I preached this sermon at St. Lydia's on Sunday, June 24 as a part of our "Generations" series, in which we've followed the stories of our ancestors found in Genesis. The text is Genesis 21:1-21, the story of Sarah and Hagar. Read it here.
The city of New Haven is symmetrical.
In 1640, the Puritans who colonized the area laid out the city in nine squares of equal size, nestled on a harbor between two large rock formations. In fact, the city planners imagined when they arrived on the shores of the New World, that they were building a New Jerusalem in a promised land. The layout for their City of God came straight from details about the heavenly city given in the book of Revelation.*
The symmetry of the city, as it turns out, would not ensure symmetrical treatment of its people. In 1870, the Winchester Company built a factory and began to manufacture guns in a neighborhood called Newhallville. As business boomed, the company relocated African American families from their homes in North Carolina to tenement houses surrounding the factory. But as the industry slowed after World War II, workers were left with little opportunity in a city that where manufacturing was no longer a source of employment.
Pull up a map of New Haven through the US Census Bureau today and you will still see those nine, symmetrical squares, nestled between two mountains at the mouth of a harbor.
But superimposed over those perfect squares is now another shape:
Map the city by income level,
and you will see a wealthy center
surrounded by a near perfect ring
of low income neighborhoods.
The doughnut does not change.
You can search by education level,
by home ownership percentages,
by crime rates.
Any criteria you choose,
there is a ring of poverty,
and its symptoms
that surrounds the city on the hill.
The New Jerusalem is bounded by a ghetto.
As a student at Yale Divinity School,
I was aware of the sharp distinctions
in class and race and neighborhood
that characterized the city that would be my home for a few years.
To me, the University that I attended
seemed to be a churning machine
that sustained that geographic poverty ring,
keeping it firmly in place.
Yale was one of the largest employers in New Haven,
and the low income neighborhoods that surrounded the city
kept the University supplied with low cost workers
who of course stayed low income
because Yale was paying them low income wages.
During my time as a student, I had an opportunity to work as a community organizer, with a university program that collaborated with neighborhood organizations like block associations and church groups to plant street trees and convert abandoned lots into parks. The venture was a collaboration of the city, the university, and most importantly, the neighborhood groups who were seeking to sustain and improve their neighborhoods.
I worked with seven different neighborhoods in a primarally Hispanic area of town called Fair Haven. My first day meeting with community groups, I was nervous. I was nervous that I was an upper middle class, educated, privileged white girl with blonde hair from Seattle, that I had only been in New Haven a year, that I was a graduate student at the University that everyone in the neighborhoods resented, and that the community members would, in turn, resent me.
I discovered within a day that nobody gave a shit.
The neighbors I was working with had worked with interns before,
they knew the deal, and they were,
with the exception of one very angry retired New Haven policeman,
happy to relate to me as a pleasant outsider passing through
who could assist in their neighborhood renewal project.
What I hadn’t anticipated
were the levels of deep resentment, animosity, racism, and classism
at work within the neighborhoods themselves.
One piece of our training as community organizers
was to flier the neighborhood,
inviting everyone, no exceptions,
to participate in the planting projects we did each week.
Almost all of the groups and the group leaders resisted this.
The homeowners didn’t want to invite the renters.
The people in non-subsidized housing
didn’t want to invite the people in subsidized housing.
The old school neighborhood Italians
didn’t want to invite the Hispanic families who had moved in more recently.
We are tribal people, by nature.
And, like it or not, it seems that,
when thrown together in situations of oppression,
we will fixate on our differences rather than on our common situation.
Sarah and Hagar have plenty that separate them.
Sarah the Hebrew, as scholar Phyllis Trible reminds us,
“is married, rich, and free, but also old and barren.
Hagar the Egyptian is single, poor, and slave, but also young and fertile.
Power belongs Sarai,
powerlessness marks Hagar.”*
But the truth is that powerlessness marks both of them,
for both of them are women
in a culture in which, we have already seen,
women are valued primarily for their ability to produce a male heir.
Sarah may have wealth, race, and class on her side,
but Hagar is able to bear an child.
And so Sarah risks loosing everything,
for if Ishmael inherits Abraham’s name and possessions,
Sarah may be forgotten and neglected,
left to fend for herself in her old age.
Jealousy, possessiveness, or pride may figure into Sarah’s request
that Hagar be expelled into the wilderness,
but pragmatism may also have had its role.
For Sarah, Isaac as the sole heir of Abraham
is a ticket to self preservation --
it is a power play that will ensure her security.
Existing in a cultural situation
that begs their animosity toward one another,
Sarah and Hagar have little perspective
from which to contemplate their similarities.
Both are women
who depend on a man for their livelihood.
Both have been aliens in a foreign land:
Sarah in Egypt,
Hagar out of Egypt.
Both of their bodies have been traded or bought:
Hagar having no choice but to bear Abraham’s child,
Sarah offered up to Pharaoh like a prize.
Yet one seizes power at the expense of the other,
who makes her way in the wilderness
with God by her side,
and raises her son alone.
This is our family history.
A common father and mothers pitted against one another.
Half brothers who will not reconcile
except to stand at their father’s grave
for a few moments together.
This is the past we have inherited,
the seed from which the three entwined vines
of the Abrahamic faiths have sprouted.
We are bound together
and yet cannot seem to be together.
Like many families,
we will fixate on our differences
rather than on our common heritage.
The story does not apologize for our primalness.
It doesn’t shy away from the sharp, gritty edges
that mark our sudden, tribal response
to someone we see as “other,”
to someone who we see as a threat.
We act to preserve ourselves and our family.
When some reptilian part of our brain registers danger,
It is the most transitional moments in our lives
when these raw, human impulses seem to well up in us.
Though sometimes our families
or those we see as family
are drawn closer together in moments of crisis --
Ismael and Isaac together for the first and only time when Abraham dies --
birth, death, marriage,
often seem to unearth our most primal behavior.
How many of our families have erupted into bitter arguments
in the wake of a matriarch or patriarch’s death.
Over stupid things,
Isaac is born and suddenly everything must be recalculated,
Hagar is now a threat and must be expelled.
We create rings to protect our power,
with some on the inside who have everything,
and some on the outside who have less, or nothing,
and we protect the boundaries fiercely,
even if it’s against those new folks
who live in the subsidized housing down the block.
For me to have more, you have to have less, is our argument.
And so we live in a desert of scarcity,
clinging to what we have,
even when what we have is almost nothing.
But Hagar shows us a different way.
Hagar, who has been lifted up
as an emblem especially by black women Christians,*
who God helped make a way out of no way.
a slave, a stranger in a strange land,
to bring up her child on her own.
It is Hagar who wanders through a desert of scarcity
and finds that,
that very desert will provide her with everything she needs.
She will not watch her child die,
for God hears her calling out,
God calls her by name,
God brings her to water,
which runs cool and sweet
in the mist of the dry and barren land
that she and her son
make their home.
“She is not a victim,
[she is a] pioneer woman
who leads the way to a new civilization,”*
Muslim scholar Riffat Hassan writes.
neither in the symmetrical squares of the elite
or the deadening ring of poverty.
Hagar has walked straight off the map
and into an unknown country
in which poverty cannot hold her
and powerlessness gives way to freedom.
With God, she has made a way out of no way:
Life in the desert.
Water in the wilderness.
Slave to no one.
Perhaps you are Sarah.
You seem to have all that you need,
but still are consumed by all that you aren’t.
All you could loose.
Perhaps you are Abraham.
You thought that things were settled
before suddenly everything changed.
You mourn the loss of the past,
even as you fall in love with the future.
Perhaps you are Hagar.
You have been used and battered,
and now find yourself expelled and alone,
calling on God just to hear your voice.
Whichever you are,
we, all of us,
are all tied up together,
three vines intertwined,
but all striving,
all children of struggle,
all children of promise.*
*Lara, Jamie. A lecture delivered at the Institute of Sacred Music, August, 2003.
*Phyllis Tribble, “Ominous Beginnings for a Promise of Blessing.” Hagar, Sarah, and their Children: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives. Ed. Phyllis Trible and Letty M. Russell.
*Delores S. Williams, “Hagar in African American Biblical Appropriation.” Hagar, Sarah, and their Children: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives. Ed. Phyllis Trible and Letty M. Russell.
*Hassan, Riffat, “Islamic Hagar and Her Family.” Hagar, Sarah, and their Children: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives. Ed. Phyllis Trible and Letty M. Russell.
*Russell, Letty, “Children of Struggle.” Hagar, Sarah, and their Children: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives. Ed. Phyllis Trible and Letty M. Russell.