Finding God in the Wilderness with Hagar and Delores S. Williams

This sermon was first preached at Kalamazoo First Congregational Church on February 10, 2019. You can listen here.

Text: Genesis 16:1-16

Throughout the month of February, Pastor Nathan and I will be preaching in dialogue with significant African American theologians and biblical scholars. In preparation for this morning, I’ve had the chance to read and learn from Delores S. Williams, who taught at Union Theological Seminary and who authored one of the first books of Womanist Theology, “Sisters in the Wilderness.” Womanism is a way of looking at the world and in this case, the Bible from the perspective of the everyday experience of black women.

Please pray with me:

God, may we know you in this scripture, may we know ourselves in these words, may we receive all that we need from you today. Amen.

Balzac, the Silhouette–4am, Edward J. Steichen 1908, metmuseum.org

There was no way left for Hagar.

No way to stay in Sarai’s home. No where else to go. She fled because there was no other way. When she is asked by the angel of the Lord, “Hagar, where are you going?” she cannot answer. She has no options. She does not have a destination. She is running away from Sarai to no where.

That is a level of crisis I have never known. I have never felt like I had no way left to survive. But I have felt stuck–like there was no way forward. In the months after my second child was born, I experienced postpartum depression, which for me felt like a complete inability to access my will power. I lost the will to work at a job I loved; I lost the will to take care of my body and spirit; I lost the will to do anything more than the basics of keeping my children alive; and keep up appearances. I felt completely stuck—like there was no way.

Two weeks ago, this city felt like there was no way. Deadly cold was descending; scores of people without homes were not able or willing to enter the only available shelter; no emergency plans existed on the county or municipal level. People’s lives were at stake, but there was no way. No way to meet the overwhelming need. No way to keep people safe. There was no way.

Delores Williams describes the legacy of African American church women as: intimacy with a God who helps them make a way out of no way. Black women in this country know what it feels like to have no way. No way out of slavery. No way of sparing your children the abuse of a cruel master. No way of surviving the “wide, wide world” when you have no resources, and no connections and no job. No way of protecting your sons from violence at the hands of an angry mob, or a mistaken police officer, or a self-appointed vigilante.

And what have black women done again and again when they are faced with impossible predicaments? What have they done when there is no way?

They have made a way where there is no way.

Sometimes Christians in this nation use the saying “God helps those who help themselves” as a way to let themselves off the hook. I *could* help that person, but it would only breed unhealthy dependency. After all, “God helps those who help themselves.” Let me make clear that this sentence never appears in the Bible. Not once. Not in any translation.

But that also doesn’t mean that the opposite is true—that God miraculously rescues us and frees us from our struggles. There are times I wish that were true—that God would magically airlift me out of a mess of my own making and land me on solid ground. But no.

The closer truth I am learning is something we hear in the testimonies of African American women—God gives us what we need to make a way out of no way, for ourselves, for our families, for our communities and for our world. God gives us what we need to make a way out of no way.

This is what Hagar experienced, and why Williams points to Hagar as the Bible character who most represents African American women. When Hagar had no way left, God met her in the wilderness. The God who promised Abraham offspring as numerous as the stars, promises Hagar that she too will have descendants too numerous to count. God blesses her unborn child in the same way God blesses the children of Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel. God gives Hagar what she needs to make a way out of no way. Hagar gives God something in return. Hagar is the only person in all of scripture who gives God a name. “You are El Roi—the God who sees me; the God I have seen.”

Why Born a Slave, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux 1872, metmuseum.org

Hagar is not a passive recipient of blessing or liberation. Hagar faces insurmountable odds at every turn. After her encounter with God in the wilderness, she returns to her oppressor’s home, like so many slave women who ran away to the wilderness to heal from abuse only to return, because it was the only option. But the next time Hagar meets God in the wilderness, her story is different. In chapter 21, Sarah kicks Hagar and her now adolescent son out, and after days of wandering with no food or water, Hagar can see that her son is dying and she moves just far enough away from him that she won’t have to witness his death.

God meets her again. This time, God reiterates the promise—your son will not only survive, but thrive, and you will have countless descendants. In that moment, Hagar sees a spring of water she did not see before, and she cares for her son, nursing him back to health. She establishes her own household, takes on the role of the head of house, and chooses a wife for her son from her home country—Egypt. In these times of crisis, Hagar met God and God gave her what she needed to make her own way out of no way.

I have known this God. When I was stuck in postpartum depression seven years ago, I could find no way out. I was slogging through life in survival mode. And then, one April night, my spouse sat me down on the couch and laid out for me how my depression and more specifically, my attempts to hide my depression from others was affecting him. He shared that he felt like he was the only one making sacrifices, and he wondered whether that was his only role in our shared life. He worried that I cared more about maintaining my image of myself as a successful pastor than I cared about him.

It felt like the scales had fallen off of my eyes and I saw that my passivity, my inaction was harming the person I loved most in the world, and putting our marriage in jeopardy. It turns out that was exactly the urgency I needed. If nothing else, I could find the will to love my husband better—to find a way to show him that I valued him and was willing to make sacrifices for him, too. That night I let go of my assumption that God had called me to stay at my first church for 10-15 years, and began to wonder what more our lives could be. I encouraged Barrett to begin circulating his resume. 4 months later, we were packing up our household and moving to Kalamazoo.

And moving has not been a magical fix—I still struggle with cycles of depression and we still encounter bumps in the road, but the move to Kalamazoo began a process of healing. I was able to take a year off from working full time in order care for our family life and rediscover my passion for ministry. I have a good therapist. I have a better network of friends, and I am learning to be more honest with them when I need help. I am working every day to feel my feelings more authentically instead of shutting them down and burying them. On that night in rural New York, six years ago, God gave my husband the courage he needed to speak up and gave me the ability to listen and hear his pain; God gave us what we needed that night to make a way out of no way.

And in this season of my life, one of the unexpected gifts has been finding a church that also knows God in this way. All pastors go into ministry knowing that the church is flawed, and that churches struggle to follow Jesus. We anticipate a career that will involve lots of well-meaning, faithful people, who are trying hard to follow Jesus in their personal lives, but who may never figure out how to do it together—how to be the Body of Christ for the sake of the world. How to look at an impossible situation in the community and say with confidence, “God will give us what we need to make a way out of no way.”

 That’s what I saw this church do two weeks ago. In the midst of a desperate need in a city that had no way to meet it, this church was willing to step forward in faith, and make a way out of no way. It was not easy. And we are learning from the experience, so that next time it will feel less impossible—less overwhelming. We are also working with the city and county to mobilize other churches to join us. But I need you to know how absolutely stunning it is that this church trusts God in this way. And the Code Blue shelter is only the most recent example. When this church began the plans for repairing and renovating the building, professional fundraising consultants said there was no way this church could raise more than $700,000. But God gave you what you needed to make a way out of no way, and you doubled that figure. This is a church that knows that God will give us what we need to make a way out of no way.

And we have more to learn. This might be what I love most about serving here—we assume we always have more to learn. More skills to gain so that we can serve our city better. More to learn about encountering this God—trusting this God—receiving gifts from this God who helps us make a way out of no way. And I hope that the women of the African American church can be our teachers.

It is not a coincidence that the vast majority of the door-to-door, person-to-person organizing of the Civil Rights movement was conducted by black women. It is not a coincidence that black women are the demographic in this nation who most consistently vote for improving the common good: for things like public education, universal health care, childcare, family leave. Black women have a centuries-long history of building and passing along the skills necessary to make a way out of no way. They have transmitted a faith in which they expect to encounter God in times of need, and they expect God to empower them—not save them—not liberate them while they remain passive—no, they expect God will empower them to liberate themselves. To make a way out of no way.

Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth stand in this legacy, as do Rosa Parks and Dorothy Height, Angela Davis and Marsha P. Johnson, Patrice Cullors and Alicia Garza. And countless women in our own community here in Kalamazoo.

As we grow in our own capacity to make a way out of no way, learn the stories of African American women. Read their memoirs and biographies, read their academic and political writings. And most of all, please look for the women in Kalamazoo who are doing this every day. There are women of color in our city who have honed the skills and cultivated the faith necessary to make a way out of no way. Gwendolyn Hooker is building tiny houses on the Northside for people to rent-to-own; Nelly Fuentes is holding local government to task, insisting that their policies and practices protect our whole community; Dr. Charlae Davis at ISAAC, Wendy Fields as president of the Kalamazoo NAACP, Grace Lubwama at the YWCA, Denise Miller at OutFront… I’m sure you can add women to this list—women whose faith and commitment to action forge a way out of no way for those in most need in our community. Let’s seize opportunities to step up and follow their lead, to donate to their organizations, to ask what their most pressing volunteer needs are and step in to fill the gaps, especially in the quiet, mundane ways that lighten their load. Let’s learn from their experiences, and discover the countless and unimaginable ways that God gives us what we need to make a way out of no way.

Amen?

Amen

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