“I thank God that you are here. People have a wide variety of reasons for coming to church, from the very noble and spiritual to the very basic and mundane. To me, though, it doesn’t matter what your reason for being here is, whether it seems like a good reason or a bad reason. To me, all that matters is that you are here, and I thank God for that.
One of the reasons people sometimes get involved with faith is that they have been told that faith in God strengthens families. They have been told that Christianity promotes family values (whatever those are) or family unity. “The family that prays together stays together” is a popular way of saying it.
Who doesn’t want family unity? It is something we cherish. It seems like something worth lifting up as our most lofty goal. It is something we insist that God ought to support. But there are three ways in which making family unity our loftiest goal and expecting that God ought to support it turns out to be problematic.
The first is that the goal of family unity, like the goal of church unity, ends up being controlled by whichever member has the narrowest idea of what it means. If you want to live your life in the way that is right for you, it is only a matter of time until the member of the family who has the narrowest idea of what family unity ought to look like tells you you can’t make your own decisions about your life, you have to make all your decisions in a way that conforms with his or her picture of what family life should be. This means that every member of the family has to give up their own freedom and individuality to conform to the idea of the most controlling person in the group. If you want to make your own decisions about your life, you are subject to intense pressure and guilt trips that you don’t love your family enough or are violating the principles of family, the loftiest principle of all.
The second reason is visible in situations when someone from outside the family looks at a family in which abuse or addiction or dysfunction has been going on for years, and the outsider says, “Why didn’t somebody in this family do something to stop the abuse? Why didn’t somebody in this family do something to help?” The answer, as social workers have seen over and over, is that nobody in the family will help an abuse victim because that would disturb the status quo, and disturbing the status quo would disturb family unity. They are willing to let family members destroy themselves, and destroy their victims, because their focus is on maintaining family unity no matter what the cost, even when the cost is devastatingly high.
The third reason that making family unity our highest goal is a theological one. Once we make maintaining family unity our highest goal, and insist that God ought to be the means to that end, we shift out of a mindset in which we serve God, and we shift into a mindset in which God becomes a servant to us. I love my family, but to me, any god whose goal is to be a servant to me is not worth worshipping. If I’m just using God to achieve my goal of family unity, that’s idol-worshipping rather than faith. My ideas of family unity are not the ultimate be-all and end-all of The Divine.
The verses we get in today’s gospel reading do not sit well with the popular notion that Christianity is supposed to promote strong family unity. Jesus says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Jesus takes our cherished notions of family unity and shatters through them to get us to something far more important.
Today, our lectionary gives us this gospel passage in combination with the Old Testament passage about Hagar, who really does lose her family and finds God. I considered saying that if there were Old Testament saints, I would nominate Hagar as the patron saint of times when your life falls apart. I don’t think I want to say that, though, because we think of saints as people who set good examples that we want to follow, and people who are especially holy. And the thing about the Old Testament is that while there are certainly moments when someone shows a flash of some bright virtue or holiness, the Old Testament is really a series of stories of families, and all the families are dysfunctional. The point of the Old Testament is that God is at work even in people who are just as dysfunctional as the ones we see around us every day.
Hagar is someone whose life falls apart. You remember that God has promised Abraham a son from whom nations of descendants will come. But time goes by and no baby is born to Abraham and his wife Sarah. They wait longer: no baby, no baby, no baby. Finally they wonder whether they have misinterpreted the will of God, and figure they’ll try having the slave woman Hagar bear Abraham’s son. So Abraham gets Hagar pregnant, and a son is born. Then Sarah also gets pregnant, and another son is born. And when we pick up the story today in Genesis 21, Sarah is ferociously jealous that her son is playing with Hagar’s son. And so her solution is to tell Abraham to send both Hagar and Abraham’s son Ishmael out into the wilderness to die. So Abraham gives Hagar a loaf of bread and a skin of water, and sends her and their child into the wilderness to die. When the water is gone, Hagar leaves her child under a bush, and sits down on the ground away from him, so that she will not have to watch her child die. She has lost her family, she has lost her home and been exiled by the father of her child, she has lost everything. Her life has completely fallen apart. And it is then that the miracles start happening.
If I were in the pews listening to this sermon during a time when my life was falling apart, the question I’d probably be asking at this point would be, “What about me? My life is falling apart. Where’s my miracle?” And I don’t have any answers to that question.
Still, I remember what a beautiful summer evening it was last night. Plenty of folks from the community came to the Barbecue & Bluegrass and told me they loved the music and the barbecue and the beauty of Mason’s farm, and most of all the atmosphere of relaxation and fun and friendliness and joy. And someone always asks me, “How long have you all been doing this event? How did it get started?” And I remember that it started with an experience of loss.
I have mixed feelings about talking about the past. And I have always found Hagar fascinating. The element of her life story that intrigues me is that she loses the guy, but she gets to keep the baby. The loss of Abraham is huge. The sense of betrayal that someone she trusted would exile her to the wilderness would obviously have been deeply painful to her. And even with all the problems in the relationship, did she also love him? I think it’s probable that she did. She loses the guy, and it is a huge loss. But she gets to keep the baby. There is something good that has come out of this deeply painful relationship, and she gets to keep it. She leaves the guy in the past, but she gets to carry the baby with her into the future. She doesn’t know this at the time. She thinks their child will die just like she will.
It is at the point when she thinks she has lost everything that she discovers God. When we think of Biblical figures who get to see God and hear God, we think of the great leader Moses, and King David, and the prophet Elijah. We forget all about Hagar. But God doesn’t forget Hagar. She is a slave, and a woman, and someone who has lost everything, but she gets to hear a voice from heaven. As Genesis tells us, “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 her eyes and she saw a well of water.”
There is room for interpretation in this passage. It might be that God miraculously provided a well of water that hadn’t been there before. Or it might be as simple as it says, “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.” When you’re in the middle of overwhelming loss, loss and despair are all you see. What God gives Hagar is the ability to see the well of water, the ability to see that you can live in the wilderness. And once God has done that, scripture tells us, “Hagar went, and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.” Hagar has lost much of the past, but God enables her to see that she can nurture the future.
God does not preserve family unity for Hagar. God does not preserve the status quo. God does not restore her old relationship. What God does do is take the good that has come out of her past relationship, the child, and show her that it can grow and survive and thrive. She can find a wife for her son and begin new relationships.
This is a story of the way that Hagar loses everything she thought she needed, and then gets to hear the voice of an angel from heaven. This is a story of how God opens Hagar’s eyes so that even when she feels overwhelmed by loss, she can look beyond the loss to see the well that enables her to live in a new future. We read the story of Hagar because in it we hear God telling us that Hagar’s eyes are not the only ones that need to be opened. This story is a way that God encourages all of us that even when we are dealing with loss, even painful loss, not to be overwhelmed by the loss of the past, but to keep our eyes open for the well that enables us to live and to nurture the future God has for us. It is good news, and we all get to hear it. I thank God that you are here.”