Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Hagar: Turning the Story Inside Out (Gen 16:1-16)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Sunday Worship on May 31, 2015)



Good morning! I’m honored to have been invited to share in worship with you today. Thank you. I’m also delighted to be back home: home in Richmond, home with my family, home here at Gayton Road. And I’m excited to have the opportunity to tell you just a sliver of the story of my last few years in Sheffield, England.

As many of you will know, I went to Sheffield for a PhD in Biblical Studies. I went to study the stories of Genesis, the stories about a very special family that grew into the people of Israel.

But reading stories is a dicey business. Because the more we read a story, the less we can keep our own story straight. The story on the page becomes less and less distinguishable from the story of our lives. (Which, I think, is both the beauty and the danger of our relationship with the Bible.) As I read and reread the stories of Genesis, I found myself asking, “Am I reading an ancient story or my own story? Am I interpreting these stories, or are they interpreting me?”

A Bit of Holy Gossip: Hagar’s Story

One of the stories I read was the story of Hagar, who was Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant. It’s an incredibly rich story. You can find it in its traditional translation in Genesis 16. But today, I’m going to tell it like I would in a conversation, like a piece of holy gossip:

"Sarah wanted a child. So that she would be, as she put it, 'built up.' Complete. A respectable woman. She claimed bitterly that God had made it impossible for her to have a child. So she devised a plan. Surrogate motherhood. She suggested to Abraham that he have a child with her Egyptian servant Hagar, and then she could claim the child as hers. Abraham agreed. Soon Hagar was pregnant. But instead of feeling 'built up,' Sarah felt the opposite. She realized that actually she had become less and less in the eyes of her servant, Hagar. So Sarah tried to put Hagar back down in her place. She even became a bit violent with her. So Hagar ran away. Away into the wilderness. Away into the threat of death.

"But it wasn’t death that found her in the wilderness. It was a messenger of God. And the messenger did something that neither Abraham nor Sarah ever had. He called her by name, 'Hagar'—which means 'the outsider,' or, we might say, 'wayfaring stranger.' He talked to her. Told her that she should name her son, “Ishmael,” which means “God hears”—because God had heard her when Sarah had hurt her. And Hagar, overwhelmed with this divine attention, named God. The only character in the Bible to do so. She named him, 'El Roi,' which means 'the God Who Sees Me.'"

Hagar Turns Israel Inside Out

The spotlight of our story opens on Sarah. But it’s Hagar who steals the show. And that’s incredible, considering who she is. Hagar is an outsider. She could not be more different than the family she served. She is their opposite ethnically, socially, emotionally. She’s Egyptian, they’re Hebrew. She’s a servant, they’re her masters. She’s away from family, they are family.

But if we look closer, we begin to see that she is opposite them the way our reflection is opposite us in the mirror. Who does God call by name? To whom does God promise innumerable children? Abraham, yes. But also Hagar. And whose dramatic story features an exodus from slavery and divine salvation in the wilderness? Israel’s, of course. But also Hagar’s.

Hagar may be an Egyptian servant of Abraham and Sarah, but in her experience she is just as much an insider as they are. This truth is told beautifully and simply by two names, and if you remember nothing else from today’s story, remember these two names: Hagar and her soon-to-be son, Ishmael. Ishmael means “God hears.” And Hagar means “the outsider.” The story of Hagar, then, is plainly and profoundly this: God hears the outsider. God hears the cries of the Egyptian and the Ishmaelite kicking in her womb. If you’re ancient Israelite, that’s no different than saying, God hears the foreigner, the enemy.

So the story of Hagar turned the story of Israel inside out. Whenever the ancient Israelites might have been tempted to think they had privileged access to divine encounter, to divine truth, the story of Hagar reminded them otherwise: God hears the outsider. God goes searching in the wilderness for the outsider and calls the outsider by name. God promises life to the outsider.

Hagar Turns My Story Inside Out

And if we listen to the story, if we welcome it to our own world, then we might hear a similar message.

If God lives not just within the story of the religious insiders Sarah and Abraham but also outside it, then that means God escapes any of the boundaries we might set up. God is contained in scripture, yes. But not by scripture. God is contained in the church, yes. But not by the church. Whatever story we tell of God, it will be turned inside out by the God who hears and cares for the outsider.

And it’s precisely here the story of Hagar becomes my story, where it grabs hold of my story and turns it inside out. In my three and half years at Sheffield, I spent the majority of my time with international housemates and friends. One friend remarked that if the police saw the contacts on my cell phone, they’d have mistaken me for someone in cahoots with some transglobal mafia: Itzel, Buyoung, Katka, Vlad…. Many of my friends would have identified themselves not as Christians but as atheists or agnostics.

Now as the story of Hagar began to saturate my mind and heart, it became less and less a distant tale and more and more a reality in my own life, for I saw that while my housemates and friends were “outsiders” in a religious sense, we shared the same kinds of life experiences, the same kinds of existential questions: the same joys and sorrows, hopes and fears, anxieties and desires. If my friends were opposite me, they were only opposite as a reflection is in the mirror.

God Is a Name

Earlier I said that the truth of the Hagar story is told beautifully in two names: Ishmael and Hagar. Well, there’s one more. Hagar gives God a new name, the only biblical character to do so. El Roi. The God Who Sees Me. Hagar encounters the same divine reality that Abraham and Sarah do, but she uses different words to express it. She calls God by a different name. But she refers to the same living truth. The God who hears the cries and prayers of Abraham and Sarah also hears the cry and prayer of her heart. The God of Israel is also her God.

And all of this got me to thinking. Maybe God is just a name for a reality that everyone experiences—no matter how far inside or outside the doors of church. Maybe God is translatable, and my friends and housemates just use different names. Different words to express the same reality, the same experience.

Before I left Sheffield, I spoke about this with two good friends who are agnostic or atheist. I asked them, “What guides you?” Their response, obviously, was not “God.” But listen closely, listen to what is living and breathing and walking within their words, and…well, perhaps they are just speaking other names for what you and I would name “God.”

My friend Vlad answered that “community” guides him. He drew the beautiful analogy that life is like a canvas. He spoke about the friendships he had found in Sheffield, and said, “With you guys, I found a slice of canvas and my brush strokes intermingled with yours and I felt truly free to paint.” It was one of those time, he said, one of those “rare flickers in the darkness,” where he could make out the beauty of life, where he could “grow.”

My friend Daniela answered simply this: “I feel guided by my love for others. I know it sounds strange but love is what guide me in life, in everything I do.”

What I call God, my friends call something else. But listen to what is simmering within their words, to what is living within their words. Listen to what their words are pointing to. What is “God,” if not a name we give to the great empty canvas[1] that contains all of creation and quietly invites us to see that it is good, very good—indeed, beckons us to paint that goodness and beauty?[2] What is “God,” if not a name we give to the divine depth we sense in others, in the strangers who make themselves a part of our life and bless it, intermingling their brush strokes with ours and inspiring us to paint even more beautifully? (Is it not their spirit of selflessness and self-giving that animates what we call “the body of Christ”?) What is “God,” if not a name we give to the “rare flickers in the darkness,” to that lamp that lights our path just enough for us to keep walking, just enough for us to grow? What is “God,” if not Love? What is “God,” if not the call to selflessly love others, a call without “why” that ruptures our self-centeredness, that overthrows our simple economies of reciprocated affection?

The Kingdom of God Turns Every Story Inside Out

I don’t mean to say all this to suggest that we all believe the same thing, or that our faith in Jesus Christ should be watered down to bland expressions that the universe can agree on. I do say it, though, because I believe that God lives in the lives of outsiders, calling on them as he calls on us, and that outsiders call on God just as we do. Prayer is not the exclusive privilege of preachers, pastors, popes, pious people. Prayer is the heart speaking, crying out from the depths of a personal experience that no-one can know completely. Hagar the outsider prayed, whether or not she would have named it as such. The cries of her heart reached the heart of God. And even though she called God by a different name than did Abraham and Sarah, she too heard the call of God in her life, the promise of God for more life.

The story of Hagar, I believe, is ultimately a story of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom that “obeys the law of reversals in virtue of which whatever is first is last, whatever is out is in, whatever is lost is saved.”[3] Just like the story of Hagar, the Kingdom of God turns all of our stories inside out. The outsider is in. And for a moment, we see the outsider reflected in ourselves.

When we thank God for a moment of grace, others may thank their lucky stars. But the same salvation that visits us in the wilderness visits them. The same spirit that haunts and hallows our hearts with sighs too deep for words stirs in their hearts too. Whoever or whatever we thank for the moments of grace in our lives, whether we call water in the desert luck or God, we’re all in this together. We all experience something beyond us, within us, something we cannot quite put words to, something that captivates us and promises us life and keeps us searching for goodness and hoping for resurrection and newness, something that infuses us with the breath of life even as it takes our breath away in wonder and awe.

We’re all, in one way or another, wayfaring strangers.[4] And so the message of Hagar, the message of the Kingdom of God, is not to be caught up in the specific names we say and the specific identities that we claim, but in the lives that we live and the love that we share and the work that we do. The message of Hagar, the message of the Kingdom of God, is to listen for God going by other names. Some of our brothers and sisters outside the church may simply say “Love” or “Reality” or “Universe,” but listen to what’s being said within those words. And be willing to work alongside them, to serve God, even if under a different name. Remember that God hears them just as God hears you. That God visits them in the wilderness of their lives just as God visits you in yours. That God promises them the same life God promises you. In time and in honesty, you may find yourself sharing your own story, a story that traces the grace and goodness and beauty and truth of life to a particular human named Jesus, who was born laughing and crying as a child into our world and loved it all up to his death, a human whose life was marked by the powerless power of forgiveness and the promise of resurrection and new life. But until you share that story—and after you share that story—listen closely to what others around you are saying. Listen for God going by other names, and don’t be afraid to intermingle your brush strokes with those who speak differently. The good news of Hagar, the good news of the Kingdom, is the good news that God is always already on the outside. And if we’re looking to welcome God into our lives, well…outside might be the best place to begin.


[1] The image of God as the great empty canvas on which creation is painted finds inspiration in Rubem Alves, Transparencies in Eternity (Miami: Convivium Press, 2010), ebook loc. 162, which imagines God as “a great, huge Emptiness that encompasses the whole beauty of the universe,” an idea Alves expands on with specific images: “If the glass were not empty, we wouldn’t drink water from it. If the mouth were not empty, we wouldn’t eat fruit with it. If the womb were not empty, life wouldn’t grow in it.”

[2] The idea of humanity as a collective of painters who participate in creation, who make the world good, very good, derives from Gen 1:26, in which God affirms humanity as little creators, as creatures resembling the image and likeness of the Creator God. Rabbinic Judaism developed this idea into tikkun olam, “the healing of the world,” which refers to humanity’s shared responsibility in God’s creation, in completing or perfecting creation.

[3] John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), ebook loc. 309.

[4] Just as Hagar is “the outsider,” so are the ancestral family and Israel, whose experience of faith is constituted by “sojourning” (“outsidering”) in lands not their own. Hebrews 11:13-14 reiterates that inherent within faith is an element of outsiderness. “All these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.” In other words, none of us have ever “made it.” Religious and non-religious alike, we live—if we live at all—by faith.


  1. Hi, Jonathan! Thank you for your article. I enjoyed reading it this morning. In particular, I never thought Hagar's story in a way that she went through "an exodus from slavery and divine salvation in the wilderness" as Israel did. Also, yes, we should remember that God hears the others just as he hears us. In fact, your writing reminds me of what I experienced a long time ago, when I was doing my MDiv at the seminary. I watched a film made by Buddists (I may share you the details when we meet again) and got impressed very much by the way they understood the motif of acceptance. I shared the story to some Christians, which attracted serious criticism from them. They argued that adopting an impression of a Buddist film into theological understanding isn't proper. So I answered, "your God may not be out there. But not mine. I believe that he is with everyone in and out, here and there, though they may not find him as our Lord Jesus yet."

  2. hi buyoung, thank you for this. and thank you for sharing the story from your seminary days (i look forward to hearing the details). i may share it with others myself, if you wouldn't mind.