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The story of Hagar (or Ha’jar in Arabic), written by Susan Murphy and Rev. Sheri Curry told from Hebrew perspective at the beginning of service:
In the Hebrew texts, Hagar is an Egyptian slave to Sarah
Sarah – who is the wife of Abraham and the mother of Isaac.
In the Quran, the Holy Book of Islam,
Hagar is the daughter of an Egyptian king
gifted to Ibrahim to be his wife.
Whether slave or princess,
in both stories she is the mother of Ishmael
who finds herself alone in the wilderness.
Here is the midrash of Hagar based on the Hebrew text.
You know me as Hagar, the Egyptian slave of Sarah,
concubine to Abraham, and mother of Ishmael.
My story is found in the Book of Genesis – the Book of Beginnings.
I have always assumed that I was born the property of my masters
as I have never known anything but servitude.
I was taught early to serve my captors well.
When my barren mistress offered me to her husband Abraham
as a surrogate to bear the son of a promised covenant . . .
a covenant with a God I did not know,
I fulfilled my duty because, of course, there was no choice.
As this covenant child grew in my body,
I began to experience something I had never known before.
It was the feeling of power – power toward my mistress
who grew more jealous by the day.
My power enraged her and soon I was suffering under her mistreatment of me.
There came a time when I could no longer stand the pain of abuse
and decided that the only relief for me was to face the wilderness.
So, I ran away into the desert knowing that death awaits . . . but so did hope.
It was by the spring on the road to Shur
that the God of Many Names found me and spoke.
I was overcome with awe
as this God assured me that my descendants would be so many
that they could not be counted,
for their multitude would be great.
It resembled a promise that had been made to my master . . .
God had chosen me too!
In that moment, I named the God of my experience.
“You are El-roi,” I said, “The God of vision. For I have seen God and lived.”
And not only did I live but I was changed forever.
In that moment of wilderness with God at my side
I understood that I was loved and had purpose.
I may be regarded as less than,
and my body used by those who held physical and social power over me,
but no longer could anyone destroy my worth.
By the waters of the spring I was made new,
I would never again be defined by the power of others.
And God sent me back . . .
not to suffer
but to claim for my son his right to be a prince,
to be trained and educated
so he too could fulfill the dream of the God of Promise.
And he grew in strength and wisdom and favor in the sight of his father Abraham.
Then the God of Covenant opened the womb of my mistress
and she too gave birth to a son that they named Isaac.
I watched with pride as our boys grew and played together.
But my mistress soon felt threatened by our presence.
So, she gave her husband Abraham an ultimatum,
“Cast out this slave woman and her son,
for the son of this slave shall not inherit along with mychild.”
And early one morning after giving me a loaf of bread and a skin of water,
Abraham placed my son on my shoulders
and sent us into the desert
where once again I faced the wilderness.
When the water in the skin was finally gone and the bread was eaten,
I placed my child under a sun parched bush
and then distanced myself to wait for this child of promise to die.
I could not stand to look upon the death of my child.
Across the sand I could hear Ishmael cry –
God heard too – and called my name.
“Hagar lift up your child and give him a drink.”
Suddenly, I noticed a well of water!
We drank . . . and made our home in that wilderness.
The God of Vision remained true to our covenant.
My child grew up to father 12 sons
ancestors of Islam.
I am Hagar –
a woman of wilderness and water,
promise and destiny.
I am grandmother of a nation,
The Courage of Vulnerability
Gen. 15:1-12; 17-18 & Luke 13:34-35
The story of Hagar is different depending on who tells it. In the Jewish tradition, Hagar is the lesser figure, a slave girl, who is the mother of Abraham’s first child, Ishmael. But in the Muslim telling, Hagar isn’t a slave girl, she’s a princess – given to Abraham as a wife during an exile in Egypt. The end result is very similar, in that Sarah does finally have Isaac late in age and gets jealous of the attention given to Ishmael, born to Hagar, so she orders Hagar and Ishmael banished. It is in that banishment, when God tells Abraham to abandon Hagar and Ishmael in the desert with no water, that Hagar’s faith is rewarded with water flowing from the ground at the place that will come to be known as Mecca. In Islam, Hagar, pronounced “Hajar” in Arabic, is lifted up as a wise and courageous woman, a model of faith. Whether princess or slave, a woman treated this way – cast out and left for dead with her son – may seem a strange model for faith.
And it is precisely that faith that I want to talk about this morning.
Hagar’s is a faith forged by an unwillingness to let other people define you, to believe the lie that you are not enough, that’s God’s creation of you was somehow incomplete or inferior. It is the faith born of hardship and struggle, not a faith that comes neatly wrapped and complete, but rather a faith that develops, that is honed by people willing to face vulnerability, sometimes chosen vulnerability and more often vulnerability that is forced upon them. Hagar’s faithful action leans into that vulnerability and seeks God in the midst of it.
Researcher Dr. Brene Brown says that we think of vulnerability as a negative emotion, the “core of fear and shame and uncertainty.” Our response, then, is to resist our vulnerability by developing armor, or coping techniques to avoid that vulnerability. Yet, she claims, vulnerability is actually the beginningof all of the positive emotions – empathy, compassion, love, joy. Only when we let ourselves be vulnerable can we experience these things. Love is a wonderful thing, but also very risky – if you give your heart away, it might get broken. Compassion is a tremendous thing, but you’ll surely find that when you are compassionate, you will get taken advantage of, or mistreated. Empathy is desperately needed right now – I think we’ll all agree – but empathy often asks us to consider our most vulnerable times, to place ourselves back in situations which were painful, which arepainful, and to face that pain again so we might help someone else. If we have armored up, if we have denied ourselves into numbness over that pain, such empathy is impossible. We want to encourage othersaway fromthat weakness instead, making love something sentimental and weak, instead of reminding ourselves that Love is strongest at the point of greatest vulnerability, at the mark of a nail, at a place of imminent death – physical or metaphysical.
Vulnerability, Brown says, is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and the word that makes us all nervous – change. And it is displayed, in her research, by people who she calls “whole-hearted.” They are people with courage, she says, which is distinguished from bravery. Brown reminds us that courage comes from the Latin cor– “heart” – and defines courage as living from the heart, being “whole-hearted,” the willingness to embrace our vulnerability in order to be our authentic selves. It’s found in the capacity to say “I love you” first, the disposition to do something with no guarantees of outcome, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after the MRI. It is found with a measure of personal endurance or resilience, to be sure, and also found in a network, a support group, a community, a family of faith that stands up with and for you when you cannot endure, when you are not – at least by yourself – resilient enough.
But in order for that kind of connection to happen, we have to let ourselves be seen, reallyseen. We have to let ourselves be vulnerable, as vulnerable as Hagar seems to be in the desert, when all hope is lost. And that is not a welcome spot for most of us. When faced with that kind of exposure, more often we numb, we justify, we scapegoat. We are the most addicted, entertained, distracted generation in history, and we point fingers as well as anyone. Yet when we numb or avoid our sadness, grief, pain, or struggle, Dr. Brown’s research tells us, we also numb our happiness, joy, liberation, and gratitude. Faithful courage, then, born of our vulnerability, might be the kind of whole-hearted living that comes from believing that as God’s children we are enough and that those around us are also God’s beloved children and therefore deserve our love, empathy, and respect. In the wake of another mass murder at another house of worship, again motivated by words of hate, white supremacy and xenophobia, it is hard to see that spirit out there at all.
Yet, on Friday at afternoon Jum’mah prayers at the Islamic Society of Tulsa, dozens of people from the interfaith community gathered to simply stand in solidarity. We held signs that have been, in a comment both heartbreaking and inspiring, in the back of my car since the Pittsburgh shooting. We simply culled out the ones with Jewish-specific references and the ones with Spanish on them from our visit to a local church with a large immigrant population, and held up the “I Stand With You” and the “You Belong Here” signs with smiles and tears…and we were greeted with the same. And there we stood, people who don’t know each other for the most part, but people who clearly understand each other. We let our guard down on that big slab of concrete between the doors of the mosque and the parking lot, vulnerable to the simple humanity that exists in each of us. Many of the worshippers walked around the entire circle, shaking hands, giving hugs, stepping over their own fear and rage and grief, moving through their own vulnerability to say thank you to us for a willingness to be exposed and to step into the vulnerable places.
We seem somehow to know in the days that immediately follow such awfulness that we need each other, but then we can forget that again, we can retreat back into our supposedly safe spaces, where our vulnerability is mediated. Yet this is the very time we mustlean into the vulnerable places, seeking to encounter and understand the unknown, meeting “the other” and finding that they aren’t quite so “other,” as we find the presence of a God who makes a well for us in the desert of our isolation and fear, giving us living water to drink.
That is the courage that so many of these unheard voices from scripture give to us, like a small gift that we pass over at first. Just as I think that we ought to pay attention to the symbol of faithfulness being presented to us in our Bible as a foreign slave girl, I want us to also pay attention to the people being lifted up as heroes from the massacre in New Zealand, for they all have one thing in common: they don’t claim the title hero. They acted, or reacted, in the moment and seem to clearly understand that courage comes not in those moments, but in showing up at the mosque the next day, to clean the blood and wipe the tears, to cry and wail with the community, and to seek the next step forward. We see this whole-hearted courage in the faces of that Muslim community in Christchurch, as we see it in the faces of foster families, believing in the children that others won’t believe in…in the faces of those who continue to stitch up the wounds, to remove the bullets, to heal the broken bones and shattered psyches, bearing the trauma, seeking the good, moving with courage towards whole-heartedness.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you! How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that.” Jesus stands on the outskirts of Jerusalem, having been warned of Herod’s intentions and sees the familiar pattern laid out before him. Jesus knows that those who follow him won’t act as Hagar acts, trusting in God to provide and find a way. We will refuse to be gathered up, we little chicks, relying on ourselves alone and finding that little help when the fox comes to eat. But he models faithfulness for us anyway – like prophets before him. He has every chance to avoid the challenges and responsibilities he knows are coming, yet he decides to live this whole-hearted life, leaning into the vulnerability, confident that God has given him what he needs and will be with him…and we bear witness to his courage.
I am not saying that we need to take the precise path of Jesus – martyrdom and death on a cross. He has already done that for us! Iamsaying that we can develop a greater confidence that God is with us and has given us sufficient resources to not simply endure challenge, but to flourish! So that when injustice presents itself, as it always does, we are not intimidated by our vulnerability, but we embrace it, knowing that all birth comes with pain, all innovation comes from vulnerability, all life comes from death. If we trust like Hagar trusted, like Jesus trusted, we understand that the call is for courage to set our shields down, to remove our armor, not so that we might be slaughtered, but so we can understand how to resist injustice without creating more injustice, so that we might truly know that hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that. God has given us what we need – our own hearts, pliable and resilient, the tools of hope and dedication, and God has given us a community to stand for and with one another so that we might bear witness to God’s reliability in the most vulnerable of places. That’s what we call faith.
Singing: I will trust in the Lord, I will trust in the Lord,
I will trust in the Lord, ’til I die.