A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
June 21, 2020
We pick up the biblical story today in the middle of the story of Abraham and Sarah. God has promised Abraham that his offspring will be more numerous than the stars in the sky. Many nations will arise from his offspring.
Which would be great. If only he had offspring. Even one.
Sarah, poor thing, is stuck in the middle of a patriarchal culture that only rewards women for their ability to have children. And blames women entirely when children don’t arrive. In her 90’s, she’s beyond desperate.
And we trust they want to believe the story God has told them—about multitudes of generations and all that. But it seems too miraculous for them to believe. And, as we do, Abraham and Sarah decide to take over the telling of their story.
And Hagar the Egyptian slave is instructed to go get pregnant with Abraham’s child so Sarah can claim the baby as her own. Don’t we just love biblical marriage?
Does anyone think this will end well?
No, we do not.
Hagar has even less control of her life than Sarah does, so she becomes a pawn in someone else’s story.
Hagar gets pregnant, as Sarah wanted her to.
Which ticks Sarah off, because humans are terrible, apparently.
Sarah and Abraham again try to take authorship of the story God is trying to tell. They thought they were desperate because they forgot God was writing the story. Their fear kept them from trusting God knew what God was doing.
And so, when Isaac shows up, five chapters later, in the passage we heard this morning, a whitewashing campaign begins. The mere presence of Ishmael at the dinner table is more than Sarah can handle. He must be erased. That story line can go no further. Sarah has believed the lie that our lives are not connected and she has believed the lie that tells her to fear the other, the lie that says we aren’t on this earth for each other.
And so Abraham tells Hagar and his first born son Ishmael to pack their bags, gives them a gallon of gatorade, and sends them off to the wilderness. “Its nothing personal,” I’m sure he told them. “I wish it could have worked out differently, of course. I hear the wilderness is delightful this time of year. You’ll have a great time on this camping trip. It will be an adventure.”
I don’t like Abraham.
The way Abraham and Sarah try to erase the story they had set in motion—ugh—as if the lives of Hagar and Ishmael were just the cost of doing business.
This story makes me feel dirty.
I don’t want to read it.
I don’t want to be reminded that the story of our lives, and the story of our faith, can be ugly.
I want our biblical ancestors to make good decisions—
where they value the worth of all people.
Where they trust in the promises of God.
Where they set aside their own personal agenda to promote the general welfare.
Where their faith is stronger than their fear.
Where they trust that if God has promises and plans for them, well, gee whiz, God may also have plans for other people.
I don’t know.
On the one hand, I’m glad God provides for Hagar and Ishmael when Abraham and Sarah do not. I’m grateful Hagar has the chance to speak directly to God and I’m relieved, and a little jealous, that she gets a direct answer from God.
On the other hand, I don’t want Abraham and Sarah getting off so easy in this story. Hagar and Ishmael survive in spite of Abraham and Sarah’s behavior—not because of their behavior.
We have the luxury to read this as just a story. It happened to people we don’t know, and it took place thousands of years ago.
But the story of Hagar and Sarah is still being played out today, all over the world.
I think of Sarah and Abraham when I hear of people who try to hide a part of their family story, as if God were only capable of working through perfection.
I think of Hagar when I hear of the 4.5 million people around the world who are being trafficked as slaves and sex slaves. Today. That’s happening right now.
I think of Hagar and Ishmael when I see news reports of refugees who have been forced from their homes and are seeking shelter and safety in other countries, facing danger you and I can’t imagine.
We want to write our own stories where we are the heroes and the people who reveal our weakness or our shame or our human-ness are erased from the narrative. Hidden away in closets and deleted scenes.
In one of our confessions of faith, it says:
the Spirit gives us courage
to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced…
I think of Hagar and Ishmael as peoples long silenced. We speak often of giving voice to the voiceless, which may be an admirable goal. But Broderick Greer, an Episcopalian priest said on Twitter:
There are no voiceless people; only people who won’t listen.
— Broderick Greer (@BroderickGreer) July 11, 2015
While God is calling us to live into our own stories, and to share them with the world, I’m becoming ever more convinced that God needs us to listen to the stories of other people, particularly the stories of people who are not like us—the voiceless people in our lives who are not, in fact voiceless. We’ve just not been listening to them.
This week I was supposed to be in Baltimore for the church’s General Assembly. And I was going to be joining the Poor People’s Campaign’s March on Washington DC. You can hear the stories of the people we haven’t been listening to here. Do you know why people face poverty? Have you heard their stories?
Whose stories have you been able to ignore because of the privilege in your own life? Whose stories are so different than yours that you can’t even grasp it?
We used to live on the Navajo Reservation, in a town called Shiprock, New Mexico.
My husband was working for the Indian Health Service. We lived in Shiprock for 2 years. The central gathering place in that town was the Post Office. Even though there were neighborhoods with street addresses, you had to go to the Post Office to get your mail.
And often, when I was there, someone would ask me for a ride to the hospital. It was a fairly common thing. People would hitch a ride into town, to the post office, if they had a doctor’s appointment, and they would trust they would see someone who lived by the hospital at the Post Office to get them there the rest of the way. Because, of course, most all of the white people on the Rez were either doctors or teachers. We were easy to spot.
So, one day, I was giving a Navajo woman a ride to the hospital and she asked me if we lived in the doctor’s housing. I said we did.
It wasn’t much, in the way of housing, but compared to much of the housing on the reservation, it was great. She asked if we had a fireplace. And I said, “no, we don’t.” I was about to continue with “but it sure would be nice on cold winter evenings to be able to have a fire”.
Before I could say that, she said, “oh, you must have electric heat then. That’s very nice. One of my granddaughters in Albuquerque has that!”
And quickly I realized we were having different conversations.
I was this close to complaining about not having the nice ambiance of a fire place in the winter, when she was revealing to me that she had to chop wood to keep her wood stove warm so she wouldn’t freeze to death in the winter.
My privilege almost got in the way of my being able to hear her story.
There are not voiceless people.
Only people who will not listen.
I want to talk for a second about privilege.
(Here’s a great article on Privilege).
The word gets used a lot lately, and I want to make sure you know what I mean when I say it. We’ve talked about it in the past, but it’s worth hearing again now.
Privilege doesn’t only mean someone who has something that others do not. It is not about being rich or poor.
Having privilege doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t mean you don’t have struggles. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to work for what you have.
Privilege is a descriptor of the way you get to interact in the world. Privilege is a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group. Privilege means there are people who cannot access what you have no matter how hard they work. There are different kinds of privilege too, based on race, gender, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, geographic location, educational opportunity, etc.
Privilege, in today’s context, means that while you may have struggles in your life, your skin color is not the cause of those struggles.
As a heterosexual, educated white woman married to a doctor, I have a lot of privilege. I’ve had access to good schools from the time I was in pre-school. My parents read to me at home, so I learned to read before I even went to school. My schools were all safe and well funded, so I could focus on learning and had access to music, art, and sports.
Yes, I also had to work hard. But compared to the 80 year old woman who had to chop firewood so she wouldn’t freeze to death in the winter—let’s be clear—my access to the American Dream was a wide open horizon, stretching as far as I could see. Her access to it was a narrow sliver of light—where she could work hard so her kids could get an education and so one of her grandchildren could be successful enough to have electric heat.
And occasionally people without privilege manage to succeed, but they are an exception, rather than the rule. And the odds they overcome to achieve success are things I cannot imagine if I don’t take time to listen to their story.
Here’s an example. LaNell Williams is a PhD Student at Harvard in the Physics Department. She’s the third African American woman to pursue a doctorate in Physics at Harvard. “As a Black woman, she’s pushed through both sex and race barriers that keep women and people of color out of physics. So she’s proving that it’s possible for a Black woman to succeed.”
“But consider the context: In 39 years, US physics doctorates went to
66 African-American women
– and 22,172 white men.
Williams is quite an exception.” (source: here)
So we don’t need to feel guilt for having privilege. We need to be aware that we have privilege.
And we need to work to create a world where our privilege is used to bring other people up to the same level from which we begin.
Abraham had all the privilege. Sarah had some. Hagar had none.
We can’t change their story. We can’t make it better for Hagar and Ishmael.
But we can take note that in this story, God speaks to Hagar. God provides for them. They are not voiceless to God.
The Session recently decided to put “Black Lives Matter” on the church reader board. They also, in the same decision, decided to invite a member of the Boise Police Department to come visit with the congregation so you can learn how Boise Police Department functions in our community. The Session recognized that often in our national narrative, it seems you have to make a false choice about which lives matter. People say “black lives matter” and others respond with “all lives matter” or maybe “blue lives matter” (for Police).
The story of Abraham and Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael, were it playing out today would have similar narratives on Twitter. “Patriarch lives Matter” or “Slave Lives Matter”.
To me, it is clear that to God, “all lives matter”. It is less clear, from looking around at our world, that we embody the truth of that as well as God’s intentions would have us do.
And so, until it is clear in the way we enforce our laws, in the ways we reform our prisons, in the ways we lay out a social safety net, in the ways we educate children—until it is clear that we have changed those systemic structures to prove our commitment to “all lives matter”, we must keep proclaiming “black lives matter”. We must keep seeking justice for all of the lives that matter to God, showing that they matter to us.
Our response to the story of Hagar and Ishmael is to proclaim “slave lives matter” and to be on the lookout for the Hagars and Ishmaels in the world around us. And we can listen to their stories so their voices will be heard. And our lives will be changed. And their lives improved.
There are not voiceless people.
Only people who won’t listen.
Friends, it’s past time for us to listen.