Nobody sees Hagar. She is the slave girl, stolen from her home in Egypt, or born into slavery, we don’t know which. We don’t know anything about her early life. All we know is that when Sarah doesn’t conceive and bear a child, they need a womb where Abraham’s seed can be planted and Hagar is used in that capacity. She has no control over her life, no ability to consent, and once she is pregnant, even her owner Sarah begins to abuse her.
Hagar runs away, and that is where she has this encounter that we read about. She meets an angel of the Lord, who sees her situation. God promises her that she will bear a son, and that her descendants will be a multitude—a number too big to count. And then comes the moment where Hagar names God. She names God as El-Roi, which can be translated, “you are the God who sees me.”
God sees Hagar. God sees the one who is enslaved and oppressed, God sees the one who is assaulted, God sees the one who runs away out in despair. God sees Hagar, but do we see Hagar? Her story is in scripture, but we don’t give much thought to Hagar.
I can’t remember hearing a sermon about Hagar. I have heard talk of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Sometimes if people are trying to be inclusive, they might say, “The God of Abraham and Sarah” but we worship someone who was named by Hagar, as “the God who sees.”
Many churches around the world decide what scripture passage to read by using the lectionary. It’s a cycle of readings where you go through the Bible in four years. Committees of church people got together and decided, “these are the passages of scripture that are the most important, we need to cover these in the course of four years.” This story of Hagar meeting God, a story where an abused woman is seen by God, doesn’t make it to the lectionary, which means that in most worship services you will never hear this story read or preached on.
I was reading about this passage in a commentary, and there were 16 pages about this one chapter, and all of the commentary was about Abram and Sarai, and what is happening to them in this chapter. Hagar was an unimportant character in the story. In 16 pages, the commentator had nothing to say about her suffering, but God sees Hagar.
Today I want to think about Hagar’s insight, that we worship a God who sees. What does it mean to worship a God who sees? Sees the one who is hurt, the one who is assaulted. How does worshipping a God like that change us?
We have just had Remembrance Day, where everyone turns their eyes to the soldiers who died in war. As Mennonites, we use this opportunity to ask, who does God see? God sees not just soldiers who fought and died in wars, but also the victims of war, the women and children and civilians who were murdered in war. And so we try to do that too
Remembrance Day is also an opportunity for us to look around and look for other victims of violence because war is not the only arena where violence happens. In our society lately we have been seeing that violence can happen in workplaces where sexual harassment, abuse and rape is used by the powerful against the powerless. For those of you on social media, we see the #MeToo, where people are beginning to speak about their pain. Violence isn’t just out there in the world, in Hollywood, in workplaces…violence can happen in our own backyard. It can happen in our living rooms and our bedrooms, it can even happen in the church.
Today in our litany we read a passage from Proverbs that had a list of things that God hates. Mennonites have concentrated on “God hates the shedding of innocent blood.” We have said that we are peaceful people, we will not kill others. But right along with the shedding of blood this scripture passage names “God hates the one who sows discord in a family.”
God hates discord in the family. God sees us when we sow discord in the family. This has to do with the way we treat our parents, our brothers and sisters, a spouse, or children. Theoretically violence in our intimate relationships should be a no-brainer. People who get married publicly promise to love, honour and cherish their spouse. We don’t specifically say in our marriage vows, “We will not hit our partners,” but that does happen. Statistics show that Christian parents abuse their children and spouses at about the same rate as the general population.
Physical violence. A punch, a slap, a pinch, pulling of hair, tripping someone, holding them down, pushing them, throwing something at them. Physical violence is the opposite of loving someone. It’s trying to harm their body. And we can do violence to people without even touching them; we can hurt people emotionally with our words and actions.
In some families, you aren’t hit with a fist, but you are given the silent treatment. When I was growing up, I saw a lot of that. Not talking to someone, pretending they are not there, walking past them without acknowledging them. Dismissing their presence as unimportant, not listening to anything they say. Is there anything more unchristian than that, the annihilation of the person you live with? It’s the opposite of honouring, instead it’s a way to make people disappear.
Then there are violent words. Name calling, cursing, criticism. And sometimes it’s not particularly bad words but just the tone of voice, or how words are said. There is Shaming, ridiculing, holding up someone or someone’s behaviour…and trying to make them feel bad about themselves, laughing at them in a hurtful way. Shaming and ridicule in front of others is even more painful. Tearing down and belittling. It is the opposite of cherishing.
I was very careful to not use bad words against my children. As a Christian, I just wouldn’t let myself swear and I wouldn’t call my kids names. But I did yell at them. I remember losing it a number of times with my kids. One time is particularly memorable. I don’t know how old my kids were. I don’t know where they were in the house. I don’t remember what the occasion was that caused me to be so angry.
What I do remember is that I was screaming at them very loudly. No bad words! But I was screaming. The reason it is memorable is because at the very moment I was screaming, someone knocked on our front door. I stopped screaming when I heard the knock. I went to the door to see who it was, and when I saw it was my good friend, I felt horrible. I knew they had heard me screaming. I didn’t mention anything, and they didn’t say anything. But if I had to choose one word to describe the look on their face, it would be “aghast”. Which basically means shocked or disappointed.
Now I think there’s a danger when we reflect on violence in the family. We talk about things as if they are beyond our control. For example, in the story I just told, I said “I lost it.” Whatever “it” was…I lost it. I suppose I meant self-control. I lost control, I lost my temper. I freaked out. I blew my top, I blew a fuse. I went ballistic. Something came over me. But we need to be careful about these ways of talking about ourselves because they are simply not true. They are fictions we use to try to excuse the actions we’ve committed.
Had I truly lost it? Was I unable to control myself? In point of fact, I was very much able to control myself. All it took was a knock on the door and I was perfectly capable of stopping screaming. When I knew someone could SEE me doing what I was doing, I immediately stopped doing it.
The reason I was screaming was not because I had lost control. The reason I was screaming was because I chose to try to terrify my children by being bigger and louder than them. It was my way of getting my own way. It’s a violent way, it’s a bad way, but it’s the way I was choosing. The terribleness of my choice was impressed upon me when I saw the look on my good friend’s face. It gave me pause to think about it.
I have never in my adult life screamed at another adult or any of the many children I have taken care of when I used to work with kids. But I chose to scream at my children in my home and I stopped when I knew that someone could hear me. Would it make a difference if I really believed this story from scripture, that we worship a God who sees? God sees the yelled at, God sees the ignored, God sees the ridiculed. God pays particularly attention to vulnerable people who are being hurt.
I remember a friend of mine hosted a foreign university student in her home for a year. This young adult lived with my friend and her family…they had three small children. I asked my friend how that had been for family life. She said, “I’m embarrassed to admit it, but it has really helped my relationship with my children. Because there is always someone else in the house, I don’t yell at them nearly as much. It makes me hear myself more often, and I am more careful about what I say and how I act.” I thought that was telling…if our actions are visible and transparent to others, we are more careful with how we act.
Whenever we have power over others that is unmonitored, we are tempted to abuse. That’s why seniors are abused by their adult children. People with disabilities are abused by their caregivers. When we feel we are unwatched or unaccountable, we are more likely to be violent and because the most private place we have in our society is in our homes, that is where the most violence happens. The most dangerous place for a child and for a woman woman is in their own home. It’s not on a lonely street, it’s not with a stranger, it’s in their own home. As Christians can we remember that we worship a God who sees?
In the story about Hagar, there is something that makes me very uncomfortable. God sees Hagar’s suffering, he doesn’t blame her like the story seems to saying. The angel doesn’t say, “You shouldn’t have been so proud in front of your owner.” God does send the angel to argue with Hagar and say,“Your abuse is not that bad, you are exaggerating.” God just sees Hagar. God sees her suffering.
But there is something about the story that troubles me, and that is that Hagar is told to go home to the abusive situation she was in. Certainly in other situations, where there is violence, God does intervene and rescues people. God doesn’t say to the people of Israel, “Go back to Egypt and be enslaved again.” God speaks up for the orphan, the widow, the downtrodden, the abused and Jesus did the same. So why is the message, “Go back to Sarah?”
Maybe God knew that there was no better future for Hagar as a woman alone in the wilderness in that society. She could die of thirst or hunger, or be raped and murdered without a man to protect her. Maybe God protected Hagar in some way from Sarah’s violence…we don’t know. But God sees Hagar’s suffering. The Hagar that went into the wilderness is not the same Hagar that comes out. Because now Hagar has hope. She is not the nobody that everyone kept telling her she was. She had been visited by God, and she had hope. God saw her, God saved her.
If we are made in the image of God, and we are called to imitate a God who sees, what does this story mean for us? Can we be people who see? Is part of our mandate to keep our eyes open for violence, and to intervene where we can? Of course all of us would say, “If I saw someone being hurt, I would step in.” But sometimes it is complicated, and I speak from my own experience.
Twenty years ago, we had neighbours who lived next door. They kept to themselves, and would never talk to us, although I tried to be friendly. There was a man and his girlfriend. He was a big muscular man, a weightlifter, he was into martial arts, I saw him practicing in his backyard. I hardly ever even saw his girlfriend who lived with him. They had a scary big dog that was always barking at us. The man had a ten year old son who lived with the man’s first wife, but the boy came over for a weekend every now and then.
I knew this because I talked to the boy occasionally, he was a pretty friendly. One summer Sunday afternoon he was sitting on his front porch by himself and I started chatting with him. I noticed he had a huge nasty bruise on his leg. “What happened to you? Playing sports or something?” And he said, “No, my dad kicked me because I didn’t get off the couch.
“Wow,” I said, “That’s awful. He shouldn’t kick you, that’s not right.” The boy didn’t say anything, he just looked uncomfortable, and then he got up and went inside. I felt like I’d been stabbed in the heart. This was awful, this was terrible. I felt like going up to that guy and saying, “Who do you think you are, a great big man like you kicking a little kid! How dare you do that!” That’s what I felt like doing.
But I thought if I talk to the man, he’s going to get mad at me. And he is not the type of guy I would want to have mad at me. And he lives right next door, what would it mean for us to live next to a neighbour like that who was really mad at me. And he will get mad at that boy for telling and who knows what else he would do to that boy.
So then I thought about phoning Children’s Aid, but the father would probably figure out by talking to the boy who had made the complaint. And so the arguments circled around and circled around in my head. I knew the boy was going home to his mom that night. So I passed the buck. I thought, there is no way anyone can miss seeing that bruise, it’s summer, he’s wearing shorts. She will have to deal with it. It is her problem as his mother. I didn’t see much of the boy after that…and a few months later our neighbours moved away.
It’s over 20 years since that happened, and I still think about that day, and the choices I made and I still regret it. I should have called Family and Children’s Services. I knew that a child was being hurt and I did not do anything. I saw and then I looked away. It’s not my problem. If I was scared of that man, how much more was his ex-wife scared of him. Did that boy ever get the protection he deserved? That experience, and the regret changed me, I think. It galvanized me to be ready for action. I have had experiences like that, and I have called the authorities and reported iovlence.
People who are being hurt ask for help, and sometimes we don’t even pick up on the clues. We are sometimes naïve, thinking that the violence doesn’t exist, or sometimes we are sometimes scared. We don’t want to face the consequences of confronting violence. How will it change our relationship with this person in our family, in our church community, at work, in our neighbourhood.
I was talking recently to someone who told me that they had a black eye as a teenager. A number of people asked her, “How did you get your black eye?” Every time she was totally honest, “My mom slugged me.” Some people laughed, thinking it was a joke, because this girl had the most wonderful mom who everyone knew. She was always helping people and had the biggest heart. So they thought it was a joke because it was so ridiculous. Other people looked puzzled, and it was a conversation ender, they just turned away. It’s easy to think badly of all those people who did not respond…to think how uncaring and callous they were. Or to say, “That was then, today people would intervene.” But maybe they wondered, “What’s wrong with that kid? They have the best mother, why are they making up things like that.” Or maybe they were avoiding conflict, like I had, “I couldn’t call Chidlren’s Aid on my sister-in-law?” “How will I get along with my neighbour if she finds out I called the cops on her?”
Part of the problem in Christian communities is that we don’t want to think violence happens. But it does. We are not perfect people. We make very big mistakes, and abuse our power in intimate relationships. As a Christian community, we need to keep our eyes open, not just for abuses out there in the neighbourhood, but for abuse that happens in our community of faith. Why do certain people have bruises all the time? How many times can you walk into a door? Why do we not see someone very often? If you have your eyes open, you might hear something like, “My husband gets really mad if I’m late.” You can ask, “What sorts of things happen when your husband gets angry?” A senior is having problems with their daughter, “She gets so frustrated with me.” You can ask, “What’s it like when your daughter is frustrated?” The person might brush off the question, but they may tell you the truth. They may reach out for help.
We worship a God who is realistic about who we are. God knows we sin, we hurt each other, we hurt even the people we are most intimately connected to. God holds out the hope for relationships that are peaceful. In the verses we read from Psalm 11 it says:
The Lord is in his holy temple;
the Lord’s throne is in heaven.
His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind.
The gaze of God is upon us. We can think of that, and if we didn’t know God, that might fill us with dread, we might think that God is out to get us. But the gaze of God is one of love. God is watching us with hopefulness. And when we do wrong, God is deeply disappointed, and like the father in the prodigal son story, God is waiting with open arms, helping us to turn, helping us to make amends, showing us a way to graceful living.
And that is what our Christian community should be like too. We are encouraged to really see. Not as a way of catching each other in wrongdoing, not watching with suspicion, but instead watching with love. We want to help the defenceless, and give them hope by showing them that they are not alone. The person who is doing the hitting needs help too. We are a community that will reach out when we truly believe in a God who sees.
There are six things that the Lord hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that hurry to run to evil,
a lying witness who testifies falsely,
and one who sows discord in a family. [Proverbs 6:16-19]
The Lord is in his holy temple;
the Lord’s throne is in heaven.
His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind.
The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked,
and his soul hates the lover of violence. [Psalm 11:4-5]
A sermon preached at Elmira Mennonite Church
by Carol Penner
November 12, 2017