by Ashley StephensonMatthew 16.13-20, NRSV
Good morning College Park! It is always such a joy for me to be in this space with you all. Previously you might have seen me photographing the Story-Bunce family, starting with their wedding and showing up for each of their baby dedications. I’ve also been around photographing other events here like for Baptist Women in Ministry. I have so many sweet friends amongst you all as well. I want to thank you for all the ways you have helped me feel welcome when I am here with you over the years.
Lin shared with me that as you are journeying through Lent, you are looking at questions that Jesus asked. I had a text stirring in my mind that I knew I wanted to share with you from before I knew this information, so as I was looking over the list of questions Jesus asked to connect with this text I had in mind, the first one to really speak to me was “what did you go out to the wilderness to see?”…. And then I heard Lin preached on that one last week. 🙂 The second set of questions that stood out in connection to this text that I had on my heart were “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Matt 16:13) and then two verses later, Jesus asks “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:15).
In this 16th chapter of Matthew, we find Jesus having different discussions with the disciples. Previous to these two questions, Jesus was once again calling out the disciples for their apparent short term memory about the miracles he had performed, as they worried about forgetting to bring bread with them that evening. The next conversation begins with Jesus asking the disciples, “who do people say the son of man is?” They give him a list of answers, things I am sure they have heard people say about who this Jesus guy is. Then Jesus asks them, “but who do you say that I am?”
When I think about who I would say Jesus is, who would I say God is, I think about Hagar. Again, I hear Lin mentioned her last week, so thank you for serving that one up for me, Lin. We meet Hagar in Genesis chapter 16. I grew up in a moderate baptist church, and was taught about Abraham and Sarah, but did not have any memory about this part of the story, the part that involved Hagar. I understand why, it’s not an easy story to tell. It doesn’t make the patriarch and matriarch of the Hebrew nation, Abraham also known as the “father of faith”, revered in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, look very good. God had promised that they would have children, making Abraham a father of nations (Genesis 12). And when they got impatient in waiting for that promise to be fulfilled, they took matters into their own hands.
At this point in the story, their names haven’t been changed by God yet. They are still Abram and Sarai. Sarai tells Abram that he should essentially rape her slave so that then they can raise that child to be the fulfillment of God’s promise, since Sarai felt she was too old to get pregnant. Vicki Kemper summed it up by saying, “Of all the Bible stories that reveal humanity’s alarming capacity for cruelty and exploitation, the story of Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham is among the worst. A woman of color is used, abused, and exiled by God’s chosen ones, and though God helps Hagar and her son to survive, God does not change their oppressive circumstances.” But that’s not where I find who I would say God is in this story.
Abram does sexually assault Hagar, and she does in fact get pregant… and understandably it says in verse four she looked upon her mistress with contempt, which led to Sarai “dealing with Hagar harshly”. Hagar runs away into the desert. This is Hagar’s story now. There is plenty more to the story after her time in the desert but this is where I want to settle in. To give Hagar her moment without any of the other people in her story and her relation to them defining her.
We are told that God meets Hagar in the desert and asks her, “where have you come from and where are you going?” I love this, because clearly God knows this information… God chose to meet Hagar here. But God gives Hagar agency to tell her story herself. She explains the situation and God is basically like ok, well, you’re going to have to go back and finish out this part of your story, BUT, let me give you the hope that this part of your story is not the end. There is so much more to come for you, your own family will be multiplied. We could get into how her son would become Ishmael, who is an ancestor to the Prophet Muhammed, the father of Islam. But this is Hagar’s story…. And it’s here that I find who I would say God is.
After God offers her that hope for the future, Hagar gives God a name. She’s the first person in the Bible to give God a name, and she’s the only woman in the Bible to give God a name like this. Hagar calls God “El Roi”, the God who sees. Also translated the God of Seeing, or the God who sees me where I am. Hagar has been raped and dealt with harshly by these impatient people that God has promised a great nation to and yet, the way that God shows up for her in the desert allows her to feel truly seen in the midst of that story. She participates in the divine story by telling us that God is a God that shows up and sees… because it truly is an act of the divine that this part of Hagar’s story made it through centuries of white men editing the Bible, right? Mining this gem out of Hagar’s story is not to discount the crushing realities of racism and sexism, the untold suffering that is too easily overlooked or dismissed, and the ways our actions and inactions tell others to endure injustice. This is not to tie a pretty bow on an explosive package and go merrily on our way. I am sure Hagar heard who Abram and Sarai said God was. Like how Jesus asked that of his disciples, “what have you heard about who I am?” How moving this moment in the desert must have been for her to put a claim on knowing who God is too, knowing that she had been seen and supported by this same God who the people that wronged her followed. She decided for herself. Who do you say that I am? You’re the God who sees me.
There are so many messy stories like this in the Bible, and I imagine there are so many messy stories like this represented here today. I know mine is one of them. We learn who God is by Hagar’s story in the desert. We learn who God is by the story of Jesus’ life on earth. If we are made in the image of God, then we also learn who God is in each other’s stories. In our own story. I don’t think I will ever know EXACTLY who God is, or everything about who God is. But I think we get these glimpses, these moments that feel sacred… when we are in the desert, in the wilderness, in the darkest parts of our most unfair stories and when we open ourselves up and respond to an invitation to share our story, we are seen by God. When we drop into each other’s desert stories, when we find someone else wandering or hiding out in the wilderness and create space for them to share their story… We learn something about who God is. When we allow ourselves to hear stories from people of different levels of privilege than us or existing somewhere in the margins that we will never experience, we get a different understanding of who God is than what we might have experienced in our own proximity to privilege. Sometimes it’s really hard to hear someone else’s story, right?
Look at Hagar’s story. White Christianity loves to gloss over it to protect the patriarch. But when we sit with the uncomfortable we might be given the honor to hear someone boldly name God for the first time because it feels that good to be seen.
Ashley Stephenson is a Raleigh native who received her MA in Religion from Campbell University. She is owner of Story Photographers and pastor of All Stories Community. She is a trusted sister, daughter, auntie, and friend, with a passion for stories – making space for them, honoring them, telling them, walking alongside them, healing within them, and learning from them.