Monday Verse - Genesis 16:5-6 Then Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.
Abram and Sarai have grown impatient with waiting for God to fulfill the promise of a child for them so Sarai and Abram take control of their future and form their own plans. Sarai has a slave named Hagar and, at Sarai's urging, Hagar conceives a child with Abram. Sarai and Abram had hoped that by taking control and no longer waiting for God to provide they would achieve blessing sooner. According to the narrative, according to Sarai's version of events, Hagar shows contempt for Sarai once she becomes pregnant. But I want to interrogate this representation. Can we take Sarai's word for it? It could be that Hagar is treated with honor and afforded status as the mother of Abram's child. Hagar is a slave, so her dignity and honor are diminished by her status. She has gained back, through carrying Abram's child, what was taken from her. It doesn't seem to me that Hagar is in the wrong. It does seem that Sarai is threatened and offended because she perceives that her status is jeopardized because Hagar's status is elevated. She is threatened because the system that she has enjoyed the benefit of has suddenly, for a limited time, returned to Hagar the dignity taken from her, the dignity due her as a human being.
I would suggest that the story of Abram and Sarai illustrates the story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit from a few weeks ago. God provided an abundant blessing to Adam and Eve, yet they desire more, the one thing they were warned to avoid. Sarai has been promised abundant blessing from God but treats this potential blessing as a limited commodity. Adam and Eve and Sarai all treat God's abundant gift as if it were not abundant. Adam and Eve grasp for more, Sarai cannot, will not live generously. The sin that is revealed is the sin of dehumanizing and degrading. Hagar is valuable only for her labor (quite literally). She provides for benefit of Abram and Sarai with no thought to what was demanded of her or its cost or the sin of demanding. And in this sense, Hagar, who is Egyptian, plays the role of the Hebrew, the devalued outsider the expendable.
Hagar's indignity reveals what makes the Bible unique, beyond our belief that it is the inspired word of God, is the fact that it contains history from the underside. Unlike other literature from like times and places, the Bible contains the story of the poor, the defeated, the oppressed and dispossessed and from their perspective. This story, as the others we will read this week shape us as they teach us to listen carefully to the underside of the history that unfolds around us. It shows us how to critically listen to those who control the way events are presented to us. It urges us to listen not only to the perspective of the powerful, the successful or the victorious but also to the story of the powerless, the defeated and the oppressed. The fact that the Hagar story ends with God listening to Hagar's version of events, God acting compassionately in response to Ishmael's cries and powerfully in expanding the blessing to include Ishmael and Hagar, shows us that to God, Hagar's life matters.
Tuesday Scripture - Genesis 38:26 Then Judah acknowledged [Tamar] and said, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.”
The story of Judah and Tamar is admittedly an odd one. It is dropped into the cycle of Joseph stories with no apparent connection except for the fact that Judah is one of Joseph's brothers. It is also odd because God is not mentioned and is not explicitly involved in the events of the story. But this curious story is important to us for reason's mentioned yesterday. It is the story of another woman who is robbed of dignity and denied justice. It is another story told from the view of the vulnerable and powerless.
Tamar marries one of Judah's sons, Er. But Er dies without an heir, without a son. So Judah sends his second son, Onan to marry Tamar. This sounds strange to us, creepy even. But in that time and place, this was a practice devised to both provide for the safety of the woman and to maintain family financial security. The point is that Onan and Tamar will have a son and that son, according to tradition and law, will officially be Er's son. He will inherit Er's wealth, ensuring financial stability. Onan will care for Tamar so that she need not turn to begging or prostitution to survive. That is what is supposed to happen. Onan doesn't cooperate (since it won't benefit him) and he too dies. Judah should have sent his third son to take over. But he doesn't. He refuses. In refusing he interrupts the social cohesion of the family and shames Tamar.
Let's pause for a moment to create some context. When we look to the 10 commandments (which have not been given at the time of this story, but were a part of Israel's life when this story was recorded) we see a couple of commandments that remind Israel to value and dignify the vulnerable. In the command to keep the sabbath day, that commandment is explicitly extended to slaves. We might wish that slavery was simply abolished in the commandments. Still, it was ground-breaking at that time to extend a day of rest to slaves. In other words, even slaves were to be treated with dignity. Extending to them sabbath rest was meant to remind Israel that even the slaves had value to God as human beings. We also see the commandment to honor father and mother. Walter Brueggemann suggests that this is not merely a commandment meant to reinforce familial respect, but more expansively, to remind Israel to treat all, including the aged with respect. In other words, once people had reached an age where they were no longer capable of contributing to the family or to the society, they were still to be honored. Their value was not tied to what they could give to the social group. They were valued as children of God and not ignored, abandoned or mistreated. This is the story of Tamar and Judah. Judah violates these commandments by denying Tamar a husband. He is treating her with disrespect and creating a situation in which she could become socially vulnerable. Because she has not, as of yet, produced an heir, she is of no value to him.
In this story, it is not God who appears to dignify the shamed. It is not God who interrupts to relieve Tamar of her shame. Tamar takes matters into her own hands, which makes her particularly unique and heroic. Cunningly she disguises herself as a prostitute and waits for Judah. Judah chooses her as a companion not recognizing her. He does not pay her but offers her his ring, cord and staff as the pledge of payment. Tamar conceived and when she begins to show, Judah is incensed. He still considers Tamar his 'property' and this pregnancy an act of infidelity even though he has denied her a husband. We see the double standard. Judah calls for her to be burned at the stake. She produces his ring, cord, and staff. Judah is revealed both as a hypocrite and as acting unjustly.
Honesty is difficult and painful. It is tempting to ignore our own faults or to wear them as a badge of honor instead of honestly assessing the ways that we need to grow as human beings, as disciples of Christ. Socially, nationally, it can be equally painful to face injustice. Our news this week is filled again with police brutality toward black men. The story of Judah and Tamar reveals the importance of being honest about not only the good in our story but the bad. Not only are we called to be discerning about the grace we receive, but the sin we excuse. We can assess honestly our own sin and the sin of our society because we are loved by God with a love that reveals our potential and empowers us to change and grow and seek new beginnings.
Wednesday Verse - 1 Kings 17:6 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.
In 1 Kings 17, we find the simple story of the prophet Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. It is a beautiful vignette of compassion in the midst of a story about both political and religious upheaval.
Ahab ascends the throne as the King of Israel and immediately begins a campaign of introducing the worship of Baal to Israel. The story blames this on his new wife Jezebel, but it is probably a political move to curry favor with the Sidonians, the people and kingdom from which Jezebel comes. Baal is worshiped to gain political favor and influence and ensure political power in other words. God is angered and calls the prophet Elijah to proclaim that Israel and the surrounding area will endure a debilitating drought as a result of Ahab's faithlessness to God and power grasping. (If you read on to the chapters ahead, you will notice that Ahab's sin is not only religious. He acts unjustly, treats his subjects poorly and used fraud and deceit to increase his wealth and power. That too is a sin that displeases God).
So this is the story of a political and religious struggle between God and Ahab. How curious that very soon after this epic struggle is introduced, God sends Elijah to a widow living in Zarephath. The story says that God sends Elijah to her in order that she might provide sustenance for him. But we are immediately introduced to the full plan when Elijah arrives. Widows are socially vulnerable. They have no one to provide for them and little to no social security. This widow has a son we learn, but it seems that he is not of an age at which he can help provide for their small family. The drought, most likely, serves to deepen their struggle to survive. So God has not just sent Elijah to the widow to be provided for, but to provide for her.
And this is the point of the story. It reveals a God who is not only aware of the wealthy and powerful, but also of the poor and vulnerable. As a matter of fact, God first act after sending Elijah to proclaim the drought is to send Elijah to one of the people who will suffer from its consequences most, this widow. The God revealed by the Bible is the God is watching and listening for, the poor, the weak, the vulnerable. Liberation Theology calls this God's 'preferential option for the poor.' In terms that are more current, to God, poor lives matter. The depth and breadth of God's caring only grows when we realize that Zarephath is outside of Israel. So God's first act, after punishing Ahab is to provide for a poor, vulnerable, FOREIGN woman. The person NOT seen or acknowledged or cared for by the powerful, by Ahab, is the person that God listens too, watches and provides for.
This story shapes us as it opens our minds and hearts to listen to the stories of those who are either ignored, misrepresented or demonized in our society; the poor, the vulnerable, the foreign born, the powerless. It encourages us, in concert with yesterday's reflection, to listen to the stories that might pain or discomfort us most, for it reveals to us the stories we may wish to ignore, the perspective we may wish to discredit because they reveal a lack of justice and compassion. But there is no doubt that this story reveals that to God, the lives of the poor and the foreign born, and the politically powerless, matter to God.
If you would like to the listen to the sermon connected to this reflection return to the home page and listen to Hagar's Life Matters September 25, 2016
Thursday Verse - Mark 7:27 “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
This week we have another curious story. It echoes, and may have been inspired by, yesterday's story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. In both, a representative of God serves a foreign-born woman. An outsider is affording God's healing grace, which would have been shocking to many who assumed the God of Israel would only care about and act for Israelites.
What is curious, troubling even, is that Jesus initially resists the Syrophoenician (Greek) woman. Her daughter is possessed by an impure spirit and comes to ask Jesus to liberate her daughter from this torment. We know that Jesus is able to free people from demons. We know, from an earlier story in Mark that Jesus is not averse to speaking to and healing women in public. But when this woman approaches Jesus, his response is less than warm and welcoming. 'First, let the children eat,' he says. By children, he, of course, means the children of Abraham, the people of Israel. It is apparent that at this point in the gospel of Mark, Jesus understanding his vocation to be the Messiah of Israel, but NOT of anyone else. But what happens next is troubling. 'It is not right to take the children's bread and toss is to the dogs,' Jesus says. Did Jesus just call this desperate and fearful woman a dog? It may be an unfortunate choice of words, but it is still deeply troubling. This is not the Jesus we have come to know or to expect.
We could get hung up on what appears to be the suggestion that Jesus, the sinless one, is guilty of bigotry. But I choose not to interpret the story in that way. The theology is in the action. And what is happening is that Jesus is being challenged, by a strong and intelligent woman, to listen to her story. In listening to her story, Jesus more fully hears and comprehends God's call, and grows in understanding that he has come to be Messiah for all people. Mark presents a very human Jesus. The theological truth revealed is that the God, who watches, listens and attends to the poor, calls to us through their cry. And in this case, the cry isn't a desperate plea, but a challenging confrontation with bias. Sometimes that too is the way that God calls to us. When we are confronted by those whom we have ignored, stereotyped, or prejudged, God calls to us. God is making sure that Jesus knows that the life of a Greek woman matters just as much as the life of a woman of Israel. This story shapes us when it encourages us to re-think our assumptions, prejudices and the stereotypes we accept as true.
If you would like to listen to the sermon connection with this reflection return to our home page and listen to Hagar's Life Matters from September 25, 2016
Friday Verse - John 4:7 7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”
John chapter 4 is a complex theological passage. Because of its complexity, there is much to this episode that I simply cannot comment on. In it, Jesus describes himself as the source of living water. In it, Jesus speaks about worship in spirit and in truth. All important, but we cannot get to all of it in a couple brief paragraphs.
For today's purposes, I want us to focus exclusively on where Jesus is and to whom he speaks. Jesus is traveling in Samaria. And that alone is an important event. Jews did not travel in Samaria. Samaritans were both religiously and ethnically other. Jesus's presence in Samaria shows an active subversion of the human tendency to build walls between the other either to keep them out or to protect those of us in. While it is true that there is a diversity of humanity and we feel most comfortable with those like us, the unfortunate truth is that once we create in-groups and out-groups, we tend to diminish and disrespect whoever the out-group is. Jesus will have none of this. Jesus purposefully crosses the boundaries to abide with the outsiders.
While in Samaria Jesus has a conversation with a Samaritan woman. This just further illustrates the point made above. Jesus purposefully challenges the social expectations of the time. A man is not supposed to talk to a woman publically without her husband present. A Jew is not supposed to speak to a Samaritan. But here is Jesus, speaking to her, having a very deep theological discussion with her. The fact that eventually, Jesus seems to confront the woman's sinfulness is important, not because her promiscuity is named, but because Jesus has been speaking to her regardless. This isn't to say that Jesus condones. It does illustrate that Jesus does not view the woman as a category, as an outsider, a Samaritan, a lowly woman, a promiscuous woman, a sinner. Jesus views her as a human being, a child of God. And this view is transformative. The story goes on to tell us that the woman tells many about the man Jesus she has met.
In this moment, all of the reasons that many would have had for immediately judging this woman as unworthy for serving Jesus or ministering Jesus are undone. Jesus loves her where she is and loves her into her potential to take her place as a partner in God's creating and redeeming plan. In short, to Jesus, the life of the outsider, the enemy, the sinner, matters. And this shapes us as it teaches us to view one another, to view the outsiders and others and less-than, as children of God. It teaches us how to look at one another as God looks at us all. With hope and belief and compassion. It reminds us of our calling, once we are baptized, to be reconcilers who are not satisfied to live in a world of walls but energized to journey into the outsider's world and make a welcome space for wholesome relationships.
If you would like to listen to the sermon that this reflection is connected to, return to our home page and listen to Hagar's Life Matters from September 25, 2016
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.