"Do You See Me?" A Pride Sermon on Hagar

This is a sermon preached by Beth Carlson-Malena at our GS Queerantine Zoom Pride Service on July 21st, 2020. Scroll down past the video to find the full transcript.





Genesis 21:8-21

The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”

Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba.

When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.

God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”

Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.

God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.

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Hi everybody, my name’s Beth, and I wore my bowtie for y’all today, so happy Pride!

When I volunteered to preach today, I really didn’t realize how many different holidays and major world events would be happening this weekend.

So I mean, just this weekend we’re celebrating the first day of summer, Father’s Day, National Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and World Refugee Day. And we’re also, of course, in the middle of a global pandemic and a global anti-racist revolution. And it’s Pride month, which is the actual focus of this service.

So I have made it my ill-advised mission to draw together all of those threads - except maybe summer solstice, I didn’t quite work that in - and to pull them through the loom of this Hagar story, which is one of the lectionary passages for today, which means there’s a whole bunch of Christians around the world reading this same passage today. So buckle in – let’s try this out!

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

On Friday I participated in a Juneteenth march here in Vancouver, along with my wife Danice and my brother and his husband. As we marched alongside a diverse crowd here in Vancouver, we were led in chants by a young Black woman with a megaphone on the bed of a slow-moving truck. We joined her in shouting, “Black lives matter!” “No justice, no peace!”

But then she would pause from time to time and take a whole different tone. In a quieter, more tentative voice, she would ask simple questions. “Vancouver, do you hear me? Do you see me?”

“YES,” we replied each time. “Yes, we hear you. Yes, we see you.” And then five minutes later, she would ask us again. “Do you hear me? Do you see me?”

Jumping 4000 years in the past, we find another young woman of colour. Hagar was an enslaved Egyptian woman; she was the property of a Hebrew woman named Sarah, one of Israel’s matriarchs. This situation, if you’re a scholar, if you study the Hebrew scriptures, is a reversal and a bit of a prequel of Israel’s subsequent slavery in Egypt – backwards.

Hagar’s name almost certainly wasn’t Hagar. “Hagar” in Hebrew means “the foreigner” or “the other.” She was not afforded the dignity of having her chosen name remembered or recorded in scripture.

We first meet the woman known as Hagar in Genesis 16, when she’s being forced to marry Abraham, who is already married to Sarah, in order to bear them a child, an heir.

Both of these women are marginalized. Sarah can’t conceive children, and that’s the only role that really matters to her patriarchal society... and Hagar is forced to use her body to bear a child for Sarah against her will.

There’s a writer named Sara Maitland who reimagines this story through a queer lens, with Sarah and Hagar as queer lovers, torn apart when the demands of childbearing bring Abraham between them. But even without queer subtext (which I find very fascinating), there’s plenty of fuel for jealousy and resentment. Sarah and Hagar treat one another with contempt and disgust. But Sarah holds the power in the situation, and gets away with violently mistreating Hagar in chapter 16. Abraham refuses to intervene, not even to protect his unborn child, so Happy Father’s Day everyone!

So Hagar, very pregnant, heads into the wilderness for the first time, and there she is met by YHWH, God of the Hebrews, disguised as an angel, who asks, “Where have you come from? Where are you going?”

The text says God called her “Hagar, slave of Sarah” – but because Hagar leaves this experience feeling heard and feeling seen, I’m willing to bet that God actually called her by her real name, and somehow God made her feel like more than just an enslaved woman. And then she, in turn, calls God not by the name God gave, YHWH, but by her own name for God, “El Roi” – the God who sees. The God who sees her as so much more than Hagar, slave of Sarah.

I think it’s both vulnerable and liberating to be really seen for who you are. When you spend your life feeling ignored, or trying to blend into the background, or forced to hide and mask yourself – and then for the first time, someone gives you permission to be your fullest, realest self, and you take that risk... that’s life-changing.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

For the LGBTQ+ people here – I wonder if you can think back to the first person you ever came out to. Now maybe you came out someone but they chose NOT to see you - maybe they chose to deny or ignore you, or they were too busy making it all about them to really see you. If that’s the case, I’m sorry. You deserved better than that. Try instead to remember the first person you came out to who listened well, and understood, and loved you – all of you. See if you can get back in touch with how that felt. I remember when I came out for the first time, to my friend Jodi, it felt like a weight had lifted off me – it was this weight of shame-filled invisibility and unspoken truth – that suddenly, I felt so much lighter.

Hagar has her own weight lifted, and she becomes the only person in scripture to ever give God a name of her choosing, in God’s presence. Being seen can liberate holy creativity in us, and give us courage to name things rightly.

Speaking of names, the “God who sees” instructs Hagar to name her son Ishmael, which means “God hears.” But the God who sees and hears Hagar does not set her free - God tells her to go back home and submit again to Sarah, but to cling to the promise that Ishmael’s descendants will become a great nation. She returns home with the honor of being the only woman in scripture who ever received such a promise of producing a great nation - the very same promise given to Abraham, Jacob, and Moses.

So she gives birth to Ishmael, and this brings us to the passage that Caleb just read for us. Another story of Hagar in the wilderness. But in this second story, Hagar doesn’t run away - she is sent away.

Abraham is throwing a feast for Sarah’s miracle child, Isaac, a feast which likely was not thrown when Ishmael was born. And then observing some unknown interaction between Isaac and Ishmael, Sarah says, “I want to get rid of “this slave woman” – dehumanizing her further by omitting her name, even her name which was not her name! So the text says that Abraham literally puts bread and water on Hagar’s shoulders and sends her off into the scorching desert, carrying her firstborn son Ishmael, who is also his firstborn son. Again we witness what a fantastic Father’s Day passage this is, as Abraham creates scripture’s first single mother.

Now some would say Hagar has essentially been emancipated here – she’s been sent away by her masters – she’s a free woman. Free, but alone with a baby, in a desert, with very limited resources... this is not true freedom.

She’s only free in the same sense that a lot of LGBTQ+ people who come out are free, but end up walking out of the closet right into a desert of homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, shackled still with so much shame and self-hatred, without a support net to lean on.

Hagar in the wilderness is free, but still oppressed and still in danger. Free, but at risk - just like Black people in North America, as Heather has just reminded us. It’s not surprising that many African American people, particularly women, see Hagar’s experience here as analogous with their own, and claim her as their matriarch.

Black professor and preacher Michael Eric Dyson writes, “There are far too many Hagars in our time who are social outcasts: single Black mothers who bear the stigma of shame and disrespect, who scrap for every single resource they can muster to provide for children who are marked for tough and brutal lives. Our present-day Ishmaels are prophesied, or stereotyped, as failures, when in truth they enjoy few of the privileges of the Isaacs in our culture.”

Hagar and Ishmael are only free as Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Tony McDade were, only as free as the racialized trans women whose lives were brutally taken in recent months: Nina Pop. Dominique Rem’mie Fells. Riah Milton.

Do we hear them? Do we see them?

Hagar only as free as Sarah Hegazi, who was Egyptian just like Hagar, a queer activist who survived 3 brutal months of imprisonment and torture. Canada proudly welcomed Sarah and offered her asylum, but did not provide adequate mental health supports to allow her to work through her trauma, and Sarah ended her own life this past week at age 30.

Do we hear Sarah? Do we see her?

Hagar is only as free as Canada’s indigenous peoples, whom we celebrate today, but who still do not all have clean drinking water on their reserves, and are murdered by Canadian law enforcement at disproportionate rates. Hagar is only as free as Eisha Hudson, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, and Chantal Moore.

Do we hear them? Do we see them? Do we know their names? Do they matter?

So-called Hagar, so-called free, starving in the desert with her son, now worse off than when she was enslaved. And just as her water runs out, and she’s sobbing, sitting at a distance from her child, her future, who is about to die, God hears the cry of Ishmael, the boy whose name means “God hears.” And God sees Hagar, and opens up her eyes so she can see a well. Clean drinking water.

And so Hagar survives as a single parent in the wilderness. Her son survives and fathers the Arab people.

And Hagar’s story survives here in Genesis – that might be the most miraculous part. It’s an unlikely story to be remembered, repeated for centuries in oral tradition, and written down, taking up two chapters’ worth of space in a book that’s dominated by Israel’s patriarchs. Countless influential women of colour have been left out of history books, never to be seen or heard - a violence by omission. But Hagar is seen, and humanized, dignified with a divine annunciation, a story, a means of survival.

Emily Peecook writes that “Hagar had a personal encounter with God and yet was not liberated, but instead taught how to survive... God gives survival techniques to the oppressed... so they can work toward their own liberation alongside their God.” I love this insight from Emily. Instead of God swooping in to fix Hagar’s situation and punish her oppressors, as yet another all-powerful figure taking control,

God gives Hagar what she needs in order to exercise her own agency and control.

I love this - according to Muslim tradition – I just read about this – Hagar goes on to become an entrepreneur, bartering with caravans of nomads, exchanging her well-water for supplies, and as more and more people settle near her well, the city of Mecca is founded around her, protecting her and her son.

I love that image of community forming around an empowered survivor. There’s so much dignity and resilience there. It makes me think of the Black Lives Matter protests. And it makes me think of Pride.

Photo by Rene Baker on Unsplash

The first Pride, as we’ve been saying, was a riot, led by trans women of colour, including Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Riveira, who fought back against the police and society who oppressed them. And they were no longer asking, “Do you see us? Do you hear us?” They were insisting, “We WILL be seen and heard. We’re DONE with hiding in fear.”

And a couple decades later, AIDS activists followed suit, declaring “Our lives are not worthless or expendable. We’re DONE with being thrust into the wilderness with a few scraps of bread. You will see us; you will hear us, and research and fund our treatments.”

Now today, some lament that Pride has become more of a party than a protest, but Pride, at its best, still involves the loud and bold and colourful celebration that all LGBTQ2+ people are worthy of being seen and loved for who we are. One of Generous Space’s favourite queer theologians, Liz Edman, writes in her book “Queer Virtue” that Pride is about hearing God’s call, and saying “Hineni” – “Here I am!” That’s what Abraham, and Moses, and Samuel, and Mary all said in scripture. Our Creator sees our deepest identity, our queerest identity, and names our value in Her eyes, and we reply – “Here I am! See me. Hear me.”

This is possible, I believe, even for those who aren’t out, who may never be safe enough to be fully out. It’s true for those who have felt so alone and isolated during this pandemic, who feel like nobody sees them. And it’s still true for those who have been stuck at home with family who are no safer than Sarah and Abraham, those who don’t even feel like there’s a wilderness they can run to, who are asking today, “Do you hear me? Do you see me?”

And I say - you will not be forgotten backstage, or in the corner of your closet. Your Creator, the God Who Sees, El Roi, celebrates Her Pride in you today, even if your people can’t do that yet. And God won’t bust down your closet door for you, or “out” you, but She’ll sit with you there, and point you to water, and ways to survive the wilderness. And when you feel safe enough and ready to be seen and heard by our community, we will build a city around you and celebrate you, too.

Because when we’re seen and loved for who we are, our calling is to respond in kind, and to learn how to truly see and hear and empathize with other people, to make their cause our own.

You see, I can relate in some ways to Hagar. I’m a woman, and I’m a queer person who is sometimes marginalized for that. But as a cisgender, middle-class, able-bodied white person, my experience is often closer to Sarah’s than to Hagar’s. Like Sarah, I am in danger of being so concerned with my own LGBTQ+ and feminist issues with protecting my own people, my beloved Isaacs, that I fail to see and love the Hagars and Ishmaels in my life – the “others.” I push them away from sight because they make me uncomfortable. Their situation is too complicated, and I have my own marginalization to worry about.

I have to resist this “Sarah complacency,” because my white queer feminism is not enough. I must press in further. Sarah’s fight cannot be won without also joining Hagar’s fight, because Sarah’s freedom is bound up in Hagar’s freedom, even if she can’t see that. We must not fracture and divide ourselves as oppressed people when we could stand together in a huge force against structures of evil and inequity.

It gives me the smallest flicker of hope to read in Genesis 25 that Isaac and Ishmael came back together and buried the hatchet at least long enough to bury their father. Now I know that their modern-day descendants have been embroiled in violence for decades. But younger generations can so often see things afresh and find new ways forward. So often today it’s the youth who are leading me, leading the way when it comes to new imagination for things like undoing colonialism and racism, decolonizing, making restitution, opening borders, supporting refugees, defunding police, and fighting for trans rights.

Photo by Sebastián León Prado on Unsplash

So when the woman on the back of the truck looks me in the eye, confident but quiet, and says, “Do you hear me? Do you see me?”

I say,

“Yes. I’m trying to see and to hear you.

Because I know what it’s like to feel seen and feel heard.

I am the proud child of El Roi,

the God who bends down to see and hear us.

And now I am the eyes and ears, and heart and hands of a God

who will not let either of our stories be erased,

who will remember and call us by our dearest names,

who builds supportive communities around us,

because She wants us not only to survive but to thrive,

because She believes we’re worthy of dignity and freedom,

because She takes Pride in all of her children.”

Amen.

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