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Genesis 16.1-10, 15-16; 21.17b-18

Hagar the Wonderful

Sixth Sunday of Easter

          Anna Jarvis, who had no children of her own, is credited with organizing the first “official” Mother’s Day celebration in 1908.  In part, she did it to honor the efforts of her own mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, who in 1868 organized a celebration for “Mother’s Friendship Day,” at which mothers of former Union and Confederate soldiers gathered with their sons to promote reconciliation.  By 1912 Mother’s Day was being celebrated across the nation, Jarvis established the Mother’s Day international Association, and in 1914 she persuaded President Woodrow Wilson to issue a proclamation establishing the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.  But Jarvis did not intend the holiday as you and I celebrate it in our own day, and it all comes down to punctuation.  The apostrophe in “Mother’s Day” comes before the “s,” not after it.  That is, it was not Jarvis’ intent to celebrate mothers everywhere, but rather for each of us to celebrate his and her own mother.  Mother’s Day was not for the collective of mothers, in Jarvis’ mind, but rather for your mother to be celebrated by you and my mother to be celebrated by me.  But her holiday took on a life of its own, and soon the day became centered on buying and giving preprinted cards, sending flowers, purchasing candies and gifts.  It got to the point where Jarvis came to resent the ways confectioners, florists and other retailers commercialized the day.   When a group called the American War Mothers used the day as an occasion for fundraising and selling carnations, Jarvis crashed their Philadelphia convention and was arrested for disturbing the peace.  She criticized Eleanor Roosevelt for using the day to raise money for charity.  In the 1940s she became so disillusioned she lobbied for the holiday’s abolition, but by then it was far beyond her control.  It is a day that became more complicated than Jarvis ever dreamed.

          The story of Hagar in the book of Genesis is a complicated one, and not an easy one to hear.  Before their names were changed to Abraham and Sarah, Abram’s wife, Sarai, was childless and already beyond child-bearing years.  And yet God had promised that Abram’s offspring would outnumber the stars of the sky:  “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able,” God said to Abram.  “So shall your descendants be.”  And Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  Sarai was well aware of God’s promise and of her own inability to make it happen, so she suggested that God’s promise to her husband could be kept if Abram sired children by her slave girl instead, an Egyptian named Hagar.  And Abram listened to Sarai and did as she asked.  But once Hagar conceived, she began to lord it over Sarai, and Sarai understandably resented it.  Tension in the household became too much to bear, so Hagar fled.  But she was pursued by a heavenly messenger, who had some startling news for her; in fact it was the same message that Abram received earlier: “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.”  So Hagar returned and bore Abram a son, whom she named Ishmael.

          You and I know the rest of the story.  God made a covenant with Abram changed  his mane Abraham, which means “Father of all people,” or “ancestor of the multitude.”  Sarai likewise became Sarah, she conceived and gave birth to Isaac, through whom the nation of Israel would descend.  And Hagar and Ishmael received God’s blessing in Genesis 21:  “Do not be afraid Hagar.  God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.  Come, lift Ishmael up and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”  In the end, there is blessing and redemption all around; but there is a lot that is uncomfortable and messy along the way.

          Like Sarai, Serena Waterford was barren, though she and her husband Fred desperately wanted children.  The Waterford household included a handmaid named June, who understood that her presence in their home meant that she was to conceive a child with Fred and bear that child for Fred and Serena to raise as their own.  So June did as she was told – truth be told, she did not have a choice, she did so under force of compulsion.  She conceived according to plan, and in her resentment began to taunt Serena with the fact that she was able to do something her mistress could not.  She knew all the right buttons to push and played them against Serena’s own insecurities.  Still, it was clear that once she gave birth, the child would be removed from her and become Fred’s and Serena’s alone.  June’s only role in the process was to conceive and carry the child to term.

          It’s been many years since I read Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and I confess I don’t follow the series on Netflix.  But more than one person has noted the similarities between the plot line I just described and the story of Hagar.  In fact, there is a parallel story later in Genesis about Jacob, his wife Rachel and their handmaid Bilhah that plays out pretty much the same way.  But it bears observing that what appears to be standard operating procedure in the early days of Israel’s history becomes a vision of a dystopian future in our own.  The idea that any woman’s primary purpose and value is found in her ability to bear children is one that most, though not all, societies reject, and you and I are in a far different place from Abram and Sarai, from Jacob and Rachel.  And this is true, but it remains that the biblical story of Hagar is a difficult and complex one, one that is not explained away simply because we live in a different time and culture.

          Mohja Kahf is a Syrian-American Muslim poet and novelist who teaches English and Literature at University of Arkansas. In 2016  Kahf published a book of poetry titled Hagar Poems, and the one I’ve chosen for this morning is “Hagar Dreamwork:  The Therapist’s Notes.”  It imagines a psychotherapist interpreting a patient’s dreams about Hagar, admits the story’s complexity, and then brings it home for the dreamer.  I thought I’d read it now rather than later because of how it fits in the context of the sermon.  Here is Kahf’s poem:

          “You’ve got this Hagar thing all wrong. / It’s mythic.

          You’re stuck at left-wing literal levels of rage-for-justice rhetoric

          And knee-jerk identity bludgeoning.

          Go get your Jung and Ibn al-Arabi;

          What is the Hagar function in the psyche?

          Here we have the angel and the baby;

          Here, two wives, two brothers, a doppelganger story.

          It’s all interior, desert and city, mountain and well.

          Take it from history:  wake up and jot down the latest jigsaw clue:

          All the characters in the Hagar dream are you.”

Isn’t that the case with most of  our own dreams?  All the characters are different extensions of the self; even the clearly identifiable actors in our dreams – our family, our friends, total strangers – are projections of how we see them.

          On Mother’s Day, I think a similar dynamic is at work.  We recognize and honor so many more and different iterations of motherhood from the way we know them, in so many more ways than when Anna Jarvis was determined to recognize and honor her own mother.  Neither Sarai nor Hagar represent any generic or conventional expression of motherhood, yet they both bear the astonishingly abundant blessings of God.  Just think of all the iterations of motherhood you and I celebrate in our own day:  we celebrate our mothers and our step-mothers, our adoptive mothers and our foster mothers, our surrogate mothers, our mothers who have given up children for adoption, our mothers who have lost children, who have miscarried, who are unable to have children at all, or who have decided not to, the mothers with whom we have strained relations, those who have lost mothers, those who never knew their mother.  We can go through the Bible and find a woman who represents every one of these expressions of motherhood – but then, we really don’t have to, do we, because they are all around us.  And I’m sure I’ve missed a category or two of motherhood in that list, but the fact remains that even though it can be complex and complicated, like the story of Hagar we can always find a blessing and redemption somewhere in the complexity.

          Hagar’s blessings were unique and manifold.  Listen:  immediately after the divine messenger pronounced a blessing on Hagar, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude” – basically the same thing God said to Abram about his own offspring – Hagar received an annunciation comparable to the one Mary the mother of Jesus heard:  “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael,” which means “God listens,” or, “God has heard me.”  And in response, Hagar did something remarkable which no other person in the entire Hebrew scriptures has ever done; she gave God a name:  “So Hagar named the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi;’ (or, ‘the God who sees me’) for she said, ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?”  No one had ever named God; all the names for God – Yahweh, Jehovah, El Shaddai, Adonai – are all names that originated with God.  Only Hagar gave God a name of her own.  This alone marks Hagar among the most blessed of women.

          But there is one more blessing.  Ishmael and his descendants did indeed become a multitude that could not be counted.  Just as historic Judaism has Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as  their foundational ancestors, Ishmael is the father of Islam.  In the tale of Sarai and Hagar are the beginnings of two of the world’s major faiths.  God has used the story of two very complicated relationships in order to bless humanity.  Now of course, as Mohja Kahf frames it in her poem, a good deal of the story is mythic.  But in the sense that a myth points to a higher truth than itself, on this Mother’s Day 2021 let that higher truth be that even though motherhood can be complex and complicated, there is always a blessing that can be found somewhere in the complexity.  Like Hagar, may we have the eyes to see it.

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