Sunday 21st June 2020
Call to worship
“The student is not above the teacher,
nor a servant above his master.”
We are here to learn of Christ’s ways.
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?
Yet not one of them will fall to the ground
outside your Father’s care.”
We are here in gratitude for all God’s care.
“Whoever finds their life will lose it,
and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
We are here to find ourselves by losing ourselves in worship.
Hymn: Speak, O Lord, as we come to you (Singing the Faith 161. Not in Hymns & Psalms)
st hilda community prayer
before your god
let your god
look upon you
that is all
she loves you with
an enormous love
she only wants to
look upon you
with her love
A poem by Benjamin Zephaniah : People need people
Reading: Genesis 21:8-21
Our lectionary reading picks up from where we left off last week. We spent time with Sarah & Abraham, thinking about laughter and we finished with the joyous birth of Isaac.
This week: not so much laughter. Our story shifts focus onto Hagar. Remember Hagar? She’s the slave who Sarah tells Abraham to sleep with. When Hagar becomes pregnant, Sarah treats her so badly that she runs away.
But now Isaac has been born and that changes everything. Sarah sees Ishmael as a threat. Up until now she has been able to ignore this foreign woman’s child – a child born out of wedlock to a woman with no rights – there’s a name for children like that which I won’t repeat. Whilst Ishmael was younger Sarah could pretend he didn’t exist. But now he’s a lanky teenager, and Sarah has a baby to protect. A baby whose inheritance rights she wants to protect. A baby whose financial security she wants to protect. A baby whose reputation and family name she wants to protect. She’s doing what every mother, every parent should do; put the protection of their child over all else.
Sarah sees this teenager playing. She sees Ishmael playing with Isaac – she can’t have them being friends. She can’t have Isaac being sympathetic to this cuckoo in their nest.
The fact was, Sarah had legal rights over Hagar. She had the power to order Hagar to have sex with her husband and that meant she also had the right to claim any children Hagar bore as her own. Hagar not only has no rights over her own body, she has no rights over the child she birthed from her body.
And so Sarah uses the power she has and tells Abraham to get that slave and her mongrel son out of her house. It is so easy to see Sarah as the villain of this story – a pantomime baddie who we all want to boo off the stage. She’s behaved appallingly with unnecessary cruelty – of course our sympathies are with Hagar, who has done nothing wrong.
But where exactly is Abraham in all of this? The supposed head of this household. The voice of authority. The man who would have countless descendants. To reduce this to a win-lose scenario, where Sarah wins and Hagar loses somewhat misses the point. These women are both bound by the disempowering force of the patriarchy. A system where inheritance only goes to the sons and not the daughters. A system where status comes through fertility. A system where women have restricted freedom, restricted choices, are subject to ownership by firstly their fathers and then their husbands. Under this system, everyone loses, even the men. And so, a bit like with Mary & Martha in the gospels, I’m much less interested in setting these two women up against one another, and much more interested in the lack of agency of both women. Now, that’s not to say that they have equal status in this story, or that they equally suffer. But we do the bible and ourselves a disservice if we reduce everything down to binary issues, where there are always sides to be taken.
Ishmael, like Isaac, is promised he will have many descendants. History suggests that through the lineage of Abraham and Isaac, we have both the Jewish and Christian faiths, whereas through the lineage of Ishmael we are brought to the Muslim faith. Another reason why it would be easy to pit these two women and their sons against one another – the clash of these world religious – and why it is so important not to see them as victor and victim, goodie and baddie.
Spineless Abraham sends Hagar packing with some bread and water for her journey for who knows how long. She has nowhere to go. No home. No family. No friends. What on earth was she supposed to do? How was she supposed to protect her son in the wilderness? And our story takes a dangerous turn; the water has been drunk, her son is sleeping in the shade of a bush and Hagar has run out of options. So she cries to God: don’t let my son die. And God hears her. God promises her that her son will be the father of a great nation. Remember this is Ishmael, whose descendants will be the Ishmaelites, also known as the Arabians, also known as the Muslims. A great nation, God says.
God then opens Hagar’s eyes and she sees a well. Salvation. Relief.
Tomorrow is Windrush Day. It was on 22 June 1948 that several hundred people arrived from the Caribbean on board the HMS Empire Windrush to start a new life in Britain. Caribbean people who had served in the British armed forces were encouraged to come to Britain to work. More people followed. It is estimated that around 500,000 people living in the UK are part of the Windrush generation. Windrush Day celebrates these arrivals and seeks to honour the diverse contributions the Caribbean community has made to British society.
Like many migrants, they arrived in a spirit of hope. But very quickly they faced discrimination. They have lived with and in a hostile environment. On Windrush Day we are invited to reflect on what it means to be a migrant, to be the descendent of a migrant. We are invited to reflect on our own responsibility towards those whose nationality or ethnicity prompts racist reactions.
This week I’ve watched the BBC programme, Sitting in Limbo, based on the true story of Anthony Bryan. He came to the UK from Jamaica aged 8, with this mother, who worked for the NHS. 50 years later, under the government’s Hostile Environment policy, he was detained and threatened with deportation because he failed to satisfy the Home Office that he had a right to live and work here. It made my blood boil, but I strongly recommend you watch it – it’s still available on iPlayer.
Delores Williams, a black womanist theologian, sees the story of Hagar through the lens of the experience of many black women. She says Hagar, like “many black women, goes into the wide world to make a living for herself and for her child, with only God by her side.” Like many black women throughout history and for some living today, they have no expectation of receiving justice, little control over their lives, whose colour subjects them to unfair treatment and abuse.
For African-American women in particular, whose ancestors were slaves, the story of Hagar is far too familiar. For foreigners living a life of servitude, the story of Hagar is far too familiar. For single mothers living in poverty, the story of Hagar is far too familiar. For women who have experienced sexual abuse, the story of Hagar is far too familiar.
So for those of us who are not black, and those of you who are not female, what can this story tell us today? Well, firstly, this story can help us identify if we ever react like Sarah, with petty jealousies and vindictiveness. Sarah had power over Hagar but wanted more. Hagar’s suffering was increased through Sarah’s cruelty. So maybe, we need to ask ourselves, might we be part of the problem? In an age when we hear the slogan, Black Lives Matter, is our first response to shout back, but hey, I thought all lives matter? It’s important to sit with that slogan, Black Lives Matter, because the fact it needs saying implies that some people need reminding that black lives matter at all. In the same way that women’s lives matter or disabled lives matter or old lives matter. People who treat others as less than equal need reminding that these specific lives matter and not just their own. And that’s about recognising the stamp of the divine put within all of us at creation, when God points at humankind and said that’s good, I’m pleased with that.
Abraham sends Hagar out with a skein of water which quickly runs out. God provides a well, where the depth of water is virtually fathomless. Our generosity so often has limits, but God’s generosity is without boundaries. Are we generous with our time, our money, our space, our love, or are we people who sit back and allow a hostile environment to perpetuate, putting limits on who we think deserves our help or attention?
Finally, God hears the cries of those who are hurting. As we think about Windrush, and Grenfell, and George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and Stephen Lawrence and countless other names whose names are forgotten by us but eternally remembered by God, as we think on all of these tragedies, these acts of abuse against black people, we can add our voices to those who cry out to God, don’t let them die. Don’t let any more of them die. God sees and hears the suffering, the abuse, the racism, the discrimination and God is with them. We sometimes hear that there is no favouritism in God, but I read this story of Hagar and am struck by how God shows favour to her, because God is there in her need. To God, Hagar and Ishmael are fully human, when they have been treated as commodities, their humanity trampled on. We cannot limit God’s mercy. God hears the cry of the abandoned. God hears the cry of the outcast, and God saves. Perhaps now is the time to listen to those who suffer, to be instruments of God’s salvation, to enact God’s generosity with those we know are suffering.
Hymn: We turn to God when we are sorely pressed (Singing the Faith 640. Not in Hymns & Psalms)
Reading: Matthew 10:24-39
Oh my goodness, there is so much in this passage in Matthew that causes problems. It certainly raises more questions than I have answers for:
- It speaks of slavery without condemnation
- It speaks of the ‘one who can destroy both soul and body in hell’ – is Jesus talking about the devil?
- The sparrows bit doesn’t seem to follow
- I’m very uncomfortable about the idea that Jesus will deny anyone – what about Peter’s three denials on Good Friday?
- As a pacifist I really want to push back about Jesus not bringing peace but a sword – perhaps my least favourite bible verse
- Jesus is talking about disunity, disharmony, causing deliberate rifts among families – this isn’t the Jesus I know and love
So what is going on here?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian. He was a major critic of the Nazi Party and their rise to power in the 1930’s and he eventually joined a plot to assassinate Hitler. He wrote The Cost of Discipleship years before this, in which he lays out what it actually means to be a Christian, and the demands discipleship places upon each of us. Bonhoeffer paid the ultimate cost of discipleship with his own life as he was executed shortly before the end of the Second World War. I’ve read this book and was troubled by it – Bonhoeffer was arguing that being a Christian was hard. It involves making tough choices. I found nothing in his book about people who are heavy laden coming to Jesus and being given rest. There was nothing about joy or happiness or even much about love and relationships. In short, I hated it.
But I now look at Bonhoeffer’s book through a different lens. Because our challenge is about what we might be prepared to lose in order to ensure the suffering of others cease. For those of us who live comfortable lives, and by that I mean, having the finances to afford decent housing, three meals a day, and heating, for those of us whose sleep is uninterrupted by money worries, we are wealthy. We are very wealthy by comparison to those who lack these basic necessities. For those of us who are white, it is very unlikely that we will suffer lack of opportunity because of our skin colour. We may experience lack of opportunity for all sorts of other reasons, but our ethnicity is unlikely to be the reason.
But hang on a minute Rachel, you might be asking. What about quotas? What about companies who are now committed to employing a certain percentage of people from ethnic minorities? Doesn’t that mean white folk lose out? What about positive discrimination? All black or all female shortlists? Isn’t this political correctness gone mad?
If we truly seek God’s justice – God’s kingdom come here on earth as it is in heaven – if we mean it when we pray it, what are we prepared to lose in order that others can win? What cost to us are we prepared to pay? Because in order that those who are marginalised are given the same opportunities, the same dignities, the same standards of living, as those of us who have more than our fair share, we might be expected to relinquish some of it. To have fair wealth distribution, fair food distribution, fair education distribution, those of us who have never questioned these matters might be being asked by Jesus to take a long hard look at ourselves.
This is a hard passage to read, and I don’t have the answers, I just have more questions. But what if we read this passage about hell, and denial, and division, and swords and recognised that in living our comfortable lives, in choosing to ignore suffering , we are allowing these things to flourish. What if the cost to our discipleship was to make us a bit less comfortable? The gospel forces us to make choices that disrupt us. Those choices may disrupt our lifestyles and our relationships. What are we prepared to risk for Jesus? Are we prepared to risk our reputation, our social status? What injustices have we been willing to accept to ensure our own comfort? Because that is a discipleship that requires no cost at all.
Hymn: Show me how to stand for justice (Singing the Faith 713. Not in Hymns & Psalms)
Prayers of intercession
For our prayers of intercession, I firstly invite you to listen to John Holt’s Stick By Me, and imagine God is singing to Hagar and Ishmael
Lullaby God, we hear you soothe in the desert, singing to a crying child – Ishmael, Isaac climbing Mt Moriah and the Exodus children facing the Red Sea. We hear your comfort: ‘Don’t be afraid, when you cry, I cry too. Stick by me, I’ll stick by you.’
Lamenting God, we hear you sing in the wilderness, hope for a grieving mother – Hagar, Hannah, Elizabeth. We hear your peace: ‘Don’t be afraid, when you cry, I cry too. Stick by me, I’ll stick by you.’
Serenading God of the Blues, who mourns in the wilderness for all families torn apart by bitterness, envy and strife. We hear your promise: ‘Don’t be afraid, when you cry, I cry too. Stick by me, I’ll stick by you.’
Harmonizing God, for all churches facing a crisis, help us hear your melody, harmonize with your desert lullaby. May we open our arms to all those estranged in our community. We hear your voice: ‘Don’t be afraid, when you cry, I cry too. Stick by me, I’ll stick by you.’ Amen
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power,
and the glory are yours
now and for ever.
Hymn: There’s a wideness in God’s mercy (Singing the faith 416. Hymns & Psalms 230)
So now we leave this space of worship
And while so much of the road ahead is uncertain,
the path constantly changing,
we know some things that are as solid and sure
as the ground beneath our feet,
and the sky above our heads.
We know God is love.
We know Christ’s light endures.
We know the Holy Spirit this there,
found in the space between all things,
closer to us than our next breath,
binding us to each other,
until we meet we again,
Go in peace.
by Rev. Nora Vedress, Calvary United Church in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada