Each year, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights set aside a weekend for an “All-Church-Retreat”. This year, rather than have an outside speaker come in, the leadership team set its own program and agenda. In that context, they asked me to reflect a little bit on my recent Sabbatical and share some insights into the nature, purpose, and advantages of time away, of rest and renewal. I was glad to be asked, and surprised by where this took me. My frame of reference was a difficult story: that of Abram and Sarai and the “slave girl” named Hagar. You can read more about that in Genesis 16.
While this blog often offers a chance to hear the message as preached, due to the constraints of having been on a retreat there is no audio recording for this message available.
As we start, I’d like to invite you to think about your name. Take a moment and reflect on this: what name, other than that which is on your birth certificate, have you been called? Do you have a nickname? Do you have a favorite nickname?
Now, think further about the power of naming… and by this, I mean, who you let call you what. For example, there were two people in the world who have called me “Davey”. My paternal grandfather and my High School Gym Teacher, Jay Widdoes. From them, it sounded right. For everyone else, it is inappropriate. Or LaVerne Yortgis, who ran the diner in the West End, called me sweetheart every time she saw me. Not many people do. You know the truth: allowing someone to determine what they will call you grants them some power/authority in your life. You become vulnerable to someone if you allow that person to name you.
Think about the names for God. There are many in Hebrew:
- El Shaddai (God Almighty) – shows up 7 times in OT; It can mean that God is complete, satisfies, nourishes God’s people. (When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless.” (Gen. 17:1))
- El Elyon (God Most High) – this is used 28 times, including 19 in the Psalms – the prayer book of God’s people; it expresses the supreme majesty and sovereignty of God (King Melchizedek of Salem was a priest of God Most High. He brought out some bread and wine and said to Abram: “I bless you in the name of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth.” (Genesis 14:18-19))
- YHWH (Yahweh, Jehovah = “I Am”) – this is often said to be THE name for the Holy One, used 6519 times in OT. As the promised name of God, it was considered too holy for Hebrews to voice. (Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13-14))
- YHWH Rapha (The Lord who heals) although this title is only used once, it is referred to by function in other places (notably prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah as well as the Psalms). (“If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.”(Exodus 15:26))
- Elohim (Creator God, Judge) – this occurs some 2750 times, and emphasizes God’s strength and power. It is the first name used for God in the Bible (In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1))
As you think about these names for the Holy one, is there one that resonates with you? Is there one that I’ve left out that seems better to you? Why do you think that is? How do you think of God? What do you call God?
I mention all of this because I was asked to take some time and talk this morning about how time away, time in Sabbatical, and even time in the wilderness equips one to encounter and be refreshed by the Holy. You know that I myself am fresh from some time away – I’ve been on Sabbatical for three months, and that time has included a lot of rest, a good deal of wilderness, and it was all away. Now, this may be an indication that I’ve had too much time away – but as I reflect this morning I want to start with an obscure reference… Genesis 16:1-16
The story of Hagar is the story of an outsider. She is an Egyptian, probably acquired by Abram from the Pharaoh after the embarrassing incident in Genesis 12 wherein Abram and Sarai lied about their relationship. At that point, Pharaoh attempted to marry Sarai, and then to ease the pain of this confusion he ended up sending the old couple away with a lot of hush money as well as some property – including human property. Hagar is an outsider. A slave. A marginalized person. A victim of human trafficking and abuse.
Her life becomes demonstrably worse after she leaves Egypt and wanders with these old dreamers and schemers, Abram and Sarai. Ultimately, she is humiliated, forced into unwanted relationship with the old man, becomes pregnant, and then mistreated as an object of derision and scorn.
Look at how she is objectified – she doesn’t even have a name. In Genesis 16:5, Sarai can only bring herself to refer to the Egyptian as “the slave girl”. In 16:6, Abram does the same. To Sarai and Abram, she was not a person. She was a uterus. And she became inconvenient.
Finally, when Hagar can’t take it anymore, she runs away. She is discovered by a messenger of God who calls her by name (16:8). Note that, beloved: the first person to refer to Hagar by name in this chapter (other than the narrator) is the Lord. She is then asked two questions:
- Where have you come from?
- Where are you going?
Did you notice that Hagar only answers the first one – “I am running away from the Hell behind me”? Why doesn’t she answer the question about her future? Because she knows that she has no future. She is alone in the wilderness, and she is dying. Maybe she even wants to die. Maybe she thinks that death is the only option.
And so the Divine One answers the second question for her. Hagar is told to return to Sarai, and to submit to her – which must have sounded onerous! How can God be sending her back to the place of mistreatment and pain. And how can Hagar manage to go back?
She can do so only in the power of the promise that comes next: she is given the word of the covenant from God. Hagar herself – not a man, not a husband, not an owner – but Hagar, the the runaway slave girl herself… There are 4 people I can recall who hear the covenant directly from God (Noah, Abram, and Moses). She hears a prophecy about her son – a son who would be anything BUT servile and meek and abased…a son whose personality would match the feistiness of his mother… And this unborn son, too, has a name: Ishmael, which means “God hears”.
Ishmael is an answer to prayer; Ishmael is a living breathing demonstration of God’s response to the one who feels abused/abandoned/discarded. Every time Hagar calls to her son, she will remember that she was heard. Every time she hears his name spoken by someone else, she is affirmed in her own person and her participation in the promise is reaffirmed.
And that leads to an amazing thing: in 16:13, Hagar names the Lord. Of all the people in the Bible, only ONE of them ever dared to name God: it wasn’t David, Isaiah, Moses, Abram. It was this lost, alone, mistreated, abused, outsider woman. She looked at the One who encountered her, and she said, “You are El Roi. You are the God who sees.”
I should mention that scholars argue about the translation of v. 13. There is not a universally accepted “good” rendering of this Hebrew phrase. I think that Eugene Peterson captures it well:
“She answered God by name, praying to the God who spoke to her,
‘You’re the God who sees me! Yes! He saw me; and then I saw him!’”
(Genesis 16:13, MSG)
Beloved, this is, I think, one of the significant gifts of time that we spend in the wilderness and time in Sabbath: we are able to somehow get a glimpse of ourselves as God sees us.
You may know that the past couple of years have contained a number of stressful times for me. Death has been a constant companion. I have been called into situations where hope seemed distant, if not altogether absent. There has been great dimunition and anxiety on several fronts. I have known at least an erosion of support, if not outright betrayal, from some I had thought to be dear friends. And as these things were unfolding, I was given the opportunity to plan a Sabbatical – to get away. And it included a lot time alone. I have to say that it was not always warm, rosy, sit in the sunshine with my favorite book kind of time. There were Car breakdowns…I was chasing airplanes… There were crowds of incredibly needy people in United Nations camps and I spent a lot of time struggling with identity…While I did have a lot of amazing time with people who love me and more importantly with the One who created me, there was ample opportunity for facing the vastness of human need and sinfulness.
And yet, in the midst of it all, I discovered that I think that I like myself. I was able to get away from the lenses that I perceived others to be using for me and I think that from time to time I could glimpse myself – for a moment – as God might see me. And it was OK.
Here, in the midst of the desert, in the strength of a promise to someone who the world thought was expendable, worthless, and even sub-human, God reveals a portion of God’s self. God becomes vulnerable enough to Hagar to be named. God shows God’s self in a person, in a promise, and in grace. God sees Hagar, and in being seen, she catches a glimpse of the Divine glory for herself.
In the strength of that revelation, standing on the power of that promise, Hagar is free to return to the Hell of her existence, and look at what she does: she tells her “master” (who will not even acknowledge her own name) what he is to call his son. She looks at the old man and says, “His name is Ishmael”, and Abram agrees.
Sabbath and rest prepare us for the heavy lifting that is ever and always to come. Sabbath and rest allow us to cling to the promises we’ve received even as we re-engage in the struggles at hand. We will get up on Monday and we will return from retreat, knowing that we have been seen, heard, and known.
Sabbath and rest and even time in the wilderness offer an opportunity to reclaim our identity – in a world that longs to strip that from us.
I’d like to close with reading a Psalm that, in my own theological construct, reminds us of who and whose we are every single day. There are a number of people in this room who heard me read Psalm 139 on the day of their birth. Listen for the truth, the promise, the affirmation, and the rest as it comes to us from Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message. In fact, if you are reading this on the internet, let me encourage you to read this part of the message out loud as your own prayer:
God, investigate my life; get all the facts firsthand.
I’m an open book to you; even from a distance, you know what I’m thinking.
You know when I leave and when I get back;
I’m never out of your sight.
You know everything I’m going to say before I start the first sentence.
I look behind me and you’re there,
then up ahead and you’re there, too—
your reassuring presence, coming and going.
This is too much, too wonderful— I can’t take it all in!
Is there any place I can go to avoid your Spirit?
to be out of your sight?
If I climb to the sky, you’re there!
If I go underground, you’re there!
If I flew on morning’s wings to the far western horizon,
You’d find me in a minute— you’re already there waiting!
Then I said to myself, “Oh, he even sees me in the dark!
At night I’m immersed in the light!”
It’s a fact: darkness isn’t dark to you; night and day, darkness and light, they’re all the same to you.
Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out;
you formed me in my mother’s womb.
I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking!
Body and soul, I am marvelously made!
I worship in adoration—what a creation!
You know me inside and out,
you know every bone in my body;
You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit,
how I was sculpted from nothing into something.
Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth; all the stages of my life were spread out before you,
The days of my life all prepared before I’d even lived one day.
Your thoughts—how rare, how beautiful!
God, I’ll never comprehend them!
I couldn’t even begin to count them—
any more than I could count the sand of the sea.
Oh, let me rise in the morning and live always with you!
And please, God, do away with wickedness for good!
And you murderers—out of here!—
all the men and women who belittle you, God,
infatuated with cheap god-imitations.
See how I hate those who hate you, God,
see how I loathe all this godless arrogance;
I hate it with pure, unadulterated hatred.
Your enemies are my enemies!
Investigate my life, O God,
find out everything about me;
Cross-examine and test me,
get a clear picture of what I’m about;
See for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong—
then guide me on the road to eternal life.