November 15, 2015 Genesis 21:8-21
Chapter 12 of Genesis begins with the Lord speaking to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation.” Years passed. That great nation required an heir, and Sarai was well beyond child bearing age. What to do? She came up with a solution: “Go in to my slave girl”; she tells Abram, “it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” So Hagar, her Egyptian slave girl, conceived and bore Abram a son Ismael. He then took her as his wife. I should preface that none of this was an uncommon practice at the time. So here is where our story begins:
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.
This story is over 3,000 years old, and yet it sounds like it came out of the National Enquirer. We read about all of this today: polygamy, infertility, surrogate mothers, and even slavery. It’s got all the “isms” - sexism, racism, classism, and all the ingredients of a juicy novel: conflict, jealousy, cat fights, spousal and child abuse, competition over inheritance, injustice and life threatening dangers.
Here we have Abraham, the first great patriarch of the nation of Israel, and father of the ultimate dysfunctional family. You gotta hand it to the writers: they didn’t try to sugar coat these characters. They present them - warts and all. Update it and it would make a titillating soap opera.
These three weeks we’ve been talking about strong women in the Hebrew Scriptures, and here we have two, both living under the same roof; both conceiving and giving birth to male sons of the same man. From which one will come the great nation God has promised Abraham? This is where the story gets real messy and complicated. Will it be Sarah, the long standing matriarch of the family, who’s put up with a lot from wimpy Abraham over the years, including being sold to the Pharaoh years ago as his sex slave, or her Egyptian slave girl, now Abrahams’ second wife and mother of his first born who is the rightful heir? Sounds like a soap opera to me.
But this story has something that soap operas don’t. What is it?
The voice of God. And it’s not always a voice many of us would associate with a God we believe in. Throw your wife Hagar and your son Ismael out of the house and into the desert because your jealous wife Sarah tells you to? Earlier in Genesis God tells Hagar, who’s run away from an abusive Sarah, to go back. What kind of God is that?
I’m not here to answer that question today, although it is a good one, but I will say we have to keep in mind that the writers weren’t writing historical documents like we think of today. And like many down through the millenniums, it may have more to do with what we think we are hearing, than what God is actually saying. During that time, they really did think of God as a puppeteer up there pulling the strings.
For me, this is as much a theological text as an historical one. I don’t believe that Abraham lived to be 175 years old or Sarah actually gave birth at 90. I think it has more to do with the writers talking about God making a covenant with Abraham, and despite he and Sarah’s misadventures and warts, (none of us are perfect) God keeps the promise. God is there with them through all the trials and turmoil.
But God’s promise wasn’t just to Abraham and Sarah. God make the same promise to Hagar and Ishmael.” 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.’
Ismael grows up under divine protection, becomes an expert bowman, marries an Egyptian woman, has 12 children and becomes the father of a great nation himself, just as God promised. Ultimately the nearly one billion people who follow Islam today would trace their heritage back to Abraham through Ishmael, and his mother Hagar, who raised him.
When I look at this story, and the present situation in the Middle East, I can’t help but think that the conflicts began right there. As Bill Moyers says in his study of Genesis: “This triangle does set off fireworks, and by the dawn’s early light Judaism and Islam go their separate ways.”
We Christians too are part of the Abrahamic tradition. And we too have found ourselves over the centuries in conflict with Islam and Judaism. In an editorial in the Globe this week we were reminded that a mere 50 years ago here in Boston, it was “common to hear Jews denounced as ‘Christ-killers’, or to attend masses that ended with a prayer ‘for the conversion of the Jews.’ Vandals spray painted USA repeatedly on the exterior walls of the Islamic Center of Burlington, MA this month. The group says it reflects growing anti-Islamic sentiment that Muslims are not real Americans.
Why can’t we all just get along? This story tells us, in plain language, that God is here for all of us. That is the most important message I get from this passage. And yet, there are people from each of our traditions who don’t want to hear it, who refuse to believe it. That way they can perpetuate the myth that somehow they are the chosen ones, and nobody else. And where does that lead? - to the horrific events in Paris and Beirut this week.
The scriptures also tell us that when Abraham dies, Issac and Ishmael come back together to bury him. It’s a powerful message - one we need to be reminded of. They are both Abraham’s sons. If Ishmael held any animosity towards Abraham for what he did, all seemed to be forgiven. Both sons have a relationship to God.
This passage also says to me that God still hears us crying in our pain in the wilderness, in our darkest hours. We often find our greatest strength when faced with adversity. It’s when we hear that still speaking God. God is instructing us to lift each other up, and hold each other fast. The path to redemption and transformation is there, if only we can open our eyes to see it. Then we too can create great nations.
I’ve been pairing each week a woman today who exemplifies the strength of these women in scripture. Although the circumstances are far different, the young woman who both Reebee and I thought of was Malala Yousafzai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. If you haven’t heard her acceptance speech, I recommend going on line and listening. She’s an inspiration, an old soul with wisdom far beyond her years and strength and courage to match.
In a TED Talk her father spoke of the plight of women: “If we glance at human history, the story of a woman is the story of injustice, inequality, violence and exploitation, especially in a patriarchal or tribal society.” That was the society of Sarah and Hagar. “Girls are to be very quiet, humble and submissive.” He raised Malala to be anything but that.
He was a teacher, and from a very young age Malala was present in his classroom. In the opening of her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, she acknowledges his influence.
“Thank you to my father for not clipping my wings and letting me fly. Thank you to all of my teachers who inspired me to believe in myself and be brave.”
With time she grew to be a student in his classroom.
“I always loved learning and discovering new things…We had a thirst for education because our future was right there in that classroom…We would sit there with big dreams in our eyes.”
But things were not to remain the same. At the tender age of 10, the beautiful Swat Valley that she loved and called home suddenly turned into a place of terrorism, brought on by the Taliban.
“…more than 400 schools were destroyed. Women were flogged. People were killed and our beautiful dreams turned into nightmares. Education went from being a right to being a crime. Girls were kept from going to school. I had two options: One was to remain silent and wait to be killed. The second was to speak up and then be killed. I chose the second one. I decided to speak up. We could not just stand by and see those injustices of the terrorists denying our rights; ruthlessly killing people and misusing the name of Islam. … We decided to raise our voice and tell them: ‘Have you not learned that in the Holy Koran Allah says ‘You kill one person and it’s as if you kill the whole humanity. Do you not know that Mohammed, peace be upon him, the prophet of mercy, he said ‘Do not harm yourself or others?’”
And for raising her voice, she was shot point blank in the head and almost lost her life. Malala, along with her family were transported to the UK where she received medical treatment that saved her life. They remain there today. It is unsafe for them to return to their home. Her father describes their world turning into a black hole.
“While my daughter was on the verge between life and death, I whispered into the ears of my wife, ‘Should I be blamed for what happened to my daughter and your daughter? And she told me, ‘Please don’t blame yourself. You stood for the right cause. You put your life at stake for the cause of truth, for the cause of peace and for the cause of education. And your daughter was inspired by you. God will protect her.”
And like Hagar in the desert, God protected Malala, and she taught her parents how to be resilient in the most difficult of times.
“The Taliban could take our pens and books, but they couldn’t stop our minds from thinking.”
And they couldn’t silence their voices, which have only grown louder and louder.
“I tell my story, not because it is unique, but because it is not. It is the story of many girls. I tell their stories too. I’m not a lone voice. I am those 66 million girls who are deprived of education. I speak not for myself, but so those without a voice can be heard. Those who have fought for their rights: their right to live in peace, their right to be treated with dignity, their right to equality of opportunity, their right to be educated.”
She speaks for the Hagars' of this world. She reached out to Kailash Satyarthi, a Hindu from India, who she shared the Peace Prize with, and sees how their two counties, not exactly friendly neighbors, can join in a common struggle for education, and against extremism.
“Why is it that countries that we call strong are so powerful in creating wars but are so weak in bringing peace? Why is it that giving guns is so easy, but giving books is so hard? Why is it that making tanks is so easy but building schools is so hard? We are living in a modern age and we believe that nothing is impossible. I’m just a committed, and even stubborn person who wants to see every child getting quality education, who wants peace in every corner of the world. This is the cause to which I devote my life.”
These three weeks we have lifted up three incredibly strong women in our world today: Isaura Mendes, Marian Wright Edelman and Malala Yousafzai.
Where do they get their strength? What can they teach us about finding our own strength?
For an answer I first turned to scripture, Psalm 18:
I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock, my
fortress, and my deliverer,
my God, my rock in whom I
my shield, and the horn of my
salvation, my stronghold.
Powerful words. Like Ruth, Miriam, Shiphrah, Puah, Sarah and Hagar, who all turned to God in their time of need, these modern women are people of deep and abiding faith. They are not going it alone.
Out of that faith comes hope. They don’t give up.
Out of that faith comes compassion for others. They see the pain and suffering of those around them, and in some cases, around the world, and are moved to alleviate it.
Out of that faith comes passion for a cause which has become their life’s work.
Out of that faith comes vision, of how to make the lives of others, and the world, a better place.
All three have faced suffering of some kind in their own lives, but instead of being defeated by it, they rose to overcome it, and it has made them stronger.
I attended a meeting last week of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. One of the speakers said to us: When the needs of the community, the passions of the congregation, and the vision of the leadership all come together, this is a kairos moment. That’s a theological term meaning a successful moment for decision making and action. I asked those on the Leadership Council to name a need in our community and a passion they have. I ask you to do the same. It’s out of the needs and our passion that our vision will come, and the strength to act on it. In this way we will be able to dream God’s dream for our world.