Sermon: A Matter of Perspective

Sunday 21 June 2020
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Father’s Day

A huge section of Genesis—from chapter 12 all the way to chapter 23—is devoted to Abraham. He is the hero of the story. He receives a message from God. He follows God to a new land. He receives a promise from God that he will be the father of a great nation. He is the person of the covenant. It is Abraham’s story. He is the hero.

And so we get the story more or less from Abraham’s perspective. The story is about God’s promise to Abraham being fulfilled, the promise that he would be the father of a great nation, the promise that his children would outnumber the sand on the shore or the stars in the sky, the promise that his descendants will be a people holy to God. It is assumed that the reader will identify with Abraham, because it is Abraham’s story. It is written by and for a people who identify themselves as children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But of course there are other people in the story. There is Abraham’s wife, Sarah. They try and try to have children, but Sarah never becomes pregnant. And as years stretch into decades, it seems clear that God’s promise is not going to come true. Abraham and Sarah die childless. It is a disappointment for Abraham, but it is a shame for Sarah. In the ancient world, a woman’s worth was judge on her ability to provide children, specifically heirs, to her husband.

So when Sarah is about 75, and Abraham is about 85, Sarah comes up with a plan. She is desperate, and she knows very well that 75 is too old to be becoming pregnant. So she tells Abraham to have sex with her Egyptian slave, Hagar. But she doesn’t use Hagar’s name. She just says, “Go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abraham does it. And she becomes pregnant.

And this is the point in the story when we usually focus on Abraham and Sarah’s relationship. How could she come up with such a terrible plan? How could he agree? Couldn’t they just trust God’s word? Couldn’t they keep the faith? Look what a mess they’ve gotten themselves into.

Because Genesis tells us that after she became pregnant, Hagar gets uppity with Sarah. And Sarah takes offense. She complains to Abraham, and he tells her that it is her slave, not his. She should deal with it. So, Genesis tells us, Sarah treats her harshly, and Hagar runs away.

An angel meets Hagar out in the wilderness and convinces her to return to Sarah. The angel promises her that she will have a son, that she should name Ishmael. The angel says that Ishmael will be wild and antagonistic, getting into fights with everyone.

Hagar returns to Sarah. She has the child. Abraham names him Ishmael.

But then, years later, Sarah does become pregnant. She’s 89 and he’s 99. The promise is finally fulfilled for them. At age 90, Sarah finally gives birth to a son. They name him Isaac, and everyone celebrates. Sarah is overjoyed. Abraham is overjoyed. The promise is fulfilled.

But later, Sarah sees Isaac and Ishmael playing together, and she becomes jealous. So she tells Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” My son will not be a rival to the son of that Egyptian slave.

Abraham is upset, because Ishmael is his son. But God speaks to him. God says, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for your son with the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”

So Abraham takes the two of them, gives them some bread and a water bottle, and drops them off in the wilderness. For Abraham, that’s story over. And for most readers that’s story over, as well. 

Did you notice that the characters hardly ever use her name? They just refer to her as the slave-girl, and they refer to Ishmael as the slave-girl’s son. Hagar and Ishmael are on the edges of the story. They are instrumental. They are mostly there to move the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac along. They are a problem to be gotten rid of. They are the annoying reminders of a mistake. After all, this isn’t their story. It’s written by and for Sarah and Isaac’s descendants, not for Hagar and Ishmael’s. No one is meant to read the story from their perspective.

But if we were to read the story from Hagar’s perspective, we might notice a few things. From Hagar’s own perspective, she is not a problem to be gotten rid of, she is a victim. First, she is a slave, a slave that Abraham and Sarah squired while they were in Egypt. Second, it is not her choice to sleep with Abraham. She has no choice in the matter. She is forced to do so. Think of the slave women in the American story who were forced to sleep with their masters, to raise their children. Third, Genesis mentions in passing that Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham as a wife, but she never actually holds the status of wife. She still remains Sarah’s slave. They do not even refer to her by name. Abraham just calls her Sarah’s slave. Fourth, Sarah thinks the problem is that Hagar is uppity, behaving above her station, but Hagar seems to want nothing more than common decency. In fact the word that describes how Sarah treats Hagar is the same word that describes how the Egyptians treat their Hebrew slaves; she oppresses her. Fifth, when Hagar is out there in the wilderness and the angel comes, Hagar gives God a name. She calls God El-Roi: the God who sees me. There are many times when God gives people new names. This is the only time I know of when a person gives God a new name.

And of course, I left out Hagar’s last scene altogether. After Abraham has abandoned them in the wilderness, their water runs out. Hagar is in distress. She is hopeless. She knows that they are going to die out there in the desert, so she leaves Ishmael under a bush and goes off a little ways by herself, because she cannot bear to see her son die. But an angel visits Hagar and tells her not to be afraid, that God will make her son a great nation. God reveals a well to her, and they fill up their water bottle and go on their way, never to be heard from again.

Because, of course, even when we are trying to read from Hagar’s point of view, the author is not. The author is telling the story from the Israelite perspective, giving us an origin story for their great rivals, the Ishmaelites. This story justifies why Israel is the chosen people, even though the descendants of Ishmael are also Abraham’s children. They don’t inherit, because they are just the children of a slave. That’s why the wildly, irrationally, violently. They are just like their ancestor, Ishmael: a wild, irrational, violent man, the son of a foreign slave. The authors of Genesis have an axe to grind.

There is another version of this story out there. There is the version of this story that is preserved by the people who call Ishmael their ancestor. There is the Arab version of this story. And in it, Hagar is not an uppity, conniving, simpering coward. In this version of the story, Hagar is the hero. Let me share it with you. It is attributed to Ibn Abbas, the uncle of the Muslim prophet, Muhammad, and I’m paraphrasing a bit.

One day, Abraham woke up and asked his wife Hajar to get her son and prepare for a long journey. He started out with his wife Hajar and their son Ishmael. The child was still nursing and not yet weaned.

Abraham walked through cultivated land, desert, and mountains until he reached the desert of the Arabian Peninsula and came to an uncultivated valley with no fruit, no trees, no food, no water. The valley had no sign of life. After Abraham had helped his wife and child to dismount, he left them with a small amount of food and water which was hardly enough for 2 days. He turned around and walked away. His wife hurried after him asking: “Where are you going Abraham, leaving us in this barren valley?”

Abraham did not answer her, but continued walking. She repeated what she had said, but he remained silent. She asked him many times, but he did not look back at her. Then she asked him, “Has Allah ordered you to do so?” He said, “Yes.” She then said, “Then He will not neglect us,” and returned while Abraham went on. After reaching the thaniyah where they could not see him, he faced the Ka’bah raised both hands, invoked Allah, and said the following prayer:

“O our Lord! I have made some of my offspring dwell in a valley without cultivation, by Your Sacred House (Ka’bah at Makkah) in order, O our Lord that they may offer prayer perfectly.” (Al-Qur’an 14:37)

Ishmael’s mother went on nursing him and drinking from the water. When the water in ran out, she became thirsty and her child also became thirsty. She looked at him, tossing in agony. She left him, because she couldn’t bear looking at him. As-Safa was the nearest mountain to her. She climbed it and started looking carefully at the valley for somebody, but she couldn’t see anyone. She went back down to the valley, tucked up her robe and ran until she reached the mountain of Al-Marwa. There she stood and started looking expecting to see somebody, but she couldn’t see anyone. She went back and forth between As-Safa and Al-Marwa seven times.

This is why pilgrims to Mecca go between As-Safa and Al-Marwa. When she reached Al-Marwa for the last time, she heard a voice and she became quiet, listening carefully. She heard the voice again and said, “Whoever you are, you have made me hear your voice; do you have something to help me?” And behold, she saw an angel digging the earth with his heel until water flowed from that place. She started filling her water skin, using her hands to scoop the water up.

Then she drank and nursed her child. The angel said to her, “Don’t be afraid of being neglected, for this is the House of Allah which will be built by this boy and his father, and Allah never neglects His people.”

You can tell it’s the same story, right? But it’s told from a different perspective. In this version, Hagar is at the center. When Abraham abandons her, he doesn’t have the courage to tell her why, but she has the faith to understand. When she is left alone, she does not give up and wait for death, she runs back and forth between two mountains, searching for help. And her son is not some wild man who cannot control his temper and has only a secondary birthright, because she is a slave. No, she is a wife of Abraham, and the place they travel to is Mecca, the very place where Ishmael will build the Kabah, the holiest site in all of Islam. It makes a difference who tells the story. It makes a difference whose perspective we see.

It makes a difference when we are reading the bible. It also makes a difference when we are interacting with our world today. When we hear stories about what is happening in our community, when we hear stories about what is happening in our country, when we hear stories about what is happening in our world, who is it that we most identify with? Just naturally, without even noticing it, we will tend to identify with the people we think are most like us.

A husband and wife watch a romantic comedy together, and nine times out of ten the wife will identify with the female character and the husband will identify with the male character. And they will both tend to think that the character they identify with is in the right, and the character they don’t identify with is in the wrong. People tend to identify with and believe people who are the same gender as they are.

But of course gender is not the only marker that defines and divides us. Race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual identity, immigration status, political alignment, age, profession, education, dialect. When we hear stories, without even thinking about it, we’re going to identify with and believe the perspective that seems most like us. I will likely to identify with Abraham, while a Muslim woman will likely identify with Hagar.

We know that’s true. Just think about when the Ducks play the Beavers. Ducks fans will be upset whenever a call goes against their team, and Beaver fans will be upset whenever a call goes against their team. No matter what the ref says, one of them is going to think it’s the wrong call. Even with instant replay and 27 different camera angles. We can all be looking at the same footage but seeing different things.

And what about when there isn’t just one account of what happened? What if there are multiple accounts of the same story? Whose do we listen to, and whose do we ignore. Whom do we suspect and to whom do we give the benefit of the doubt? Perspective matters. It makes a difference whom we identify with, and it makes a difference whose version of the story we hear.

Friday night is movie night at our house, and this last Friday was Juneteenth, so we decided to watch Harriet, the 2019 movie about Harriet Tubman. I’ve seen quite a few films featuring American slavery. The acclaimed ones tend to focus on the brutality of slavery. The villains are white, but the heroes are also white. Black characters tend to be portrayed as relatively helpless, as the objects of white punishment or the recipients of white salvation. They’re made for someone like me to identify negatively with the evil white characters and identify positively with the good white characters. But I usually feel I’m meant to just feel sorry for the black characters.

Not in this movie. Harriet is the hero of her own story. She drives the action. She does what she feels called to, even when people try to stop her. She carries a gun and she isn’t afraid to use it. Her motto is Be Free or Die. I’m sorry, there is no other word for it: Harriet Tubman is a badass. Did it make a difference that the story focused on a black, female character? Absolutely. Did it make a difference that the film was written and directed by a black woman? You better believe it. Perspective matters, and it matters who’s telling the story.

And there is something you can do about it. It takes some intentionality. You can choose to identify with a perspective that is not your own, with a person or character who is not much like you. You can use your imagination to place yourself in that person’s mind. It’s amazing what things you will notice that you had never seen before. You can practice while you’re watching a show or reading a book. And you can try to do it in real life, too. It makes a difference.

But imagination can’t get us farther than halfway, because it doesn’t just matter which perspective we center, it also matters who tells the story. So the second thing you can do is seek out diverse voices. Seek out the voices of people you know don’t share your perspective, and do your best to hear them from within their own context. Commit to it. In the end, you don’t have to agree, but you won’t learn much if you don’t take the time to try to see it from their point of view.

It is imperative that we try. Because every person is made in God’s image, not just the people who look and think like me. Every person is God’s child, not just the people who share my background. And if I don’t even try to see things from perspectives other than my own, then I will have such a feebly narrow understanding of God.

Because our God is the God of Abraham and of Sarah, and of Ishmael, and of Hagar. Our God is the God of black and brown and white, Hispanic and Anglo, female and male and nonconforming, lesbian and gay and straight, transgender and cisgender, old and young and in between, poor and rich and in between. Our God transcends any division we can erect between us. Our God is the God who sees; not just me, but everyone. And if we cannot hear each other, how can we hope to hear God?

Comments are closed.