With all the things we face in our lives, how do our souls become whole again? This is the question asked each year during the Jewish High Holy Days and every year, some of the liturgy lifts up all the ways people of The Hebrew Bible hurt each other. Stories that acknowledge that each of us have moments when our soul or self is not whole, when the well of being seen-runs dry. In this service we will read the Rosh Hashanah story of Hagar and Sarah full of the power dynamics of patriarchy to explore the responses that shore up the resilience of the human spirit and to discover what in the story speaks to us today.
We are in the midst of the Jewish High Holy days, a time when Jews remember God’s promise of prosperity to Abraham and that all of humanity will be blessed through him. It beginswith Rosh Hashanah a day remembering this promise. On Rosh Hashanah it is read, “Remember us, O Lord our God, Visit us on this day for blessing. Save us upon this day for life. Have mercy, pity and show grace unto us according to your word.” Ten days later on Yom Kippur, the day of judgment and renewal it is read “The lord passed before Moses and proclaimed “The Lord, is a god compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, extending kindness to the thousandths generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.”
You may be thinking that these words are written for ancient times, and for a religious community in which God is separate, and all-powerful. And you are right they are. But like all the jewels of ancient scripture they transcend time and place. These ten days for Jews are rich in prayer and community witness as they soul search to let go of falsity, to realize their harmful practices and to recommit themselves to an authentic relationship with God. For us as Unitarian Universalists, these days invite introspection as well. A time to consider our relationship with creation and what we call the most holy to realize what we must do to practice what in Hebrew is Teshuva, meaning to return to our highest selves.
This time of reflection is not for the light hearted for on Rosh Hashanah the story of Sarah and Hagar is read, a cautionary tale of inhospitality, competition and patriarchal oppression by gender, race, and nationality. The story begins with Gods promise of blessing to Abraham, that through him, a nation will form, that will in turn bless the world. To claim it, Abraham must leave and travel to an unknown land that God has chosen for him. He is later in years, as is wife, Sarah, who has not given birth to a child, a reality in tension with God’s promise. While in Egypt, Abraham presents Sarah to the Pharaoh as his eligible sister, and Pharaoh’s possible bride to help secure the leaders favor. When Pharaoh realizes Abraham lies, the Pharaoh tells Abraham to leave yet still gives him animals and a slave, Hajar. In time, Sarah, still without child proposes that Abraham take Hajar, as a second wife in order to birth a child that secures her place in the lord’s promise. Abraham consents, and Hajar has no say in the decision. When Hajar becomes pregnant, she feels her power and the differences between her status and Sarah’s begins to shrink. Resenting the change, Sarah abuses Hajar, who then flees to the wilderness. There she receives a messenger of God, who calls her by name, and tells her to return to Sarah and promises her a son, Ishmael. Hajar, an Egyptian and a slave, is the first person in the bible to not only see god and live, but to name him, El-roi, the god of seeing. As promised Hajar returns to Sarah, and gives birth to Abraham’s first son, Ishmael. Years later Sarah too becomes pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. When Sarah sees her toddler Isaac playing with Ishmael, she fears for her son’s inheritance and tells Abraham to exile Hajar and Ishmael into the wilderness. This poem continues the story in Abraham’s voice:
For one short span, she was our Hajar, my bright young bride, the helpmate of a lonely aging couple. How she grew from a round-cheeked girl capable, aproned, baby strapped to her high hip, into a woman beyond our ken, strange giant straddling rockscape, midwifing a new earth! Twice Sarah put Hajar’s hand in mine, as God willed, first to marry, then to desert her. But it was I who let her hand drop. Our last night we spent alone in God’s wilderness, our last time to circle, in the crook of my body, hers, the baby nestled between her breast and belly my arm around them both. Then I dropped her supple, girlish hand and freely I admit the tears that wet my dusty beard, fell brackish into that dry ground as I walked, away willingly from the slaughter of my Hajar-love. She called, Abraham ! She knew what I had to do, but still she called, let me hear my name shaped by her lips one last single time,“Abraham!” At the pierce of that cry, I wanted to bundle her up and carry her home again, protect her from the howling barren land. I turned around. But one look at her face – she was already fiercer, older, a woman I do not know. “To whom do you leave us? For a minute I could not answer The God who made the fire cool and safe for me will make this scorched desert for Hajar a garden surely. When I said “God is here,”she took my words and threw them back at me, “Then I’ll take God. I’ll take the God of the wilderness over your home and your city.” She turned away. I know that turn. I as a young man I chose to accept from God a hard vocation. But an old man knows what it means to drop the supple hand. I walked away bent, nearly double, picking my ragged path back home to Sarah I took one last look. Hajar was walking into her own Soul-searching days, head on, far from me now, her shadow thrown by the lowered sun across a wild country turning into something stark and strong. Fire of the desert, Be cool and safe for Hajar
Scripture tells us that after Hagar leaves, Abraham takes Isaac to the mountain to be sacrificed. Sarah, devastated by her husband latest betrayal, leaves that day and dies a short time later broken hearted, and alone, never seeing her husband or her son again. Isaac is spared at the last minute when God provides a Ram instead for the sacrifice, but then he too disappears for a long time from the story. Abraham returns to an empty house, never seeing Sarah or his son again. Ishmael and Isaac live estranged from each other except for the moment they come together to bury Abraham.
Hymn “Who Can Say?” #218
The Sermon: For You A New Heart
In their oh so human struggles, Abraham, Sarah and Hagar help us name the ways in which we too are cast in the story of patriarchy, racism, othering, and domination. To give name to the ways our hearts have turned or been turned away from creations promise. To discover where we each are in the story and realize how to restore the promise. I enter the story as a minister, a daughter, and as a mother. As a minister, the reality of sacrificing a son becomes real as I witness adult sons, sitting at their dad’s deathbed, trying to reconciling a relationship long ago cast out into the wilderness. Maybe it is because the son is gay, or chose the wrong vocation, or a wrong God. But most of the time its because of an unmet need to be seen and respected, to be unbound by competition, and freed from imposed expectations.
And when I consider how Abraham falsely presents Sarah to the Pharaoh as his eligible sister to secure his position I think of the ME TOO movement and the many ways men use woman’s bodies to secure their position. I was attending a LGBTQ theater night at the strand theatre in Dorchester last year and the performing artist from Nigeria asked the audience, mostly woman of color, how many of them had been approached as a sex worker, and nearly all of them raised their hands. And as a daughter and mother of daughters I know how many young girls, myself included learn to see their body as a commodity; All too willing to be owned, to unwittingly lose their sense of self at the tender age of puberty, at just the moment they should be coming into their power. When I consider how Sarah gives Hajar to Abraham to secure her position, I remember how our religious ancestors, Susan B. Anthony and others, in a glaring expression of white supremacy betrayed their fellow Black Suffragists in the hopes of securing their position by using racism to secure the white woman’s vote. A memory still waiting to be healed.
I see a glimpse of hope in the story for reconciliation when Hajar becomes pregnant and the power begins to shift. But is it not to be. Sarah, once abused, continues to abuse Hajar. Feminist theologian, Letty Russell says when interpreted through the lens of patriarchy, the promise of Abraham becomes a privilege with power claimed as a rightful inheritance. Russell says when this power excludes the othe,r the oppressed becomes the oppressor and the promise becomes deformed. In the story Sarah, claims privilege and oppresses Hajar. In the Middle East today, Israel claims privilege and oppresses Palestine. A deformation of the promise that will continue to happens says Letty, until we change the lens.
Enter Hajar, who named God, El-roi, and the god of seeing. Genesis Chapter 21 tells us that after Abraham leaves; Hajar wanders about in the wilderness of Beer Sheba. When the water in the skin is gone she casts the child under a bush. Then she sits down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of bowshot, and says out loud “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And she lifts up her voice and weeps. And God hears and the angel of God calls to Hajar from heaven and says to her, “What troubles you, Hajar? Do not be afraid for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.”
Muslim Hadith (sayings of the prophet Muhammad) adds this: After laying her child in the shade of the bush, determined that he not die, Hajar runs back and forth, back and forth seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwa, searching, scanning, seeking to find whatever help she could to relieve her thirsty child. But there was not a bird, a blade of grass, nothing that could give aid. There was only the hot sun on that lonely silent wasteland. When she returns to Ishmael, he lay there kicking his feet in the sand. As his tiny toes pierce the dry earth, a small cool spring begins to bubble up. Feverishly Hajar digs her hand into the sand, corralling the water, nourishing her child. Around this spring, a community grows to become Mecca, a destination to which thousands of pilgrims travel each year to immerse themselves in the water of what is now called the Well of Zamzam located in the Ka’bah.1
Every year thousands walk, arms linked together, seven times between the mountains, reliving Hajar’s ancient drama. A dream that begins when Hajar reject’s Abrahams fake God, saying “I take the God of the wilderness over your God of the city.” Freed from patriarchy, and all the ways it diminished her as a slave and concubine, and though facing imminent death, she discovers who she really is, a truth of agency that refuses death. Searching seven times between the mountains in both desperation and her power she is restored to creation. She finds a way out of no way. She survives. 2This is the story of Hajar, and her story is the untold story of so many, especially women of color, raising their children alone, abandoned by patriarchy, finding a way out of no way. Have you ever found a way out of no way in the wilderness? A moment when something within you shifts, and you see who you really are, a false self falls away, and freed from constraint you claim your truth your power. Have you journeyed with someone and given witness to this moment? I think of Iris and her six-year-old daughter Mayli who entered the wilderness of Mexico to cross into this country as asylum seekers. Freed from detention, they stayed with me last May. I witnessed Iris time and time again find away out of no way, a witness that strips from me any pretense of privilege and renews my heart. She is one Hajar in my life. I also think of Rena, a Muslim UU minister colleague I met last summer at a workshop who helped me see how much my liberation is tied to hers. Most of the UU ministers there were ministers of Color, Muslim and/or Queer, (a liberating identity they use to express their sexual and or gender orientations.) They are very practiced at changing the lens of patriarchy. Rena helped to change mine. We were in a facilitated exercise where 3 people are facing each other in an inner circle answering a question, while the outer circle listens. When someone from the outer circle wants to talk they tap one of the 3 people in the inner circle, and change places. Three times a person of color entered the circle to talk about their experience, and 3 times a white person entered and marginalized their experience. I was, unintentionally one of them. Rena, faithful to her power, made this pattern visible for us as we debriefed. Her naming this was hard, shameful at first, because I thought I had this antiracism thing down. But she called me in to who I really am, and who she really is, she renewed my heart. I see how this devaluing of the People of Color experiences happens all the time. As Serena William’s well knows, patriarchy is persistent. Hagars are ever present in our lives if we have the eyes to see. I always find one in Author Toni Morrison’s books. In the Song of Solomon, she actually names an African American character Hajar, who pointedly has no children, no Ishmael to carry on the lineage. She wants us to see how Patriarchy does not protect all of its sons.
We can discover the Hajar within in our own stories of wandering and struggle. We can honor too her by honoring the stranger and person in need. Both open us up to the expectation that the god of seeing may also be in our midst, and that in the seeing we renew our hearts. I invite you to practice this wandering and renewal here in our small group ministry starting next Tuesday night. A special time of togetherness that will help you to see and give witness to the truth and power emerging in your life and those with whom you share the journey.
In all our coming together may we change the lens of patriarchy and restore the promise of creation to all who live. When Daa’iyah Taha an African American Muslim remembers her Hajj, her pilgrimage, she remembers plodding for hours with thousand from one mountain top to another, and she knows she is not alone in her struggles. She says that with every prayer “I turn towards the Ka’ba, knowing that I stand shoulder to shoulder with human beings everywhere, forming a solid circle of praise around the sacred house. Because of Hajj, I will never again desire to be held above or accept to be behind another human being. I stand gratefully beside humanity in the dignity of the circle. This is what my soul desires, the is the gift I receive.” May this dignity be our desire and our gift in our pilgrimage here to this sacred house and in all our journeys.
Please join me in the spirit of prayer, Spirit of life, source of grace and tender mercies,
May we in our struggles and in our togetherness open our hearts, holding, seeing, honoring both the pain and the power. May we in our witness be called back to our true selves, breaking the bondage of violence and restoring the dignity of all who suffer. May we in this turning restore ourselves to the blessing of creation. We hold in our prayers on this day the victims of gas explosions, hurricane flooding, the victims of 9/11 and their families, in our remembering renew our vow to end the violence. We pray for the people of this congregation, and we say out loud all those in our lives in need of prayers. As we enter the silence let us rest her for a moment, knowing ourselves to be full and whole just as we come to this place. Let us sit together in quiet listening to the prayers in our hearts or simply the sounds of this day. Peace be to this congregation.