Listen Hard in the Dark
In today’s scriptures we have a tragic story, an absolutely key synthesis of our entire faith, and some very hard sayings.
We begin with the story of Hagar being cast out into the wilderness, driven out by Sarah’s jealousy and Abraham’s cowardice, left to die with her son in the desert.
Then we have Paul in Romans giving the most succinct summation of death and resurrection as embodied by baptism in the entirety of the New Testament.
And finally, we have Jesus telling us he might potentially deny us before the Father in the heaven, that he came not to bring peace but a sword, and that family conflict is 100% a part of following him.
How are we going to put all that together?
We must begin where we always begin—by putting ourselves into the story.
We can start by identifying where we want to turn away with disgust from what’s happening, and that’s with Sarah and Abraham.
It’s a godawful mess.
Sarah could not bear a child, so she told Abraham to “go in” to Hagar, which is Bible-speak for having sex, and Hagar got pregnant.
Hagar had no choice in this scenario, she was exploited twice over, first by being used as a sexual object by her master, and then as a brood mare to produce an heir.
Sarah quickly regretted her decision, but not out of human decency. She was jealous and bitter both of Abraham having sex with Hagar, and also of Hagar’s ability to conceive.
Sarah took it out on Hagar multiple times, until now she goes to the extreme and essentially condemns Hagar and baby Ishmael to death.
She tells Abraham to send them out into the desert, and to his eternal shame, he does.
It’s an ugly, ugly situation, and incidentally, that is one of the remarkable aspects of the Hebrew scriptures. The writers in no way shy away from telling the truth about what happened, no matter how repulsive it is.
These ancient writers are not afraid to attribute reprehensible moral conduct to the ultimate patriarch and matriarch of the nation, Abraham and Sarah.
This reflects a tradition that is able to be self-critical, that is able to see God at work even in human weakness and sin. That is one of the great gifts of Judaism to us, one of their daughter faiths, and to human religion at large.
A great clue as to what lies unredeemed in our own hearts is what causes a strong negative emotional reaction in us.
If you want to see where you’re in denial and where you need spiritual growth, simply pay attention to where you get defensive.
It’s a surefire way to see your shadow.
I think most of us would react against Sarah and Abraham’s actions in this story, and justly so.
But as soon as we say, “I would never do that!” we have to think again.
No, we might not out of jealousy or cowardice literally send someone out in the desert to die, but that is where a literal interpretation of the text fails us.
There is always a symbolic interpretation, and sometimes it’s one we’d rather avoid because it cuts a little too close to the bone.
So consider what Sarah and Abraham’s actions might mean in our lives.
What do Hagar and her child represent?
For Abraham, they represent pride—he wanted to be a father of nations.
They represent a need for security and a need to prove himself as a man—be virile! Leave a legacy and an heir!
They also represent weakness and failure.
Although monogamy was not practiced by men in marriage in his society—it was expected for him to have multiple wives—he also would have felt shame that he could not produce a son by his actual wife and had to resort to procreating with an enslaved girl.
Pride, security, masculinity, and failure—it’s a toxic mix all heaped on the shoulders of this servant girl and her baby.
What do Hagar and Ishmael represent for Sarah?
For Abraham it was failure as a man, for Sarah it’s failure as a woman.
In her society, there was no greater shame for a woman than to be barren.
Hagar is also living proof that her husband could desire and be intimate with someone other than herself, and the entire situation that Sarah herself instigated resulted in ongoing conflict and upheaval in her household.
Sarah found herself acting in anger out of her grief and making a bad situation worse by abusing Hagar.
So Hagar and Ishmael represent failure, shame, barrenness, jealousy and conflict to Sarah.
When we look at it in those terms, suddenly it’s not so hard to understand why the couple shoved Hagar and the baby out into the wilderness as hard and fast as they could. Still reprehensible, but no longer so far from our understanding.
How many times a day do we long to do the same thing?
Shove away shame and failure, escape from the confines of our limiting gender roles and the ways we are penalized for not rigidly fulfilling them, deny that pride, jealousy and the need for control and security are dominating our thoughts and behavior.
We’re trying to thrust Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert to die all the time.
Here is where we turn to Paul.
Paul and I don’t always get along, but he was a genius and boy, do we see it in this passage from Romans 6. You could read only these eleven verses from all of the epistles and have enough to pray about for a year.
To get a grip on what we’ve just realized about ourselves—that we aren’t so far from Abraham and Sarah’s attempt to murder Hagar and Ishmael as we’d like to imagine—we have to begin with Paul’s key question in verse 3.
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”
Do we really know that?
When we had Iris’ baptism here last week, as we saw her happy family and her cheerful acceptance of being splashed with the water, her innocent beauty in her white dress, did we understand that moment as putting her to death?
Um, no. Not really. Baptisms are happy days.
Well, yes, they are, but there is a really deep meaning to baptism that Paul is delving into, a meaning that we mostly skim over.
We are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ.
That means we are entering into his crucifixion with him.
Our saying yes to the baptismal vows is our saying yes not just to the Resurrection, but also to death on the Cross. That’s a pretty big deal.
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”
Well, we do now. Thanks, Paul.
But Paul does not leave us stranded on the realization that baptism is actually a symbolic drowning, a reenactment of death.
He reminds us that it is death to a purpose, death to something specific, death for the purpose of resurrection.
He tells us in verse 4: “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
So take yourself back to all those uncomfortable realizations you had when we were talking about Sarah and Abraham.
Take yourself deep into your own shadow, into your shame and failure and all the ugly truths about yourself that you spend most of your time denying and shoving away.
And in that place, hear the gospel proclaimed by Paul: “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”
“Enslaved to sin.” Who was enslaved in our story from Genesis?
As much as Sarah and Abraham are a part of us, so is Hagar.
That part of us that we don’t like, that we try to hide and abandon in the desert—it grieves and it longs for reconciliation and healing.
It cries out in fear when it is banished to the wilderness.
Finding God and the call to grace in all the parts of ourselves, the good and the bad—that is what it means to live into our baptism over a lifetime.
Understanding that parts of ourselves need to die—our old self or the body of sin as Paul calls it—is the first step on the path to resurrection.
But they don’t need to die in a spirit of jealousy and pride and vengeance.
We can welcome the Cross with open arms as Jesus did, or rather, allow Jesus to do that within us.
That’s excellent news, but our typical pitfall is that we try to rush ahead to resurrection and just skip over that nasty death part.
Jesus in this gospel is helping us understand that the Cross is an absolutely essential part of the process.
Suddenly, in this context, these harsh sayings in this gospel start to make more sense.
“Those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” Jesus says, but we’ve just discovered that baptism is the most fundamental and important way of losing our lives.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” Jesus says. But when we start to really engage with our hidden shadow, we could actually use Jesus’ sword of truth and righteousness, to cleave through our confusion and to help us separate our false self from our true self.
“One’s foes will be members of one’s own household,” Jesus says. Well, that’s no shock. We just saw that in the literal sense with Abraham, Sarah, and Ishmael, and we certainly see it in the warring parts of our own souls.
Jesus is saying that’s normal. It’s okay.
It’s probably going to be painful, but it’s all part of dying to sin and rising to life, being baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ.
So what have we learned today?
We’ve learned that if we read something awful and traumatic in the Bible, there’s a jolly good chance that we’re not as distant from it as we’d like to be.
We’ve learned that both death and resurrection are fully experienced in baptism, both in the sacrament itself and in the baptized life.
And we’ve learned that Jesus’ harshest and most confusing sayings can be life-giving as soon as we decide to get honest about both darkness and light, in the world and in our souls.
We can close with one of Jesus’ sayings in today’s gospel that I hope will have new power to speak to you: “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”
Here is Jesus’ invitation to find and hear him in our darkness—in our most Sarah and Abraham-like moments, and in our most Ishmael and Hagar-like moments.
When we know we’re victimizing others and when we know we’re being victimized—when we’re in the dark—Jesus says he will speak to us.
Those almost imperceptible movements of the Holy Spirit that we think we must be imagining in the midst of both our boredom and our crises—Jesus says that he is there.
“What I say to you in the dark,” he says.
“What you hear whispered,” he says.
Listen hard in the dark, and then follow his command to speak the Word in the light.
“What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”
There are a lot of people out there who need to know that God loves them, and you might be the one God is calling to bring in the light.
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