For the Sunday that Pastor Lisa would be away, I agreed to preach on the story of Hagar and Ishmael -- translation largely thanks to Phyllis Trible.
Genesis 12:1-3, 16:1-14, 21:9-21Hear what the Spirit might be saying to the church.
(Gen. 12:1-3) God said to Abram, "Go forth from your native land and from your people and from your parents' house, to a land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation. And I will bless you and make your name so great that it will be used in blessings. I will bless those who bless you, and the one despising you I will curse. And all the families of the earth will bless themselves through you."
Fast forward, through stories including Abram, out of fear for his own safety while they are in Egypt, passing his wife Sarai off as his sister and letting the Pharaoh take her as a spouse.
(Gen. 16:1-14) For ten years, Sarai and Abram lived in the land of Canaan and remained childless. Sarai had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar and one day, Sarai said to Abram, "Behold, God has made me childless. Go, then, to my maid. Perhaps I will be built up from her." So Abram did.
And after Hagar became pregnant, Sarai became slight in her eyes. So Sarai said to Abram, "May the wrong done to me be upon you. I gave my maid to your embrace, but when I saw that she had conceived, then I was slight in her eyes. May God judge between you and me."
But Abram said to Sarai, "Behold, your maid is in your hand. Do to her the good in your eyes." [i.e., "Do to her what you deem right."]
And Sarai afflicted her. So Hagar fled from her. The messenger of God found Hagar in the desert near a spring on the road to Shur. The messenger said, "Hagar, maidservant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?"
Hagar answered, "From the face of my mistress Sarai I am fleeing."
The messenger said to her, "Return to your mistress and suffer affliction under her hand. I will so greatly multiply your descendants that they cannot be numbered for multitude." Then the messenger continued, "Truly you are pregnant and will bear a son. You will call his name Ishmael ("God hears"), for God has paid heed to your affliction. He will be a wild ass of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone's hand against him. And against the face of all his brothers he will dwell."
Hagar called the name of God who has spoken to her, saying, "You are El-Roi -- God of seeing. Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing God?" That is why the well is called Beerlahi-roi -- "Well of the Living One Who Sees Me."
Fast forward even more -- God renames Abram and Sarai Abraham and Sarah and makes them the parents of the covenant, through their son Isaac, the son of their old age.
(Gen. 21:9-21) Now Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian playing. Sarah demanded of Abraham, "Cast out this slave woman and her son, for the son of this slave woman will not inherit with my son, with Isaac."
This was very distressing in the eyes of Abraham on account of his son, Ishmael.
But God said to Abraham, "Do not be distressed in your eyes on account of the lad on account of your slave woman. Everything that Sarah says to you, heed her voice. For in Isaac will be named to you descendants. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him as well, since he is also your descendant. "
So 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. He sent her away, and she wandered off into the desert of Beersheeba.
When the water in the skin was gone, she laid the child under one of the bushes as if in a deathbed. Then she went and sat by herself in front of him, about a bowshot away.
As Hagar sat in front of him, she lifted up her voice and wept, "Let me not see the death of my child."
God heard the voice of the lad and said, "What troubles, you Hagar? Do not be afraid, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad and hold him by your hand, for I shall make him into a great nation."
Then God revealed to Hagar a well of water and she went to it and filled the skin with water and gave the lad a drink.
And God was with the lad; and he grew up and lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took for him a wife from the land of Egypt.
In the Gospels we encounter Jesus saying to the other Jews of the day, "Do not say to each other, 'We are safe, for we are descendants of Abraham and Sarah.' That means nothing, for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham and Sarah." (Matthew 3:9, Luke 3:8)
Being descendants of Abraham and Sarah, inheritors of the promise, is a big deal. But in reading Genesis, I can't say that I'm too eager to claim Abraham and Sarah as my spiritual ancestors.
My friend Eda introduced me to the writings of Pauli Murray -- an African-American lawyer and activist, active from the 1940s, and in 1977, at the age of 66, the first African-American woman ordained in the Episcopal Church.
Pauli Murray grew up in North Carolina, and her maternal great-grandmother was a Cherokee Indian slave who was raped by a white man in the household in which she was a servant.
Murray says, "It was my destiny to be the descendant of slave owners as well as slaves, to be of mixed ancestry, to be biologically and psychologically integrated in a world where the separation of the races was upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States as the fundamental law of our Southland." (p. 87, Pauli Murray: Selected Sermons and Writings)
Pauli Murray talks about the USA as an Ishmaelite nation -- all of us closer kin than we like to imagine with whomever the "Other" is, be it slave or slave owner.
She quotes from the diary of a white woman of the antebellum South, Mary Boykin Chestnut: "God help us, but ours is a monstrous system....Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives; and concubines; and the mulattoes one sees in every family partly resemble the white children." (p. 56, Pauli Murray: Selected Sermons and Writings)
Just as I don't really want to claim Abraham and Sarah as my spiritual ancestors, I don't want to claim slave-ownership as part of my history. But regardless of whether any of that is literally in my family tree, it is part of the history I have inherited as a citizen of this nation -- just as Abraham and Sarah are part of the history I have inherited as a Christian, whether I like it or not.
When Eda was telling me about Pauli Murray's thoughts on the USA as an Ishmaelite nation, I said, "That's really interesting, but Pastor Lisa's idea for this sermon series was finding justice-oriented alternatives to the unjust solutions offered in the text." I didn't really know what to do with all these interesting ideas, because they seemed to just be adding to the bad news of the text, expanding its scope.
Eda said that Pauli Murray's takeaway from the fact of the USA as an Ishmaelite nation is that we are all closer kin than we like to think that we are -- and that if we acknowledged that, not just acknowledged the trauma and injustice that are a part of our history (necessary though that acknowledgment is), but acknowledged our kinship with those we think of as "Other," recognized our shared kinship rather than segregating ourselves into falsely dichotomous identities, really radical transformation could occur.
Kate Bornstein Tweeted the other day: "[I] spoke last night about #radical #welcoming & #inclusion as an #activism leading to a #politic of #compassion."
Radical welcoming and inclusion as an activism leading to a politic of compassion.
Delores Williams says that "Hagar's predicament involved slavery, poverty, ethnicity, sexual and economic exploitation, surrogacy, domestic violence, homelessness, single parenting, and radical encounters with God." These issues are still very real and present today.
Do we recognize the Hagar in our midst? Do we recognize our kinship with those whose issues are not "our" issues?
Or do we instead perpetuate these systems of oppression?
Sarai took God’s promise of abundance and took it upon herself to bring that promise to fulfillment when God seemed to be dawdling – and took it upon herself to do so by exploiting a woman who was under her care. Once the promise was fulfilled in a way she liked better, she wanted to get rid of the second-rate version – nevermind that these were real human beings.
How often do we look at other people as expendable, existing only to serve our purposes?
Can we take from the story of Hagar and Ishmael a reminder of how intertwined our families are?
Today's assigned reading in Isaiah opens: "Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from God's hand double for all her sins."
Can we embody that message? A word of grace that enables us to forgive ourselves and others for the past and to move forward in love?
According to Gordon Lathrop, Advent and Christmas are "ways of speaking the word of God into the solstice festivals being celebrated today." (11) The solstice festivals -- celebrating light in the midst of darkness -- frequently have an element of upside-down-ness, of "midwinter protests" (7). Perhaps we can embrace some of this midwinter protest, to live into the world not as it is but as it should be, embodying the kindom which is both now and not yet.
Lathrop writes, "Advent in the church is intended as a time to feel the current reality of waiting in the world. Such waiting provides its own language for fully speaking the gospel of Christ, and it provides a realism and honesty that the human heart longs to hear." (12)
May we be bearers of the gospel -- preachers of realism and honesty and also of hope, of light against the darkness.