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For Such A Time As This – Lift Up Your Voices!

Date: 14/08/2022/Speaker: Ps Pauline Ong

For Such A Time As This: Lift Up Your Voices!
Genesis 16:1-16
14 Aug 2022

As Miak mentioned last week, there is a lot going on these couple of weeks. With all the talk around the repeal of 377A, there is a growing intensity of misinformation being perpetuated about the LGBTQ+ community. For those of you who may be affected or hurt by what’s going on, please reach out to your siblings in Christ, or to Miak and I for support. I hope we can be a church family that cares for, stands by and supports one another, especially in these times.

On the flip side, I recognise that the reason for the growing intensity of talks around 377A is because there is significant movement towards change. This is something many of us have been working towards and praying for. So even as I brace myself for the challenges ahead, I am also deeply grateful for where we are, and for God’s hand of providence.

As FCC, we have a unique calling and voice in this important conversation. For such a time as this, it is especially vital for us as a church community to come together, and continue lifting up our voices in praise and worship of God who loves us, and as a witness to God’s relentless love for all.

Miak and I have been called many things, including “false prophets” amongst other things, and FCC has been accused of teaching bad theology. So today I want to talk to you about theology because I want us to be a community that thinks deeply, and is unafraid and unashamed of what we believe in.

Question 1 (Word Cloud)
What is theology?

In simple terms, theology is really about our story of God and us.

If you remember, we had a sermon series early last year called ‘Our Story of God and Us’ and if you want to have a more comprehensive and detailed coverage of our theology as a church, please go check out that series. But for today, I want to begin by sharing my own journey and hopefully, I can help you see that your spiritual journey, your theological voice matters too.

In my teens and early 20s, while I was struggling with my faith and sexuality, I often prayed and asked God to change me if God found me unacceptable. But over and over again, in my times of prayer, I would hear God telling me,

“I am okay with you, and you are okay with me.” I would debate with God about this because this wasn’t the message I was hearing from the Church and people around me. And I would bring up Romans 1 ,and a superficial reading of the passage would seem to say that people like me are unacceptable.

But over and over, I would hear God patiently and gently say, “I am okay with you, and you are okay with me.” And an inexplicable peace would descend and envelop my heart and soul. I couldn’t understand it then but I was deeply grateful for God’s presence and assurance. That peace kept me alive and gave me hope that perhaps there was much more I still didn’t understand about God and the Bible. But one thing I never doubted was that God loved me fully and unconditionally.

Then in my late 20s, I went to Bible college and realized just how much I didn’t understand about God and theology. I honestly thought I knew a lot about the Bible by then. I had been teaching Bible study for years, I had even served as a missionary. But when I began my study of theology, I was humbled by how much I didn’t know about God and the Bible, and about the theological debates about all kinds of topics that have occurred throughout history.

And I wondered why we never learnt these things as regular churchgoers. Perhaps pastors and preachers feel it is too complex and nuanced to talk about the full spectrum of theology in a 20-minute sermon. And that’s true. As a pastor, I do understand the struggle to make difficult concepts digestible to the general congregation.

But I think it’s important for us to try, especially when we, as a community, are often questioned about our theology.

It’s important for us to know who we are and why we believe what we believe.

Many of you know that I am currently pursuing my Master of Divinity in Ministerial Leadership with Claremont School of Theology. I am happy to report that I have completed my first year of studies (a big thank you to all of you who have been praying for me) and I’ll be starting my second year next week. So I’ll be in the US for about 2 weeks attending the intensive classes that kick off the fall semester.

In my Systematic Theology class last year, I had a teacher who really challenged and inspired me.

Before taking this class, I used to think of theology as just the study of God, and my earlier understanding when I was younger was that it was a static collection of beliefs, mostly debated and dictated by a bunch of old, white men.  Of course there were many debates and perspectives about God, Christ, human beings, the Church, salvation, etc, accumulated over the years, and the conclusion that I remember arriving at was that:

Human beings have been trying to box God up for centuries but not only were we unsuccessful, there were times we also caused a lot of harm to those who did not fit into the majority mould. The truth is, God is bigger than our human minds can contain or fully comprehend.

So I stepped into my theology class, not knowing what to expect but excited about what I was going to learn. My teacher assigned us readings that covered theologians throughout history – both from the past but also contemporary theologians, including Asian, Black, womanist, feminist and queer perspectives. She told us:

Theology is a conversation between the past, present and future.

I never heard that before but I found it moving and profound. Yes, we need to be well versed about what theologians of old have said. But we also need to learn to have a conversation with them by drawing from our own experience of God in present day in our social and cultural locations. Theologians of the past were speaking from their own social and cultural locations too, and we can add to the conversation and expand our understanding of God for present and future generations.

She challenged us to investigate and articulate how we got here in our story of God and us. How did our experience of God, both individually and in our communities, help us make sense of who God is?

Question 2 (Open)
How have you experienced God’s love and grace in your life, in spite of what others have said to you and about you?

What you just did was to articulate your theological voice. And your theological voice matters!

During that class, I had the chance to reflect and write about my spiritual journey and FCC’s journey, and how we experienced God in our own special ways. I was excited and challenged to see that my life and my context — indeed, my whole identity — plays a significant role in contributing to this important theological conversation with the past, present and future.

This is true of you too, and of our church community. We stand at the cusp of change, and our voices now will make a difference to the present and future generations.

Why does our theological voice as minorities matter? It’s because we contribute to the larger conversation of who God is. We form part of the diverse tapestry of God’s kin-dom. We bear witness to God’s love, not just for us, but God’s relentless love for all! Our diverse stories contribute to the vast and expanding knowledge and understanding of God.

That’s why today, I want to look together with you at the story of Hagar. It is not one of our lectionary passages today but I think her story will resonate with us for such a time as this.

Another reason I chose her story is because there are so few women in the Bible – of the approximately 1700 named in our text, only 137 are women. And many of those 137 – even those with incredible faith and witness —like Shiprah and Puah, the Israelite midwives who save the baby Moses – did not make it into the lectionary. Our children and adults need to hear from a variety of stories told from many different perspectives in our text – it is what allows our multifaceted God to speak through. Hearing the witnesses of many, women included, is what keeps the Bible a Living Word for us – not an antiquated document but a connection to God in our here and now.

Genesis 16:1-16
The Story of Hagar
Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had not been able to bear children for him. But she had an Egyptian servant named Hagar. 2 So Sarai said to Abram, “The LORD has prevented me from having children. Go and sleep with my servant. Perhaps I can have children through her.” And Abram agreed with Sarai’s proposal. 3 So Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian servant and gave her to Abram as a wife. (This happened ten years after Abram had settled in the land of Canaan.)

4 So Abram had sexual relations with Hagar, and she became pregnant. But when Hagar knew she was pregnant, she began to treat her mistress, Sarai, with contempt. 5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “This is all your fault! I put my servant into your arms, but now that she’s pregnant she treats me with contempt. The LORD will show who’s wrong—you or me!”
6 Abram replied, “Look, she is your servant, so deal with her as you see fit.” Then Sarai treated Hagar so harshly that she finally ran away.

7 The angel of the LORD found Hagar beside a spring of water in the wilderness, along the road to Shur. 8 The angel said to her, “Hagar, Sarai’s servant, where have you come from, and where are you going?”
“I’m running away from my mistress, Sarai,” she replied.
9 The angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her authority.” 10 Then he added, “I will give you more descendants than you can count.”

11 And the angel also said, “You are now pregnant and will give birth to a son. You are to name him Ishmael (which means ‘God hears’), for the LORD has heard your cry of distress. 12 This son of yours will be a wild man, as untamed as a wild donkey! He will raise his fist against everyone, and everyone will be against him. Yes, he will live in open hostility against all his relatives.”

13 Thereafter, Hagar used another name to refer to the LORD, who had spoken to her. She said, “You are El Roi — the God who sees me.”[a] She also said, “Have I truly seen the One who sees me?” 14 So that well was named Beer-lahai-roi (which means “well of the Living One who sees me”). It can still be found between Kadesh and Bered.

15 So Hagar gave Abram a son, and Abram named him Ishmael. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Ishmael was born.

Are you familiar with the story of Hagar?

We usually read this story as a story about Abraham and Sarah and God’s call to them to leave their home, and promise that they would have a multitude of descendants. Abraham and Sarah are the main characters, and everyone else is a minor character. For a long time, I thought Hagar was just a minor character in this story.

But I was reading this book by womanist theologian, Delores Williams, and she writes about Hagar. It was the first time I noticed the verse where Hagar gave God a new name. She said, “You are El Roi, the God who sees me” and right at the moment, I felt those words resonate deeply in my heart. Indeed God is the one who truly sees me! That is what saved me. That is my experience too. How have I not noticed this verse before?

Do you know that Hagar is the only biblical character who dared to give God a new name? Many invoke God, saying something like, “God, my rock and salvation.” But Hagar gives God a proper name: El-roi. This is significant, especially in the ancient world where the act of naming demonstrated some kind of dominance (Adam names the animals in Gen 2, the father of a household name his children, etc.) And interestingly, we don’t see any evidence in the text that God resists this naming by Hagar at all. In fact, God even instructs her to name her son, Ishmael, meaning “God hears.” The God who sees and hears us.

How are we not more familiar with this story when this is such a significant lesson about God? Maybe because Hagar was just a woman, a non-Jew, a foreigner, Sarah’s Egyptian slave. An unimportant character, or so we thought. So we didn’t pay attention to her voice.

Sometimes we view this story of Sarah and Hagar as a story of jealousy between two women, one who cannot have a child, and the other who is able to conceive easily with the first woman’s husband. But to see it as a story of jealousy is to miss the realities of Hagar’s life as a slave woman and her utter powerlessness as a slave. She has no choice or agency as a slave.

In Gen. 16:3, the text says that Sarai gave Hagar to Abram as a wife, which might indicate an elevation in Hagar’s status. In that culture, it was acceptable and normal for a wife who was childless, to give her female slave to her husband, in order to have a child. Female slaves were the property of their owners—in this case, Sarai—who had complete control and freedom over them to do as they wished. It was not unusual at the time, for female slaves to be rented out as concubines.

Hagar is given to Abram as his wife, but when Sarai gets angry at how Hagar is looking at her, Abram gives Hagar back to Sarai, saying she can do with her as she wishes. The treatment Sarai subjects the pregnant Hagar to must have been very harsh—the Hebrew verb used is the same as the one used in Exodus to describe the suffering of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt—and Hagar runs away from Sarai, into the wilderness. The wilderness is no place for a pregnant woman but it must have seemed like a better alternative than Sarai’s treatment.

It is there in the wilderness that God finds Hagar and appears to her. There in the wilderness, God calls her name, and asks where she has come from, and where she is going. She admits to running away from her mistress. And then God says the most unexpected thing: Go back to your mistress and submit to her. Is this the same God who will liberate the Hebrew slaves in a few hundred years? What must it have felt like to be Hagar, and be told to return to captivity, after having freed herself? God then tells her, “I will give you more descendants than you can count.”

These words sound vaguely similar to those offered to Abram in Genesis 13: “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.” And more: “’Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael,’ for the Lord has heard your cry of distress.”

Hagar is a former slave, an abuse survivor, and single mother, and she is given the same promise as Abraham! She is also the only biblical person to give God a new name.

This slave-woman, who is mistreated by her owner, pregnant and vulnerable in the wilderness, has been seen by God. She has been seen by God. It is no small thing to be seen by God. And because she has been seen by God, she is able to return to her mistress.

Delores Williams, in trying to make sense of this God who sends Hagar back, suggests that God is concerned about Hagar’s survival, and the survival of her son, and that is why God sends her back. Because of her circumstance, because she is so vulnerable, if she is to see God’s promise fulfilled, then she needs to return to Sarah. For in spite of the mistreatment, the resources that Abraham has to offer, are her and her son’s best chance of survival.

This encounter she has with God is a holy moment. She names the Lord who spoke to her, El-roi, the God who sees her. She has been seen by God.

We didn’t hear her voice. We didn’t think she was important or worthwhile to pay attention to. But God heard her and saw her. And met her at her point of desperate need. Later in the story, we also see how God makes a way for her and Ishmael where there was no way.

Hagar’s voice matters and adds so richly to our understanding of God. Imagine our loss if we never heard her voice that calls God the one who sees us. Like her, God also sees you. Even when the world does not see you. Even when the world thinks you are unimportant or unworthy of attention. God sees you. God hears you. And God will make a way out of no way.

Many voices have been excluded in the history of Christianity – the voices of women, children, those of diverse gender identities, sexualities and ethnicities. I believe the call of the Church is to lift up these voices that have been historically excluded. All these diverse voices and perspectives add to the richness of our understanding of God, and who we are called to be in this world, and together we form the diverse and beautiful tapestry of the kin-dom of God.

This means lifting up your own voice too.

Question 3 (Word Cloud)
How has God been real in your life?

I want you to know your voice matters. Your voice is valid — equally valid— in this ongoing conversation around what it means to be Christian and lgbtq+. In fact, not only is your voice equally valid, your voice is much needed because people need to hear and see that God is so much bigger than our human minds can imagine.

We get to bear witness and contribute to this conversation about God through our lives and our voices. In some ways, being the only church in Singapore currently that is progressive and openly lgbtq affirming, it is even more important that we raise up our voices together as a minority voice that affirms with Hagar: El Roi — I have seen the One who sees me.

The reason why we have consistently encouraged you to express and articulate your story of God and you is because your story matters. Whether it’s the stained glass project or initiatives like ‘Let Your Life Speak’, these are not just feel-good exercises. These initiatives are there to help us reflect and articulate our story of God and us.

Our theological voices are equally valid. Don’t let anyone tell you any different!
Lift up your voice boldly! Lift up the voices of others with courage!

And today, as we close, I want us to do something slightly different. Our closing prayer is in the form of a liturgy, and I invite you to stand and respond by reading out the text in bold.

Closing Prayer

P: Lift your voices up!
C: Our voices are necessary!

P: P: Lift your voices up!
C: Our voices are equally valid!

P: Lift your voices up!
C: Our voices matter to the present and future generations!

We bear witness to God’s love for us!
We proclaim boldly God’s relentless love for all!

Amen.