The Third Sunday after Pentecost: June 25, 2017
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
So have no fear of them, Jesus said, and do not be afraid – God cares even for the sparrows, and you are of more value to God than many sparrows. Do not be afraid, the angel told Hagar, for God hears you. God sees; God cares. What wonderful scriptures for this day, Pride Sunday.
And yet honest scriptures too. Because we also hear Jesus say, Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; and, One’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Jesus’ words about the divisions in families, and enemies even in those who should be our closest intimates, might hit uncomfortably close to home for some of us. And we also hear in the story of Hagar one example of just what that kind of enmity can do – just how cruel humans can be even to those who are close to them. God sees, hears, and cares, but sometimes that’s not how we human beings treat one another. On a day like Pride Sunday, at a time when our country’s divisions seem sharper than ever, there is both a comfort and a challenge in these scriptures we’ve heard.
Over the summer Sundays our Hebrew scripture readings will tell of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the people of Israel, stories of human beings who were called by God and yet were still all too human. So it is with Sarah, the mother of many nations. Her role alongside Abraham is essential to the beginning of the people of God. She follows where God calls, tries to help bring about God’s intentions, laughs with delight at God’s unexpected surprises when she finally conceives in her old age. She is the one who gets Hagar tangled up in Abraham’s story, telling Abraham to try to have children with Hagar when Sarah cannot conceive – seemingly trying to help God’s promise come true, that Abraham will be the father of many nations. But Sarah quickly comes to regret this move, it seems, treating Hagar harshly. There are two different stories, a few chapters apart. In the first, Sarah’s bitterness with Hagar makes Hagar run off into the wilderness to flee her, pregnant and alone. In the second, Sarah’s jealous fear that Ishmael will take her son Isaac’s place makes her send Hagar off with her child into certain death in the wilderness. In these stories, Hagar, the slave from Egypt, is simply an object of sexual use, surrogacy, and scorn – cast aside when she becomes too inconvenient to keep around.
And yet God keeps her when Sarah and Abraham will not. The first time Hagar runs off into the wilderness God’s angel meets her there by a spring of water and speaks to her. He tells her of the child she will bear, that she should name him Ishmael, which means, ‘God hears.’ Hagar knows this encounter is extraordinary, and she names the God who speaks to her El-roi – the God who sees. The angel sends her back home, and the child is born, and Abraham agrees to name him as God directed.
The second time Hagar is cast off into the wilderness, God hears her cry and the cry of the boy, just as God promised. The angel of God meets her again. This time she cannot see the spring of water for herself, but God shows it to her, a well that will sustain her and her child when she thought all was lost. The angel of God tells her not to be afraid – what angels always tell people when they meet them in the stories of scripture – and, the story goes on, God is ‘with the boy’ as he grows up.
Hagar, the slave from Egypt, mistreated and unloved, sees and speaks with God two times – and even names God, the only character in all of scripture to do so. She has a more intimate and real experience of God than most people in the Bible do. She and her son Ishmael are not people of the covenant – that is explicitly handed down through Sarah and Isaac instead. And yet Hagar and Ishmael are included in the larger promise of God’s care and providence. There’s a wonderful picture by Marc Chagall of the two of them in the wilderness, mother curled around the son, and an angel coming toward them from above. I imagine the much larger figure of God wrapped around them in a protective embrace. God cares for them when no one else will. As, indeed, God cares for us – even when we feel scared, alone, and rejected.
I would bet that every one of us here has felt on the outs of some group or another in our lives. Humans have a nasty way of turning tribal when love and compassion is what is called for instead. And every one us has been on the receiving end of that at some point. Rejected and excluded because of our sexual orientation or identity. Overlooked because of our race or ethnicity. Disregarded and interrupted because of our gender. Shunned by our family because we think and act differently from the others. Unfriended because we just don’t quite fit in. From the schoolyard to the boardroom, the dynamics show up one way or the other – sometimes subtly and psychologically, at other times violently and physically.
To me, church communities sometimes feel like the island of misfit toys, all of us half-broken people here because something hasn’t worked so well for us in the rest of the world. We come to worship and we hear, or we should hear, that God loves us, that we are precious to God, that every hair of our head is counted, that there is no limit to the boundless embrace of God for each and every one of us here today. No experience of exclusion, no demeaning and belittling message we have internalized, is of God. We are worth so much, each and every one of us. We are the apple of God’s eye, beloved of God.
And yet we also can be guilty of that same kind of tribal behavior that tells others that they are not part of this love. We also shut people out, drop people, walk by people without a word. We subtly, or not so subtly, put people down for their ignorance or lack of education or class or background. We flock subtly or not so subtly toward those who look like us and think like us. One example in our culture today:
- A Pew Research study last year showed that not only do people who vote Democratic and people who vote Republican disagree with one another, nearly half of each group hold “very unfavorable” views of one another, believing members of the other party to be dangerous, close-minded, immoral, and dishonest.
- Another survey showed that now about half of Republicans and a third of Democrats would be “somewhat” or “very upset” if their child married someone of the other party.
- And in implicit association tests – tests “that measure how quickly people subconsciously associate groups (blacks, Democrats) with traits (wonderful, awful)” – partisan prejudice “even exceeds racial hostility.” (This was all reported in an Upshot piece in the New York Times a few weeks ago.)
I think all too many of us, if we are honest, would find truth to these findings in our own thoughts and feelings. And political partisanship is just one of the more pernicious, if obvious, forms of our hatred of one another – infecting even our families and hometowns.
The story of Hagar and Ishmael, though, is one of many examples from scripture that God’s embrace is larger than what comes instinctively to us. Jesus pushes the boundaries of his day by bringing into his community outcasts and sinners, and telling stories about Samaritans and sinners and wayward sons finding and showing mercy to and from others. And it is not only the New Testament that offers this emphasis – Jesus draws on a strong theme of Hebrew Scripture in his teachings, stories like the healing of Naaman the Syrian and the heroism of Rahab of Jericho and the faithfulness of Ruth the Moabite, and psalms and prophets like Isaiah telling of people from all over the world coming into Jerusalem together. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, as the hymn goes, like the wideness of the sea. It’s our mercy that finds such constraining limits. It’s our cultures and societies that draw such lines around who is and who isn’t part of our tribe. It may be what “comes natural” to us, but it isn’t what God would have us do.
So Jesus’ words, and the story of Hagar, are both a comfort and a challenge to us today. They are a comfort in reminding us of how deep and broad God’s love is, how wide is God’s embrace. For all the times we feel on the margins of a group, unloved, scorned, rejected, these scriptures remind us that God loves us through everything, more than we can comprehend, more than we love ourselves. And because of that love, we do not need to be afraid of anything or anyone – even if those in our own families reject us, even if we are threatened, even if we are killed, God holds us, holds our souls in life and will not allow our feet to slip. Emboldened by this love, we can live lives of truth and justice and love ourselves, courageous because God protects us.
And that is the challenge – to do just that, to love and pursue justice and speak the truth and show mercy because we are not afraid. Because we are loved no matter what, we can love no matter what – and despite all odds, we are called to do exactly that. It is not a love we can attain on our own. It is something we do because God leads us into it, loves us and empowers us also to love.
So on this Pride Sunday, and in this time of partisan rancor, let us give thanks for that great love. Let us lean back into it, drink it in, wallow in it and know it to be real. We are God’s beloved, made in God’s image in all our varied ways, precious in God’s sight. And so we may also love others, those who love us back and those who do not – caring for all God’s children with that great and forgiving love of God.