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Dean's Corner
Reflection 6.21.2020

By The Very Rev. Judith A. Sullivan                                                                                                                                

We human beings love to tell ourselves exceptional stories about the origin of persons and institutions that are important to us.  The more invested we are in these foundational stories, the less concerned we often seem to be when unflattering facts that challenge their veracity are swatted away or are omitted altogether. How much harm can there be, really, in glossing over a few unpleasant details that interfere with our lofty impressions of who we are and where we came from?  Except that what we may be left with is a wholly misleading account that is then repeated, written down, and passed on from generation to generation within families, nations, and even religious traditions. Sometimes they are accounts that hide ugly and shameful truths which we would rather ignore, forget, or never know.

Yes, Abraham was the father of two great nations.  Yes, one of those nations was born through the survival of an African slave woman and her son whom he sent into the wilderness to die. It’s a vicious story that we hear today.  It’s important to say that the fact that it is shared in the Book of Genesis is a matter of divine inspiration and not a courageous act of inclusion by the writers or the editors. There’s no attempt at balance or cultural sensitivity here.

This story is more a reflection of the cultural norms of a time when it was not remarkable for men to have multiple wives and concubines. A time when the subjugation and enslavement of other human beings was simply a matter of course and would elicit not even a raised eyebrow of disapproval or judgment. So why is this story even included here?  Why does Hagar, the mother of another nation that later becomes a bitter enemy of the Israelites, appear in these, their own, foundational scriptures? 

Not surprisingly, this is not the whole story. Our regular Sunday lectionary reading tells us today what God said to Abraham, but there is so much more to be realized by sharing what God said to Hagar:  

Well before Sarah laughed and she conceived a son Isaac who would lead a nation with heirs as countless as the stars, Sarah gave her handmaid Hagar, an Egyptian slave of African descent, to Abraham to breed a son and heir for the two of them to take as their own. When Hagar became pregnant, she looked with contempt upon the barren Sarah who became outraged by the impudence of her slave.  Sarah’s treatment of her slave then became so abusive that the pregnant Hagar ran away.

When she was discovered by a spring of water in the wilderness, the angel of the Lord said to [Hagar], “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.” The angel of the Lord also said to her, ‘I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.’ And the Lord said to her, ‘Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction . . .”

It is a remarkable moment between a slave woman of no rank and the Holy One of Israel in the wilderness and it rivals even the intimacy of God’s holy encounters with Moses. Although she is asked to return and to submit to her mistress, she also, like Abraham, receives promises directly from God. Calling her by her name, God offers a different covenant, promising another nation, and a child who will be called Ishmael, meaning “God hears.”  Hagar, in turn, responds by boldly giving the Holy One a name that also appears nowhere else in scripture, El-roi, meaning “God who sees.” 

Hagar’s story appears in the Hebrew Scriptures because God hears and God sees. God hears and God sees the contextual cultural bias and prejudice that seeps through stories like Hagar’s, even when it is invisible to those telling the story from within their Holy Scriptures. And God’s larger imperative of justice, freedom, and abundance of life for all of God’s creation will not be denied.  Despite the limits of human vision and the narratives that we create and cling to about ourselves and others, the actions and interventions of God cannot be circumscribed, walled off, or reserved for ourselves or any group with which we identify.  God will surprise us; God will challenge our assumptions; and God will insist upon the justice that Jesus proclaims for every one of God’s beloved when he says, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master.” Dr. King affirmed this divine, though often elusive, trajectory when he commented, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

We trust that, like Hagar, the Lord will give heed to our affliction, too. We trust that we also share in a future with hope, that “justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” But while we see glimmers of hope and believe that the arc of that moral universe is an inevitability, it may also be very long. Too long.  Already too long.  

Abraham and Sarah were products of their historical context, cultural fears, and norms and so are we. They are convenient foils for us this morning, but we cannot condemn their limitations without considering our own. This vicious story of Hagar and Ishmael sent into the wilderness to die begs us to question the insidious violence rooted in the foundational stories of our nation and our church. It begs us to do the painful work of examining our family histories, and the thoughts of our most private, inner selves.  For white persons, the vicious deaths of so many persons of color at the hands of law enforcement propel us to ask what cruelty has been performed on our behalf to preserve the unjust systems that assure our privilege and position? What stories have we heard and accepted without question or overlooked that perpetuate them? And for persons of color, I can only begin to understand the pain, trauma, and loss inflicted by the relentless and evil racial narrative that has been imposed upon you for generations by the dominant culture.

God hears and God sees.  It is well past time now for all of us to do the same.  Time for us to join anew in the work for the justice that will bring the healing and the abundance of life and dignity that God intends for each member of the human family. More is required of us if we are to contribute to ending the racism in this country that grieves the loving heart of God and that destroys the warp and weave of our society. More is required of us as followers of Jesus who seek to pick up the cross of their own unrecognized racism and follow. We cannot lose this moment for real and lasting change. AMEN

Last Published: June 25, 2020 1:17 PM