Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile

Third Sunday after Pentecost – Fourteenth Sunday in ZOOM Church

June 21, 2020

Psalm 86

A Prayer of David.
Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you;
save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; be gracious to me, O Lord,
for to you do I cry all day long.
Gladden the soul of your servant,
for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer;
listen to my cry of supplication.
In the day of my trouble I call on you,
for you will answer me.

There is none like you among the gods, O Lord,
nor are there any works like yours.
All the nations you have made shall come
and bow down before you, O Lord,
and shall glorify your name.
For you are great and do wondrous things;
you alone are God.
Teach me your way, O Lord,
that I may walk in your truth;
give me an undivided heart to revere your name.
I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart,
and I will glorify your name for ever.
For great is your steadfast love towards me;
you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.

O God, the insolent rise up against me;
a band of ruffians seeks my life,
and they do not set you before them.
But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
Turn to me and be gracious to me;
give your strength to your servant;
save the child of your serving-maid.
Show me a sign of your favour,
so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame,
because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me.

Genesis 21.7-21

And 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.’

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So 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.’ The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But 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 after you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.’ 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, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then 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. And 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. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ Then 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.

God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.

This is perhaps the saddest story in the Bible.  A terrible tale of inhumanity and bad religion, that seems to resonate all too loudly on a day when we think of the indigenous people of Canada, and of the renewed and continuing calls for anti-racist engagement.  And of fathers.  It’s profoundly uncomfortable.

Hagar is a young woman taken from her home in Egypt, enslaved to serve Sarah, entirely cut off from her people and fully subservient to her owner, Sarah’s husband Abraham.  When Sarah is unable to have a child, she forces Hagar into a sexual relationship with Abraham and Hagar bears his son Ishmael.  Sarah resents the small improvement in status that Hagar achieves because she is now the mother of the only heir.  Then Sarah does have a child, Isaac.  By the time the children are about three and five, they play together as brothers.  But Sarah’s only security for old age is in her son, so to protect his inheritance she insists that Hagar and Ishmael be removed from the equation.

It’s a paradigm of interracial injustice, with echoes of the stories of indigenous and African diaspora communities in North America.  First you enslave and exploit them.  Remove them from home.  Cut them off from their own culture and history.  Throw in sexual exploitation.  Then you disinherit them, make sure that whatever small property or potential they do have is taken away from them.  Make the least powerful among you – in this case Sarah – do the dirty work.  If things aren’t working out, let them die of neglect.  And do all this while thinking of yourself as a nice person.

Abraham, who is the only one with any authority in this family, is sublimely unaware of his privilege.  His supremacy.  All he wants is the large flocks and multitude of descendants that God has promised him.  He feels he deserves that. Probably feels he earned it.  He has no sense of how this desire of his is built on the subjection of others.  And in this telling of the story, God aids and abets him in his fantasy of himself as an innocent.  A simple man with an epic destiny.

Indeed, on a certain level you can read the whole of the Book of Genesis and into Exodus, as the story of false innocence and epic destiny.  From Adam through Noah and Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, and then Moses, it just seems that God’s favour and attention is fully absorbed by ensuring that these men prosper, no matter what their foibles.  The patriarchs, as they come to be known.  And the spirit of slightly befuddled entitlement and absolute self-interest that we see in Abraham came down through the centuries of Christian practice.

But there is a countertext that runs through these stories, a subtle countervailing story that says God is not all about Abraham.  Incline thine ear, cries Hagar in the words of the Psalm that Michael read, and God does.  It was feminist and womanist and Africana womanist scholars in the 80s who first looked at the story of Hagar through a different lens and saw the resonance with contemporary issues of feminism and racism.  And we can press this insight.  God saves Hagar and her child and leads them to a destiny of their own.  We note that Abraham is not part of that story – it’s not about his coming to awareness or opening his heart – he is just de-centred in that story.  Not in it.  This is not the only place in which we learn that the God of the Bible has a whole life of love and creativity outside the central narrative of the patriarchs.  To see and hear the true God you have to be ready to de-centre.

We need to listen to that countertext as we think about the contemporary calls for reconciliation with indigenous people, and for antiracist engagement. Especially those of us who are white need to be prepared to be de-centered in that work.  We can be like Abraham sometimes, thinking it is all about us.  Perhaps antiracism is not so much a call to open our circle as it is to find and join a wider circle, with humility and willingness to learn.

The story of Hagar reminds us that God’s love extends far beyond the limits of our social expectations and imagination.  It’s an invitation to see God’s healing and reconciling work in the world in places we hadn’t anticipated.  That wider circle of God’s beckons – when you are invited, go to a pow-wow if you aren’t indigenous, or a Juneteenth celebration if you are not black, or a Pride parade if you’re not gay.  That wider circle beckons and for this we give God thanks.  Amen.




Image:  Die Vertreibung Hagars – Jan Victors (1635) {PD Art Old / PD Art 100}

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