Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Handmaid's Tale

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Genesis 16:1-16; 17:9-14, 24-27; 21:9-21:

These stories from Genesis just don’t get any easier to deal with, in some ways maybe they in fact become harder to comprehend and to understand, and I certainly think that is the case with the passages we just encountered between Hagar and Sarah and Abraham.  In fact these particular stories are so troubling that in the original version of the lectionary, which is the recommended readings for each Sunday, the story of Sarah expelling Hagar and her son were not included.  When the readings were revised in the early 90s that story was added back in, but denominations could choose whether to use it or another reading.  The United Methodist Church is the only one that uses this passage, and no one has the passage in which Hagar is given by Sarah to Abraham in order to bear him a child, with hopes and prayers it would be a son.

Even in the reference materials I have been using in preparation for these sermons, both Christian and Jewish, completely ignored these stories because let’s be honest they are difficult to deal with.  Just by a quick show of hands, how many people have ever heard a sermon preached on either of these passages? That’s about what I would expect because we hear these passages and we wonder what we are supposed to take from them, how could these be lifted up as the word of God, how could someone we revere like Abraham have done such a thing and how could God have allowed or even have endorsed such a thing to take place?  These are all troubling questions, but I would suggest that we ignore this passage, and others like it, at our own loss because the message that it conveys is vital for our life as Christians in the church and in the greater world.

But before we dive into the heart of the matter, since it’s been a few weeks since we talked about Abraham, let’s do a quick review of what’s come before for those of us who don’t remember the story.  Abraham is called by God to leave his family, and he is promised that his descendents would be given a new land, and through him all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-7).  But, as he and Sarah travel around, Sarah never has a child.  So, Sarah offers Abraham her Egyptian slave Hagar.  You may have heard her referred to as the handmaiden, but let’s be honest and refer to her as she was, a slave.  It's important to name Hagar as a slave because it means that Hagar has no control over her life.  She has no say in what is taking place with her.  She had no say in coming into Abraham’s household, as she was more than likely given to him as a present by the Pharaoh of Egypt.  She has no say in whether she wants to marry Abraham or not.  She has no say in whether she wants to have sex with Abraham or not, let alone to have his child.  Today we would call this a situation of rape.  That might seem harsh, but if you can think of another term please let me know, because that’s what it appears like to me.  This is a situation with extreme power dynamics, and Hagar is on the losing end.

But then after Hagar becomes pregnant, Hagar finally has something she thinks can give her position and importance in the household, the promise of a child, which could potentially rise her to a position of prominence, and Sarah cannot abide this.  So Sarah goes to Abraham and tells him to do something about it, which he basically refuses, and instead replies “your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.”  Notice that neither Sarah nor Abraham ever use Hagar’s name, and Abraham does not even refer to her as his wife, instead she is still just a slave. Sarah then abuses Hagar, because she can, because she has the power the authority to do so, and Hagar flees into the wilderness, where she encounters an angel at a well.  The angel tells her to return to Sarah,  and gives her a promise about her son, just like God has done with Abraham, and says that she is to call him Ishmael, which means God Hears.  And then Hagar does something truly remarkable, she names God.  Hagar is not just the only woman in the Old Testament to give God a name, she is in fact the only person in the Old Testament to do this.  She calls God el-roi, which means something like God sees, or more likely God sees me.    Hagar names God, but in contrast to everyone else in the story God calls Hagar by her name.  There is something about a name, and in these stories there is also something about what names mean.

Now, as you may remember from the readings from Mother’s Day, at a highly advanced age Sarah finally becomes pregnant and gives birth to Isaac, which leads us into the second story of conflict.  Sarah sees Isaac and Ishmael doing something together which makes her upset.  The NRSV which we heard today says they are playing, but the NIV says she sees Ishmael mocking Isaac.  Those are really ways of trying to interpret something that’s not clear, because the Hebrew word here is actually about laughing, and you may also remember from the Mother’s Day reading that Isaac means he laughs or laughing.  Does Sarah see Ishmael laughing at Isaac?  Perhaps she sees Ishmael’s laughter  as a laugh of derision, as a reminder that he is the first born, just as she saw Hagar’s look of derision before.  Or perhaps she thinks that his laughter is stealing the laughter of her son, and so she now sees Ishmael as a threat and wants him gotten rid of.

By custom Ishmael and Isaac would have inherited equally, but Ishmael would have been first and would have had a position of prominence and importance, just as Sarah does as the first wife.  As Sarah watches this scene she decides she cannot allow this to happen and so she demands that Abraham cast Hagar and Ishmael out of the household.  Notice that once again Sarah never uses either of their names.  To name them would give them identity, with identity comes belonging, and with belonging comes power, and with power comes status and position.  Abraham doesn’t know what to do, he is often sort of a passive character, and so he asks God, and God says to him “listen to the voice of your wife.”  You might also remember that I mentioned this when we looked at the story of the fall, as what God says to Adam is that he is in trouble because he listened to the voice of his wife, which was seen as a negative, but here it’s taking on a different connotation, although not necessarily a positive one.

There are two key elements to what happens next.  The first is that while both Hagar and Ishmael lift their voices up to God, God hears Ishmael’s cry, but speaks to Hagar.  There are several possible reasons for this.  The first is to remember that Ishmael’s name means God hears, so that when Ishmael cries out that is the voice God listens to.  A second reason is that the story is more concerned with telling the origin of family lines, and those lines rest with Isaac and Ishmael.  A feminist interpretation would emphasize the fact that the woman is ignored while the man’s complaint is headed.  While I don’t want to discount this reading all together, what must be noted is that the only people to refer to Hagar by her name are the narrator and God, which is the second key element

In each of the conversations Hagar has with God, she is called by her name.  She is not an insignificant person in God’s eyes.  It is in the eyes of Abraham and Sarah that she is nameless, merely a slave.  It is the power dynamics of that situation that relieve Hagar of her humanity and her dignity, not the writer of this story nor God.  Hagar is a person in God’s eyes, for Hagar has a name in God’s eyes, and God hears Ishmael’s voice the same that God hears Abraham’s voice. (story of etiology) Muslims trace their lineage through the person of Ishmael, they claim Abraham as the father of the faith just as Christians and Jews do, and so there is something here is this story that is still being played out.

In a story appearing in the New York Times a week after September 11th a Muslim woman described her experiences of the events that came after that event.  “I am so used to thinking about myself as a New Yorker,” she said “that it took me a few a days to begin to see myself as a stranger might: a Muslim woman, an outsider, perhaps an enemy of the city.  Before last week, I had thought of myself as a lawyer, a feminist, a wife, a sister, a friend….  Now I begin to see myself as others see me, a brown woman who bears a vague resemblance to the images of terrorists we see on television and in the newspapers. ”

That experience might be best summed up by a comedian by the name of Ahmed Ahmed.  Born in Egypt but raised in the United States, he makes jokes about what it’s like to live as a Muslim man in America.  One of his routines was included on the DVD of Michael Moore’s movie Fahrenheit 9/11.  After the movie came out, one of his conservative friends told him that he should not have given his permission to be on the DVD because he was going to end up on a government list.  “My name is Ahmed Ahmed,” he said, “I think I’m already on governmental lists.”

But the story of Hagar is important for more than just those who might trace their ancestry through Ishmael.  The person I dated through most of high school ended up in an abusive marriage after college.  After literally being beaten black and blue for a number of years, her friends got her and her young son out to a safe environment.  But, in her church, she felt shamed and looked down upon for leaving her marriage.  People told her that she took vows in which she pledged to live with her husband for better and worse, and her son needed a father, so how could she leave?  When she needed support from her church the most, she was turned away from the, cast out into the wilderness.  She ended up at an inner-city church where she worshipped with the homeless, drug addicts, prostitutes and others living on the fringes of society.  It is there that she found forgiveness, it is there she found belonging, it is there that she found community, it is there that she found God’s blessings.  For her, Hagar, is not insignificant.  For her Hagar is not a nobody.  For her Hagar is a reminder that God hears our cries and answers them, even when we have been rejected by those who consider themselves God’s chosen ones.  For her Hagar’s story is a story of hope, it is a story of redemption and it is a story that tells her she will never be abandoned by God.  Hagar represents all those on the extremes of society, those who exist outside of the dominant power structure, those who challenge that structure or force them to recognize injustices, and most especially those who are forced out through powers they cannot control.

As someone told me “deliverance occurs even in the farthest corners of the world among people explicitly excluded from the people of God.”  This is a story which gives voice and identity to the outcast, a story in which God continues to fulfill promises in those who are outcast or powerless.  And maybe today that is best represented by two things that we will do.  The first is the celebration of the sacrament of communion when we will come together as one people, when all are invited to the table.  Sometimes it’s important to remember and notice all who are at the table, but it’s also important to notice who is not at the table.  Who is not represented here that is part of the community?  As I said two weeks ago, any church can grow as long as they don’t care who shows up, and so by seeing who is not here tells us where our efforts of communicating the gospel might be best placed.  But how we do that makes all the difference in the world, which leads us into applying this text to the second thing we will do which is to do a blessing for the Jacob’s family who will soon be going on a missionary trip to Africa.

Often times when we go out into the world we go out to be in ministry to people, rather than in ministry with people.  And there is a significant difference in these two ideas.  When we are in ministry to people, it is positions of power and status against subordination.  It is those who are doing the work who are deigning to be in relationship with others, who are sort of stooping below their status to be doing this work, but then will return to their positions of status.  When that is our approach we do not open ourselves up to the possibility of being changed or transformed, or being opened up to God’s grace in the world because we believe that we are the only ones who have something to offer.  We are giving and the others are receiving.  But when we are in ministry with people instead of to them, whether it’s in Africa, or Clovis, or at the Youth Center, or at the food pantry, then we recognize the other as a brother and sister, as a son and daughter of God, as someone who has as much to offer to us as we have to offer to them, and in doing so we open ourselves up to being transformed by the experience.  and it is my experience that when mission is approached in this way, that those who are “giving” often receive more, learn more, and more transformed by the experience than those who were to “receive.”  And thus we realize that it is not that we are superior and they are inferior, that we are better and they are worse, that we have something to give and they can only receive.  Instead we recognize as Hagar does that God has blessed all of us, even those who some people would like to say are not worthy.

The writer of today’s passage showed a genuine affection and concern for the story of Hagar and Ishmael, and that is one of the reasons it has come down to us.  It is here to help  remind us of the dangers of nationalism or an exclusive theology.  It reminds us that God’s blessing is not dependent upon whom we approve of.  God’s grace does not depend on whom we would like to include or exclude.  God’s love is not dependent on whether we like people or welcome them into our community.  The story of Hagar and Ishmael reminds us that God hears the cries of the outcasts, that the blessings, love, grace and mercy of God are not dependent upon us, they are dependent upon God.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment