Coming and Going

Good morning, my name is Willie Barnett and I’m a pastor at Great Road Church out in Acton, MA. Pastor Steve has become a dear friend over the past two years. And you may not know this, but this church, Reservoir, has been an inspiration and guide for us as our own community has been on a journey to becoming a more inclusive and welcoming community. So I’m really honored to be with you all this morning. Thank you for being YOU!

Today I’d like to read a snippet of scripture – a somewhat troubling text – from

Genesis chapter 16, starting with verse 6 (New International Version):

6 “Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.

7 The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur.

8 And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.

Now skipping down to verse 13:

13 She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” 

I just returned from a two-week trip to Kenya, which was really special because my Dad has served with the same missionary agency in East Africa almost my entire life, which is the same agency my grandparents served for their entire lives, and the same one my great-grandparents served for their entire lives. There’s been Barnetts serving with this one group in East Africa since 1907.

Which means LOYALTY is in my DNA. Commitment. Faithfulness. You stick to things.

And that’s not just a Barnett thing. It’s a Christian thing, right?

God’s love is a COVENANT love. Even when we’re unfaithful and disloyal, God sticks with us. God promises to never leave us nor forsake us. That’s what Jesus embodies.

So as followers of Jesus, we should love like Jesus – with a LOYAL love, KEEPING promises, STICKING TO our commitments. 

Churches love to celebrate LOYALTY and COMMITMENTS. I was recently at a wedding where two friends made promises to love one another, stick to one another – and everyone applauded, tears were streaming down our faces.

But do you know what churches rarely celebrate, or even talk about? LEAVING. Or, in Hagar’s words, “running away.” 

Leaving has always been hard for me to acknowledge or talk about. 

Yes, when we hit adulthood, we often leave home. Or sometimes God calls missionaries to leave the comforts of home. But for me, more often than not, leaving doesn’t feel loyal. 

Many years ago, my wife Becky and I co-pastored a church fresh out of seminary. And the mountain of relational, cultural, financial, and emotional problems we faced there was enormous and overwhelming! I’ll never forget the day a pastor-mentor friend of ours paid us a visit. For over an hour, he listened to us vent about all the insurmountable challenges. After all our venting, he paused and said,

“Why don’t you just leave?”

I was shocked by the suggestion. In the two intense years we had spent in the trenches working so hard to be faithful, I hadn’t once thought leaving was an option. I’m a Barnett – we need to stick with something for at least 100 years before we can consider leaving!

Because like Jesus, I’m loyal. And loyal people don’t leave. They stick with it.

Leaving is failure. Leaving is giving up. And faithful people don’t give up. 

Especially when it comes to churches and relationships. When it involves God-appointed places and God-blessed people. 

Anyone feel what I’m talking about?

Anyone know that voice in your heart and head?

‘Loyal people don’t leave. Leaving doesn’t honor a covenant-making, promise-keeping God. Leaving is failure.’ 

Some of you have been left. You know how painful it is when someone stops showing up, when someone gives up on you, when someone stops keeping their promise. You know that pain and you never want to inflict that pain on someone else. 

I know this is a sensitive subject but today I want to talk about and challenge the notion that just because you arrived somewhere – maybe a church, a relationship, a ministry, a vocation, a job – that feels like it has God’s stamp of approval on it does NOT mean you’re never allowed to leave that place, that relationship. 

Loyalty to God does NOT mean leaving is never an option.  

Now I can hear the voice of my parents saying,

‘Willie, we live in a rootless generation that’s cynical about promises, and you want to talk about leaving?

Well, here’s my reasoning: because the church for so long has never talked about WHEN to leave, HOW to leave, IF God allows leaving – because we’ve lacked a theology of departure – so many people have stayed and suffered in harmful places to the point where they feel like the only choice left is to LEAVE God behind. 

It’s taken me awhile, but I’ve come to believe that sometimes God calls us to leave. Sometimes leaving is what loyalty to God looks like. 

People leave relationships, friendships, marriages, churches, jobs, schools, and commitments all the time for not-so-great reasons. I’m not trying to baptize or endorse every choice to leave by any means. I’m simply saying that SOMETIMES God calls us to leave. 

I’ve always loved the 23rd Psalm. It says the Lord

“guides me along right paths for his name’s sake.”

I noticed recently that it simply says “right paths” – not a single path, or the same path we’ve always been on. 

If you read the whole Psalm, you know those paths may lead THROUGH some dark valleys but, it’s clear they’re meant to lead us TO restoration, renewal, goodness and love.

So maybe God doesn’t always keep us in the same place, the same pasture, on the same path. God doesn’t always keep us in the same church, same relationships, same town, same job, same friendships, same vocation. Rather Jesus guides both our coming AND GOING, both our arriving and OUR LEAVING, all part of a journey to lead us deeper into an experience of the fullness of his life and love. 

But WHY and WHEN would God ever want us to leave a place, a relationship, a community, especially one God that has brought us to? 

That’s a BIG question, and there’s just one approach to that question I want to focus on today. 

Another one of my favorite Psalms is

Psalm 121. Verse 7 and 8

7 The Lord will keep you from all harm—
    [the Lord] will watch over your life;

8 the Lord will watch over your coming and going
    both now and forevermore.

This affirmation – that the Lord “watches over” and guides BOTH your coming AND GOING – comes in the context of God’s promise to “keep you from ALL HARM.”

You see, God may bring us to an appointed place, time, or relationship. God’s blessing might be on that. BUT sometimes that place, that relationship, can transform into a place of HARM. And then we need to go.

We see this in the scripture I read earlier. We already know that Abraham and Sarah are God’s chosen people. This is a family, a couple, that God has chosen, blessed, and called to be a blessing to others. 

And this isn’t just about Abraham and Sarah – they bring their entire extended household, their relatives and servants all travel with them on this journey of faith. 

But sometimes God’s people who are blessed to be a blessing become the opposite. 

Worried that God’s blessing won’t work out, Abraham and Sarah let fear control their actions. Instead of trusting that God would provide a child, they try to control things and take matters into their own hands. Sarah forces Hagar, an enslaved Egyptian, to become another wife to Abraham and to sleep with him. There’s no mention of consent or choice. When Hagar gets pregnant and realizes Sarah is just using her, she naturally starts to grow resentment towards Sarah. 

Rather than care for Hagar by protecting her and blessing her and her future child as a member of his household, as one he is obligated to care for, Abraham views Hagar as a disposable nuisance making his first wife unhappy. 

He absolves himself of responsibility for Hagar. And so Sarah begins to mistreat her. Another word for this is abuse.

Do you see what’s happened?

The family whom God blessed to be a blessing to all nations is abusing, mistreating, harming a member of their own household.

It’s maybe the first, but is certainly not the last time that pattern happens among God’s people. 

Perhaps some of you know what that feels like. People you trusted to bless you and protect you harmed and hurt you instead. If that’s you, maybe just take a moment to breathe. 

And so what does Hagar do?

Even though as an enslaved person and a woman she has no viable way to live on her own in that culture, no other household to flee to, nowhere else to go, she LEAVES.

She goes. She flees. She runs in the opposite direction.  

She chooses her INTEGRITY as a person over her IDENTITY as a “loyal” servant. She runs in the direction of DIGNITY.

Imagine for a moment what a difficult decision that was to make. Leaving her employer and provider. Leaving the people she depends on. Leaving the people whom God had chosen. The only people in the story so far that God has shown up for IS Abraham and Sarah – and Hagar is leaving them. It probably felt like she was leaving God.  

YET she hits the road. She flees TO the desert, the wilderness where she has nothing and no one but at least she is free FROM harm. 

And what happens?

“The angel of the Lord FOUND Hagar near a spring in the desert.”

God asks,

“Hagar… where have you come from, and where are you going?”

The God who promises to keep us from all harm, who watches over your life, watches over your coming and going SEES HER, FINDS HER, and MEETS HER in the wilderness!

If and when YOU flee harm being done by God’s people, if and when YOU choose integrity over a specific identity and role, you are not leaving God behind, because GOD goes with you. 

God watches over YOUR life, over both your coming AND GOING. 

And God meets us in the wilderness. 

There’s a member of our church community in Acton named Joyce. Many years ago she found herself in a similar situation. She’s given me permission to share this part of her story. Her Christian husband – who had promised love to her and she had promised to love faithfully – was mistreating her.

But it wasn’t something her church back then knew how to talk about. They knew how to call you to loyalty, but the idea of leaving was shrouded in shame. But her integrity and safety as a person was more important than her identity as a ‘good Christian wife’, a ‘good church member.’ Joyce had to flee from harm – which first meant getting a restraining order from her husband. And then separating from him, which all felt like running into a wilderness.

God’s people didn’t “see” her, didn’t know how to support her. Her husband wasn’t providing for her or caring for her. She was on her own spiritually, emotionally, financially – needing to find a way to provide for herself and her two young girls. She was in the wilderness.

And there, in that place, without looking for it, her path crossed with another woman from the same church community who also had a restraining order from her husband. And then she met another woman in those circumstances. And another. And another!

Five women, all from the same church, all fleeing into this wilderness space, through God’s divine appointment miraculously found one another. And they each realized,

‘I’m not alone. I don’t need to travel this journey alone.’

And they committed to walking their journey together. To becoming a safe space where they could each be heard, respected, protected, cared for, encouraged, and empowered to make loving and good life-choices. 

They called themselves HAGAR’S SISTERS because, like Hagar, when they fled from harm into the wilderness, God saw them, God found them, and God provided a community that gave them hope and healing.

And those relationships birthed a ministry. And for more than 15 years, the ministry of Hagar’s Sisters has been meeting woman after woman, hundreds upon hundreds of people, in the wilderness as they flee from harm, embodying the message that

‘there’s a God who sees you. You’re not alone. There’s a path to hope and healing.’  

God meets us in the wilderness.

But Hagar’s story can also be difficult to understand. God meets her, but then – in her situation – God tells her to go back to Sarah. Part of the reason for that is because, in that world, there were no shelters. There weren’t any other economic options for a woman. Hagar couldn’t get a job and become a woman of independent means. In that ancient world, women were completely dependent upon the provision of male head of household. 

And that’s where we need to notice that God doesn’t send her back to the SAME situation. Instead, God says, ‘you will give birth to a son. And that son will have descendants too numerous to count!’ In other words, just like Abraham and Sarah will be blessed with a great household, YOU TOO – Hagar – will be blessed with your OWN household! Imagine that? An enslaved woman living in a foreign nation will become the MOTHER of her OWN great household!

In THAT context, that would be amazingly good news. 

It also means that Hagar would not have to live dependent upon Abraham forever, but could eventually live freely as a part of her son Ishmael’s household. 

But a few chapters later, before that reality can mature, Abraham and Sarah now send Hagar and her young son away out in the wilderness, on their own. Ishmael is still in diapers.

The text literally says she wanders in the desert. Baby Ishmael is sobbing, Hagar is sobbing… but AGAIN God meets them there. We read this in

Genesis 21:

17 God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 

18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”

19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.

20 God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer.

21 While he was living in the Desert…, his mother (found) a wife for him from Egypt.

When we flee from harm into the wilderness, OR when we’re exiled and sent into deserted places against our will, God not only sees us there, God can provide refreshment and a future! 

When we’re in a harmful place, it can feel so scary to leave… because we can feel like we’re leaving God, or feel like we’re failing, or we can be told we’re irrational and ungrateful. Or some of you have been left, it wasn’t your choice… and here you are in the wilderness, a place you didn’t want to be. It can feel scary because we might not know what comes next. But the story of Hagar is that God meets us there and can give us a new pasture to thrive, new relationships, a future that might be fuller and more life-giving than anything we had experienced before! 

Did you know the first person in all of Scripture to name God is Hagar?

A young woman LEAVING God’s chosen people because she’s experiencing abuse IS the first person to give the almighty God a name! 

What should that tell us about how we do theology?

Genesis 16:13

“She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.’”

And you know, she SAW God in the wilderness… precisely when she had the COURAGE to leave, to flee from harm. 

I was surprised when our friend Peter first suggested we could choose to leave our church. And we weren’t being mistreated or abused in that context. But what Peter was helping us see is that you and I always have CHOICES. We have agency. So with him and the encouragement of others, we did set boundaries. We said,

‘if the church chooses path A or path B, we can stay in this relationship. We can continue to be here. But if you choose path C, well, that’s opposite to why we came here to serve, to what we originally agreed to, and that violates our sense of integrity. And so we will choose integrity and leave if that happens.’ 

And that’s what happened. They chose path C, and we left. 

And I was angry. I was disappointed. I was hurt. I felt like I had failed. I felt like I let God down. I felt like maybe something was wrong with me. I was in the spiritual wilderness. I had lost my identity as ‘pastor.’ I had trust issues. I didn’t know if I could serve in a church again, because I might get hurt and let down again. 

But God saw me there… and provided.

Unexpectedly, the opportunity opened for me to serve at a Taiwanese-American church, something I never imagined for my life. 

And there I experienced more life and joy in ministry than I had before… and I eventually left that place because there was a new opportunity with a different kind of joy and life for me.

The slow lesson I’m learning is that loyalty to God sometimes means leaving one place – maybe because that place has become harmful, or maybe because integrity demands it, or maybe because God has a surprise for you – leaving one place so God can take you to a new place where there’s even GREATER joy and life. 

Or in the words of Taylor Swift, from her song ‘it’s time to go’ –

Sometimes giving up is the strong thing

Sometimes to run is the brave thing

Sometimes walking out is the one thing

That will find you the right thing

Now, the point of this message is not that if you’re BORED in your marriage, or FRUSTRATED in a friendship, or ANNOYED by long sermons at your church, you should just PEACE OUT. ALL relationships have challenges; ALL communities have certain tensions to bear and work through with love, patience, kindness, and forgiveness!

When a woman is experiencing intimate partner abuse and comes to Hagar’s Sisters, they actually don’t tell you whether to seek a divorce or not. 

They communicate that God’s desire is to keep you from harm. That God wants you to be in safe, loving relationships. That’s the space God is calling you to! And they invite women to choose integrity. And that might mean leaving. Sometimes, if the spouse catches the vision, that means seeking transformation within a relationship. Going to a NEW WAY of relating WITHIN an EXISTING relationship. 

The well-known marriage counselor Esther Perel once said,

Most people are going to have two or three marriages or committed relationships in their adult life. Some of us will have them with the same person.

What she’s getting at is that in ALL relationships, we need to keep GROWING. The invitation to LEAVE ONE kind of relationship and MOVE to a more life-giving kind of relationship isn’t just a question for those facing abuse – it’s a question for ALL healthy relationships. 

Becky and I have had several versions of our “marriage” within our 22-year-old marriage as we’ve LEFT certain patterns of relating, and gone at times into wilderness places, difficult places, tensive places, where we had to depend more on God and discover NEW patterns of relating. 

A healthy marriage, a healthy family system, a healthy church community, a healthy workplace isn’t static. It leaves old and hurtful patterns and looks for God to teach and provide new ways of being and relating. 

So my invitation for you today, for this summer, is to ask,

Is there something in your life that God is inviting you to leave? 

Maybe you’re experiencing abuse, or high levels of power and control in a relationship. If that’s the case, please reach out to Hagar’s Sisters or one of your pastors. God desires to keep you from harm, for you to be whole. Maybe you do need to leave a place of harm and seek a place of safety.

Or maybe you’re simply in a static place, or you feel tension in a certain situation, community, or relationship and you’re just stuck there. Instead of life to the full, it’s life-draining. What pattern or way of relating might you need to leave behind and what new pattern might you need to embrace?

Or maybe some new opportunities are arising in your life that God is inviting you to say ‘yes’ to. What might you need to first let go of, say ‘no’ to and lay down, in order to say ‘yes’ to this new thing?

Or maybe you’re in the wilderness today. And you feel alone. No one seems to get it. I just want you to know: God sees you and God can provide for you.

Let us pray.