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Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The God Who Looks After

The Cat's Eye Nebula by Smithsonian
I'm posting the sermon I preached Sunday with some reservations.

First, I made a rookie mistake and selected two very long narrative passages to preach from: Hagar in the wilderness and the woman at the well. There are wonderful parallels and connections between the stories, and both stories are rich enough to preach on for days. Since I haven't been preaching as often, I got excited about both passages and couldn't let go. So that made for a bit of a muddle.

Second, the Hagar passage with its context of slavery has so many layers and complexities to it as we bring our own personal intersections of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class, etc to bear. I did not address slavery, or any of those intersections in this sermon and instead focused on the imagery of being seen by God. As I read back through the sermon, I find that to be a spectacular failure on my part, although the sermon did what it needed to do in the congregational context where I preached. 

So be it.

Sermon, Sunday, July 15, 2012
by Katie Mulligan
w/gratitude to the Rev. Elizabeth Vandegrift for the invitation

"The Perfect Gaze"
by Mary B. Campbell

Great care must be taken in looking
At the beloved. If you look
Too long, the spirit of the other
Will be forced into hiding
Or disappear from this world.
The gaze must be no longer
Than five glances; otherwise
It is fatal.

The gaze should be empty of design
Or content; it is like a question
Which is satisfied at every moment.
Even in sleep, the face of the other
Forestalls the need to know more.
If you ask out loud
You will waken a liar.

Ending the gaze is a rupture:
You look away, you abandon the beloved
You travel inwardly. This is freedom
And the hardest part. But love
Is the breaking of all spells,
Even its own.

Mary B. Campbell, 
The World, the Flesh and Angels: 
Barnard New Women's Poet Series, 
(Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1989).

First Scripture: Genesis 16:1-16

Years ago, I met with a spiritual director named Hugh Smith. He was a pastor in Trenton for some 30 years, and then became a spiritual director as “retirement.” He was a fascinating man, with a deep, gravelly voice. He could calm your soul with the briefest invitation to sit a while. He died last year, and I miss him terribly. He would be delighted to know that I am working with youth at his old church and at the church where he did much of his spiritual direction appointments. He would be delighted.

One day I said to Hugh, “I just need God to point in a direction. Go this way, or go that way, I just need a direction. And I need the sign to be clear. What does God want me to do?” Hugh laughed at me and said, “Katie, God is in both directions. Whatever you decide to do, God will be in it.”

I think this is what I am about today in this sermon, with these scriptures: God is in it, no matter what we do. We are seen, and known, and loved, despite our best efforts to hide. This is a god who looks after us.

During my last year of seminary, I preached weekly at a small church in south Jersey. It wasn’t a formal arrangement—I would show up on Sunday morning to preach, and the congregation would have a check for me. At the end of the service I would ask, “Do you need me next week?” Usually they said yes, and if it wasn’t next week, then it was the week after. We went on like this for a year before I became their pastor.

But since I wasn’t their pastor yet, and I only ever saw them on Sundays, we had occasional communication mishaps. One Sunday I decided to preach on this Hagar text. The little church was almost always an adult only church, with three children (including mine) who came occasionally. I planned to preach about Hagar and Sarah and Abraham and their complicated marriage and family arrangement. I planned to preach about the domestic violence that drove Hagar out into the wilderness. I planned to preach about slavery and owning other people’s bodies and what that does to a person. It was a sermon about bodies and scandalous behavior and pregnancy and childbirth.

I arrived at church a few minutes before the service. When I opened the front door, I discovered a long line of boy scouts getting ready to open our worship service with a flag ceremony for Boy Scout Sunday. Said boy scouts and their families then took a seat in the sanctuary to join us for worship. I set my sermon aside and quickly came up with a simple message about being prepared in the wilderness—like Hagar?!—and stumbled through the service, completely caught off guard.

After the service, one man came up to me and said, “So. You’re a lady preacher, eh? I belong to the PCA church up the street.” PCA churches do not ordain women. It was something of an awkward, vulnerable moment as I realized that many of the families present were conservative enough to believe I should not be in the pulpit. I think they were as surprised as I was that morning. What we saw in each other was something not entirely to our liking. The man’s wife took a hold of his arm and dragged him out before we got into it.

I wonder what do we see of ourselves when we look in each other’s eyes? Do we see one another as God sees us? Do we see truly what the other sees in us? Do we project our worst fears onto the eyes of the other? When we seek out God, do we project our worst fears onto the eyes of God?

In our text this morning Hagar interacts with God in the wilderness after running away from her mistress. She says, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” But that is not the only translation—a more literal translation reads this way: “You are a God of seeing (You are El-Roi). Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.” What might it mean to be looked after by God? What would it mean to be truly seen by God?

The story goes like this. A long time ago, back in Genesis chapter 12, after the flood and Noah’s ark, and after the Tower of Babel, the Lord came to Abram and made a deal. The Lord said, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And so Abram set out on his adventures with his wife. They were not a young couple, and as they traveled through the wilderness, they were not getting any younger. Sarai did not conceive any children as they traveled along, and it began to trouble Abram greatly that they had no children. After all, how would the Lord make a nation of him, if he didn’t have sons?

In chapter 15, Abram had another vision of the Lord. In that vision he received reassurance that the promise was intact. God covenanted with Abram that he would grant land and descendents. Yet, in that vision, no mention was made of Sarai. As the wife of Abram, you can imagine that she might have been somewhat anxious about her position in the household. She was getting older and still had not borne any children. Since her status in the household depended on her ability to bear children, Sarai came up with a plan. In those days, if a woman could not have children herself, she could give to her husband a female slave and claim the resulting children as her own. This is a difficult passage to read as a modern individual—none of us think slavery is acceptable these days. And even in those days, it seems that Hagar didn’t think slavery was acceptable either! But Sarai’s actions were not uncommon, and it’s possible that the two women could have formed a union of sorts to help each other out. In subsequent stories, Jacobs wives included Rachel and Leah, but also their slave women, Bilhah and Zilpah.

So after ten years of waiting, Sarai brought Hagar to Abram, and Hagar conceived a child. Sarai says, “Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” In the Hebrew text she actually says, “It may be that I may be built up by her.” So that there is the sense that Sarai is trying to establish herself in the household through the strength of Hagar’s womb. But what happens next? Hagar does indeed conceive, but she has no intention of allowing Sarai to use her in this way, slave woman or no. After she discovers that she has conceived, she “looks upon her mistress with contempt” or more literally, she “made her mistress to be slight or of no account.” In other words, the exact opposite results came about from Sarai’s plans. She had intended to be built up, but she was further diminished.

In her rage she went to Abram and demanded that he fix the problem. But Abram washed his hands of the whole situation and reminded Sarai that Hagar was her slave. “Do to her as you please,” he said. And so Sarai did. We have no description of the specific actions Sarai took against her slave; she treated her harshly, afflicting her. And it was bad enough, that the pregnant Hagar decided she would be better off running away into the wilderness than staying and suffering the abuse.

It was there the angel of the Lord found Hagar. A foreign woman. A slave woman. A woman outside of the promise who had run away from her rightful owner, “stealing” the child that her mistress had legal claim to. There the angel of the Lord found her and spoke to her. The God of the Old Testament is forever making deals, and so the angel said, “Return to your mistress and submit, and I will ensure your survival and your children’s survival—I will multiply your offspring so that they cannot be counted.” And then the angel went on to promise that the son would be wild and free. His hand would be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, living at odds with his kinsmen. This wasn’t a promise of easy life, but it was a promise of freedom from the slavery that Hagar had endured.

[Added after Sunday: I see in Hagar’s return a sort of deliverance—but I want to qualify this statement. I do not understand at all why an all powerful God could not deliver Hagar directly and immediately from her predicament. I do not understand the necessity for the continued enslavement of others. But if it was not possible to free Hagar in that moment, if the only option for her survival was to send her back to a cruel place that at least had food, then I see in Hagar’s return a sort of deliverance--in that oppressed peoples do what they must to survive to see freedom. I hope St. Pete brings his theological hat to the pearly gates, cuz I have questions.]

When I think about the perils a pregnant woman might face alone in the wilderness, I see a woman with very few options for survival. Her return to Sarai may have been the only option open to her and her baby. As repugnant as the situation was, at least in camp there was food and protection from outside dangers. I am not suggesting that it was an ideal situation, but I am suggesting that what God offered to her was a glimpse of a future promise. The angel of the Lord was telling her, I think, go back to where you can live. Get through this period of time, and there will come a moment when you will be free of this oppression. There are times in each of our lives when things seem unbearable, like we cannot go another moment. Recently a friend said to me, “It’s not that I wish to die, I just don’t want to live another day like this.” Hagar’s story is for those of us who find ourselves in those moments. She represents the woman or man stuck in an unbearable situation with few options for survival—and none of them are good. Abram had his promise of land and descendents. Hagar received her promise of survival for herself and her children and the promise of freedom from her unbearable situation.

Hagar says, “Truly I have seen him who looks after me.” Truly she met in the wilderness the one who knew both her immediate needs and her future desires. She returned to Sarai only to be driven out again, years later as her child grew to adulthood. But she was looked after by God, and the promise of wild freedom was fulfilled. She was seen.

Our second story comes from the gospel of John, and it too is a story of being seen. I invite you to close your eyes and listen to the story. Listen as one who sees God and a woman from Samaria. Remember that Samaritans and Jews did not mix socially. Remember that a woman with five husbands and a lover would be considered scandalous even today. Listen, and see the God who looks after us:

Second Scripture Reading: John 4:1-42

This story is often understood as a story that rebukes the Samaritan woman for her five husbands and the lover. “You have no husband,” Jesus says. And yet, as I read closely through the text, I find no words of condemnation. He does not shame her, he offers her hope. All I find in the text is the God who sees who this woman is, what she has done in her life, and where she is now. This God who sees into the depths of her soul does not offer her penance or rebuke or even challenge. He offers her living water and asks her to see him!

At our most intimate moments with God—and perhaps these are our most terrible moments in life sometimes—at those moments we are seen all the way through by God. When we face impossible decisions, God is present in whatever choice we make. Nothing we ever do or say or think separates us from the sight of God. If we are lucky we see God. And not only do we see God and live, but perhaps we might see God as the one who looks after us.

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