|Genesis 16:1-15, 21:1-21
April 22, 2012
Once in a blue moon, you’re party to a conversation that changes your life. One of those happened around our dinner table some years ago with guests who, before the meal, had been complete strangers. While talking and enjoying the meal, we discovered we were kindred spirits in many ways. As the barriers of unfamiliarity melted away and the conversation became tender and intimate, one of our guests, an elderly Methodist minister, inquired about the path I’d walked.
My path has been incredibly rich; difficult, joyful, challenging, painful, full of grace, and a few times nearly broke me. As I recalled one of the hard passages in my story, I heard myself say, “Sometimes I think I must be a great disappointment to God. God has given me these gifts, and I’ve had such a hard time finding a place to give them.” A respectful quiet hung in the air, finally broken when she asked gently, “Has it ever occurred to you that God is more disappointed than you are?”
The question stunned me. Of course, it hadn’t occurred to me!
As she said a bit more about what she meant, it was clear that she did not know God as one whose power is expressed in exercising control, but rather, in the energy of love. That meant that if God were to truly respect the freedom of us mortals to make choices, some of those choices would inevitably break God’s heart. She helped me see that God was not disappointed in me for not using my gifts, but disappointed that there was no place that welcomed my gifts. As I have walked through my own dark valleys, and alongside hundreds of others through theirs, I have become ever more convinced that my holy guest was absolutely right.
What if it were true; that the power of God were not manifested in control, but in the transforming power of love? Considering God from this perspective will serve you well today, because the next 20 minutes will be difficult…and I hope, motivate us to lessen the sorrow of God and our companions on this earth.
We have our work cut out for us; work for me as expositor and preacher of the Word, work for you as hearers and assimilators of the Word, and work for all of us, doers of the Word, as each of us is called.
So what is it that makes today a challenge? Sobering, hideous truth, for starters. You will hear some of that in the scriptural story of Hagar; a story rich with meaning but harsh and merciless in many ways. You will also hear about Hagar’s sisters in the current world…and the story is horrific. The plight of women around the world cries out for the attention of God, and God’s people….us.
But first, some background and context. Every year, the PCUSA sets aside a Sunday to lift up the gifts of women; an opportunity to recognize the work of Presbyterian Women beneath our noses and across the world, on behalf of the church and in the name of God. It is important to know that for many centuries, women’s church groups have provided a forum for educating women about many subjects, as well as learning and exercising leadership skills when their gifts were not welcomed in the wider church or the culture. Not so long ago, women were thought to have inferior brains, too easily addled, and constitutions so frail we could not tolerate the rigors of education.
As it turned out, once women got the vote and became a political force, women suddenly seemed to come equipped with more sturdy constitutions and functional brains. It also didn’t hurt that women in the church were a formidable machine for raising money for the mission of the church, and because that money was controlled by the women who raised it, much of it was strategically focused on the education, medical care and well-being of women around the world. Today, we acknowledge and give thanks for what Presbyterian Women have contributed to the wider church and this congregation, as well as their long faithfulness in love, prayer, money and work on behalf of women all over the world.
An aside about the symbolism of presence today. Though I could have chosen a woman as the liturgist and that would have been fine, Seth is the liturgist today for two reasons. Seth is my colleague and regular partner in ministry here, where together, we aspire to work for the common good…and for me, Seth’s presence symbolizes that the work which lies before us all is the work of both men and women. The work of justice and the advancement of God’s intentions is the work of women and men – together. Thanks to Leo Theilman, more women than usual are serving as ushers today, recognizing the hospitality women often provide, as well as competent and creative handling of money. Peggy Warlick will lead us in prayer because she has a gift for language and a heart for prayer, just as Sue Potts read the scripture, because it is our intention to make a regular practice of involving both lay men and women in worship.
And now, the story of Hagar; a powerful, revelatory and long story. Rather than read it and retell it, I will weave the reading into the sermon. For context, Hagar’s story comes just as God is beginning to gather a chosen people, and has already chosen Abram to be the father, mythically and biologically, of this people.
The first line of the story identifies a key chink in the works. Sarai, Abram’s wife, is barren. You will recall that at that time, a woman’s only identity and worth was derived from who owned her; her father, her brother, her husband – and to whom she gave birth. A barren woman was presumed to be cursed by God.
1Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, 2and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 3So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. 4He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. 5Then Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!” 6But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.
Hagar is in a no-win position. As a foreigner and a slave, she has no more choice in serving her master sexually than she had in whether to braid Sarah’s hair and empty her chamber pot. But it seems Hagar’s pregnancy with her master’s child gave her a bit of stature and perhaps the confidence to express some of her real feeling toward her mistress. But, as every slave or underling knows, no truthful expression to power goes unpunished. Sarah re-asserted her superiority over Hagar and treated her harshly. Quite astonishingly, pregnant Hagar fled into the wilderness.
7The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8And he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.” 9The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.”
10The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.” 11And the angel of the Lord said to her, “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction. 12He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin.” 13So she named the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; (that is, God who sees) for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” 14Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; (Living One who sees me) it lies between Kadesh and Bered.15Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram named his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael.
This is a truly extraordinary passage. If we look at it through the wide lens of hindsight, we can see that even before a chosen people has been gathered, Yahweh breaks all the rules yet to be made. Yahweh speaks to a foreigner, a woman, and a slave; that’s as low as you can get. Even before the boundaries of who’s in and who’s out are drawn, Yahweh stretches beyond those boundaries and beyond the edges of time and the cultural mores of that time. This may remind you of similar behavior many generations later in one named Jesus.
In her book, Hagar, Sarah, and Their Children, biblical scholar, Phyllis Trible, points out that Hagar experiences a stunning list of firsts. She is “the first person in the Bible to flee oppression, the first runaway slave, the first person whom a messenger of God visits, the only woman to receive a divine promise of descendents, the only person to name God…”
You may remember that in the ancient world, to speak another’s name indicated a level of intimacy, and even a measure of control over the named one! (perhaps similar to a good friend in whom you’ve confided having the goods on you.) For Hagar to name Yahweh as the “God who sees” describes her experience of God and a trait of God’s. She “knows” God. Hagar, the consummate outsider, performs an act of worship when she names the place where she encountered Yahweh “Well of the Living One who sees me.” The name itself describes their connection. Hagar, the outsider in every way, has an intimacy with God, far more tender than those who will be God’s officially chosen ones. Again, it reminds me of the tender relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus.
This week, I heard a wonderful interview with a Roman Catholic sister who heads a social justice lobby. It was clearly contemporary gospel.
It seems the work of the Sisters has raised alarm in the Vatican, and an Archbishop has been appointed to ‘oversee’ the Sisters’ activities. “What is their concern?” the reporter asked. “Well”, said the Sister, “it’s a matter of perspective. Things look very different from an office far away than in the street. We work with people in the streets. We know their suffering.” “And what will you do?” the reporter asked her. “We’ll do what women have always done. Mary Magdalene went early to the tomb. Then she went to tell the others. Women get it first. So, we’ll just keep talking to the men until they get it.” Hagar and the Sister’s experience are consistent with God’s pattern of looking to the least valued to recognize and welcome God.
The story proceeds. God makes a covenant with Abram and promises Sarah will bear a son in her old age, but the intrigue continues.
1The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. 2Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. 4And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” 7And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” 8The child 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. 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 for 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.
One of the great things about these Old Testament stories is that they don’t gloss over the flaws of the characters. Sarah, who was so eager to press Hagar’s womb into service, is now vividly jealous of both Hagar and her son, Ishmael. This incident is but the first of much maneuvering and finagling Sarah will do on behalf of her son. To Sarah, Hagar and her little boy are throw aways.
Hagar departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
15When 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. 20God 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.
Hagar’s fierce efforts to protect and provide for her son nearly defeated, and nigh unto death from thirst and hunger, Hagar is again visited by an angel. The angel reiterates the promise that her efforts have not been in vain, and they are provided for. Again, Phyllis Trible points out, Hagar experiences more firsts. She is “the first slave to be freed, the first divorced wife, the first single parent and the first to weep.” I think far more importantly, Hagar recognized that God had seen her and heard her son. To God, Hagar was not a throw away. God was not disappointed in her.
Hagar is not unlike millions of women in the world today, who struggle to survive under horrific circumstances and against terrible social forces. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, co-authors of the Pulitzer Prize winning book, Half the Sky, have done exhaustive research on the conditions of women everywhere. Put in my hands by Judy Maze, who borrowed it from Eleanor Pinkham, the book points out that just as documentation of the slaves’ conditions in this country finally forced the nation to face this evil, and just as Rachel Carsen made us realize with her 1962 book, Silent Spring, that we were destroying the earth, so becoming aware of the circumstances of women across the globe is making their well-being of women the moral issue of the 21rst century.
Kristof and WuDunn tell us a woman dies in childbirth every minute. During worship, 60-75 women will have died for lack of minimal medical care; that’s one thousand four hundred forty women by this time tomorrow, and 525,600 by this date next year. The authors ask if the world would tolerate half million men dying every year as a result of normal sexual activity. I think we know the answer.
They tell us millions, yes millions, of women and little girls are routinely battered and raped for sport, as a tactic of community decimation in war, or just because they are vulnerable. In many parts of the world, these violated females are then murdered by their families because the honor of their male kin has been impugned by the rape, the girls are no longer virgins and, quite frankly, no longer marketable, and the women are considered whores.
This year, somewhere between 1.5 million and 3 million little girls will be kidnapped or sold into the sex trade - and not only far away. Genital cutting is still widely practiced in many parts of the world, killing thousands of girls of infection and gangrene, or for many who survive the practice, maiming them for the rest of their lives and further endangering them in childbirth.
These are the sisters of Hagar…but unlike the puppies recently rescued from a near by puppy mill, the world does not flood 8 year old sex workers with money and offers for adoption. Instead, they “work” until they die at the age of 15 from AIDS, exhaustion, starvation, drug overdose, or unspeakable injuries.
If we find this information and language offensive, there is hope for us. We should find it far more than offensive, and nothing less than abhorrent, not because it offends our sensibilities, or sense of propriety about what should or should not be said in church, but because it is an abomination to God and to what it means to be human.
There is a Chinese proverb that says women hold up half the sky. What wonderful imagery! What man could hold up the whole sky alone? Without healthy, strong and equal women who are valued, even the sky falters. The plight of women everywhere will be unchanged until women and men conclude that until all of us are free, none of us is free. Study after study tells us the well-being of women is nothing shy of miraculous in how it impacts the well-being of their men and the children they parent together.
So, what can we do? To feel guilty, ashamed or angry is too easy and is not enough!
- We can begin by educating ourselves so as not to have the luxury of hiding behind our ignorance. Kristof and WuDunn’s book, Half the Sky, is a place to start. While it is heart breaking to read, it is also a book full of hope and courage, and replete with practical ways to be the change we want to see.
- We might pay attention to our investments. I am transferring my 401K funds from my former place of employment and will be placing them in socially responsible investments, most likely funds that support the work and well-being of women around the world. At our house, Ben is the detail guy and the researcher. When he showed me the prospectus, I noticed he had highlighted in yellow all the funds directed toward the well being of women. He’s no dummy. He wants a good strong woman beside him to hold up her half of the sky.
- We might consider investing in organizations that make micro loans to women to start their own businesses, proven over and over to help their families and communities in turn.
- For Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries, consider honoring your loved ones who already have too much by buying a pair of rabbits or goats, a flock of chickens or even a cow through Heifer International. Paul Clements says it’s a good investment and my mother in law, a retired dairy farmer, loved her cow for Christmas!
- For $20 a month, you can support a child’s education and health care in another country through any number of reputable organizations.
- You can get a credit card and a cell phone through Working Assets, a company that supports women’s programs across the globe.
- We have local shelters for women and children that need supplies, clothing, cell phones and computers
- neighborhood schools need men and women as tutors and mentors. And finally,
- Social change almost always comes from the grass roots. Make a holy pest of yourself with your legislators! Make them act!
Time and time again, it has been documented that educating and tending the health of women benefits not only them, but their children, their husbands, and the entire community. I keep repeating this because it’s true and it has the aroma of God’s Way.
Some of us here will be called to this work; some noisily, some quietly. Do know, we are the ears of God – and we have now heard the cries of Hagar and her sisters. When we listen and respond, God will have no cause to be disappointed in us.
For the Word of the God who sees and hears in scripture, for the Word of the God who sees and hears within us, for the Word of the God who sees and hears among us…. THANKS BE TO GOD! Amen.