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“The angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” -Genesis 21:17b-18
You’ll hear it over and over again: common wisdom holds that the Old Testament God is vengeful, heartless, bloodthirsty; while the New Testament God is one of grace and peace and love. As though they weren’t one and the same. It was a way, once upon a time, of creating distance between the Jewish community and the Jesus-followers, later Christians – identity formation often relies on “othering”, after all. Yet such broad generalizations, especially when they are as untrue as this one, only do us a disservice, we who use both as our sacred scripture. Such “common wisdom”, taken as infallible truth, closes our eyes to all but the most superficial readings of a Bible passage; closes our ears to the ways in which even ancient stories might speak to our lived reality today.
Unfortunately, it sometimes seems as though our revised common lectionary – the basis of so many sermons preached weekly on these very texts – are set up with these very biases at the core. As we read these snippets of text each week, we are tempted to take them out of context. In many ways, the structure of our lectionary – and the biases of a culture that divides narrative into “fiction” or “non-fiction” – sets us up to do some pretty serious mis-reading. It sets us up to read Genesis – and the Gospels, for that matter – as history rather than as a series of lessons about who God is, and how our relationship with God began, from a time when that relationship was just beginning. Reading in neat little chunks of text makes it easy for us to miss discontinuities pointing us to the larger themes, the ones that continue to speak to us today: we miss that Ishmael was already 13 a couple chapters earlier, yet his mother here carries him on her shoulder and casts him under a bush to die. We forget that Abram was promised descendants several times over, through multiple chapters. We lose the significance of Hagar: one of rare women to talk to God, and the only one to name God – and she was a foreigner, and Egyptian, to boot!
Significantly, we miss that this story isn’t really about Hagar or Ishmael. It’s not even about Abraham. This text is really about Sarah, and about God’s grace – yes, even in the Old Testament.
It doesn’t seem that way, from the few verses we read. It seems to be about a heartless God. At best, it seems to be about Abraham, and the development of the covenant: Abraham, who many chapters back, was promised offspring; was brought into relationship with God, even before the covenant was so painfully sealed. But in this story, it is Sarah’s role that ends up being the crucial one: Sarah, who hears the promises of children, but knows herself to be already old, so she deems God’s promises to be impossible. It is Sarah who takes matters – and common sense – into her own hands, sending Hagar to be the mother of that promised offspring. It is Sarah who takes action around God’s promises, which would seem to be a demonstration of her faith, but it is not. For it is not faith in God’s power, or faith in God’s abundance. Perhaps Sarah had heard the gospel according to Ben Franklin, that “God helps those who help themselves”… but that was not God’s word then, any more than it is in our Bible, or even our theology, now.
Sarah, consistently throughout these chapters of Genesis, sees things in human terms. She sees, not God’s knowledge or power, but her own age and the improbability of childbearing. She sees, not God’s breadth or abundance, but the practical impossibility of there being enough inheritance to go around, to support both Ishmael and Isaac. Sarah’s faith is in that which she can see, and touch, and understand with human perception and wisdom. And she refuses to be open to any larger possibility.
This story is about Sarah, certainly. But it is just as much about us.
We who so often judge by wealth; we who have lived so long in this materialist culture, believing in the American dream to the point where such a concept no longer seems weird: we who see even certain children as an inconvenience to be rid of; we are Sarah. We, who store away material needs for “just in case”, who live in the fear that there can never be enough, and that God’s promises require our manipulation, our negotiation, our assistance: we are convicted by this story, every bit as much as Sarah herself.
“I’m reminded that I live most days oblivious to my own wealth, comparing my standard of living to the standards of my upwardly-mobile friends and not to those billions of people worldwide living hand to mouth… For American consumerism thrives on a simple message – that what we currently have is not enough. Not big enough, not nice enough, not fast or hip enough. Not enough is hte matra of capitalism. At the same time, when it comes to my own economic habits, I can’t simply blame the capitalist machine. Pop culture may entice me to buy things I don’t need, but the truth is I like taking the bait. I like buying books instead of borrowing them from the library. I like new music and cardigan sweaters. Not enough is my mantra, too.
“But I’ve been thinking about the fact that the more I’m driven by an impulse to accumulate, the less free I am to meet the needs of other people… the more I need – or think I need – the less I’m able to love my neighbor with my wealth. If each morning I need an Americano from my local coffee shop, I’m not necessarily greedy (or am I?); I’m just less free to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to live responsibly towards my fellow human beings.” (p. 48)
In how we live, in how we understand ourselves and our place in this Creation, are we free to be in relationship with God? Have we so bound ourselves in fear and anxiety that we have entirely lost sight of everything but our own human needs, our own human senses and understandings? We are faced with God’s promises of life and of love in abundance beyond all comprehension… and our responses would seem to harken back more to Sarah than to Abraham – or to Hagar.
The authors go on:
“At least two things must be said: First, when it comes to caring for the poor in our localities, the sheer magnitude of the task can tempt us to apathy. However, on this point the Scriptures are clear: neglect those among us who have material and physical needs, and our rituals are meaningless… Second, many church leaders take this issue quite seriously. And each congregation has its own financial challenges, its own burdens to carry. But if God’s provision is going to meet the poor where they live, we must honestly assess what our church budgets say about our true priorities. Is meeting the needs of the marginalized a central or peripheral concern? What material and aesthetic comforts are we addicted to, and what sacrifices must we make so that all people have their basic needs met. Is the gospel we preach good news for rich and poor alike?” (p. 88)
In this culture, in this nation, in this church: are we preaching God’s grace, or human guilt? Do we trust, as Sarah couldn’t, in abundance? That there is, in fact, enough – enough resources, enough space, enough love, enough God to go around… and then some?
Do we, like Sarah, tend to our own needs first? Do we keep what we have for ourselves and our loved ones, do we live in that constant and abiding fear? Do we, as Sarah did, cast aside the inconvenient bodies so that our own might be better served?
Are we as absurd now as she was then?
God instructs Abraham to let Hagar and Ishmael go, as Sarah instructs, not because she is right in her actions, and certainly not because God is ruthless or cruel or uncaring – that’s us. This is the reminder to us that God considers all people, all bodies, beloved and worthy of life. This is the reminder that it is not God, but humanity who put not only grace and love and hope on the line, in all of our interactions and all of our understandings about this world, in our tendency to keep the very best things for ourselves. But we put on the line God’s very presence here among us in this creation, when we refuse to embody it ourselves and to live into it in everything that we do and every interaction in which we participate. It is not God but humanity who is willing to do harm to Christ’s very body, sacrificed, not on the cross, but on altar of scarcity which we ourselves have created, victim of our fears and our faithlessness.
Yet despite our blinding, heart-closing fear, this story is a demonstration of God’s grace, as God provides for Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness, as God reassures Abraham of his son’s worthiness and well-being. It is, throughout these chapters of Genesis, a demonstration of God’s abundance and God’s grace – yes, even here in Genesis, even in the Old Testament, it is the demonstration of the God who has not changed since creation dawned. God, who gives with such generous to the stranger in a strange land, to the Egyptian slave woman, used and discarded by fearful humans. God, whose love encompasses beyond the covenant with Abraham and Isaac; whose abundance is so much more than we can comprehend, even we who still cannot count the stars! God, whose inheritance is big enough (and then some!) for both boys to become great nations in their own right.
God, is not like Sarah, is not like us. God does not measure on human scales of scarcity and need, but offers abundance to all: all, without measure; all, without restrictions; all who are willing to trust, and to be in relationship with God. What we see here in Genesis is what we see throughout our scriptures, lectionary notwithstanding: a God of grace, then and now and always with whom there will always be enough, if we can simply get our acts together, and learn to set aside fear, and to live in trust: of the promises made with such incomprehensible abundance.
There was a day recently on social media when it seemed as though everyone I knew was in the worst possible mood. No matter what the subject – church, politics, children, life – there was nothing but complaining, whining, name-calling, meanness, and pessimism. Although I turned it all off for a good chunk of the day, that sort of negativity can really stay with you, and I found myself in a rotten mood. So I put an idea out there, to the internet:
For every mean thing you say about someone, find something kind to say as well.
For every institution or injustice about which you are whining and complaining, tell us what concrete action(s) you are taking to make the situation better.
The answer to the idea? Silence.
Negativity is viral. Say something snarky or cutting? You’ll get retweets on Twitter and likes or shares on Facebook. Say it in person, you’ll get laughs and affirmations. You’ll be rewarded for your “wit”. The conversation will build, it will stir passions, it will get exciting, it will be fun.
But if you say something nice about someone? If you talk about the good things that are happening in this world? Those are the conversations that seem harder to keep going. Those are the one-liners that fall flat. Those are the conversations that might start on a positive note, but that quickly turn around and fall back into the negative. Talk about the good work that certain groups or people are doing around homelessness often spins into a pessimistic conversation about the hopelessness of the situation. Talk about the need for better mental health services devolves into a discussion about violence.
It may be more “fun” to speak negatively, to complain about the problems of the world and be able to blame someone for them. Negativity and snark speak to something within us; there is a reason that the media – print, televised, or social – plays so often to angry soundbites. It’s easier, certainly, to call a politician names than to comment on her policy choices; to say “He is a jerk”, suggesting there is something inherently flawed about a person, than to say “his actions have hurt me”, separating the person’s entire being from certain actions we find distasteful. It’s easier to speak in generalities, but we damage ourselves in the process. We create an “other”, a “not-me” that we don’t have to like, let alone love. We can dehumanize a person, write off their worthiness to be heard or even acknowledged. But by doing this, we cut ourselves off from one another, and from the God who is most present among us in relationship.
What if we put as much energy into finding the good in each other, as we do into demonizing one another? What if we put as much energy into love as we do into anger?
It’s not easy, but discipleship isn’t supposed to be. It might be less fun, less popular, less entertaining. But it might be a worthwhile challenge for us. Because in forcing ourselves to look for the good in people, we are forcing ourselves to see even those who hold opposing viewpoints as children of God. We are forcing ourselves to maintain relationship with those whom we might rather write off entirely, to remember that although we disagree, there might still be points of agreement, or even respect.
What might happen, if we made the conscious decision to get off the negativity bandwagon, even just for a month? Who will take the challenge?