This morning’s scripture lesson is a back door experience. It has all the dynamics that come with the interplay of those with privilege and those without. It provides us with a keyhole view of a period of time in the life of a patriarchal culture within one of the leading families of our faith heritage. And, although this unsavory text is one that will not be found in the formal lectionary we usually follow, it is a story that needs to be told.
As with most stories, there are many layers. Walking in the front door of Abraham’s home –his tent—would allow us to catch a glimpse of the wealth that he had accumulated in land, herds and flocks. The front door view enables us to know Abraham as one of the socially and economically privileged. The numbers of shepherds in the fields and the servants in the home would further attest to his wealth, power and prestige.
The heart of the story is in the unwritten. We have to read between the lines and underneath the words where ethnic prejudice and sexual exploitation creates a story that could well be parallel with recent headlines in the Star Tribune. The between the lines living takes us into the back rooms of the main house. What we can be sure of is that the help always better understands the ones in power, than those in power understand the ones who serve. I can imagine that there were some conversations that had taken place so many times that both parties knew the script by heart.
Picture Egyptian Hagar standing in the kitchen preparing Hebrew mistress Sarah’s morning bowl of yogurt and cereal while Sarah sits at the table over-stirring her mug of tea. Hagar is fully aware of what is coming next. Sarah starts off with the familiar deep sigh, and she then moves into the litany about having been shunned by so-and-so because of her barrenness. Sarah has been down this rocky, pock-filled road a thousand times, lamenting the fact that she has never had the respect that merits her position in life as wife of Abraham due to her lack of having given birth. Her inability to provide the insurance policy of heirs made her a woman to be scorned. She is beyond tired of waiting for God to fulfill God’s promise. On this particular morning Sarah spoke out loud the plan that she has been pondering for weeks. In her familiar style, she does not honor Hagar by calling her by name. She approached Hagar with the unspoken that has sat between them for years. Sarah informs her slave woman that she will be approaching Abraham that night about Hagar becoming the bearer of a child—the child—the child that would fulfill God’s blessing of promise upon Abraham to be the father of “a great nation.” She is no longer willing to wait for God’s timing—it was clear that time was running out and God needed help. And, Sarah needed a child.
There were the long anguished nights when Sarah retained a statue like position next to her window. She adjusted to the darkness waiting for the familiar shadow of Hagar. Her stomach would tighten each time she caught sight of Abraham’s house slave on his way to fetch Hagar. Sarah’s already shallow breathing inevitably became shallower as she waited for the tent flap of Abraham’s tent to be raised to receive Hagar. Sarah’s whole body tightened and she became nauseous as she kept focused on the darkness, waiting for the leave-taking.
The tensions rose between the women. The boundaries that had always so clearly defined their relationship as mistress and slave had become blurred. The structure that had defined their relationship and kept it in place was no longer working. Neither of them knew how to deal with the new format. The old rules were broken.
Sarah guessed Hagar was pregnant long before Hagar admitted it. That particular morning there was no pretense of politeness. The coldness of the room reflected their frozen relationship. Hagar’s once loose-fitting robe was now pulling at the seams and Sarah lashed out in anger, anger that spills over when one’s body has betrayed them; anger that oozes out because of the grief of lost youth; anger that burns deeply because of the loss of control; anger that rages against God’s broken promise.
Hagar responded from a place of disordered empowerment. With her growing belly came a glimpse of power that she had never known. Following in the only modeling she had ever experienced, Hagar used her pregnancy to elevate herself and she fell into the trap of using her growing child as a weapon.
Out of her anger and fear, Sarah takes out after Abraham and blames him. Abraham is well aware that he is not about to own his role in having a trophy mistress. He points his finger at Sarah and makes it clear that he had nothing to do with this idea. It was all Sarah’s idea, and he isn’t about to get into the middle of it. He made it clear that it was up to Sarah to handle the situation. He took refuge under the umbrella of the legal customs of that day; laws that made the personal slave of the wife subject to her control. End of discussion.
The next scene brings us to the brutal climax of the story. We face the embarrassingly seamy side. After a particularly nasty blowup, we don’t know if Hagar was sent into the desert, or if she saw it as a refuge from Sarah’s abuse. Pregnant with her child, Hagar heads out into the desert chasing the illusion of freedom that often comes when one is physically free but not mentally or emotionally free. Her encounter with the angel has a Sophia-like quality about it – a feminine sense of the Spirit as she is sent back to face not only Sarah, but also her own victimization. There is the perception, again experienced between the words of the narrator, that she was not yet ready to be authentically free. This is an uncomfortable place for us in 2011. Was there no choice for survival but for Hagar to return? Was she sent back to get clearer about who she was outside of Sarah and Abraham in order to make it to freedom? Was she trapped in her belief that she was only property? The grace of the desert encounter includes the presence of the Holy as well as promises…hopeful promises made for her son’s future.
There is a great deal of grief to contend with in this lesson. It is a story that exposes the hidden scars of race relations. It points out the one-up type of relationships that are developed around disordered power. It speaks to the issue of class stratification that can be subtle, but oh so powerful. It demands that each of us be aware of where we have fallen into the trap of exerting inappropriate “power over.” And, it calls for us to remember those times and places when we have been held down, held under, or made to feel invisible. It calls for us to remember our frustration when we have felt that God wasn’t pulling through in our lives on our timeline. It challenges all of us to ascertain when we have felt that we could not be fully who we are because we might mess up somebody else’s rules.
Dr. Renita Weems has kept a framed photo on her desk for years. It’s a picture of Elizabeth Eckford, the young black girl making her way through a jeering, angry crowd. The date below the picture is September 4, 1957, Little Rock, Arkansas. Weems tells how surprised she was in September l997 when she received a note in the mail along with a news paper clipping that had appeared in an Arkansas newspaper. It was the story of Hazel Bryan Massery, a mother and grandmother who was haunted by the picture that was taken so many decades earlier. Hazel was one of the teeth barred, angry twisted faces in that long ago photo. After years of soul searching Hazel sought out Elizabeth Eckford and asked for forgiveness. The new photograph pictured in the paper was of the two of them standing in an embrace on the steps of Central High School. It had been forty plus years after the abusive and harrowing lonely path that Elizabeth Eckford had walked as one of the first black students to integrate the school.
As with every biblical lesson, we are invited into the story. Are there people in our lives with whom we need to make amends? We may not have any newspaper clipping to remind us of our past behavior, but we certainly carry our past with us. The incredible truth about the biblical heroes that were held up to us in all of our Sunday School classes is that we eventually realize how flawed they were. Many of them were giants in the faith, but often had some ugly baggage. I find it somewhat comforting, don’t you?
On that long ago morning in a breakout room at the Hilton, I experienced a table of truth tellers that I’ve held as a gift. It was hard to hear the stories of white neighbor moms who saw young African American women as second-class friends to their white daughters. Sitting at that table, I got in touch with the old scars in me. They were not the same scars, but the feelings behind the scars are what can often unite us. When that happens, we as minority or majority experience the reality. And that is that we are not only different and unique, but we hold common threads within our humanity.
It is often the back door experiences of our lives that have the most to teach us. Being open to one another demands both listening to ourselves and to one another. It demands speaking the truth in love as well as hearing the truth in love. God does not only offer forgiveness, but holds the power of healing. It is often out of the wounds of our past, those places of deep fractures and trauma that give rise to disordered behavior. We need to discern what needs forgiveness and what needs healing. Each Sunday morning we offer the words of affirmation: Through faith we are all children of God. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Just A Sister Away, by Renita J. Weems, 1988 Innesfree Press.
Prayer, Fear, And Our Powers by Flora Slosson Wuellner,1989, The Upper Room, Nashville, Tennessee.