A Matter of Heart

Martha C. Langford Third Presbyterian Church
March 4, 2012 Genesis 16:1-15; Mark 8:27-38; Genesis 21:1-12

When I think of what it means to celebrate the gifts of women—I think of women like my grandmother.

My grandmother, Grace, came from a farm family. She was one of thirteen surviving children born to her father and a series of four wives. It seems that bearing children in rural America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a very hazardous undertaking.

With a family this big, we have our saints and our sinners, our hard workers and our black sheep. There are some family stories that are well rehearsed (like my Uncle Dewitt), and some that I have only just heard during my last visit to Texas.

It seems that my great-grandfather’s fourth wife (who remains nameless in Mom’s retelling) was the cause for my grandmother’s early leave-taking from the bosom of her family.

After the death of her own mother, Grace’s father remarried a woman not much older than she was. This woman took her place as head of the house and used that position to extract labor from her step-children without contributing her own strength to the family enterprise.

She was—in my mom’s words—pretty, lazy, and bossy.

If I were twelve, this story would bring up visions of Disney’s Cinderella—but today it rings my ears more like the Brothers Grimm original.

The final straw came while Grace was at the river, doing the family laundry, only to be summoned to the house to cook the next family meal—it seems the younger sister assigned to cook had taken ill.

When Grace refused to leave the task at hand, judging her step-mother perfectly capable of doing it herself, her step-mother appealed to my great-grandfather who ordered Grace to the kitchen under threat of violence.

With all the dire things that might have happened, what actually occurred was astonishing to me. My gentle grandmother turned, began to calmly separate her laundry from the family laundry. She folded it wet. She then gathered a few additional possessions from the house and left home to make her way in the world at age 16.

It took five decades before I heard this part of my grandmother’s story; because—with its implied oppression and violence—it is NOT an easy story to tell.

Hagar’s story doesn’t come up in our assigned Bible readings very often—only once every three years. AND if we stick to the official list of verses, we never hear the beginning of the story found in Genesis 16. We never hear about the oppressive circumstances of Ishmael’s conception; never witness the resulting rivalry when Hagar’s pregnancy becomes known.

If we stick to the list, we need never acknowledge the cruelty and the hopelessness that impels Hagar into the wilderness. We never confront the difficult words of God’s messenger, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.”

Abraham and Sarah are among the founding fathers and mothers of our faith, and frankly, I am ill-at-ease with their actions despite the cultural setting that makes them legal. Most of all, I am startled by God’s response to Hagar’s suffering, which does not seem to include liberation or justice, equity or peace.

It is NOT an easy story to tell, and so we seldom tell it.

So who is this Hagar? The text tells us that she was an Egyptian slave girl, with enough status to become a second wife to Abram. Yet, status or not, Hagar was Sarai’s possession, and was powerless to stop Sarai from using Hagar’s body as a means to get an heir for 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” (Gen 16:2).

Hagar was a tool, a tool that Sarai used to control her own future as part of God’s promise.

Hagar was Sarai’s way to rely on herself rather than trusting in God.

In this story, Hagar becomes very much like the fruit which Eve offered Adam, only this time the consequences of such brokenness were suffered by the innocent.

Hagar becomes Abram’s possession as he took her to wife, and given that she lacked power and standing to refuse him, we would call Abram’s ensuing conduct sexual abuse or—more starkly—rape.

When Hagar became pregnant, she seemed to exhibit less esteem for Sarai. [Go figure!] Feeling demeaned, Sarai made a formal legal complaint to Abram who then gave Hagar back into her possession.

Hagar endured violence at Sarai’s hand, and became the Bible’s first runaway slave. She pre-figured the narrative of the Exodus, by becoming the first biblical character to escape oppression by fleeing into the wilderness.

For a few brief moments, Hagar had control of her future, even if that future was limited to her death in the wilderness.

It’s a funny story for a celebration—again, more Brothers Grimm than Disney, no happy ending in sight. But today, we get to listen in on her wilderness encounter with God.

It is a place where Hagar became the first person visited by a divine messenger, the only woman to receive a divine promise of descendants, and the only person to name God.

And these firsts join many others—as Francis Taylor Gench reminds us, Hagar is ”the first woman in the ancestor stories to bear a child, the first surrogate mother, the first slave to be freed, the first divorced wife, the first single parent and the first person to weep…”

We celebrate Hagar because her life is pivotal.

She also becomes the first person who God commands back into captivity—hard words that scholars have worked hard to explain, imagining what they might tell us about the God who was not blind to Hagar’s plight, whom she named, El Roi, the one who sees. We are left to wonder if God’s ultimate concern was Hagar and Ishmael’s survival; or if God somehow intended there be more to Hagar’s story than a desperate flight into Egypt.

Upon her return, Hagar made a life for herself and her son in that place of estrangements. And Ishmael was circumcised with all the men and boys of Abraham’s camp as God renewed the promise of heirs and land and covenant.

We rejoin Hagar’s story in Genesis 21, fourteen years after her first escape. We find that the enmity between Sarah and Hagar has only gone dormant—like a volcano seething beneath the surface. It erupted at Isaac’s weaning, where the sight of Ishmael and Isaac engaged in innocent play, made Sarah fearful for her son’s inheritance.

Again with the imbalance in power at work, Hagar found herself legally divorced and pushed into exile with GOD’S SPOKEN APPROVAL. Again, she prefigures the story of Israel’s exile that threatened the chosen people with assimilation and death.

As the water and bread given her were exhausted, Hagar waited to die weeping over the anticipated death of her son. But, it was Ishmael, aptly named “may God hear” whose cries brought God’s attention and intervention.

Finally, Hagar became one whom God resourced with life-giving water, one whom God destined for survival.

It’s not quite a Disney ending. Yet, the characters of Hagar’s story bear a sense of modernity. Feminist biblical scholar Phyllis Trible lays it out this way… “all sorts of rejected women find their stories in [Hagar]:”

She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless woman, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures, the welfare mother, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others.

Who might Hagar be for you?

For me, Hagar is my grandmother.

Shortly after she left home, my grandmother found work as a switchboard operator. Being underage, her father was entitled to collect her wages. When she received her first paycheck, her father showed up to demand the money. Grace told him quietly but firmly that he could take this week’s salary, but it would be the last time that he would ever find her.

He left—without the money.

I want—SO MUCH—for Hagar’s story to have that kind of emphatic ending. To reach a conclusion that would resemble justice and equity and perhaps even “happily ever after.”

But, as Phyllis Trible explains, “Hagar [only] foreshadows Israel's pilgrimage of faith through contrast. As a maid in bondage, she flees from suffering. Yet she experiences exodus without liberation, revelation without salvation, wilderness without covenant, wanderings without land, promise without fulfillment, and unmerited exile without return.”

In fact, when Hagar’s story ends in Genesis 21, she was still in the wilderness of Paran with her son and his people.

So why does it matter? Why should we tell Hagar’s story? And how, how might we celebrate her gifts?

It matters because Hagar and Sarah and Abraham are central to the three Abrahamic faiths.

In the Jewish traditions—Hagar’s story comes to us, carefully repurposed by early priestly editors to demonstrate God’s preference for God’s chosen people. At the story’s conclusion, God’s covenantal promises do not extended to Abraham’s son Ishmael, even though he shares the sign of circumcision with the covenantal family that once surrounded him.

In the Christian tradition, the Apostle Paul repurposes the story of Hagar in his letter to the Galatians. For Paul, Hagar represents those destined for slavery—equating slavery with the covenant of law. Paul is emphatic, those “freed” become a part of the covenant of grace and the children of that covenant are become the inheritors of God’s promises.

In the Muslim tradition—Hagar is a revered matriarch, mother of Ishmael, and ancestor to the prophet Mohammed. Hagar’s story connects the faithful to the promises of God. Her story is central to Islamic practice. Karen Thomas Smith explains that “Hagar’s desperate search for water is reenacted by thousands upon thousands of pilgrims every year in the… final act of the Hajj, as they run seven times between the hills of Safaa and Marwa.” They celebrate her struggle and her desperation and her divinely guided survival.

Central to three faiths, the stories of Hagar and Abraham and Sarah have been used to build barriers, to formulate exclusive connections to God, to lay sole claim to God’s special blessing.

So, in this Lenten season, perhaps should tell Hagar’s story as a cautionary tale…

Francis Gench writes, “this haunting story demands attention because it is foundational… Judaism, Christianity and Islam… lay claim to the promise…. And as children of Sarah and Hagar, we have inherited their conflict.”

It is a conflict that still seethes like a dormant volcano.

Last week, I participated in a conversation on articulating faith in ways that are simple and authentic and that move us to know the God who claims us rather than claim a God of whom we have control.

One of the women explained her reason for entering this conversation—as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan go on, she hears people who are dedicated Christians talk about “killing them all.” It is their solution to the political, cultural, and religious struggles that have their roots in Hagar’s story.

“Kill them all, let God sort them out” is the bumper sticker language.

“Killing THEM all” she said—“as if THEY don’t belong to God too.”

She was seeking language to articulate a faith that understands that everyone and everything in all of creation belongs to God.

She was seeking language to articulate Christian practice that does exercise not domination, but seeks instead to serve.

She was seeking language for a Christian community that does not practice exclusion, but seeks to connect with the world as the sacrificial body of Christ.

She was seeking the language of the sacrificial love of God.

In our gospel reading today, Peter got his first real glimpse of Christ, the son of the living God. But his understanding of God’s purpose was completely clouded by Peter’s own desires. Jesus talks of suffering and death—when Peter wanted to write a much more emphatic ending. Peter, like Sarai, wanted control of the future, control of the promise, control of his God!

Don’t we, sometimes, act just like Peter… just like Sarah?

Jesus rebuked Peter because he would not have his difficult story repurposed to express earthly power. Instead, Jesus called out to the crowd, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

It is the Sunday when we celebrate the gifts of women; not their power, but their strength and resolve, their struggles and perseverance, their faithfulness and trust in God.

So I wonder, having heard Hagar’s story, how do we celebrate Hagar’s gifts?

I think that perhaps we celebrate Hagar’s gifts when we see our own brokenness, and repent of those places where we use our power to make others bear heavy burdens—when we repent the actions of Sarai toward her maid servant.

I think that perhaps we celebrate Hagar’s gifts when we lay down our claim to a god we can control and find ourselves claimed by a God in whom we trust—even in the midst of the wilderness.

I think that perhaps we celebrate Hagar’s gifts when we use our power to lift heavy burdens from Hagar’s sisters and daughters and brothers and sons—when at least we learn what it means to take up our cross and follow the Christ who loves and claims us all.



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