Naming God for Ourselves

Note: This sermon was preached for Queer Grace Community’s Sunday evening worship.


Genesis 21:8-21

8 The child [Isaac] grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.10So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’11The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son [Ishmael].12But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named after you.13As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.’ 14So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.18Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ 19Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

I have many names for God: dear friend, older brother, creator of galaxies, one who mourns the world’s pain, joyful trickster, divine mystery.

            But there was a time when I let others name God for me. Especially when I was younger and someone seemed confident that they knew God’s name, I didn’t think to question them. Sometimes those names were harmful to me: judge, father, king. It’s not that they were wrong exactly, but they were not names that reflected my experience of God which was one of a divine being of infinite love, and grief and joy, and a really weird sense of humor, both dear and mysterious.

            It didn’t occur to me that, out of my own experience, I could name who God was to me, and that that was a completely valid and valuable way to address the divine. After all, who was I to name God? I was a girl, young (now young-ish), queer and far from the type of power and certainty that the people who used those names possessed.

            But then who was Hagar to name God? She was a woman, a slave, a foreigner, a runaway, an outcast, and she is the first individual in the Bible to give God a name: El-Roi.

            Now you’ve probably noticed that she does not actually give God the name El-Roi in the passage we read today and it probably seems weird that I’m preaching on naming God when we don’t hear about that. I’ll explain: the story of God’s appearance to Hagar in the wilderness is one of the double stories of Genesis, similar stories that are told twice and slightly differently by different author traditions. In this case those stories are in Genesis 16 and 21. In both, Hagar is the Egyptian slave of Sarah and Abraham. When Sarah cannot get pregnant, she makes Hagar sleep with Abraham so he can still have a son. But when Hagar actually does get pregnant with her and Abraham’s son, Ishmael, Sarah become violently jealous. In the first story she mistreats Hagar so badly that she runs away, in the second that we read today, she convinces Abraham to kick Hagar out because she doesn’t want Hagar’s son to inherit the promise of a great nation of descendants instead of her own son Isaac.

The reason we read 21 today though is because in Chapter 16, God tells Hagar to go back to that mess of a home life, and I didn’t want anyone here tonight to hear that God always blesses going back. If you’ve ever been in a situation as toxic as Hagar’s, I want you to hear that there are two stories: in one yes, Hagar goes back, and she and Ishmael take God’s promise into a very difficult situation, but in this other story she finds water in the wilderness and makes a home for herself, and Ishmael grows up strong. Hagar reconnects with her people, and Ishmael marries someone from his mother’s own homeland and they still receive the promises that God made to them.

            After God has appeared and reiterated those promises in the first story is when Hagar “named the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El-Roi” (God of seeing) for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” [Genesis 16:13]

            In Hagar’s day, to name God was a momentous task because people believed that knowing a God’s name gave you the power to summon the divine. We may not think knowing God’s name is a type of metaphysical power any more, but what we call God matters. The names and images we use to talk about and to God show, and also often restrict, our understanding of who God is. Always call God a king and you will eventually relate to the divine as if they are a male person with a crown on their head and the power to judge or decree. Always call God a mother and you will eventually relate to the divine as if they are a female person gathering the world in their arms and tending to life and care. There are times for both, but neither is the whole truth of God, and no matter how many images and names and metaphors we use, we can never name all of who God is, and, with apologies to the ancient people of the Middle East, we can definitely never summon and control God’s blessings.

            Sarah thought she could control God’s blessing by sending Hagar away. She thought it took a certain type of person with a certain type of access to power for God to pay attention. But she was wrong. When Sarah and Abraham forced Hagar into the wilderness, God went right along with her. The truth is that God is kind of feral, no one controls their blessings. The joke on Sarah, and everyone who seeks to control God, is something us queer folk already know: God is just as powerful in the wilderness, just as ready to listen, and speak, and save, and bless. It doesn’t take a church, or the right answers, or respectability for God to show up.

I know because I’ve been in some wildernesses myself: of family estrangement, of alienation from religion and church, of mental illness. I’d imagine you’ve been in some wildernesses too. Those places are tough, but God has never abandoned me to them. God has heard my tears. God has shown me water. God has kept their promises. Because God is just as powerful in the wilderness, and sometimes even more visible. Those experiences are what taught me to name God. Because names don’t just come out of thin air, they come from experience. And no matter how some people twist it, giving names is not really about power, it’s about relationship. You name someone because you know them. Think of nicknames you have for your favorite people. They’re sweet and personal, and about something unique between the two of you.

            So we name God, not because we can know all about God, but to say that we know God and what God has done for us. For Hagar God protected her and her child, showed them water in the wilderness and promised a future of strength and longevity. For me, God also showed me water in the wilderness, gave me healing and community, and the promise of a future more whole and joyful than my past.

            I guess what I’m saying is that it’s not about finding the wackiest name you can for God and insisting on only using that (though you could). I’m saying to trust your own experience of the divine and what God has done for you, even if that’s far from the places God is “supposed” to be. Name God and claim God, who has been with you in the easier times, but especially in the hard times.

            You and I, who have at times been our own sort of outcasts and runaways, we give God names out of what God has done for us, because we too have seen God in the wilderness. God’s blessings are not controlled by the people who believe they can limit who God loves and where God goes. God has always been with you in the wilderness, and I bet that you know their name.