“Shower the People”
Rev. Megan Lynes
Delivered May 22, 2016
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
Love comes quietly,
about me, on me,
in the old ways.
What did I know
able to go
alone all the way.
Perhaps as a child you had the chicken pox
and your mother, to soothe you in your fever
or to help you fall asleep, came into your room
and read to you from some favorite book,
Charlotte’s Web or Little House on the Prairie,
a long story that she quietly took you through
until your eyes became magnets for your shuttering
lids and she saw your breathing go slow. And then
she read on, this time silently and to herself,
not because she didn’t know the story,
it seemed to her that there had never been a time
when she didn’t know this story—the young girl
and her benevolence, the young girl in her sod house—
but because she did not yet want to leave your side
though she knew there was nothing more
she could do for you. And you, not asleep but simply weak,
listened to her turn the pages, still feeling
the lamp warm against one cheek, knowing the shape
of the rocking chair’s shadow as it slid across
your chest. So that now, these many years later,
when you are clenched in the damp fist of a hospital bed,
or signing the papers that say you won’t love him anymore,
when you are bent at your son’s gravesite or haunted
by a war that makes you wake with the gun
cocked in your hand, you would like to believe
that such generosity comes from God, too,
who now, when you have the strength to ask, might begin
the story again, just as your mother would,
from the place where you have both left off.
“Prayer” by Keetje Kuipers from Beautiful in the Mouth. © BOA Editions, 2010.
Genesis 16:1-4 (adapted from NRSV)
“Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. … He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress.”
I’ll paraphrase this next part, and tell you that Sarai gets jealous and casts Hagar out into the desert, where there is no food and water. While there, Hagar encounters God who tells her to go back to her mistress, and in return God will give her a son named Ishmael, and multiply her offspring. Hagar, the only person in the whole bible to do so, names God, saying “You are El-roi”; meaning God who sees.
Later, back in the land of Canaan, the story has unfolded some more. Sarai has been renamed Sarah, and has born a son, and named him Isaac. The sons play together but Sarah is worried about Ishmael being the first born son, the one with the power and blessing of the family. She complains to Abram (now Abraham,) saying, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”
Genesis 21:14-19 (adapted from NRSV)
“So Abraham sent her into the wilderness with bread and a skin of water. When the water was gone, she put the child under a bush. Then she went and sat down a good way off, and said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And she lifted up her voice and wept. God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.”
Mid-week it looked like our Olympic sized swimming pool outside was almost done! Well today there are huge metal boxes in the middle of the pit, which means the foundation for the vault is under way. After a few years of detailed planning and then a couple of congregational votes, we are at last installing an energy efficient HVAC system that will be good for us and good for the environment. The pool might have also been cool, though I think the Historic District Commission would really have a cow then. … Forget solar panels!
I’ve been watching alongside all of you as the Big Dig takes place out there. It has become some sort of a symbol to me. Not relating to energy efficiency, but rather just a visual of excavation in general. A purging of old mildewed boxes from the basement. A root canal to get out the rot. The empty locker on the last day of school. The cavern of the self is vast, and over the years it can fill up like a closet or an attic, until we’re not even sure what we’ve been storing all this time.
Before the digging outside began, there was a huge tree that needed to be moved. A crazy looking machine with giant claws arrived. I found myself feeling protective of the tree, sort of angry and fearful on its behalf. There it was, benevolently overseeing Easter Egg Hunts, and peeping in through the window on Sunday mornings. The life it knew would be upturned. Its entire root system disturbed. Yet before my eyes the crew carefully cut a wide berth around the tree, the crab machine scooped, and tenderly delivered it to a new spot ten feet away, positioned just opposite its sister tree on the other side of the brick path. The great maw in the earth gaped wide. But the tree turned her face toward the sun, and sprouted even more leaves than her sister this year. I moved from “don’t touch it!” to delight that the good stuff had been saved in the dig, creating space for something healthy and worthwhile to begin.
Call it self reflection, or cultivating an awakened heart, or maybe even exorcism. What’s hidden underneath all the nice grass and trees for you? At times a Big Dig of the self, is essential for making life changes that matter.
To understand Hagar, to receive what she can teach us, we have to get beneath the surface of her story. We need an excavation of sorts. Her pain came from being cast out. But she was also strong. Many of us can relate to that, each in our own ways. Author and pastor, Henri Nowen, says that wounds can become a source of enlargement and growth and wholeness and even beauty. Wounds can be transformed “by a constant willingness to see one’s own pain and suffering as arising from the depth of the human condition which we all share.” When I moved to Lexington as a teen, I knew no one, and it seemed no lunch table in the dining hall would would have me. I ate my lunch standing on a toilet in the girls bathroom every day of 7th grade, praying no one would find me there, smoke me out, and shame me further. I would have given anything in the world for a friend. Even now I fear in telling you that, because maybe you just categorized me, the one weirdo kid at the bottom of the heap who makes people uncomfortable, and who’s absence is not noticed.
My own touchstone for the feeling of being cast out seems small compared to Hagar’s plight. Hagar was a woman, a foreigner and a slave. Despised, alienated, separated from her people. She was a mother who did what her mistress told her to do, and then was blamed and abandoned. She was a mother with a son dying of thirst in her arms. But I mentioned my own experience of isolation because I think many of us have known what’s it like to be alone. That’s partly why Niti’s song “On My Own” resonates. Longing for what might be, and feeling alone are two of the biggest soul crushers of the human condition. It goes almost without saying that our country at this time is deep in the crux of this giant excavation project too. In the last six months we’ve dug up a deep wide cavern and are now desperate to figure out what to save and savor and how to uproot what’s festering.
When we think about all the good we want to do for humanity, we can see that it simply can’t come from a “higher than thou” place. Working to end suffering or oppression has to originate from one’s own experience, the place where our own indignation is stirred up, and we probably have to have dig around and poke the sore spots again, until we are reminded that yanking out bad teeth creates relief as well. When we confront the depths of our shared human condition and see our own pain reflected there, we are also able to see the suffering of another, and begin to work for positive change.
There are so many ways to unpack and explore the story of Hagar. Depending upon the perspective, this iconic Egyptian woman’s story is either one of exploitation, betrayal and abandonment, or she is a powerful source of strength, inspiration and hope. The Hebrew account calls Hagar an Egyptian slave girl, and her purpose in the story is to separate the lineages of Isaac and Ishmael, both sons of Abraham, and fathers to the Jewish and Muslim faiths respectively. She is also a symbol for a thousand teaching lessons about power and cruelty, greed and inhumanity, and of course the nature of God’s nearness with all who suffer.
She appears in the Muslim tradition as well, called Hajirah, though not in the Quran itself, but rather in Hadith, which are spiritual writings. The Muslim account places Hajirah in a royal line, daughter of Pharaoh. She was gifted by her father, the King of Egypt to the prophet Abraham. So she was actually cast out three times. First banished from her own family and country, and then cast out twice by Sarah and Abraham. Hajirah is revered as a woman of exceptional faith, love, fortitude, resolution and strength of character, who has succeeded in total God-Consciousness (called taqwa.) Her faith that humans are not in charge, but rather God, allowed her to be entrusted by God to give birth to a prophet.
As we heard in the Genesis text, Hagar finds herself exiled to the wilderness. No more water; no more food; no more options. Alone and desperate, she tries to solve her problems any way she can, wailing and calling for God’s help. In the Torah it says she puts Ishmael under a bush and backs away, because she can’t bear to hear his death cries. “She doesn’t pray to be saved. She doesn’t even pray for her son to be rescued – because she has absolutely no expectation of that. Rather, she prays to die, and asks to not have to watch her only child die first.”
The Islamic tradition says that Hajirah ran back and forth seven times between two hills desperately seeking water or help, determined not to give up until her own last breath. After the seventh trip, God caused a spring to burst forth from the ground, where Ishmael’s (or Ismael’s) heel had hit against the earth. This spot, was subsequently named Zamzam, and the water still flows there to this day. “Zamzam” means “stop stop!” because the water was coming out of the ground with such force, that Hajirah couldn’t drink from it. To this day, when Muslims go on a pilgrimage to Mecca they visit the well, and most drink from it, or save some water to take home, because it’s considered holy. They also commemorate Hajirah’s long run by making 7 trips themselves between the two hills.
As we unpack the story of Hagar or Hajirah from different perspectives, we glimpse what was at stake for women, for the oppressed, for those on the bottom rung of society. When I first heard this story, I admit that I simply felt annoyed and stirred up, ready to give up on scripture altogether as a mishmash of misogeny. But I also know that a good and awful story like this makes room for facing contemporary issues and so I was eager to hear how other people respond to this text.
Feminist theologian Phyllis Trible writes, “Hagar the Egyptian slave was one of the first females in Scripture to experience abuse and rejection.” Yet she was also the first female in the Bible to liberate herself from an oppressive power structure. She was the surrogate mother, fleeing to the wilderness to escape harsh treatment at the hand of Sarah, but it is in the wilderness that Hagar encounters God, an occurrence so rare that it is saved for only the most important of characters. “God is with Hagar in the midst of her personal suffering and destitution.” Hagar was not alone, although she feared she was, and the act of naming God, is a self-initiated liberation event.
Womanist theologian Delores S. Williams, founder of the Universal Hagar’s Spiritual Center, has written extensively about Hagar and the degree to which her story of social rivalry, sexual abuse, economic exploitation, slavery, and ethnic prejudice resonates within the African American cultural memory, and particularly in African American women whose historical and contemporary experience parallel it in so many ways. Williams asserts that African Americans have appropriated the biblical figure Hagar for more than 200 years within many different cultural contexts. Hagar appears in literary, social scientific, historical, anthropological and theological sources. God helped Hagar make a way out of no way. This speaks to the belief of many Black women that God supports their struggle for quality of life. Black women have testified, “God helped us make a way out of no way,” just as Hagar named God as a “God of seeing,” a God that not only could be seen, but who was seeing her suffering.
There are really so many different kinds of interpretations of Hagar’s story. Since each is valid, I will offer one that I’ve been thinking about recently. It relates to the idea of the Big Dig. In the literalism of the story, Hagar is looking for water. But perhaps we might also imagine that what she’s really doing is running from the only thing that will really save her–the confrontation with self. Who am I, she might be asking? (And we might be asking as well.) What have I done to deserve this? What can I do now? Will anyone be there for me?
We all have panicked like this, in one way or another. Some terrible pain crashes into our life. Our animal nature struggles to escape, to look anywhere but right at the pain. Sometimes alcohol works, or overwork, pornography, the news these days makes us want to escape even further, yet it draws us into a battle ground… our culture encourages escapist opportunities. We have all been there, confronted with a truth we can’t bear, looking for a way out instead of a way in.
Sometimes though, we use other people as a way to keep from facing our most painful truths. We say, this partner will complete me and make me happy. Or this child will protect me from a life of loneliness and give me the love I’ve never had. This boss will assure me of my worth. But in the desert, where there is no hiding place, where there is no way out, it is almost impossible not to confront yourself.
When all that you know has evaporated, when everyone you loved has gone, and you are left utterly alone, you have nowhere to turn but toward your own heart. The psalm writers poured out their pain by raging and pleading with God. And Niti’s song this morning was about that longing and isolation of love in absentia. Only the emotions of love and fear are strong enough to organize one’s whole psychic structure and focus. We can understand ourselves better when the objects of our fear or loves are known.
I read a story this week in Out Magazine, about a woman named Ruth Coker Burks who cared for over three hundred men during the AIDS crisis, burying more than three dozen of them herself. Their families had abandoned them out of fear of the disease and homophobia. Her story began when she was visiting a friend at the hospital. She watched nurses outside the room of a patient who had AIDS. “I would watch the nurses draw straws to see who would go in and check on him. It’d be: ‘Best two out of three,’ and then they’d say, ‘Can we draw again?’ At some point she decided to greet the man whom everyone wanted to avoid. In the bed was a skeletal young man, wasted away to less than 100 pounds. He told her he wanted to see his mother before he died.
“I walked out and [the nurses] said, ‘You didn’t go in that room, did you?’” Burks recalled. “I said, ‘Well, yeah. He wants his mother.’ They laughed. They said, ‘Honey, his mother’s not coming. He’s been here six weeks. Nobody’s coming.’”
Unwilling to take no for an answer, Burks wrangled a number for the young man’s mother out of one of the nurses, then called. She was able to speak for only a moment before the woman on the line hung up on her.
“I called her back,” Burks said. “I said, ‘If you hang up on me again, I will put your son’s obituary in your hometown newspaper and I will list his cause of death.’ Then I had her attention.”
Her son was a sinner, the woman told Burks. She didn’t know what was wrong with him and didn’t care. She wouldn’t come, as he was already dead to her as far as she was concerned. She said she wouldn’t even claim his body when he died. It was a curse Burks would heard over and again. Sure judgment and yawning hellfire, abandonment on a platter of scripture. Time and again, families turned their backs.
Burks hung up the phone, trying to decide what she should tell the dying man. “I went back in his room,” she said, “and when I walked in, he said, ‘Oh, Momma. I knew you’d come,’ and then he lifted his hand. [He was so very sick.] What was I going to do? So I took his hand. I said, ‘I’m here, honey. I’m here.’” She stayed put for 13 more hours until he took his last breath.
Well it also turned out that since at least the late 1880s, Burks’s kin had been buried in Files Cemetery, a half-acre of red dirt on top of a hill in Hot Springs, Arkansas. When Burks was a girl, she said, her mother got in a final, epic row with Burks’s uncle. To make sure he and his branch of the family tree would never lie in the same dirt as the rest of them, Burks said, her mother quietly bought every available grave space in the cemetery: 262 plots, and they were passed on down. “I always wondered what I was going to do with a cemetery,” she said. “Who knew there’d come a time when people didn’t want to bury their children?” Burks is elderly herself now, but she says that before she dies, she’d like to see a memorial erected in Files Cemetery where she single handedly buried all the men whom no one else would touch. Something to tell people the story. “Let’s get a plaque or a stone there,” she said. “I’d love to get a monument that says: This is what happened. In 1984, it started. They just kept coming and coming. And they knew they would be remembered, loved, and taken care of, and that someone would say a kind word over them when they died.” This is how it went for Hajira. This is how it should go for each of us.
Love is the kindest end for all our excavations of heart and spirit. When we dig within, we can yank free what festers there. So let the cavern speak. Listen as long as you can. What goodness within is waiting to take root? Savor what’s good, look to the sky for warmth, reach out a branch to a sister who needs a friend, and remember you are never all alone. The great law of Love decrees it so.
The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society, Henri J. M. Nouwen