A sermon preached on the Second Sunday after Trinity at
The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete
on May 31, 2020 11:00 am
So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’. Genesis 21:10
Last Sunday we had our Annual Meeting, and in it we adopted our Vision Statement and Mission Plan. The Vision Statement is simple:
We believe that God’s vision for us, the Anglican Church of St Thomas, Kefalas, is: to radiate God’s love in Jesus Christ, on this island, and beyond.
What, then, do we do with a story such as this, which seems to be so unloving?
A Text of Terror
Genesis 21:1-18 is one of the passages in the Bible that the Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible calls Texts of Terror. The story of Sarah, Hagar, and Abraham, does not portray any of them at their best.
Earlier in the Book of Genesis we hear how Sarah appears to be incapable of having children. As a result, Abraham does not have an heir. Sarah seems to be someone who likes fixing things, so she encourages Abraham to take her Egyptian slave as a wife. She never names the woman, but simply gives Abraham permission to take her as a second spouse; whatever Hagar’s opinion in the matter is we are not told, as slaves’ opinions do not seem to matter.
When Hagar is pregnant, she apparently gets a little too proud, and according to the scripture, looks upon Sarah with contempt. Sarah, we are told, deals with her harshly, which may imply that she beat her, and Hagar runs away. In the desert, by an oasis God comes to her and tells her to return to Sarah, that the child she was bearing would become a great people, and that she would name the child Ishmael. Hagar does return, Ishmael is born, and he is circumcised along with all of the males of Abraham’s household, as a sign of the covenant. And, indeed, when this passage was written, Ishmael was seen as the ancestor of the Arabic people, just as Isaac, through Jacob, became the father of the Israelites. Muslim Arabs to this day understand Ishmael as their father, and when Israelis and Palestinians confront themselves in the Middle East, in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, they see this as a conflict between relatives.
In today’s reading from Genesis Hagar leaves for good. Sarah insists that Abraham expel Hagar and Ishmael, although she does not deign to name them, but only refer to them as “this slave woman with her son”. Abraham, meekly, accedes to this request.
As is so often the case with people expelled from their home, she is at risk. There is no water where she is, and she expects that she and her child will die. She cannot even bear to be with her child as he dies. Then God shows her water, and she lives. Ishmael, like his half-brother’s son, Jacob, goes on to have twelve sons, which found the twelve tribes of the Ishmaelites, or Arabs. When we next hear of Ishmael it is at the burial of Abraham in chapter 25.
Who is Our Abraham? Who is our Sarah?
Who is our Hagar and Ishmael?
This is a story of terror because it speaks of the frailty and brokenness of our ancestors. We might like to think of our forebears as noble, but sometimes we are confronted with their cruelty and indifference to the fate of others. As it was in the days of the Patriarchs, so we look back at them, and wonder. In the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand and, even in the the United Kingdom, there is a major reckoning with our imperial and colonial past.
I am the descendant of British colonists who left Scotland, Treland, and England in the 1830s. They were given land in what was then the colonies of New Brunswck and Canada East (now the province of Quebec). They were able to be given this land because the indigenous Miꞌkmaq, Haudenosaunee, Abenaki, and Algonquian peoples had been cleared out, forced to move away from the lands being settled and obliged to live in small, unproductive reserves. In the century before, the First Nations of those lands had signed friendship treaties, but they never signed treaties giving up their lands. in the late 18th century Loyalists came north, in the wake of the American Revolution, and the First Nations were ignored and lands were simply taken.
The last two generations of my family before me worked in the pulp and paper industry; both my father and grandfather were mechanical engineers who made newsprint, mostly for newspapers in Chicago. The companies they worked for exploited the natural resources of softwood trees in Quebec to make this newsprint. The trees stood on tens of thousands of square miles of the traditional lands of the Algonquin peoples, but there were no treaties made with them or permissions sought to take the trees. The people were pushed aside, and under the Indian Act of the 1880s obliged to live on reservations, which they could only leave with the “white” Indian agent’s say-so. They were forbidden from hiring lawyers to argue for their rights, denied citizenship, and their children were abducted and sent to residential schools where they could not speak their languages, practice their traditions, or see their parents, except maybe once or twice a year.
Now, the point of acknowledging this history is not to feel guilty – guilt’s a pretty useless emotion – but rather to see that my forebears were Abraham and Sarah to the indigenous peoples’ Hagar and Ishmael. What are we to to do with that kind of legacy? One thing is to take note of the trans-generational effects of that dispossession and marginalization, a trauma that continues to this day. But then what?
And the answer is to do what God did: provide what is necessary for life, even if it is as simple as water. God ensured that Ishmael lived by showing his mother a source of water. And in Canada? To this day, over one-hundred reserves in Canada have boil water advisories; and despite the pledges of successive party leaders and governments in election times, little progress is being made. In Canada, I would advocate for the government doing more, and doing so effectively with action to match words.
Jesus was well aware that these kinds of things could be divisive. It sounds political, because it involves power and justice. In his own life . . .
- he was critical of those who supported the compromised collaborationist leaders in Jerusalem, and their emissaries among the scribes and the Pharisees;
- he called out those who sought to impose a kind of legalistic spirituality with a myriad of rules, but had no sense of justice or their own hypocrisy;
- he challenged the religious elite who were so self-obsessed that they did not realise that their piety was for show; and
- Jesus saw that following him could bring conflict into families, and that while concerning, this was not a reason not to stand for justice.
Radiating God’s Love
So, what might this mean for us?
We believe that God’s vision for us to radiate God’s love in Jesus Christ, on this island, and beyond.
There are many opportunities to show that love. For example, there are Hagars and Ishmaels not so far from us, in the Moria Refugee Camp on the island of Lesvos. A place built for 3100, it now houses over 20,000, and it has been described as one of the worst refugee camps on earth. 40% of the residents are children. I have no idea what we might do, but the question still needs to be asked: How do we respond to this situation? We are strangers in a strange land, but do we act like Abraham, meekly acquiescing to the situation, or do we act like God, somehow bringing about a miracle?
My hope and my prayer is that we move
from words to action,
from a mission plan to mission implementation, and
that we grow in faith and accomplish good deeds.
May we take up the cross and follow Jesus, and in losing our lives for his sake, will find our true lives.