June 21, 2020

Pentecost 3 - Year A

 

You'll find a video of the entire service at

https://www.facebook.com/StStephensSLO/videos/262519131681925/

 

Click here for the Worship Booklet  and Hymnal & Psalter for June Sundays after Pentecost.

 2020 June21_FrIan


Proper 7 - Year C

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger

 

Friday was Juneteenth, a previously little-known holiday which commemorates the news of the freeing of slaves reaching Texas a full 2½ years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect, and almost 3 years after the Proclamation itself. The holiday is now known around the world, and phones have updated their auto-correct, because the murder of yet another harmless black man, combined with the lockdown of billions of people around the world, has resulted in the largest civil rights movement the world has ever seen. Protests and demonstrations on the issues of systemic racism and structural inequality have erupted around the globe, and civil rights activists in this country have brought to our attention the holiday of Juneteenth as a day for us to learn from the mistakes and atrocities of our past.


Today, in our Old Testament Lesson, we read that the slave woman Hagar and her son were cast out into the desert to die. It should be of no surprise that there are strong links between slavery in the United States and the story of Hagar and Ishmael.

 

Hagar’s story and our history of
slavery also shine light on how
we as a nation have been
successful at maintaining
systemic racism and structural
inequality since Emancipation
to this day.


I came across an essay written by a Senior at Denison University in Granville, OH back in 2002. I got in touch with Emily Peecook, now Emily Nicholl, about her Senior Project that she wrote for her dual degree in Religion and English. It’s entitled: “Hagar: An African American Lens”. It is both eye-opening and obvious in its bold and bare-knuckled presentation of how the misfortune of a slave woman from thousands of years ago is both a role model and a mirror to the lives of generations of black women in America and the children they raise. A link to her essay will be in the July issue of The Witness.

 

I want to explore 3 broad topics from Emily’s essay as a means for us to reflect on how we as Christians might begin to do 2 uncomfortable and painful things: 1) better understand how our sacred texts and faith have been wrongly and harmfully applied in order to subjugate other people, and 2) use our understanding and faith in God through our Baptismal Covenant to work toward dismantling 400 years of systemic racism and structural inequality in this country, which infects every corner of society.

 

I might go on a bit longer than usual!

 

First, let’s understand what’s going on in this story and its outcomes. Sarah was old and barren, yet God had promised that her husband Abraham would be the father of many nations. So, in Genesis 16, Sarah suggested that Abraham have a child through the slave woman Hagar. Hagar wasn’t happy about that, so she fled. While in the wilderness, God told her to go back, and that she, too, would foster many nations. That resulted in Ishmael.


In Mosaic Law of the time of writing (we have to remember that Abraham pre-dates Mosaic Law, but these stories were written within the culture of that Law), Hagar didn’t own anything; everything belonged to Sarah and Abraham. That means that Ishmael didn’t belong to Hagar; he belonged to Abraham and Sarah. Therefore, Sarah’s future would be secured through Ishmael when she became a widow. But she dies before Abraham, 2 chapters later.

 

Then we have this story in Genesis 21 in which Sarah can now have a child, Isaac. Inheritance becomes an issue because, even though Ishmael was born of the slave woman, he is still entitled to a bigger inheritance as the eldest son of the Master of the Household. Sarah uses the kerfuffle between Isaac and Ishmael to banish Hagar and Ishmael to the desert, assuming that they will die having been given only a skin of water and some bread. Jewish scholars are not sure what the kerfuffle was about due to the word used and its context. But it was fairly serious and could have included attempts at idolatry, murder or rape.


As today’s story goes, Ishmael and Hagar live. In Genesis 25, we learn that Ishmael had 12 sons and a number of daughters. Tradition in Judaism and Islam is that Ishmael was the father of the Arab Tribes, and one of his sons was the ancestor of the Prophet Muhammed. Some refer to the conflict in the Middle East as a conflict between the children of Isaac, the Jews, and the children of Ishmael, the Arabs. So, the story of Hagar and Ishmael, whether folklore or true, has deep significance in the world today.


Just one more bit of biblical background: In addition to the Sons of Ishmael mentioned in Genesis 25, the Hagrites are mentioned in 1 Chronicles 5 and Psalm 83. They are thought to be the descendants of Hagar who were perennial enemies of the Israelites.


So, that’s the snapshot of what we read. But what more do we or should we know? Thanks to Emily Peecook’s work, which includes references and was reviewed as an academic piece of work, there is so much more going on in this story, as there always is in the Bible.


Let’s look at what was happening to Hagar with regard to:

  1. Her status and relationship with Sarah
  2. Being a single mother
  3. And the Theology of Liberation vs a Theology of Survival


Hagar’s status and relationship with Sarah


Hagar the Egyptian was possibly not a typical slave. In Abraham’s time, Egypt controlled Canaan, so why would an Egyptian have been a slave? She may have been a friend of the household or was suffering circumstances that caused her to sell herself into slavery. However, this curious relationship emerged, both women knew that Sarah was at risk of having the status of a slave because she could not produce and heir.


Parallel that with today’s Gospel reading:


Jesus said to the twelve disciples, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master.”


The Sarah-Hagar story must have the ending it does.


Further complicating the matter was Ishmael, as I mentioned above. These issues of status and surrogacy also faced African slaves in America. Two roles of African slave women complicated the relationship with the wives of the masters:

 

  • The “mammy”, who took care of the children, had a trusted yet delicate position with the white wives.
  • The mistress also had fairly good status. Black female slaves would be used for sexual pleasure by their white masters. White wives were for childbearing, and regularly satisfying the carnal desires of their husbands would make them less than pure. There was indeed jealousy among and abuse by the white wives.


This is exactly the scenario we read in the story of Hagar. As the surrogate, Hagar is beaten by a resentful and jealous Sarah. Sarah’s status in the wider community was tarnished – not because she treated her slave poorly – because she couldn’t produce an heir. Once she did, the only way to solve a problem like Hagar was to banish her to certain death.


So, what about today? How does knowing that Hagar and Sarah had issues, and that this was paralleled by African slave women in America, help us? On this particular point, we see that we have used our sacred texts and our painful history to perpetuate negative and damaging stereotypes of black women today. Peecook wrote:


The results from these antebellum traditions have seeped into our modern image of the black female. The sexual surrogacy roles that black slaves filled by being mistresses has led to an image of black women as being loose, erotic, immoral, and having an uncontrollable sexuality…After slavery, many black women struggled with the assumption that they should and would provide sexual pleasure for their bosses or for fellow white colleagues. [And quoting black author Bell Hooks]: “[B]lack women were often...[pressured] into sexual liaisons with white employers who would threaten to fire them unless they capitulated to sexual demands.”


This is only one example of systemic racism and structural inequality in the story of Hagar, in slavery in America and today – by the perpetuation of stereotypes borne out of situations caused by the oppressor.


Being a single mother


Sarah solved her problem of Hagar and Ishmael by casting them out into the desert, leaving them to die. She didn’t know that they lived, or so we assume. But Hagar and Ishmael did live. We gain a lot of knowledge about Hagar as a single mother in the few sentences at the end of this story. She, like freed slaves after Emancipation, now had to provide for her son and fulfill the roles of both mother and father. She had to secure a livelihood and an income. She had to build a household. And she had to find a wife for her son, which was not the role of a woman.

 

Jump to the 1800s in America. During and after slavery, there were many single black mothers. Why? For the very same reasons, or reasons by implication, that we read in the story of Hagar:

  • If the father was a slave, he could have been sold or sent to another plantation.
  • If the father was a slave, he could have been a “stud horse” to make more slaves, increasing the “property holdings” of the master, a husband to none of those women.
  • If the father was the master (like Abraham), well, do you think he was going to acknowledge his mixed-race baby? Sarah certainly wasn’t going to.

 

If these situations of single motherhood were true by fact or by implication in Hagar’s time thousands of years ago, and still true less than 200 years ago, you can image how they are still true today. I’m not going to go into the issues of black fatherhood, but the issues of black motherhood in America and in other countries which had African slaves, the various ways of being trapped into single motherhood still exist.


How are we complicit as Christians? We hold up these family values of an intact family unit with the father as the primary wage earner. We point to the Bible and show how God wants us to not divorce, for women to obey their husbands, that having a child out of wedlock is being a slave to sin because you had sex outside of marriage. We use our faith to shame rather than to liberate from hardship.


And that brings me to…


Theology of Liberation vs a Theology of Survival


We know from the history books and our hymnals that the slaves relied on their faith – the faith their masters imposed upon them – to survive, and so did Hagar. God saved her and Ishmael from certain death in the desert. Was she liberated, the persistent theme of God’s work with humanity throughout the OT? What I learned from Emily Peecook is that she most certainly was not liberated. She was distressed, penniless and homeless. She wasn’t liberated from these hardships as her son grew up in the wilderness, but she survived!! God gave her the gift of survival. That is very different than God giving her liberation from her hardships.


When the slaves were emancipated, they were also cast out into the wilderness, many of them distressed, penniless and homeless. Emancipation probably didn’t feel like liberation; they needed to survive, and they relied on God, Hagar relied on God, to provide the tools and opportunities to liberate themselves.


That brings us to today.

 

The Black, Indigenous, and
People of Color in America are
trying to survive.

 

They have not been liberated from their hardships simply because of the Emancipation Proclamation or the Civil Rights Amendment. That is being made clear now. They have survived. And they are praying to God and asking those of us with power for the tools and the opportunities to be liberated. And it’s not they who must liberate themselves; it is we who must liberate them from their oppression. We have hoarded the tools and the opportunities for centuries. It’s time to share the tools and opportunities. And it’s going to be painful, very, very painful. Jesus provides us a snapshot of just how painful it will be for us to dismantle systemic racism and structural inequality in our country, including our own community:

 

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

 

This painful struggle in the Gospel is Matthew’s way of telling his community that Jesus requires absolute allegiance. If you are going to accept Jesus as the pathway to salvation, then families will be ripped apart. Remember that Matthew’s community was comprised predominantly of Jews who knew Jesus to be the Messiah. They were living among a strong Jewish community that was aggressive and hostile toward this new sect. So, true allegiance to Jesus was going to result in painful divisions, even among family members.


Dismantling systemic racism and structural inequality – issues that Jesus committed His ministry to as witnessed in the Gospels – requires absolute allegiance. If we are going to dismantle systemic racism and structural inequality in our country, including our own community, we will run the risk of setting a man against his father


and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

 

In the reference to the teacher/disciple, the pairing of master/slave was added by Matthew because he wanted to avoid the hostile Jewish community from interpreting this message in a way in which the disciple eventually replaces the teacher. The disciple or slave is the follower of Jesus, and Jesus is the only Teacher or Master. In the story of Hagar, Peecook writes that:

 

“the master/slave relationship
with SARAH (not Abraham)
became twisted and untenable.
But her true Master, God, guided
her to survival.”

 

To guide us through the painful work of dismantling systemic racism and structural inequality in our country, including our own community, Jesus must be our Teacher and Master. We have to be wholly committed in our faith to Christ, and be wholly committed to our Black, Indigenous, and People of Color sisters and brothers in our work. Like Jesus’ Death, like the work of the first Disciples, like the mission of the Early Church, our work toward dismantling systemic racism and structural inequality will be painful, and that is how we will know that we are doing the right thing.


In her suffering for survival, Hagar was the


“only woman in the Old Testament who has a recorded theophany [a direct encounter with God] and is recipient to a promise of possession of land and a large number of descendants.”[1]


Those were her rewards. For our work, let our reward be that every Black, Indigenous, and Person of Color in America can have the chance to have an encounter with God and to have a few descendants

.
Amen.

 

 

Original essay be Emily Peecook:
https://digitalcommons.denison.edu/religion/vol2/iss1/2/


Sermon on Children of Isaac and Children of Ishmael:
https://cbbsb.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/1985-Isaac-and-Ishmael.pdf


[1] Waters, John. "Who Was Hagar?", 1991, p199. front

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