July 17 Sermon

“Complex Covenant”
A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
July 17, 2016, the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Based on Genesis 16
(Scripture is in Italics, taken from the Common English Bible)

Today we begin an uncomfortable part of Abram & Sarai’s story. I have often said that the bible is not for children. The bible deals with adult decisions, adult matters, adult faith. I think children should know those stories – but most of the bible is not children’s stories. Today we are getting into a story about race and ethnicity, sexual fidelity in marriage, and abusive behavior.

Remember: Abram & Sarai wanted to have children. Children were seen as evidence of God’s blessing, of being allowed to participate in God’s ongoing care of the created universe. To not have children was seen as God withholding this blessing – in other words, some sort of indictment against the couple concluding that they should not contribute to the universe.

16 Sarai, Abram’s wife, had not been able to have children.

Since she had an Egyptian servant named Hagar, Sarai said to Abram,

“The Lord has kept me from giving birth, so go to my servant.

Maybe she will provide me with children.”

Abram did just as Sarai said.

He slept with Hagar, and she became pregnant.

Yes, you heard that right. Sarai has a servant, Hagar, a slave from Egypt, an African slave. Let’s just pause here a moment. Currently our news rings with Black Lives Matter, racial profiling, the unequal experience of police brutality. To say our nation has a problem with race is an understatement. And race, ethnicity, culture are part of this foundational story of faith. We have to wrestle with Hagar’s story as we discern how God is calling us to a more just society.

Since Sarai cannot provide Abram with a child, and since Sarai blames herself for this lack of children, Sarai tells Abram to sleep with her servant so that the servant can provide Abram with a child. This is a culture different than our own. This is a society different than our own. Since Hagar is Sarai’s property, she can give permission to Abram to use Hagar. In their culture, this is not infidelity: if Abram went to Hagar without Sarai’s permission or if Abram raped Hagar, he would be condemned. But since the permissions have been given, any children of this union would be legitimate members of Abram’s household – and also children of Sarai’s household. They understand this before Abram sleeps with Hagar.

There are a lot of ways this story is challenging. There is not one biblical model of marriage, sexuality, or family. We hold different cultural expectations of sexual fidelity. Nevertheless, we continue to uphold Abram as a father of faith – for Christians, for Jews, and for Islam.

But when {Hagar} realized that she was pregnant,

she no longer respected her mistress.

Sarai said to Abram,

“This harassment is your fault.

I allowed you to embrace my servant,

but when she realized she was pregnant,

I lost her respect.

Let the Lord decide who is right, you or me.”

Abram said to Sarai,

“Since she’s your servant,

do whatever you wish to her.”

So Sarai treated {Hagar} harshly,

and she ran away from {Sarai.}

This has a feeling like a soap opera! Sarai tells Abram to sleep with Hagar. Hagar gets pregnant. Hagar feels she has done something Sarai cannot do. Hagar loses respect for Sarai. Sarai blames Abram.

You can kind of see Abram throwing up his hands and saying “What do you want me to do? She’s your servant, she’s your responsibility, so you do what you feel is best” – but that is letting Abram off the hook too easily.

I read a lot of commentary claiming Abram is blameless here: he did what his wife asked, it’s not Abram’s fault that Sarai is angry, so let Sarai deal with her own anger. There is also a lot of commentary faulting Abram for his feet of clay. “Aw, shucks, Sarai, I’ll do what you want me to do. Now that you’re mad at Hagar, you do what you want and I’ll go along with it.” There is also a lot of commentary that concludes these are the kinds of problems that happen when men allow women to make decisions. Abram is cast as having abnegated his male authority, and so this story becomes a lesson for men to take back control before the situation gets out of control.

These variations pity Abram, and try to excuse his role in this situation. I don’t think any of those descriptions matches Abram I think the story demands a more complex interpretation. I think dramas like this too easily dwell on the salacious details, and too quickly degenerate into gossip. I think we, as people of faith who claim to be part of the Abrahamic heritage, part of the covenant given to Abraham, require more attentiveness to this sort of experience.

This is a human story, a story of wants and promises, a story of relationships and decisions, a story of imperfect choices because there were no perfect choices.

Can we forgive Abram? Can we forgive Hagar for going along with this? Can we forgive Sarai – her behavior here is not commendable either. Sarai clamped down on, mistreated, treated hard and harshly, dealt cruelly, demeans, torments, humiliates, beats, afflicts, oppresses, and abuses Hagar. (That’s a summary of various English translations of this phrase.) Sarai’s behavior is so aggressive that Hagar ran away. Hagar feels she is better off in the desert wilderness alone. than if she stayed with the nomadic group that Abram and Sarai lead.

I’ve felt like that at times in my life – feeling like I was safer without anyone than to remain with people who are most familiar and intimate to me. I have quit, withdrawn, retreated, isolated myself – but I never left society for the wilderness.  Hagar feels she is safer alone in the desert than to be around these people.

I think as we uphold Father Abraham as a patriarch of faith we too often overlook this important part of this story. Where is Abram as Sarai is abusive? We dismiss this behavior because we know the greater story arc that is Abraham and Sarah’s life story.

But I think this is an important part of the story that needs more of our attention for many reasons. God doesn’t call perfect people, and many of the biblical stories tell us about these characters’ flaws – and yet, God can and does use them to make God’s grace and love known. But evidence of God’s love and grace does not justify bad behavior.

Faith leaders can demonstrate abusive behavior that drives away people from our faith community. How do we hold them accountable? You’ll soon begin listing qualities you desire in a settled pastor. What characteristics can you overlook – or perhaps more kindly, what characteristics can you accept even when they are not the most productive, the most loving, the most grace-filled behaviors?

And what is our responsibility to people who have been injured by communities of faith? What do we owe people who have been hurt by leaders in other denominations? What does this congregation owe to people who have been hurt by members of this congregation? What do we owe to people who, like Hagar, have decided isolation is better than remaining?

The Lord’s messenger found Hagar at a spring in the desert,

and said,

“Hagar! Sarai’s servant!

Where did you come from and where are you going?”

She said,

“From Sarai my mistress. I’m running away.”

The Lord’s messenger said to her,

“Go back to your mistress.

Put up with her harsh treatment of you.”

 “I will give you many children,

so many they can’t be counted!”

 “You are now pregnant and will give birth to a son.

You will name him Ishmael

because the Lord has heard about your harsh treatment.

12 He will be a wild mule of a man;

he will fight everyone, and they will fight him.

He will live at odds with all his relatives.”

15 Hagar gave birth to a son for Abram, and Abram named him Ishmael.

16 Abram was 86 years old when Hagar gave birth to Ishmael for Abram.

Hagar is being told she is pregnant, and the bible will describe her child will as ancestor of all Arab peoples. It is hard for me to keep track of all of this, so I had to retrace it for myself. Abraham originally comes from Chaldea, which is somewhere in ancient Babylon, what we would now call Iraq. Abram and Sarai have moved into a land inhabited by Canaanites – that is, people of the land of Cana. Canaanites is an umbrella term, sort of like “Native American”, people who are not Babylonian nor Egyptian nor Arab. They are Phoenician and Philistine and Assyrian – what today we might call Jordanian and Turkish with a bit of Greek, Croatian, and Serbian mixed in just to keep things complex. Abraham and Sarah’s descendants through Isaac (whose birth story is coming up) are the people of Israel. Abraham and Hagar’s descendants through Hagar are considered Arab.

At this moment, a messenger of the Lord – which when we move from Hebrew of the Old Testament to Greek of the New Testament would be translated as angellion, which gives us the English word “angel” – this messenger of God promises Hagar the same thing that Abram and Sarai have been promised: so many children they cannot be counted.

For a couple of millennia Christians have claimed to hold a special relationship with God through their relationship with Jesus who is Christ. And because of that special relationship, Christians have many times and in many ways claimed that their relationship with God is exclusive, as though God’s blessing is withheld from those who are not Christian. But I think this fundamental story of the bible, this story of Abraham who is patriarch for Christian, Jew, and Muslim, shows that God’s blessings given to one does not mean God withholds blessing from another. This story proclaims that they are blessed differently. Black Lives matter and Blue Lives Matter – but because they matter differently, we must respond differently in pursuit of justice and by living with grace. And if this story is our example, the different blessings are actually pretty similar: Abram and Sarai have been promised descendants that will number as many as grains of sands in the desert or stars in the sky; Hagar has been promised her descendants will number so many they cannot be counted.

So why are we treating one another so harshly? How do we appreciate difference and still respect the common humanity that unites us? How will Lyonsville minister to those who are running away, those who have been hurt, and also to those who have done the hurting? This story does not offer any easy answers. Instead it leaves us with complex questions of how we will live as a covenanted community of healing for all.

Here ends the reading and the sermon. Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

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