Stories on Story-Telling Sunday
Rob Gieselmann, Pent. 7A, June 25, 2017
One summer during seminary, I spent a month in Uganda, with my friend, Augustine Salimo. Augustine was an archdeacon, and in charge of 40 churches. His position accorded him great respect among the people – a respect that gave him authority – which he exercised benignly, much like the lord of a manor might. His glance alone would instruct a person to do this – or a nod of his head, to do that.
The same was true of his wife, Zelda. And among those under their collective authority was a household servant girl – this girl was about fifteen years old. I can’t recall her name, but I do recall that she had a child of her own, a little boy – a child with a child, this girl was essentially a house-slave. For where else could she go to support herself and her boy?
*Hagar was also a servant-girl, a house-slave. Egyptian, and perhaps you see the irony. Abraham, the father of the Hebrews, possessed an Egyptian slave. And only several generations later, his great-grandson would be sold into Egyptian slavery. Anyway, God had made a promise to Abraham years before – that his offspring would number the stars of the sky, the sand on the shore. But Abraham and Sarah had become old without children. And can’t you just imagine the conversations they had at supper? Year after year, decade after decade, Abraham repeating God’s promise – I’m going to father nations. All the while, Sarah knowing it was her fault they had no children? She was the reason he couldn’t be a father of nations. And each night, each year, each decade, Sarah’s soul grew just a little bit smaller. A little more bitter. So one year, she decides to fulfill Abraham’s dream by giving him Hagar, the servant-girl. Let her make you the father of nations, Sarah said, sardonically. Then, when Hagar became pregnant, Sarah resented her. She drove Hagar from home, into the wilderness to die – Not once, but twice - this second time equally bitter, when Sarah feels Isaac’s position is threatened by Abraham’s firstborn, Ishmael. And I have to ask, what or who in this world threatens you? Religiously – could it be the Catholics? Southern Baptists? Muslims? Buddhists? Or politically – could it be Republicans? Democrats? Those Bernie Sanders supporters? Or personally – could it be someone at work? A sibling? In-laws?
God rescued Hagar both times, for God takes-up the cause of the down-trodden, and this second time, sets Hagar completely free. ***One’s enemies will be the member’s of his household. Indeed. Sarah against Hagar. Isaac against Ishmael. Egyptians as slaves of Hebrews, and Hebrews as slaves of the Egyptians. Each of us is defined by other people – including our enemies. Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas claims that the story of others elevates you – shapes meaning into your life: … The significance of [your life] is frighteningly contingent upon the story of another. The story of Hagar became the story of Sarah. The story of Isaac became the story of Ishmael. And our lives – yours and mine – are irretrievably intertwined, for better, for worse. Nobody – not a single person, not a single nation, is defined in isolation, but in terms of “other.” Sarah may said of Hagar, I have no need of you. But like the apostle wrote, The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you. Sarah needed Hagar, not as a slave, but as definitive. For better, for worse, Sarah became who she was because Hagar became who she was. And vice versa. And you and I, what story will we write? Will our enemies be the members of our own household?
This past week the political pundits got it wrong yet again. They kept saying that a Democrat had a real chance to win that expensive Georgia house seat. Turns out, he didn’t, and afterwards, these same pundits tried to interpret – They asked, Who won? Not in the sense of which candidate won, but which party won – did the Democrats or the Republicans come out better? You’d think everything
is a zero-sum game. But it’s not zero-sum, pretty much ever. Who won? I’ll tell you who won – we all won. We all won because our stories are dependent the stories of others. We all won because our lives are inextricably entwined. We all won because we live in a democracy and every time we have an honest election, everybody wins, even when your party doesn’t win. So I’m wondering – why are we so polarized these days? Politically, religiously, socially? I hear most educated people repeating the same refrain: we have to listen to one another, but if my observation is correct – nobody’s listening, at least not very well. It’s as though we are a nation of Sarah’s. We’d all like to drive the opposition into the wilderness. I have no need of you. What I’m wondering – though – is what would it be like to listen to the heartbeat of the person you disagree with the most? The heartbeat of Hagar? To lean over, put ear to chest, and feel – thump/thump,thump/thump,thump/thump? Wouldn’t the heartbeat you hear be the heartbeat of God? And if so, then why aren’t you listening? Why does the eye say to the hand, I have no need of you?
***One day, while I was still in Uganda with Augustine, I remembered that I had brought with me – extra toiletries – to give away. Not hotel toiletries; a little nicer – but still on the small side. Lilac, if I’m remembering correctly. I said to the girl, Here - these are for you.
She really had no idea what I was saying. She looked bewildered, at first – so I said it again – Here, these are for you. For me? For me, she asked? Yes, for you. I want to thank you, for cooking for me. For me? Yes – you. As it dawned on her that these simple nothings were a gift for her – It dawned on me that she’d might never have received a gift before. A smile crossed her face, then laughter, and she began jumping up and down, and running about – And to this day – truly, to this day – I’ve never experienced such pure and raw gratitude. And her gift to me – was this: that her story has become a part of mine. From her – I received far more than I left behind.
So – what do you have to risk? Making yourself vulnerable to the enemies in your household? By listening to the heartbeat of another? What do you risk?