There is a really good, really logical, really appropriate question we could ask about worship this weekend:
It is World Communion Sunday. We continue our series on friendship. So why in the world would we read an awful story about slavery and exploitation?
The short answer: It has something important to say to us.
For the longer answer…let’s look at the text.
Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, 2and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 3So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife.
4He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. 5Then Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!” 6But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.
7The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8And he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.” 9The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.”
10The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.” 11And the angel of the Lord said to her, “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction. 12He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin.” 13So she named the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” 14Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered.
Abram and Sarai’s lives were turned upside down when God showed up, promising to bless them and to make them a blessing. Key to that: the promise of offspring. But years go by and they have no children and they are getting frustrated.
(Sidebar: as someone who has struggled with fertility issues, I sometimes really hate this aspect of Genesis).
They are getting frustrated so they take matters into their own hands, availing themselves of a solution offered in their patriarchal milieu: Abram conceives a child with Sarai’s slave girl Hagar.
So this is a story about slavery, sexual assault and human trafficking. But to describe these elements of the culture and the family is not to condone them. Put it another way: not everything in the Bible is good, even from the Bible’s perspective.
Back to the story: Hagar as a son, Ishmael. And, perhaps predictably, Sarai is jealous. So much so that she “deals harshly” with Hagar and Hagar runs away.
But it is the next part of the story that captures my imagination. In the desert, in desperate circumstances, Hagar encounters God. God encourages her and makes a promise to her. And in response, Hagar gives God a name: “El-roi,” the One who sees.
Hagar is the first person in the entire Bible to give God a name. Hagar is our first theologian.
So why are we reading this text?
Well, we continue our fall focus on friendship. And this is World Communion Weekend –a weekend set aside to experience the way going to the communion table unites us with Christians all over the world. And we like to think, explicitly, about our friends at Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Havana Cuba on this weekend.
Hagar’s story shows us why friendship is important. She knows something about God. She knows that God is El-roi, the One who sees. When we invest our time and energy in getting to know other people—particularly people who are different from us—we get a new perspective on ourselves, on the world, on God. We are blessed with insight we would otherwise miss.
There are people out there who are not like us. What do they know?
There is only one way to find out.