What Happens If We Take All This Seriously?

Genesis 16:7 Now the messenger of the All-Seeing God found Hagar by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8 And the messenger said, “Hagar, slavegirl of Sarai, from where have you come and where are you going?” And she said, “From my mistress Sarai am I fleeing.” 9 The messenger of the Inscrutable God said to her, “Return to your mistress, and subject yourself to her.” 10 The messenger of the Wellspring of Life said to Hagar, “Greatly will I multiply your seed, so they cannot be counted for multitude.” 11 Then the messenger of the Fount of Life said to her, “Look! You are pregnant and shall give birth to a son, and you shall call him Ishmael (meaning God hears), for the Faithful One has heard of your abuse. 12 He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live in the sight of all his kin.” 13 So Hagar named the Living God who spoke to her: “You are El-ro’i”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing God?”

Psalm 71:4–11

4 My God, rescue me, from the hand of the wicked, from the clutch of the cruel and the ruthless.

5 For you are my hope, Sovereign, Worthy One, my trust, from my youth.

6 Upon you I have leaned from birth; from my mother’s belly, you cut me. You will I praise for all time.

7 As a portent have I served to many, yet you are my strong refuge.

8 My mouth is filled with your praise, all the day, with your glory.

9 Do not cast me off in the time of old age; when my strength is spent, do not forsake me.

10 For my enemies speak about me, and those who watch my life take counsel together.

11 They say, “Pursue and seize them, God has forsaken them, for there is none to deliver.”

Philippians 2:5 Let the same mind be in you all that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be seized, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness; then being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God also highly exalted Jesus and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every heavenly and earthly knee should bend, along with those under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Saviour, to the glory of God the Sovereign.

Luke 1:26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town of Galilee, Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the name of the virgin was Mary. 28 And the angel came to Mary and said, “Rejoice, favoured one! The Most High God is with you.” 29 Now, she was troubled by the angel’s words and pondered what sort of greeting this was. 30 Then the angel said to her, “Fear not Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Sovereign God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his sovereignty there will be no end.” 34 Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have not known a man intimately?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit, She will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the one born will be holy. He will be called Son of God. 36 And now, Elizabeth your kinswoman has even conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for she who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the woman-slave of God; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel left her.

Good morning, St. Matthew!

We gather on this morning in Itasca on the unceded tribal lands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, Ka-skas-kia, Potawatomi, Mya-a-mia, HoChunk, Winnebago and O-che-thi Sakowin nations, acknowledging that hard past and praying our way into a better future.

And so we pray.

Holy Lord, today we have the witness of the women – Hagar, Mary and Barbara. It is remarkable how often a story about a woman is disregarded or seen as not quite as important. Yet the whole of history often hinges on the stories of women – and the choices they make. Today Lord, help us to empty our hearts of the prejudice against women, and to embrace the stories of life that begin in birth – from the very bodies of the women who dare to tell them.

Holy Mothering God, we pray in your name, Amen.

While we were putting the Christmas décor up yesterday, Jeanne, Mark and I got to talking about the late Charles Schultz, the creator of Charlie Brown, who just had his 100th birthday yesterday. I have the distinction of actually having worked at Camp Snoopy in The Mall of America, as Snoopy himself, 20 years ago. Camp Snoopy has now become Camp Nickelodeon, but I have fond memories of walking around in the dog suit. One of the weirdest things about hat job was how a cuddly dog could make big burly guys get really mean. All the young women who did character work had a story to tell about getting punched, shoved or knocked around by some manly man – and the best we could figure was that Snoopy would trigger a such response because in his cuddly cuteness, they would feel a cuddly cute vulnerability and felt they had to act quickly to deny it and cover it up. In our culture, many men just aren’t comfortable in expressing what they see as their soft, weak, womanly side – they won’t let go of their idea of what makes a man, a man and so they act quickly to shore up the perceived crumbling in their defences.

This insight is important to the lessons we have for today – because we hear the stories of two women being invested with power – and we have to decide if we are willing to lay aside the enculturation that we, just as the Snoopy punchers, have received that these women cannot be the main characters of the narrative. Are we going to push them roughly aside so that we don’t have to deal with the challenge to our expectations? I will tell you that often the male dominated church has made the choice to push the stories of women to the side, somehow reinterpreting them so that the women ARE cast as bit players, who are not in control of their destinies at all. But if we read the actual texts, we hear something different.

The story of the power triangle made up of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar is often told as Abraham’s story, and that he is the driver of the tragedy that results from his liaison with Hagar. But that’s not true; it is Sarah who has offered up the powerless Hagar, it is Sarah who then drives Hagar out when that power shifts due to Hagar’s pregnancy with Ishmael. Abraham is not recorded as having done much more than contributing his DNA. So if we take the text as it stands and realise that Abraham is in the background, then we see the drama between the two women as far more central as to what will come. There is prophecy in play – the descendants of Abraham will be as countless as the sand, and the descendants are units of power. But the prophecy didn’t give details! So from whose womb will these units of power come? And when you ask THAT question – the whole idea of the text shifts.

Hagar, the seemingly powerless enslaved woman, is given a privilege equal to that which Abraham and Sarah receive. Both of them are intimately connected to the Lord, and it is certainly recorded that they actively hear God speaking to them, leading them to where they are meant to be – yet up til this point, Hagar has been the acted upon. But in the way that God forever works from the bottom up, it is Hagar, the powerless, who sees the Lord, and who is given her own prophecy. And, in contrast, her response is acceptance – unlike Sarah and Abraham, who laugh at the impossibility of God using their old broken bodies to create a nation of God’s people – Hagar actually receives the word of God and says yes. She does not fight this word, she receives it and does the hard thing – she returns to that power triangle, trusting that God will somehow make this situation right. Understand how large that trust is – Hagar is returning to her enslaver, who has already proven herself to be cruel and destructive. Now there no more stories recorded of Sarah’s cruelty to Hagar; indeed, the next few stories in Genesis show how much her son Ishmael is included in the Lord’s plans. It is Abraham and Ishmael together who accept circumcision as an outward sign of the covenant with God. And this incorporation into prophecy is dependent on Hagar’s saying yes – yes, I will go back; yes, I will trust that what you are telling me is real; and yes I will follow.

The path is not going to be easy, so Hagar will need to carry only the things that will allow her to walk that path. Remember, neither Abraham nor Sarah did this so easily. Hagar lays aside her doubts and fears and instead fills her heart with trust. This filling of our hearts with trust is what God asks of us all, male or female. But often it is women who in their vulnerability, in their lack of agency and power, seem to embody how big this trust is. Hagar the enslaved, returns to her enslaver, trusting God’s leading. Could we do that? Is our faith empty enough of all the “supposed tos” and “shoulds” to be filled with that Holy Trust? Maybe only a saint could do these things – maybe a Saint like Barbara?

It is interesting that the church has decided largely that the stories around Barbara are too fantastical to be true, so they have sorta back shelved her sainthood. But her reach continues. The story was that in the 4th century, in Lebanon, she became a Christian convert. Her father was a powerful man and had kept his daughter locked away in a tower until he would decide who to marry her off to. He wasn’t exactly cruel; he ordered a bath house to be built for her use. The original plan had just two windows, but Barbara insisted on three windows to reflect her faith in the Trinity. Now we can scoff at this detail, but that is exactly the kind of thing the powerless do in the face of overwhelming oppression; find little ways to assert themselves. Well, Barbara’s attempt at faithful self-expression leads to her father discovering her faith and to her subsequent refusal to marry a non-Christian. He is so enraged by her faith that he orders her to be tortured into renouncing it. She does not, and the holy stories say that no matter what they did, she would be miraculously healed each time. We might look back and claim the miracle rather as her refusal to renounce her faith no matter what. Whatever the case, Barbara was filled with trust, despite the difficulty of her path.

Finally, her father is so overcome by his rage that he decapitates her. The miracle stories say that as he walked away from her execution, he was struck by lightening and reduced to ashes. And so the sainthood stories redeem her loss by making her the patron saint of those who deal with explosives. In a connection to us here today, Wikipedia reports:

In the 12th century, the relics of Saint Barbara were brought from Constantinople to the St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery in Kyiv, where they were kept until the 1930s, when they were transferred to St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral in the same city. In November 2012, Patriarch Filaret of The Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kiev Patriarchate transferred a small part of St. Barbara’s relics to St. Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Bloomingdale, Illinois.

Now I am too Protestant to place much stock in relics, but this legacy of faith – of hearing the story of what is possible when we empty ourselves of doubt and instead fill our hearts with trust – literally reaches through time to come just up the road and speak to us, if we are willing to listen.

All this then leads to the story of Mary. Paul affirms for the church at Philippi that even Jesus modelled for the believers that being emptied in order to be filled with God is what faith look like. But the first person we see in the New Testament who is willing to do that emptying is Mary. We need to recall that Mary is not a powerful woman; indeed, she has more in common with Hagar than we might first guess, and it is why these two readings are laid beside each other. Hagar is asked if she will walk back to her enslaver, and in trust she says yes. Juxtaposed in our lectionary with Hagar’s choice, is Mary’s yes. Will she empty herself of the expectations that surround her? Will she give her yes to trust that God is going to fill her with the Holy Spirit in order to birth the Saviour?

Again, if we really read the text, with Mary, like Hagar, there is a process that happens here; a conversation. Both women are able to make a choice, to decide what path they will take. And both are very aware that saying yes, will lead them down a very hard road. So the wrestling that we see in each of them is real – Mary point blank says “how can this be?” When the angel gives her more information, Mary gives her yes – and the language of her response has led some folks to think she has no choice at all. “Here am I, the woman-slave of God; let it be with me according to your word.” Like Hagar before her, she identifies herself as enslaved – but she doesn’t name an owner like Sarah, a flawed and conflicted human being. No, she instead names her “ownership” as belonging to God. This makes the image open up – she isn’t being claimed by human power but by Divine power. So in her actions from here on out, she will let that claim inform everything. Her allegiance is no longer to the codes and culture of her moment in history; instead, she will be filled with trust in God. She knows – as only an unempowered working class woman can know – how much she is going to let go of to make this journey. And she makes that choice!

So when the Snoopy punchers of the world feel threatened by the soft womanish power of love, they are saying, like a tantruming child, I am not going to drop my walls! I am not going to let go of my beliefs about what I think I should be just in order to be filled with whatever you’re offering! The thing about this Advent journey, this unexpected, out of the Blue question of “will you trust?” that comes to each of us – is that we are going to have to let go of many things in order to make this journey and trust that we will be filled with God’s holiness. It’s not going to be easy – but it is the only way to meet the Lord – to let go of all that holds us back and to give God our yes.