The Sunday Sermon: Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – July 2, 2017
Scripture: Genesis 21:8-20
- Hear the sermon:
Building the Household of God in the Wilderness
Every summer for the past seven or eight years one of our children has attended a summer camp on the coast of North Carolina. My husband is from North Carolina which is one of the reasons we choose a camp so far away. Planning how to get our kids to camp always sparks a great debate. This year, it was my turn to be the designated chaperone and chauffeur responsible for getting our daughter, now 11 years old, to camp.
As you probably know, it is a quite some feat to get prepared for a four week stint of life in the great outdoors. You have to gather up all the clothes needed so that the wash only has to be sent out once in addition to number of other things like medical exam forms, flashlights, river pants, pre-addressed and stamped envelopes to write home, sunscreen, toiletries and towels—the list could go on for quite some time.
When we departed two Saturdays ago, I felt that we had planned, prepared and covered every single minute detail. What could now go wrong? We were ready!
Our plane arrived safely in Raleigh without a hitch and then we proceeded to take the shuttle bus to the rental car agency. Again, things were going quite smoothly. We chose the exact car we wanted at the rental agency and proceeded to exit the lot stopping just briefly at the kiosk for the manager to check my license and give me a receipt.
I handed him my license and after he examined it carefully he looked at me and said, “Your license is expired.” I flashed him a quick look of indignation, “No, it isn’t.” He quickly pointed out the expiration date as June 10, 2017, exactly nine days before we arrived at the Raleigh Durham airport.
What could go wrong, indeed?!
My cheeks flushed and I apologized, “Well, I guess it is expired.”
“Ma’am, we can’t legally rent you this car,” he said.
My stomach sank. Seeing my anxiety, the manager of the rental car agency tried to make it all better by saying that it happens a lot more than you think but reiterated, “we can’t rent you this car ma’am.”
I pulled the car over to the side of the lot, unpacked our things near the shuttle bus so that we could return to the terminal, and looked at my daughter who was getting more anxious by the minute. I asked her to be patient we just had to think it through.
Within a few moments, somewhat familiar surroundings of a state and an airport I had traveled to or through a number of times became a sort of wilderness. To say the least, we felt vulnerable. We were in an unfamiliar city an hour and a half from where we were going to stay that night and three hours from the camp where she needed to check in by 9:00 am the next morning. We knew our destination, but at that moment had no idea how we were going to get there. No great solutions immediately came to mind.
I wonder if something like this has ever happened to you. Have you ever experienced a time when you were in the wilderness? Or, a time when you were feeling vulnerable and alone without any idea how you were going to accomplish what you needed to do?
Wilderness and family are strong themes that surface throughout biblical stories and particularly in the Hebrew bible. In the scripture reading from Genesis for today we are entering into a story about tension building within a family as questions about who will carry on the family line emerge, who is chosen, who falls outside the circle and who will be pushed to the periphery, even forced to travel alone.
We are invited in this story to head out into the wilderness with a woman named Hagar and her young son, Ishmael. There are two chapters in Genesis, 16 and 21, which focus on five main characters-a man named Abraham who is also a husband shared in common by two women, Sarah and Hagar, and who has two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Abraham and Sarah may be more familiar to us because it is Isaac, their son, who becomes the ancestor of Israel. Hagar is more of a stranger. Even her name some Jewish scholars will emphasize is related to the Hebrew word “ger,” meaning stranger, resident alien, immigrant.
In Christian and Jewish thought, Hagar’s story is told as a tale of a woman being sent out with her young son into the wilderness by a jealous wife, Sarah. Sarah holds the privilege and the power within the confines of the patriarchal family structure as the wife of Abraham, a wealthy herdsman. You will also likely remember that Sarah experiences a wilderness of her own, the wilderness of infertility in an ancient patriarchal society that values motherhood as the primary fulfillment of a woman’s identity and the birth of sons as her social security. Lack of sons for Sarah was a serious shortcoming. If Sarah had no son, then who would be Abraham’s rightful heir? Who would inherit his fortune? What if something happened to Abraham? Who would secure Sarah’s future? Tension within Abraham’s family abounds—tensions about who has or doesn’t have wealth, security, continued promise of prosperity. Sarah tries to solve the situation by sending Abraham to Hagar so that the Egyptian girl, Sarah’s slave or maid, can bear a son.
Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible describes Hagar as the “prototype of not only special but all mothers of Israel.” Hagar is the first “woman to bear a child” in the Hebrew bible, “the first to hear an annunciation, the only one to receive divine promise of descendants, and the first to weep for her dying child” (Trible, Texts of Terror, 28). Even in light of these “firsts,” Hagar’s reality as it is described in Genesis is the ultimate contrast to that of Sarah’s.
Hagar has the least social clout and privilege. Hagar is young; Sarah is old. Most important, Hagar is fertile; Sarah is barren. Hagar is an Egyptian, a foreigner, a stranger; Sarah gives birth to Isaac, the ancestor of Israel. Hagar’s resources of power, privilege, and fertility are undermined at every turn in the story. But it is Hagar, the one without privilege, who has the potential to build her power and her authority in the economy of the household by giving birth to a son.
Johanna van Wijk-Bos, professor emerita specializing in Hebrew bible at Louisville Seminary, emphasizes the importance of the language used throughout the Genesis story in both chapters 16 and 21. Bos asks us to look and listen for words that refer to the senses. Emotions are palpable and embedded within the Hebrew language that is used throughout the story—words are used to describe seeing, looking, hearing, laughing and weeping. We are drawn into the emotions felt by the characters as we question who is being seen, what God sees, what Abraham sees, what Sarah sees, what Hagar sees. We have to look at their world through their eyes and listen for who laughs and see who smiles; take notice of who hears or who is heard throughout their interactions. These senses convey the most human of tales.
When Abraham goes to Hagar, she becomes pregnant. Once Hagar “sees” she is pregnant; Hagar becomes of no account in Sarah’s “eyes.” Hagar flees. In the scene announcing the birth of Hagar’s son, an angel of the Holy One appears to her and asks where she is going. The angel tells Hagar to return to Abraham’s house and to name her son Ishmael, which in Hebrew means “God hears.” An intriguing aspect to this part of the story included in Chapter 16 is that Hagar dares to call out the name of God. It isn’t her son and the continuation of the family line that brings Hagar freedom. But it is the way that she dares to cry out to God and to name God in the midst of the tension building within her family—a tension about power, privilege, fertility, barrenness, insiders, outsiders, chosenness, and distribution of resources. She names God nothing other than the “the God who sees me. . . . I have now seen the One who sees me.”
In chapter 21, the verses that we read for today, Sarah tells Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away when she “sees” Ishmael and his mother laughing. Abraham opens his eyes one day early in the morning, and takes bread and a skin of water, and gives it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulders, along with the child, and sends them both away. Hagar departs, and wanders about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba (“the well of the oath”). In Genesis, we then lose sight of Hagar in the biblical narrative. Abraham seems to have nothing more to do with Hagar or Ishmael but it is Isaac, Sarah’s son, whom “God smiles upon.”
What we are hearing is this most human story is how God acts within and among these very imperfect people. Despite all sorts of questions raised and emotions fueled by tensions within this symbolic family, God “sees” and “hears” the most vulnerable and least powerful of Abraham’s kin. As Bos observes, the “lines [of kinship] seem to be less sharply drawn and God’s blessing does not remain confined to one group alone” (Bos, Making Wise the Simple, 136). Both Isaac and Ishmael in these stories are promised great nations.
Our culture within the US is prone to what I call “me-first-ism.” In other words, we tend to think of things, events, ideas, stories in light of me, I, the one right here and interpret them according to our own individual or personal needs. But, the narrative here is not a narrative of division between an “us” and a “them” as it has often been interpreted, but rather a narrative, a story about how to forge a future between “us” and “another us,” a story of “us” and “others.” The “I” is never independent from the “we.” Family in this context is interrelated and bound by a covenant that reaches beyond ancient kinship ties and traditions.
For each of the traditions that trace their origins to Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, the same destiny and desires are true—discovering community in the wilderness; abundance and sustenance for one’s daily life; victory over artificial social boundaries of gender, class or color; being seen, remembered and heard by others and God. Perhaps most important in this particular story is that the actions of women are visible, seen, and remembered. Both Sarah and Hagar become mothers of faithful peoples. In different ways, they create out of barrenness, dryness, wilderness experiences. This is no small intrusion into the larger patriarchal narrative of the story.
We can learn even more by challenging ourselves to consider what Muslim traditions teach about her creativity. For Muslims, the story continues in a way that challenges us to consider the importance of seeing and calling upon God’s name in the wilderness. Neither Hagar nor Sarah are named in the Qur’an. Hagar is named in the hadiths, another source of knowledge for faithful Muslims. Hagar’s name in Arabic is Hajira, a name associated with the idea of going into the wilderness for the sake of God’s mission. Hagar’s name conveys her willingness to build God’s household out of nothing but the sand in a barren, dry, deserted land. She’s not understood to be a victim of a jealous woman but rather a survivor who shows that neither class nor privilege can deter any one who has faith in God. Scholar of Islam and professor emerita at University of Louisville Riffat Hassan observes, “when one is in the wilderness, without the protection of any familiar framework or faces, one’s faith in God and one self is put to a real test” (Hassan, “Islamic Hagar and Her Family,” 155).
In Muslim traditions, the story does not end with Hagar being sent away, Abraham continues his relationship with both Hagar and Ishmael. When Hagar goes out into the desert she doesn’t beg Abraham to return to her previous home. Her exile is not a place of destitution but she is thought of as Abraham’s partner in building God’s house in a land with few resources. Her wilderness becomes a place of agency, inspiration, and empowerment that leads to new creation, the creation of new community.
Stories of Hagar in Muslim traditions and in the Hebrew bible both refer to a spring of water that miraculously emerges in the wilderness when Hagar realizes that she is about to run out of water for her and her son. Her wilderness is vast, dangerous and dry; this is a vulnerability that I shudder to imagine. In the Muslim account of the story, Hagar runs back and forth looking frantically for water in an effort to also keep up her milk supply to feed the boy. As a result of her efforts, an angel named Gabriel appears and guides Hagar to the spring called the Zam Zam. She is not alone in the wilderness with her son, then a boy. God is with her guiding her through a barren land. Still today the spring is believed to have miraculous powers because it attracted companions for Hagar and a new community was born.
I told the story earlier of my brief wilderness experience when I was surprised by the expiration of my license. But there are far more challenging places to be standing and questioning who will we see and how will we be seen. What can we learn from stories about Sarah and Hagar in our own experiences in the wilderness, in barren, dry places? What can we learn about a God who sees, hears, and smiles upon an interconnected family with ties beyond ancient kinship?
Let me offer an example from the abundant discussion surrounding immigration in our nation. I want to speak to this, however, from a more personal viewpoint; a viewpoint that represents similar tensions within the family line that appear in the story we read today from Genesis. The church that I attend recently sponsored the Aloujel family from Syria to be resettled in the south end of Louisville. The children in this family of five range in ages about seven to thirteen. I doubt I need to say much about the conditions of their life in Syria, but it is worth mentioning that the father of the family owned a nice small grocery business in his hometown. He was just a regular guy trying to make ends meet and support his family. Earlier in the war he lost his leg when a car he was driving ran over a roadside bomb. I have no way to imagine what it was like to live in the wilderness of war in Syria but I can imagine how I would feel if I knew one of my children might encounter a roadside bomb when going to school or riding a bike or just walking home from the store. The Aloujels did what most, if not all of us would do. They fled the violence and threat of war, wandering for some time traveling through Turkey and Jordan. After a short time, all of the resources they had in Jordan ran out. And so, they applied to come to the U.S. States, but it took two years after they applied for refugee status for them to be granted entrance to the U.S. and for us to see and hear their greeting, salaam alaikum, when they arrived at the Louisville airport.
Last January, when the Mayor of Louisville organized a rally down at the Muhammad Ali Center to support immigrants and refugees in response to tensions and fears created by the Muslim immigration ban, my husband Lee and I gathered with nearly 5,000 others. The event was moving. We saw so many of our neighbors, friends from school and work, parents, and religious leaders. There were so many people in the courtyard outside the Muhammad Ali Center that we had to move almost as one body to get around. There was no sense of “us” and “them” but rather what we were one community together.
When we left that event that night and walked to our car, we were crossing a busy street and ran into Tahani, the mother of the Aloujel family. It was dark and the night lighting made the street seem unfamiliar and stranger. We began to look around and get our bearings and soon noticed the father of the family getting out of the driver’s seat of his car and standing up straight on his crutches. These strangers that have become friends, immigrants seeking a place they could call home, were taking some considerable risk to be part of that gathering at the Ali Center. But, they were willing to take the risk because they want to find and help to create, to partner with God to build peace in a world where family tensions between “us” and “them” are on the rise. They like all of us are imperfect people through whom God creates community beyond considerable “family” tensions. I can honestly say that Lee and I could see and feel the presence of the most Holy One as when we met the Aloujel’s face-to-face and looked at them as true friends.
What can you and I continue to learn from stories about Sarah and Hagar in our own experiences in the wilderness, in barren, dry places? Where are the wildernesses in which you are wondering? Where are the barren and dry places in this town, in the places you live, work and play? How can God work through us, just imperfect people, to help us see, feel and sense a community beyond the tensions created by a story defined by “us” and “them”? What Hagar’s story invites us to consider is that we too can partner in building God’s house we too can discover refreshing springs of water even when the land seems barren and dry. Our wildernesses can become places of agency, inspiration, and empowerment that lead the creation of new community. May that be our aim, this day, and in the weeks to come. Amen.
Reverend Doctor Elizabeth Hinson Hasty