God and the slave-girl

ADVENT 2: PEACE (Grace Embodied, Part 2. Go here for Part 1.)

The Hebrew word for Peace, Shalom, means “fullness” or “completion.”  Saying Shalom as a greeting is to say, “May you be completed.”

Peace is not an ethereal idea. It’s an actual thing.
Conflict and division – they are real, heavy and dark and sharp, crushing and weighty things. Peace is not just taking that away, leaving nothing but a vacuum, shallow emptiness where squashed-down discord smolders or discontent breeds like mildew.
Peace is not an empty space of enforced silence between otherwise foes.  No. Peace has substance and girth. It exists in the world. It is something you can hold and touch and smell; Peace is tangible and real wholeness.  
It’s what God’s kind of life tastes like and feels like in your hands. 

We know the feel of peace.
It’s that thing that happens between people when forgiveness is slowly labored into,
and when love is discovered and shared. 
It’s when, drifting along untethered, someone sees you and values you.
To the drug-addled mind and listless soul, peace is clarity and grounding.
To the fearful and lonely person, peace is belonging and trust.
To the frenzied and chaotic life, peace is order and settled calm.
To the lost and abandoned person, peace is home and safety.
To the heartbroken and despairing ones, peace is solidarity and hope.
Between warring factions, peace is not just taking away weapons or working out a tenuous agreement to not set each other off.  It’s the building of bridges, the joining together, the solidarity of shared humanity.  It is whole instead of shattered. Harmony instead of discord.  Peace is fullness of life. Jesus said I came that you may life, and have it abundantly. Shalom.

Last week we said that the first grace the human ever knows is our creatureliness itself, our embodied, fragile, mortality.  We are creatures connected to the earth, living inside bodies that are trapped inside the confines of time and space. And it is from within these vulnerable bodies, from within these confines of time and space, that God’s grace encounters us.  We were made for this conversation, a dialogue with the speaking, living God and with one another.  God ministers to us, and we, made in God’s image are made to minister to each other. To live Shalom, peace.

Now, all this talk of peace, and creatureliness gives us the perfect backdrop against which to hear again the story of Hagar, which at first glance is perhaps the strangest text ever paired with the second week of Advent. 

But, Abram and Sarai are a perfect case in point that, as we saw last week with Adam and Eve, as soon as we try to transcend our creatureliness, we run into problems. Whenever we reach for God’s role, when we deny our vulnerability, disregard our interdependence, and ignore our need for a minister, we’ve stepped outside of the grace of our creaturliness – we’ve stepped away from God and out of peace.

Decades earlier, God had given Abram a promise – that his descendants would number the stars, and through his line the whole world would be blessed. This is God’s grace.  God promised this; God will do it.
Only, a long time has gone by, and it’s not happening.  And the two of them begin looking at each other and thinking that between their lack of youth and utter barrenness, they don’t seem to be doing a very good job of fulfilling this promise.  After so very long of waiting, they’ve forgotten that it’s God’s job to fulfill God’s promises and not ours.  
So Sarai hatches a plan.

Take the slave girl- she says to Abram. Have a baby by her and the promise will be fulfilled.
There are lots of red flags here, friends, lots of signs they are most assuredly notliving in the grace and peace of their creaturliness before God, not least of which is that Hagar is simply a means to an end, and object, and not a human being at all. They are seeking to transcend their own creatureliness, their own embodiment, by using herbody to do God’s work for God. They don’t even call her by her name – neither of them, throughout this whole narrative. They call her ‘the slave girl.’  She is her place, her station, her role that is subservient and disposable; she is a thing. 

So they do this.  And then, predictably, things between them get really tricky. 
Hagar conceives.  Presumably she will have no say over this child; it will be raised by Abram and Sarai, designated to be the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abram. She was just a vessel. Except no human is that.  We belong to each other; we share humanity in common. So when her pregnancy begins to show, when the reality of bearing new life comes over her, Sarai sees it, and it’s suddenly not like placing an order from an online shopping site. It’s a young, fertile woman living in her house, walking around carrying her husband’s child inside her. Even before the child is delivered Hagar is giving him what Sarai never could. 
How can Abram not be dizzy with the promise of a coming child? 
How can Hagar, drawn into this thing against her will, not deeply resent and hate Sarai?  
And how can Sarai not be filled with rage and shame? 
Her plan - which seemed so perfect when she thought it up – turns out to be a poison to her, body and soul it does nothing but drain her of peace and fill her with nearly unbearable pain, regret and hopelessness. 

She lashes out at Abram and blames him. The slave-girl you knocked up looks at me with contempt and sees me as worthless now! (Now Abram comes across as the weakest of characters in this trio, and not just in this story, but throughout his whole life story, he doesn’t do a very good job of seeming worthy of the faith God puts in him, and frequently forgets to put his faith in God.  But again, God’s promises and God’s work are about God’s ability and God’s strength, not ours).  

Don’t blame me, woman! Abram shoots back, in his own shame and confusion at what has happened to them, I don’t care about the slave girl; do whatever you want with her!  So Sarai turns her humiliation and anger onto Hagar and “humbles her, forcing her to submit.”   She abuses Hagar so badly that Hagar flees to the wilderness.

Fleeing to the wilderness doesn’t mean she went on a spiritual walkabout or ran away to start a new life in a nearby city. It’s more like heading into nothingness, into non-being.  There are no roadside food stands or mile marker gas stations. It’s the wild – wild animals, the elements, at the mercy of the untamed.  It’s where the Holy Spirit, centuries later, drives Jesus, right after he is baptized.  Barren, desolate and dangerous.  At that time deities were always attached to people and places, so to head out to nowhere was to go literally into godforsakenness, to go where the gods don’t even go. She is fleeing to most certainly die.

All the things that happen in our lives happen in a place and at a time.  And any stories we tell about those things, begin with – or at least eventually mention – these elements, “This one time, at band camp…” 
Hagar has left her home, her life, her identity and role; she’s exchanged all that to be nothing, nowhere.  Except she isn’t. We’re told exactly where she is. “God found her by a spring of water in the wilderness- the one on the way to Shur.” 
God found her because God was looking for her. God looks for us. God goes where no decent God goes, to the wilderness, into the nothingness to seek Hagar. Here her life begins again.  In this place, at this time, God calls her by name.  For the first time in the story, she is called by name.  Hagar, God says, slave girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?

Theologian Andy Root points out the God who speaks speaks to Hagar first with a question, then a command, and finally and most fully, with a promise. 
Here’s the question:  Where have you come from and where are you going?  This is like God’s words last week to Adam and Eve, when they were hiding behind a tree from the Creator of the world – Where are you? God doesn’t ask these questions because God doesn’t know the answer. God asks because answering God is part of the conversation we earth creatures are in with the Transcendent One.  We have to have a chance to tell our story, to claim our reality, to place ourselves in time and space. We have to confess our creatureliness if we are to receive the grace God has for us.

God signals in the question that God knows what’s up with Hagar; God knows who she has been, who she was seen as, this thing that was done to her, Hagar, slave girl of Sarai,God says. She’s first called by her name, her true self, and then invited to tell what it was like to be the object.  She’s invited to share her death experience with the living God.
 “I am running away,” Hagar answers God. 

In order for God to give us a new story, we have to own and inhabit the old one. We have to speak it, to give words to it, to say how it has shaped us so that it can be stripped of its power to continue to do so.  

God is a God who speaks our name, who seeks us out where gods don’t go, who invites us to share our story, to be known, to be vulnerable. Because remember? God is first minister. It is how God relates to us.  God cares for us in our real selves in our real circumstances. God arrives into our experiences and bears them with us in order to heal us, to bring us to peace – to our fullness, our place as ministers made in the image of the Divine minister.

So after God hears Hagar’s story, God gives her a command. 
Go back. Go back – not to a place, but to a person.  
Go back to Sarai. Humbly submit to her.  This is the same verb that drove Hagar away; but it’s the opposite action.  Instead of Sarai forcing her slave girl to submit to her, Hagar is coming to Sarai in freedom and choice, and offering herself to care for Sarai.  It’s Jesus’ Turn the other cheek– It’s a self-empting action that requires that you see me as a person, a person with agency, and I am choosing to use that agency to serve you, another person, powerfully humbling both.  Sarai is forced to see Hagar as a person. And in order to do this, Hagar must also see Sarai as a person, not an oppressive force, an object of hatred, an enemy.  A person trapped in grief and shame and rage, Sarai is in her own kind of wilderness.  So God tells Hagar to go and seek Sarai in her despair and nothingness; to go back and minister to her in that place as God has ministered to Hagar.

Question, command, and now promise. The longest part.
You have a future, God says to her. Your child will have a future. This promise is greater than the wrong that was done to you, it will shape you far beyond the things that were taken from you. Your story is not over, in fact, it will live beyond you in generations too numerous to count – a promise we’ve heard before. The self-emptying God who speaks, who seeks us, who ministers to us, makes promises and keeps them. God pulls us out of nothingness into the future God is bringing into the world.

Then God gives Hagar the name for her son, and the child who not yet born is swaddled in promise as well. The name means “God listens.”  This name will define him; it will follow him and go ahead of him. God saw him before he was born, heard him then, heard his mother when she was lost, sought and found her and made her a minister. Ishmael’s very identity will always reflect this story and truth: God listens.

Then something quite marvelous happens. Hagar returns the favor. Hagar names God.  She is the first person in scripture with the chutzpah to name God. She calls God, “The God of seeing” because God came looking for her, God saw her true personhood beneath the story she had been living in, God found her.  God sees her, and she sees God, and names the Source of all life, The God who sees us.

So Hagar returns to Sarai. And she ministers to her in her despair. She shares the story of being found by God; she comes bearing faith in the promises of a God who sees us.  And when Ishmael is born, Abram – who has heard God himself in the past, respects Hagar’s encounter with God and he names the child Ishmael, God listens.  

Fourteen years later Sarah will conceive, her Advent waiting will end, and the promised blessing will be fulfilled through the impossibility of a barren womb, because impossibility is how God does things. And when it is, Sarai, whose name meant ‘Princess’ becomes Sarah, ‘Mother of Nations.’

And Hagar becomes the matriarch of peace-makers, the mother of ministers. Having being seen by God, she can see others. Sharing in God’s fullness, she contributes to others’ fullness. Making peace is a form of active, humble submitting, as Hagar does; it’s being surrendered to God, who surrenders to us, and then surrendering to each other, to come alongside each other as God comes alongside us. It’s seeing one another in our shared creatureliness.  Peace-making is what ethicist Glen Stassen describes as “abandon[ing] the effort to get our needs met through the destruction of enemies. God comes to us in Christ to make peace with us; and we participate in God's grace as we go to our enemies to make peace.”  Blessed are the peace-makers, Jesus’ says, centuries later.  Blessed are the fullness-seekers, the ministers.

One day there will be no more darkness, but for now, we are found in the darkness by the light of the world that no darkness can put out. Advent is our invitation to be vulnerable creatures who speak of the darkness in which we find ourselves, to the God who speaks, listens, sees us, calls us by name, draws us by grace into God’s fullness, and sends us to each other to seek fullness for one another. 
We are promised peace; God will do this.  In hope we will trust that peace will be so, by joining in its coming.  

Come and let the God of grace meet you here and send you out in peace.

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