islam!

In our tradition, Hagar is dehumanized, used and abused, and sent to die in the desert. But she is also the first and only person who names God in the Bible. It happens during her first escape into the wilderness, when she is scared, and pregnant, and running for her life, when an angel finds her to send her back to the house of Abraham. Up to this point, God is just called Elohim – a Canaanite word for God or Gods meaning strength, or might. God hasn’t shared the name YHWH yet, we don’t know God as YHWH, I am who I am, until God appears to Moses in the burning bush! But Hagar, this foreigner, this woman on the run, is met in the wilderness and gives God a new name. She names God El-roi! I know.  El-roi means God of seeing, God who sees…or as one translation says: The Living God who Sees Me.[5]

And the name Ishmael – do you know what Ishmael means? It means, God hears. God hears. God indeed hears the cries of the child in the desert, and sends angels to attend to him, to save him and his mother.

God sees, and hears. God sees the suffering of a used and abused woman, shut out and sent to die in the desert. God hears the cries of her thirsty, terrified child. And God sends angels to attend to them.

Again and again in the gospel story, Jesus sees those that others ignore. People who are blind. Children who are neglected. Sex workers. Men who are crippled. Widows offering what little they have to God. All who are marginalized. He sees them, and hears their cries, and stops whatever he is doing to respond with love, offering healing. Bringing them back into the fold. Christ, who shows us what God’s love is like. Christ, who calls us to love others as God loves us…to see and hear others as God sees and hears us.

There is a greeting used by the Zulu people in South Africa, “Sawubona.” It means, “I see you.”[6] Not just the casual, “hi, how are you?” we say each day, but “Hello – I see you.” I acknowledge you as a human being, just as you are.

The response to Sawubona is “Ngikhona,” which means, “I am here.” I’m truly here because you see me. It changes us to be seen, to be in relationship.

And there are so many people who society tries not to see, aren’t there?  Avert your gaze and keep on walking. Whatever you do, just don’t make eye contact.

Yet ours is a God who sees us for who we are and loves us – wherever we are. However we are. Whatever we have suffered and survived. And despite the messes we make, and the pain we carry. The story of Hagar teaches us that when we find ourselves in the wilderness, in the midst of the mess, when we feel most desperate – God sees. God hears. God reaches out to us – and leads us back to life.

So we who wish to serve God, we who seek to follow Christ, must seek to see God…in one another. As we gradually take off our masks and move out of the isolation of the past year, what would it mean if we allowed ourselves to be vulnerable. To be honest about the times we felt despairing, the pain we ourselves have suffered…the pain we ourselves have inflicted. The vulnerability of seeing and being seen is what allows us to admit mistakes and find forgiveness.  To connect with each other.  And maybe, just maybe, to meet God.

Let’s practice really, truly seeing each other. Let’s try it. Turn to your neighbor and look them in the eye. Go on, really look! Take a breath, and tell them, “Sawubona. I see you.”

Reply, “Ngikhona, I am here.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Trible, Phyllis, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives.  Overtures to Biblical Theology, 1984.

[2] Williams, Delores, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk.  Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993, p. 4, qtd. By Miguel de la Torre, Genesis, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p. 171.

[3] Darr, Katheryn, Far More Precious Than Jewels: Perspectives on Biblical Women, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991.

[4] Gafney, Wilda, Womanist Midrash, A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne,  Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2017, pp40-41.

[5] Boulton, Matthew Myer or Elizabeth, Salt Project lectionary blog.

[6] I first learned of this greeting and the response from Alvin Herring, now Executive Director of Faith in Action, at a Faith in Action Alabama training in 2015.