Let us pray:
All-Seeing God, All-Knowing God, All-Loving God, we await your coming, your presence and, your return. Amen.
Hagar named the Living God who spoke to her: “You are El-ro’i”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing God?” (Genesis 16:13)[The sermon can be viewed here at the 2.25 mark. There is a forum on the Women’s Lectionary that precedes the sermon. Play from the beginning for the forum.]
I feel seen. Beyond the joke and behind the meme lies the fundamental need to be seen, known, regarded, recognized as fully human, to have our needs acknowledged, even if not met. I have seen God. And I have been seen by the God who sees all. That is Hagar’s testimony. Hagar is the Mother saint of womanism and, long before our elder sister invented the word, the enslaved and formerly enslaved and newly free Africans in America identified themselves with Hagar as Aunt Hagar or by calling themselves Hagar’s children. Some of us still do. And not just among Christians; Hagar is the great mother of Islam.
In the Gospel according to The Color Purple, the Prophet Sophia states, “A girl child ain’t safe in a family of men.” In 1850 a fourteen-year-old Black girl named Celia was sold into slavery. She, like Hagar, was young enough to be presumed fertile if not virginal and, old enough, according to her enslaver, to be used sexually. Celia was raped repeatedly by the man who claimed ownership of body, ultimately, bearing him children. Hagar was given by the woman who claimed ownership of her body to a man who would forcibly impregnate her and, she gave birth to his child. We say “forcibly” because even when the worlds of the text and those in which the text is read decree some people as being incapable of giving or withholding consent, we declare that freedom to consent is a divinely bestowed right given in every era whether recognized or not.
At one point, Celia went to the women in her enslaver’s life, his daughters, and asked them to help her. She asked if they could convince him to stop abusing her, even if only during her current pregnancy. Hagar could not ask the woman in Abraham’s life to help her for, it was Sarah who bought and bartered of her body, her sexuality and, her reproductive labor.
Imagine with me Hagar and Celia praying Psalm 71:
4 My God, rescue me, from the hand of the wicked,
from the clutch of the cruel and the ruthless.
5 For you, are my hope, Sovereign, Worthy One,
my trust, from my youth.
After four years of enduring his savagery, Celia could not take anymore and when her enslaver, abuser, rapist and, torturer came back once again to the cabin he had built for the purpose of violating her, she fought back. She fought back and she saved herself. She had to kill him to do so, but she saved herself. When Hagar could not take any more of Sarah’s abuse in the verses preceding our reading, abuse articulated with a verb that includes sexual as well as physical violence, Hagar also saved herself. In the language of the spirituals, she stole away.
Yet, neither Celia nor Hagar was free. Celia would be convicted of murder, sentenced to hang. The judge told the jurors to disregard testimony that she only struck her enslaver when he tried to grab her. The judge also informed the jurors that there were no grounds for self-defense even if, “she believed she was in imminent danger of forced sexual intercourse.” Rather, he instructed, “the defendant had no right to kill him.” Her appeal to the state Supreme Court was denied on the basis of having no grounds. Ultimately, Celia was executed by the system that enslaved her and offered her tender girlhood body up for exploitation. Celia’s lynching, Celia’s crucifixion, like that of Christ was perfectly legal. Celia was finally free but at what great cost. Hagar’s brief marronage—the term for the self-liberation of formerly enslaved folk—Hagar’s marronage in our first lesson did not end with her liberation. She was sent back to her enslavers with a vision of God and a promise from God but nevertheless, still enslaved.
Yet Hagar’s testimony was, I have seen God. And I have been seen by the God who sees all. In the midst of her enslavement Hagar saw God. God came to see her and see about her and be seen by her. Ironically that would become the testimony of the people who enslaved her, the Israelites; during their enslavement, God came to see about them. That is who God is. The God who is present with her people in enslavement, in exile, under subjugation and, under occupation. That is the miracle and marvel of the story we begin to tell anew this week. The God Who Is, who Is That She Is, is the God who comes to her people wherever they are. Sometimes, she is the God Who Liberates, but sometimes, she is the God who inexplicably does not. That is one of the hard ugly truths of Scripture that is true. Yet another truth is that God remains the God Who Sees Us and Sees About Us, the God Who Dwells With Us, even in bondage, even in exile.
Hagar’s liberation was going to take more time. That is also one of the uncomfortable truths of this passage. One can stand in the presence of the Majesty of God, be fully seen and fully known and simultaneously be entrapped and entangled by the tentacles of evil extending from corrupt powers and institutions. Just ask the Africans enslaved in America crying out for 400 years just as the Israelites cried out during their enslavement for another 400 years. Ask those of us crying out Black Lives Matter even as the bodies continue to drop along with the news coverage. Yet God is there and here seeing and seen, knowing and known.
Hagar saw God. Hagar’s encounter with God was in contradiction to and in defiance of prevailing norms of theology in the collection of stories and scrolls that came together as the Hebrew Bible. In Exodus (33:20), God says “no one may see my face and live.” If we keep it King James and read it as “no man may see my face and live,” then we could have Hagar say, “but I am no man.” Yet the passage in Exodus uses adam, meaning humanity, not just menfolk. Could it be that the authors and editors of Exodus discounted Hagar’s testimony because she was a woman, because she was a foreign woman, because she was enslaved?
There are and always will be those who say she didn’t really see God and certainly didn’t see God’s face. Some may not know that the Divine messenger called the “angel of the Lord” in older translations is really God in drag protecting us from the full splendor of their glory so they may interact with humanity without harming us. There will always be those folk who will tell us, womanists and feminists and those who read through rainbow-colored and trans-forming lenses that we haven’t seen the God we have seen, that we don’t know God because He doesn’t look or sound anything like what we bear witness to. Were Hagar’s and Sarah’s understandings of God reconcilable? Were they even the same God? Some of us have been asking that question about white Christianity for 400 years and some of us have been asking that question about conservative Christianity for the last 50 years.
We are still asking those questions. Was the God of Celia’s enslavers her God? Is the God of the MAGA hymn composed to articulate a Trumpian theology that has not gone anywhere, elections notwithstanding, is that God the God of Atatiana Jefferson and Breonna Taylor? Is the god of white supremacist Christianity the God of the Torah, the God of the Prophets, the God of the Psalms, the God of the sages, the God of the historians and archivists, the God of the Gospels, the God of the Epistles and the God of Apocalypse? If we tell the truth, sometimes it sure seems that way. But even then, there is a river of love and liberation that runs through these sanctified texts and it purifies them of human visions of God that are too human to be God.
Who is the God of your envisioning? Does your God see you? Does your God know you? Does your God love you? Or does your God tell you that you are not enough? That the way you were made is insufficient. Does your God cut off the possibility of your thriving and flourishing as who you were created to be? Does your God call you to deny essential components of who you are? Does your God dwell with you in your sorrow and in your pain? And when your God demands difficult things of you like returning to a place of pain, will your God walk with you? Hagar saw God and was seen, heard, known, accepted, valued, as she was, with a promise for who she would be, Mother of Nations and mother of a legion of descendants who would chose her over the woman with wealth and privilege who someone said was supposed to be the center of the story. Or at least more central, as the story centered men, as do the stories that follow. Is your god big enough to be God? Does your God love enough to be God? Would your God exchange divinity for humanity, infinity for mortality? Would your God answer the prayer of a runaway enslaved woman, personally, in the flesh or at least in the appearance of flesh?
To be enslaved—not to be a slave for no legalized system of oppression can change the fundamental identity of a child of God from being who she/he/they/we were created and, God did not end does not create slaves—to be enslaved is to be fundamentally vulnerable, dehumanized and sexualized, without legal status, valued as property but not as person. Who would choose such a life? Jesus.
From the time before time, the God-consciousness that became incarnate in black baby Jesus saw Hagar and Celia and all of the enslaved, and Breonna and Atatiana and all of the black lives descended from the enslaved, the colonized, and the subjugated snuffed out as though they did not matter and, Jesus chose our image and likeness. He came to be as we are so that we might be as he is. Jesus in Philippians:
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be seized,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave…
That language was too outrageous for some so you will find translations that say he took the humility of a slave but that is not what the text says. Jesus took the form of an enslaved person. The authors of the text did not share our understanding that people are not slaves but enslaved.
Brother Cornell West famously remixes Saint Augustine saying that the scandal of the incarnation is that Jesus was born between the orifices for liquid and solid waste. But I argue it was much more than that; it was that he was woman-born, in a time when many saw women and our bodies as, at best, in need of regulation and male control and at worst, impure, infectious and contaminating.
This passage from Philippians presents us with a vision of Christ from the time before time choosing the form in which God would come into this world in human flesh, and brown skin and, perhaps because breaking every hierarchy at the same time would have been incomprehensible, in a form that was gendered in the way in which assumptions about power and privilege would be comfortable. And yet, Jesus did not perform the socially constructed gender role expected of him by marrying or producing children.
Jesus chose, not just humanity, but a human form that others would look upon and see as property, as subhuman, as available for the working out of their whims, wishes and wickedness. Jesus chose the form of a slave. The form of those the Romans called barbarians and viewed as in need of civilizing. The form of Hagar. The form of Celia. The form of those enslaved in exploitative labor contacts here and around the world. The form of the incarcerated rented out and sometimes handed over for free to perform labor and fight fires and handle the bodies of those who have died from Covid.
Jesus came to liberate us from among us in a position of solidarity. He, the Messiah, did not have a messiah complex. He was no white savior or missions tourist. He was Hagar’s Child by choice. I would like to imagine that the Blessed Virgin found in Hagar’s story theological sustenance for her own journey. For a while some would see these two great mothers as little more than incubators and side notes in a man’s story, they are theologians and conversation partners of the divine, worthy because God establishes their worthiness by entering into relationship with them. Each of them could say: I have seen God. And I have been seen by the God who sees all.
Our gospel today enshrines the moment when Mary is touched without touching by God, when the often-misgendered Holy Spirit transubstantiated the body and blood of the Blessed Virgin into the body and blood of the Blessed Savior. Some might say this reading comes too early; it belongs closer to Christmas. But in all actuality, this lesson belongs in the spring, nine months before Christmas; the Annunciation properly falls on the 25th of March. But it is also a traditional Advent reading. It brings to mind or back to mind what we have lost sight of in the past eight months, the daily miracle of a divine pregnancy, living each day conscious of the presence of Christ within us. So much has happened to us in that time that without a physical, visceral, reminder that we too are God-bearers, we lose sight of the God who has been poured into us, the God who sees us and knows us.
Here am I, the woman-slave of God. If that language makes us uncomfortable, it should. There are uncomfortable similarities between the stories of Mary and Hagar. In a world which did not necessarily recognize Mary’s sole ownership of her body and did not understand our notions of consent, this very young woman had the dignity, courage, and temerity to question a messenger of the Living God about what would happen to her body before giving her consent. Before Mary said, “yes,” she said, “wait a minute, explain this to me.” [excepted from “Did Mary Say #MeToo?”]
Here am I, the woman-slave of God. Mary saw herself as the slave of God. God saw Mary as the Mother of Our Tribe in the words of Bishop Stephen Charleston:
Mary is not the Mother of Our Tribe, our human tribe, because she is some aloof figure from an artificial piety, set apart by myth and the imagined need for ritual purity. No, she is holy because she is one of us.
She is our common mother, our everyday mother. She is a living person who has gone before us, a woman as human as you or I, who found a well of faith deeper and more life-giving than any we will ever discover on our own.
She is grace. She is mercy. She is love: a gift to us from God, a healing presence in every culture and every time, speaking all of our languages, even if that language is silence.
Hagar and Mary teach us that God is concerned with those who are at the bottom of all the hierarchies, women, the enslaved, foreigners and, as is so often the case, persons in more than one category–Hagar was all of these. They teach us that God sees us, hears us, knows us, loves us. And, they teach that our way with God will not be easy. There will be pain and sorrow ahead and, the way will sometimes lead us on paths we do not wish to travel. But they also teach us that we will not walk alone. God, having walked with us as one of us, walks with us still, from this Advent to the next, when enslavement and oppression will be no more, when all the children and kindred of God will walk together in the saving, healing, liberating love of God, seen, heard, known. Amen.