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Sunday, June 22, 2014

What Hagar and Rebekah and Maleficent Know
A Sermon preached at St. George's Chapel, Haberson, DE
(the Rev'd Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

Of all the stories in Hebrew Scripture, the stories of the tangled lives of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael and Isaac are, perhaps, the most heartbreaking.

I don’t know about you, but the story in Genesis about the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael we heard this morning just makes me weep every time I read it. And, for the record, I don’t think it has anything to do with the Gospel reading about family relationships and more to do with Paul’s epistle to the church in Rome. Indeed, I think this story of Sarah and Hagar has lots to do with the story of Rebekah and the Disney movie that’s just been released called “Maleficent”.

I think we have much to learn about the Gospel from Hagar and Rebekah and Maleficent.

Let me put their stories in context for you.

So, God made a covenant with Abram but neither he nor Sari are getting any younger and still, no baby. So, Sari takes matters into her own hands and devises a plan for Hagar, her Egyptian slave, to be a surrogate mother. Sari gives permission for her husband to have a child with Hagar so the promises of God can begin.

In ancient culture, status for women came through marriage, but higher status came through childbearing, So, while Hagar started out with lower status than her mistress, the roles between she and Sari flipped when Hagar got pregnant.

I’m going to ask you to stop and think for one minute about this.  Have you ever been in a situation where suddenly, you and your boss realize that your skills were better than his or hers? Or, what about when someone who works for you suddenly surpasses your ability or status? Exactly! Role reversal often brings instant conflict. Hagar starts looking down on Sari and Sari in turn becomes abusive to Hagar.

In oppressive systems, this is often called “lateral violence”. And, there’s absolutely no doubt that Sari and Hagar, like all women in antiquity and many women today, are trapped in an oppressive system.

So, Hagar runs away. God finds her and tells her to go back home, and basically, deal with it. God promises that Hagar’s offspring will also be so numerous that no one can count them, and that she should call her son Ishmael, which means, “God hears”.

God doesn’t stop there, saying, “He’ll be a wild ass of a man, fighting everyone, and everyone fighting him; he won’t even get along with his family.”  Great! Thanks, God! But, Hagar hangs on to what God has told her about the big family and the nation born through her son and she begins to call God, “El Roi” -“The One who sees”

It reminds me of something Bishop Tutu teaches. Members of the northern Natal tribes of South African greet one another daily by saying, in Zulu, “Sawa bona”, which literally means: “I see you.” The response is “Sikhona” which means: “I am here”. This exchange is important, for it denotes that ‘until you ‘see’ me, I do not exist; and when you ‘see’ me, you bring me into existence.  This leads to a humble spirit of Ubuntu – or “I am because you are.”
Perhaps some of you remember that wonderful moment in the James Cameron movie, Avatar. When the natives greet one another they say, “I see you.” Not, 'I see you,' like, 'I'm looking at you.’ Rather, ‘I see you’, meaning- 'I understand you, I am with you...'

Because, you know, part of the point of the story is exactly inside the name Hagar gives God. El Roi. God sees us. Not just on the outside. But, on the inside. How different would the world be if we “saw” each other on the inside - with the eyes of the heart – instead of just what’s on the surface? Le Sigh! Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the story...

Hagar goes back home and gives birth to Ishmael. Abram is delighted to have a son, and as Ishmael gets older he and have a father son relationship, teaching him how to hunt, and answering his questions about the stars and teaching him about God. The two of them play checkers on Saturday afternoons and go camping and all is right with the world.

But after a while, God takes Abram aside and says, "It’s great that you have a son, and I’m always going to take care of Ishmael, and he is going to be great, but you are still going to have a child with Sari. I made this covenant with you and I am not going to break my promise and it’s through this child, that I will keep that promise."  And God changes Abram’s name to Abraham, and Sari is known as Sarah. And Abraham, as a sign of the promise between them, circumcises himself and Ishmael and all the members of his household.

Personally, circumcision is not the way I would seal a promise, but, hey, what do I know?

So, when Ishmael is 13, and Abraham is 99 and Sarah is 90, Sarah has a baby and they realize why God calls him Isaac, because his name means laughter and if you don’t think that just the thought of 90 year old woman giving birth to a baby is funny… I mean, come on….. Personally, I think God was laughing about Abraham thinking that circumcising everyone was a good way to seal a promise, but again, hey, what do I know?

So, that brings us to today. Isaac is now old enough to be weaned, and Abraham has a big celebration, and absolutely everyone is there – he even invites his relatives from the old ranch – anyone who is still alive, and he parades Isaac around like the proud 102 year old papa he is.

And even though this should have been a great time for everyone, for Sarah? . . . Well, not so much. Because she knows that even though Isaac may be “the promised one” and God may have great plans for him, as a woman living in antiquity, her future is still not on solid ground. Birthright is the thing. In ancient times that meant that the oldest son inherits everything- and is even the spiritual leader of the family.

So as Sarah is mulling all of this over in her mind, she happens to go out back and sees 14 year old Ishmael playing with 3 year old Isaac and thinks to herself, "There is no way that THAT kid is going to be in charge of MY son."
And she marches straight to her husband, shifts Isaac to her hip and points a finger right at Abraham and says “You need to get that woman and her wild ass of a son out of our house! NOW!"   And she spins on her heels and storms out of the room.
And Abraham, like all good husbands, begins to think of ways around the problem- maybe let Sarah cool off for a while and then take her out for dinner? Maybe he should get a piece of jewelry – because, everyone knows that “Every kiss begins with K”?  Just when he is about to slip into despair, he hears that now familiar voice of God. “Let them go, Abraham. They will be ok. I’ll take care of them. I know it seems harsh but things have to happen this way- the birthright has to go to Isaac”  (Remember, this is Hebrew scripture.)

I’m not sure how he does it – because it’s a scene I can’t imagine playing out in my own life – but somehow, the next morning, Abraham gets up early, takes a water bag and a piece of bread, gives it to Hagar and tells her to go. He tries to say goodbye to Ishmael, but the boy doesn’t even look up to meet his eye, and he runs from his father into the wilderness. Hagar glares at Abraham and maintains his gaze a while as she walks into the wilderness known as Beer-sheba.

In my mind, the scene plays out like this: The desert is hot, and with a teenage boy along it doesn’t take long for them to run out of water.  Days go by, and the two grow weak. Hagar watches her son run out of energy, skin parched and burned by the sun, his walking slow and staggered, and finally the boy just collapses on the sand.  Hagar runs up to him and turns him to face her, but he is disoriented, and his breathing is shallow. She cries,"Oh My God… Don’t do this! Don’t take my son… please.. He’s all I have...  Please…"

And Hagar drags the boy over to a bush, and kneels down beside him and brushes the sand from his face. But when the boy doesn’t respond it all become too much for her and she stands up and puts her fist to the sky and screams “WHYYYY!!!”

Why would God let this happen?  Why, after the first time she ran away would God tell her to go back to Sarah if this is how it was going to end up?  Why would God begin her out here just to watch her son die?

"Why"….She has no other words… and she falls to the ground in a heap and just cries…
I’m not sure how long she was there like that – in that state of confusion and grief and dread – with her arms wrapped so tightly around her knees, rocking back and forth. It was quiet, and she hadn’t heard a sound from Ishmael in so long, but she is afraid to look, and so she rocks.
But then, a word from God breaks the silence…"I see you…"

Hagar looks up, eyes swollen and filled with tears, and she responds, “I see you”. And God brings Hagar over to Ishmael and helps her lift his frail shoulders in her arms. And God looks deep into her eyes and says, “Don’t be afraid, and hold him tight” And God gently touches Hagar’s eyes and she follows the path of God’s finger as it points. And there, not 50 yards away, is a well – a spring – a fountain of life-giving water that she hadn’t seen before- until God had opened her eyes. 
There is a beautiful quote from the children’s book, the little prince. "What makes the desert beautiful… is that somewhere it hides a well..." "But the eyes are blind. One must look with the heart".

God touched Hagar’s eyes and she looked, for the first time, with her heart. And they lived. And, Ishmael, just as God had promised, became a great nation.

The stories of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael and Isaac always leave me with more questions. Often, I am left angry and confused. I wonder what happens to Ishmael and Isaac. There is a little hint in the story – one I discovered not too long ago. It has to do with Rebekah.

It started when I was curious about the name of the desert into which Hagar and Ishmael fled. It’s known as Beer-sheba and Ishmael lived in Paran in the southwest wilderness.

We all know the other heartbreaking story of Abraham and Isaac – when Abraham understood himself to being tested by God and came very, very close to sacrificing his son – his very own son – for whom he had sacrificed his very own first born son, Ishmael. After that near death experience, we do not hear about Isaac again for a very long time. Indeed, when, at age 127, his mother Sarah dies, we do not hear that Isaac is present at her graveside to grieve her.

After Sarah was buried in a cave of the field, east of Mamre (that is, Hebron), in the land of Canaan, we read that Abraham declares that Isaac ought to have a bride and sends his servants out of Canaan and into Mesopotamia to find a suitable woman. Again, Isaac does not seem to be anywhere in sight.

Indeed, it isn’t until the servants are returning with his bride-to-be, a woman named Rebekah that we see Isaac. Scripture says he “emerges from Beer-la’hai-roi, and was dwelling in the Negeb”. (Genesis 24:62). It is then that you begin to realize that Isaac was, in fact, not living with his father. One can only imagine why not. I mean, if you had almost been killed by your own father, would you want to be anywhere near him? I imagine the young man might have been suffering with what we today know as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

If you look at a map, you will see that Isaac is not at all far from Beer-sheba and Paran. It raises for me the question of whether Isaac, after his traumatic experience with his father, sought out the comfort of his step-mother, Hagar and the companionship of his older brother Ishmael.

Anyway, Rebekah does an amazing thing when she meets Isaac for the first time. Scripture says she covers herself with a veil while the servant fills Isaac in on the story. Rebekah covers herself with a veil. It’s as if she understands that this man has been deeply damaged and needs time to heal before he can trust himself to love again.

Scripture says (Genesis 24:67) that “Isaac brought her into the tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.”

You know, in all of scripture, there are very, very few times when we are told that a husband loves his wife. Men “take” wives. They “buy” wives. The “own” many wives. But here, right here in scripture, it says, Isaac loved Rebekah.

Isaac saw something in Rebekah’s veiled face that said she saw him. She understood him. She knew him.  And, he loved her.  I see you, she said. And he said, I see you, too.

There is something about seeing and being seen that is absolutely central to the human existence. It’s the thing we all want, desperately, and yet fear most.

Indeed, there’s something about hearing and being heard that is also critically important to the human enterprise. We all want to be understood and understand and yet, while we’re often quick to blame others for not communicating, we fail to understand that communication is a two way street – it takes two – and we fail at it more often than we care to admit.

Prayer is the way we communicate with a God we can neither see nor hear, and yet we do so because, if we are not convinced that God can see and hear us, we live in the sure and certain hope that God is able to see us in our suffering and listens attentively to our cry.

Which brings us to the Gospel. Jesus says to the twelve disciples, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”

The wisdom of Hagar is that she knows that God is El Roi – The God who sees. God’s name for Hagar’s son is Ishamael – God hears.  Hagar knows centuries before the psalmist sings, “In the time of my troubles I will call upon you/for you will answer me.”

Hagar and Rebekah seem to know centuries before Jesus says, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered and nothing secret that will not become known.” Hagar and Rebekah also seem to know centuries before Paul writes his letter to the church in Rome that we must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God.  Indeed, Hagar brings her son Ishmael back to life and Rebekah brings Isaac slowly into trusting in love again and the new life that follows.

If you are still confused by this and if you get a chance, please do go see the movie Maleficent. This is the back story to the fairy tale, “Sleeping Beauty”. Maleficent is a very strong and powerful fairy living in the Moors, a magical realm bordering a human kingdom.   

Her story helps explain why good people do bad things sometimes and how greed and betrayal can harden the heart. It’s also about the damage that can be done when we seek retribution and revenge and the mystery and healing power of true love.

It’s about seeing ourselves and others in the way God sees us and how peace and harmony can come from an acknowledgement of what is hidden in the deep darkness of our own souls instead of choosing only to see the evil and sin in others.  Finally, the merger of the magical kingdom and the human kingdom comes about only when a conscious choice is made to embrace both/and and not either/or.

There is much to learn from these three women, Hagar, Rebekah and Maleficent.

It all begins when we see each other and are open to seeing God in each other. So, this morning, I’m going to ask you to turn to the person next to you and say, “I see you.” Now, turn the other way and say to that person, “I am here.”

God knows. God sees. God hears. That’s not the question.

The question is, are you willing to see God in each other?



JCF said...

"Of all the stories in Hebrew Scripture, the stories of the tangled lives of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael and Isaac are, perhaps, the most heartbreaking"

Agreed.We had young children reading the ("Message" trans.) lessons this morning, and it was especially cringe-tastic hearing this story read by a child. :-(

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - I can't even imagine it. I'm suddenly concerned about how the children were prepared to understand the story. Can you say more, JCF?

JCF said...

I'm not sure what more I can say. The little boy (maybe 8 or 9 years old?) read very well. The Message version certainly ends on an upbeat "Don't cry Hagar, I'll make a great nation of your son, too" note. They also did a "Godly Play" sermon . . . but it was on the 7-Day Creation, NOT the Abraham/Hagar/Ishmael story! ;-/

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, JCF. That's helpful

Bex said...

I did some research today for my lectionary class, and when I read your sermon just now it struck me how closely the Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness story parallels the binding of Isaac story. As you say, God makes Hagar see the spring, and God makes Abraham see the ram that God provides ("sees"), and makes Abraham see caught in the thicket. Karl Barth pointed out that the word provide (pro-vide) means "to see before," in that God is seeing what Abraham (and Hagar and we) need before we do. These are not only difficult stories to read, but also very powerful statements about faith.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for that insight, Bex. We still have much to learn.

MarkBrunson said...

I just don't think children should be sheltered from that story, or have it soft-soaped.

We learn empathy and compassion, largely by seeing abuses. The real enemy to compassion is not cruelty, but lack of knowledge of cruelty and injustice. It may be uncomfortable for adults to explain this story, to answer questions about why a man like Abraham and a woman like Sarah might've done such a thing, but we have to, if we want to raise humans, rather than just persons. I don't think we need to go to the mental gymnastics of some rabbinical traditions which give alternate possible translations of words to make Ishmael an idolator and sexual predator. You don't need that. You need to be honest with kids that, even in good people, there is weakness, jealousy and fear. That's how we learn to overcome them in us.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Mark, but I didn't say that children should be sheltered from the story or have it soft soaped. I was only expressing concern that SOME context/explanation of it was given before they were to read it aloud in church. That's all.

Didn't know about the alternate translation to make Ishmael an idolator and sexual predator. How awful! Sounds like some inherent racism going on there. Talk about lateral violence of oppressive systems. How does that help kids? Answer: It doesn't.