Families are Complicated

A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs for Pentecost 3, Proper 7 Year A                

Genesis 21: 8-21; Matthew 10:24-39

Families. Are. Complicated. I have yet to meet anyone who wouldn’t agree on this, and honestly , f someone told me that they had a perfect family I would wonder what they’d been smoking. The other day (on the way home from a visit to my family in Virginia), I heard someone on the radio comment that she couldn’t understand why some businesses advertise by saying, “We treat you like family.” Given the nature of most family dynamics, that should send most potential customers running in the other direction. But it doesn’t. Because the idea of family draws us even as it drives us nuts. But there you have it. It’s complicated.

And so it is with Hagar. Our first lesson this morning is a continuation of last week’s text from the Hebrew Bible, in which Sarah and Abraham become the proud parents of Isaac. But the Lectionary left out a chunk of the story. You see, after God promised that Sarah and Abraham would have a child, even at their advanced age,images-1 some time passed with no child, and Sarah began to panic–she ran out of patience. So she took matters into her own hands and said that Abraham should father a child with her Egyptian slave, Hagar.

And immediately things got, complicated. To make a long story short, Hagar, who as a slave had no choice in the matter, became pregnant by Abraham. Her relationship with Sarah soured (not surprising)—she became contemptuous of her mistress. Sarah in return became abusive of Hagar, and Hagar ran away. While in the wilderness God saw her, and told her to return to Sarah, but first announced to her that she would bear a son, Ishmael, and that he would be the progenitor of a great multitude of descendants. And in response, Hagar does something that no one else in the Bible does: She has the audacity to name God to God’s face; El-roi; “God who sees.”

Yet she is generally known only as the mother of Ishmael and then forgotten. She only appears two times in the Bible. (If you don’t count a reference to her in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.) Her story of slavery, abuse, rejection, and expulsion is a painful one. It is listed by theologian Phylis Trible as a “text of terror”. There is no way to whitewash it and still be a responsible reader of Scripture. There is always the temptation to avert our gaze from difficult episodes such as this. But if we did that we would be ignoring a substantial chunk of the Hebrew Scriptures. And we can’t do that, any more than we can avoid dealing with our own family dramas. This is the story of God’s family—the human family. And just as we need to find healthy ways of handling difficult relatives and dynamics, we can benefit from finding healthy ways of reading some pretty troublesome and disturbing stories in Scripture.

Which is one of the reasons the Jewish Bible study practice of Midrash is so helpful. This is an ancient tradition; a method of viewing scripture through the lens of questioning; of a conversational encounter, with God, with the writings of learned rabbis, and with each other. Midrash is a liberating tool that encourages wondering. We are encouraged to ask a crucial question: Where is God in this? The answers may be difficult, but with God’s help they can be fruitful and transforming.

So where to start a midrash exploration of Hagar’s story today? We see a woman who is doubly cursed: exiled from bondage, with no more than a little bread, water, and her child. In other words, she’s been cast out from frying pan into the fire. The story notes that Abraham is only distressed on his firstborn son’s behalf: As for any concern for the mother of Ishmael, he is simply following his wife’s instructions, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son.” You see, Ishmael jeopardizes God’s Promise to Abraham: “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them…So shall your descendants be.”* That’s the promise. But Sarah, in her impatience with God, had waited long enough. She had taken matters into her own hands, but now, confronted with the mistake of her lack of trust in God’s promise, she has sought to rectify it by effectively declaring a death sentence for the child and his mother. Where is God in this???

And this is where the midrash comes in. Let’s wonder. Abram sent Hagar away. “And she wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.” I wonder what Hagar encountered in the wilderness? Since midrash actually encourages inter-scriptural exploration, we can look at other stories of wilderness wandering in the Bible. Certainly the Israelites wandered, and there is a wealth of stories of their journey and their attempts (not always successful) to be faithful to God. Jesus wandered for 40 days after his baptism, tempted by Satan. Both the Israelites and Jesus faced challenges and emerged equipped for the future. John the Baptist emerged from the wilderness as a prophet. What about Hagar? Was she changed somehow? Did she and Ishmael talk with each other? By all calculations Ishmael was actually an adolescent, not an infant, but Midrash texts speculate that he was quite ill, which was why she had to carry him. Was he even conscious, or could Ishmael sense Abraham’s and Sarah’s rejection of him? I wonder–what demons haunted Hagar in the wilderness? Powerlessness? Resentment? Guilt? Fear? Grief? Did she rage at the God she had so courageously named to God’s face? Did she shake her fist at “God Who Sees”, now apparently blind to her plight? Midrash bids us ask, Where does it hurt, Hagar?

We can continue to wonder and wander the scriptural wilderness: What if she and Ishmael weren’t totally alone? Perhaps they were shadowed by the angel that later called out to her. Perhaps the angel heard every word of fury, recrimination and second-guessing and absorbed it, comprehending her pain. Perhaps, just maybe, God’s silence wasn’t divine rejection after all, but divine listening. I asked a minute ago if Hagar was changed. Maybe not, but what if God was changed? What if God was moved as Hagar wandered and struggled and fed the last crumb and drop of water to her son? Imagine God watching and listening as Hagar, spent and out of resources, did the only thing she could do; lament. As testimony to her pain and rejection and in grief for the child she was certain would die, she lifted up her voice and wept. There is no truer, more authentic prayer than lament; it is the dark night of the soul. And the silent, listening God heard her cries and took pity on her. “What troubles you, Hagar?” Where does it hurt?

A midrash exploration of Hagar’s time in the Wilderness is a fruitful way to engage the text and to discover God’s presence between the lines. When we can do this with Scripture we can perhaps learn to do this in our own lives; to ask, “Where is God in this?” But it should by no means minimize or marginalize suffering—ours or anyone else’s. There is always a risk that assurance of God’s abiding presence becomes mere platitude or Facebook meme, which does a huge disservice to those who suffer. We are meant to gaze upon Hagar’s story and to grieve for and with her; to witness to her abuse, rejection and exile. We are even within our rights to question God. Midrash encourages it.

For example, the fact remains that as Hagar was sent packing God was silent. This is, after all, a story about the Promise, and as such it speaks a hard truth. God promised Abraham and Sarah a legacy of countless heirs, and their rejection and exile of Hagar assured that legacy. But I still struggle with any general assumption that what happened to Hagar was God’s will. I simply don’t believe that God wills human suffering, Promise or no Promise. God didn’t tell Sarah to violate God’s trust and take matters into her own hands; Sarah chose to do that. God didn’t exile Hagar and Ishmael; Abraham did. The fact is that people do stupid, mean, cruel and thoughtless things to each other, but that doesn’t mean that God wills it, then or now. Like it or not, this story reflects the very real frailty of the complicated human family, and our family story is all-too-guilty of projecting our own baggage and selfish motives on God rather than looking in the mirror.

I read something the other day that sums it up: “I screamed at God for the starving child until I saw the starving child was God screaming at me.”**

The good news is that God perseveres. We can trust that. God continues to work within the framework of the gift of free will and the resulting complications and chaos that accompany it. In our Gospel today Jesus alludes to the same idea when he says that he will set a man against his father, daughter against mother; that one’s foes will be part of one’s household. God’s call entails the risk that relationships will be disrupted. But that stress on relationships is because of humans’ choices about how they will respond to God’s invitation to new, transformed and abundant life. Jesus’ entire life and ministry was about reminding everyone, from Temple authorities to lepers, that God is the God of the outsider, the rejected. The Hagars. Jesus knew that what he proposed was not the status quo, and that can be difficult for those who are afraid to risk change and for those who, like Sarah and Abraham, struggled to trust that God’s promise would be steadfast; that God will not give up on God’s dream, no matter how many times and ways we are tempted to screw it up.

So we must be clear-eyed about the suffering and trials of Hagar. We can’t soften their impact, though we can witness to her lament and, through closer and imaginative reading, ask her where it hurts. In doing that, we gain a window on our own lives and the lives of our neighbors. Hagar’s suffering is redeemed through us; it calls us to see and hear her lament in the abused, rejected and marginalized of our time, and it further calls us to offer them God’s healing wherever we can, like a well of cool water in the harsh wilderness. And by God’s grace and with God’s help, that’s not really complicated at all.

*Genesis 5:15   images-1** –unknown

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