Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Call Me Ishmael--A Sermon

Call Me Ishmael
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church

November 6, 2011

Genesis 16:1-15; 17:18-26; 21:8-20; 25:12-18

We are all familiar with the Wizard of Oz. Most of us know the 1939 film version. It was based on the children’s book by L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz written in 1900. As a child, I watched the Wizard of Oz on television once per year. I remember waiting for it and watching it year after year. I read the book, too, as well as some his other Oz books.

The film has become a cultural icon. From Dorothy singing, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to Glinda the good witch calling to the Munchkins to “Come out, come out wherever you are” while Dorothy puts on the ruby slippers and courageously follows the yellow brick road picking up wounded companions with hidden strengths, the film has been an inspiration for individuals and many groups including the LGBT equality movement.

Her character, and in many ways, the actress Judy Garland who played Dorothy in the film, has been appropriated as an icon as both actress and person who reflects the tragedy and hope of marginalized people.

In 1995, the story took another turn when Gregory McGuire published, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. It has been turned into a Broadway Musical. In Maguire’s book, the story of the wicked witch is told with sympathy. She was misunderstood, mistreated and oppressed by the powerful forces and the “beautiful people” represented by Dorothy and Glinda. The wicked witch who was born a little green girl, Elphaba, challenges the notions of good and evil.

All of this is to say that literary characters take off in unexpected ways and become important as they are appropriated by different people for their interests. Old tales get re-written and re-interpreted for new purposes. When these stories have religious interests tied to them, they become even more important.

This is the case with this particular narrative that involves six literary characters, Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, Isaac, and God. For the narrators of Genesis, Hagar and Ishmael are not that important. In this patriarchal narrative, the plot involves God choosing Abraham to be the ancestor and the promise of a great nation. There are threats to this promise, particularly, that Sarai is barren.

Sarai convinces Abraham to take Hagar as another wife and to bear a son for her. Hagar and Abraham have a son, Ishmael. But according to God, Ishmael is not the chosen one. Ishmael and Hagar need to leave the plot and they do, so that God can intervene and miraculously give Abraham and Sarah a son, Isaac, who is the child of promise.

From the point of view of both Judaism and most of Christianity, Hagar and Ishmael are not important. For Paul in Galatians, Hagar, represents bad religion, the law, slavery in a spiritual sense. Sarah, on the other hand, represents promise and freedom.

However, Hagar is an important figure for Islam. For Mohammed writing in the 7th century of the Common Era, and the traditions that followed after the Qur’an, Hagar is a figure of faith. For Islam, Abraham is the first Muslim and his wife, Hagar is the mother of Muslims because it is through Ishmael that Muslims trace their mythical religious ancestry in the way that Jews and Christians trace their mythical religious ancestry through Sarah.

Like Maquire retelling Oz from the point of view of the wicked witch, Mohammed and the Islamic tradition retold the story of Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael as exemplars of faith. The Qur’an doesn’t specify which son was nearly sacrificed by Abraham, but it is believed to be Ishmael, because it was his only son, and so the logic is that Isaac wasn’t born yet.

In the tradition Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away because it is Allah’s command. But Allah watches over Hagar and Ishmael and Abraham continues to visit them and builds the Kaaba in Mecca with Ishmael and places the stone there. The Kaaba is the place of pilgrimage, the most holy site in Islam.

Hagar is seen as courageous and resourceful and filled with faith. While she and her son, Ishmael, are in the desert, she runs back and forth, between two hills, Al-Safa and Al-Marwah in search for water. After her seventh run, an angel hits the ground with his heel and water appears miraculously. It is called the Zamzam well, just a few yards away from the Kaaba. Muslims are invited to participate in the Hajj once in a lifetime, to travel to Mecca. Part of the pilgrimage is to run between the hills as Hagar did to emulate the courage and faithfulness of Hagar who is a model of motherhood and of women’s leadership.

The Muslim appropriation of Hagar and Ishmael culminated in a new narrative and tradition. Muslims will say that their story is the correct story and Jews and Christians will say their story is the correct story. All claim to have their stories written on stone in their respective holy books. All claim to be the true religion, and that they are the people who were really chosen by God. It would be boring if it weren’t so dangerous.

Somehow, we have to get Hagar and Sarah and their children to reconcile. Can we appropriate our religious stories for peace and cooperation? Or will we continue to tell them to justify division and superiority?

One of the ways to at least begin that process is to learn how the different faiths have told their stories. I didn’t know the importance of Hagar in the Muslim tradition even though it is 1300 years old.

Personally, I think it is helpful to recognize that the stories of Abraham, Hagar, Sarah, Isaac, Ishmael and God are not history but religious myth and legend. No one has a corner on “how it really happened” especially since it didn’t happen at all. Legends appear and grow and are reshaped by the interests of the tellers. We can enjoy all of it and take from all of it. I can enjoy and learn from both The Wizard of Oz and Wicked even as it would be pointless to harmonize them. They tell different stories. Could we not enjoy and learn from both Genesis and the Bible on one hand and the Qur’an and the Hadith, the early writings of the Muslim tradition, on the other?

Religion is different from story, although it begins with story. Before they became sacred texts they were stories. They have value because these stories can “read us”. We can find ourselves in them. Plus, tradition and ritual centers on these characters. Perhaps at Christmas as we tell the story of Joseph and Mary we might also tell the story of Hagar and Ishmael as the Muslim tradition tells it.

Participating and incorporating the rituals of another religion can make their stories part of our story as well. Despite the shrill claims of the purists, religion is never "pure." It always changes, adds and subtracts. No book is ever final and finished. If it is good it will be the seedbed for new creativity. We certainly need creativity, a creativity that points toward reconciliation and peace between the daughters and sons of Hagar and Sarah.

Some of this creative work is being done by African-American womanist theologians as they reflect on Hagar from the point of view of the experience of African-American women. In preparation for this sermon I read Hagar, Sarah, and Their Children: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives, edited by Phyllis Trible and Letty M. Russell.

One of the contributors to this volume is Delores Williams who taught theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York. In her entry, she says that Hagar has been an icon for African-American woman as a survivor and one who through whom they can say,
"God helped me make a way out of no way.”
She writes:
The African-American community has taken Hagar's story unto itself. Hagar has ‘spoken’ to generation after generation of black women because her story has been validated as true by suffering black people. She and Ishmael together, as family, model many black American families in which a lone woman/mother struggles to hold the family together in spite of the poverty to which ruling class economics consign it. Hagar, like many black women, goes into the wide world to make a living for herself and her child, with only God by her side.
--Diana L. Hayes, Hagar’s Daughters: Womanist Ways of Being in the World (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995), p. 58.
Hagar is a three-fold victim of oppression by gender, class, and race. Phyllis Trible writes of Hagar:
She is the first person in the Bible to flee oppression; the first runaway slave; the first person whom a messenger of God visits; the first woman to receive an annunciation; the only woman to receive a divine promise of descendants; the only person to name God; the first woman in the ancestor stories to bear a child; the first surrogate mother; the first slave to be freed; the first divorced wife; the first single parent; and the first person to weep. Given all these distinctions, Hagar haunts the biblical narrative and its afterlife in ways that the other characters do not. Trible & Russell, p. 61
Hagar is a survivor.

According to Delores Williams, Ishmael is the abandoned child. Abandoned by his home. Abandoned by his father. Abandoned even briefly by his mother as she cannot bear to watch him die. Yet, he and his mother, find a way out of no way. The ambiguous story narrates that God hears the cry and responds. Hagar and her son represent endurance and resistance.

Letty M. Russell writes:
“One discovery we can make as we reflect together on the enmity between Hagar and Sarah is that the struggle between us will not cease unless we become children who struggle for the wider gift of God’s justice, peace, and wholeness in our lives and in the whole creation.” Trible and Russell, p. 196
Survival and quality of life come from courage, resistance, and making a way out of no way. Perhaps the struggle of Hagar can be a model not just for African-American women but for all of us. We are all children of struggle. Sarah and Abraham both were victims and oppressors. Our history of religious and political struggle has been one in which we have crossed those lines.

Maybe there will be a new way of telling our story and a new way of hearing the stories of others, such as the Muslim Hagar and the African-American Hagar, so that we can hear the cry that ultimately says,
“I am a human being.”
We might all have been Ishmael or Hagar at some point in our lives. Perhaps we have been Abraham and Sarah too. If we can identify with them in any way, maybe we can realize that others identify with them as well. If that can happen, if we can recognize that others also feel abandoned or mistreated, misunderstood, and rejected, and yet have discovered the spiritual strength to make a way of no way, we can realize that we really aren’t all that different.

Maybe we can with our lives write new chapters for Hagar, Sarah, Ishmael, Isaac, and Abraham, and go where the authors couldn’t—away from chosen vs. unchosen—away from special vs. rejected, and instead be human beings whose very lives are sacred struggles for survival and dignity.

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