Have you ever had the experience of being called to a particular time and place? Have ever had a moment when you look back on an episode or series of events in your life and think, “Everything that happened to me was supposed to happen and I am changed as a result”? Have you ever had the realization that the Holy Spirit moved in your life – either subtly or overtly – in such a way as to place you in a particular context with a particular group of people? I am turning 50 later this year and, as a result of being in lockdown due to the pandemic, I have had a lot of time to think about and reflect on where I am and how I got here, to this place, at this moment in time. And I have been able to identify parts of my life’s journey where I can clearly see God’s hand moving me and shaping my life, even though I did not realize it at the time.
One of those moments I look back on and see God’s hands at work in my life is seminary. Specifically, the class I wound up being a member of. In fact, almost all of my classmates had and continue to have a distinct sense of being brought together by something much greater than mere accident. Most of us had a clear feeling the Holy Spirit guided us to study together and learn from each other and be in relationship with one another for the three years we shared at Virginia Theological Seminary. There are several examples I can point to as an illustration of this. For one, I technically could have entered seminary a year before I actually did but a whole host of circumstances led me to wait an entire year before matriculating and several of my classmates had similar stories about how they too arrived in Alexandria, VA during the late summer of 2001.
This morning’s reading from Genesis brought to my mind another moment from my seminary experience where I am now able to recognize my presence at that moment was due to the movement and grace of the Holy Spirit. In the spring of 2004, our last semester, we had a series of class meetings to talk about giving a class gift to the seminary. All sorts of ideas were proposed; some large, some small and some quite ambitious. Our class decided to commission six small stained glass windows depicting figures from the Old Testament to be placed in the chapel. And then we had to agree on who the windows would portray. Ultimately we decided on three men and three women: David (there were four Davids in our class after all), Ezekiel, and Moses and Deborah, Ruth and Sarah. Everything was perfect and we were ready to move forward, or so we thought.
At the final meeting before we set the creation of the windows in process, an objection was raised to one of the Old Testament figures we had decided to include. One of my African-American classmates spoke up and shared with the rest of us that the inclusion of Sarah instead of Hagar was deeply troubling and hurtful. My classmate then pointed us to the story from Genesis we heard this morning. My friend went on to remind us Sarah herself sent Hagar to Abraham when Sarah thought she could not bear any children. As she did so, Sarah said to Abraham, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” Scripture then tells us, “…Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. He went in to Hagar, and she conceived;…”
There are roughly fourteen years in between the birth of Ishmael and the birth of Isaac. Sarah raises Hagar’s child as her own for fourteen years before we get to the events of the Genesis passage we heard today. Fourteen years. Sarah is a mother to Ishmael for fourteen years before she callously instructs her husband to cast Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness simply because she herself has now given birth. Make no mistake; Sarah knows the consequences of banishment. Sarah knows sending Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness is a death sentence and she does it anyway. Not only that, Hagar has little to no agency in all of these events. Hagar’s life is not her own and she must submit to Sarah’s will at every point in her life because she is a slave. Hagar and Ishmael are only useful to Sarah until they become superfluous and then they become something to be discarded, an unwelcome reminder only fit for being left behind in the dust to die.
And here we see the issue. Hagar and Ishmael are used by Sarah as a means to an end. Hagar and Ishmael are simply items, property as far as Sarah is concerned and once they are no longer needed or convenient, Sarah decides to cast them away. And this, my sisters and brothers, is the experience of African Americans in this country. Hagar’s story has deep resonance because it has been repeated over and over and over again in the 400 years African slaves and their descendants have lived and moved and had their being in this hemisphere. Sarah’s unwillingness to recognize and honor the humanity of Hagar is why my classmate objected to the inclusion of Sarah. And, over time, I have come to recognize my presence at the moment of my classmate’s objection and their willingness and courage to risk speaking up being due to the grace of the Holy Spirit. I and the others in that room at that class meeting were meant to be present for that objection and to learn from it.
All of which brings me to our present day and our current context. My sisters and brothers we have been called to a time such as this. Our presence here is not accidental. To my white sisters and brothers, we are once again being called to listen and to learn and to change. We must no longer choose Sarah’s path of refusing to see and honor the humanity of people who are our neighbors and our family members. We must not go back to sleep and rest secure in our privileged place in a society built on white supremacy as a new normal begins to assert itself. Instead, we must resolve that white supremacy will not be part of the new normal and we must struggle every day to make it so. This is hard work but we are the ones being called to do it. We are the ones who have been brought by the Holy Spirit to this time and this context. Let us not fail to respond.
My sisters and brothers of color, in the spirit of skin folk talking to skin folk, I am not going to presume to tell you what your role during this time is. However, I do know you too are called to this time and this context. Your presence here is vital, and I deeply value the ministry of justice we do together. For my part I will say, I see you and I love you and I am striving to live up to my baptismal promise to respect your dignity and to seek and serve Christ in you.
I firmly believe we are all called as Christians to reflect God’s love for us back into the world. I firmly believe all of us are created in the image and likeness of God and are therefore beloved and worthy. I firmly believe the church, as Christ’s body in the world, has an important role to play in the tearing down of white supremacy and the building up of relationship among all sorts and conditions of people and the love of God is what will sustain and empower us all to do this work together.
In closing, I leave you with this: in 2010, the chapel at Virginia Seminary burned and was destroyed. However, the six windows my class gave as a gift survived the fire and will soon be hung in a newly renovated Addison Hall. And everyone who comes into that building will be able to see beautiful renditions of David and Deborah, of Ezekiel and Ruth, and of Moses and of Hagar. Know hope. Amen.