22 June 2014

How is God working through the stories
of abandoned mothers and their babies?

‘The dismissal of Hagar’ by Pieter Pietersz Lastman (1583-1633)

Patrick Comerford,

Sunday 22 June 2014

The First Sunday after Trinity

11.30 a.m.,
All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman, Dublin, Holy Communion 2.

Readings: Genesis 21: 8-21 or Jeremiah 20: 7-13; Psalm 86: 1-10, 16-17 or Psalm 69: 7-10, [11-15], 16-18; Romans 6: 1b-11; Matthew 10: 24-39.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Last week, we had a very lengthy Old Testament reading in our churches, describing God’s work of creation, and telling us how God saw all of creation to be good (Genesis 1: 1 to 2: 4a), and it was followed by a Gospel reading telling us to go out into that beautiful word with the message and mission of God’s love for all creation (Matthew 28: 16-20).

They were joyful messages for Trinity Sunday [15 June 2014], and I received beautiful presents to mark Father’s Day in Saint Werburgh’s Church and All Saints’ Church –reminders in this parish that the love in the Church can reflects God’s love and that the love of God sustains God’s creation.

But the joy of last week’s readings and celebration is in sharp contrast to what seem to be very sad and gloomy readings this morning. If we could see last Sunday as a Happy Father’s Day, then this Sunday appears to be a Sorrowful Mother’s Day.

In the Old Testament reading (Genesis 21: 8-21), Hagar and her son are abandoned in the wilderness. It appears to be a story of cruel marginalisation and exclusion of a young mother and her helpless child.

In the Gospel reading (Matthew 10: 24-39), family divisions and the cruelty that only family members can inflict on one another are brought to the fore again.

Where do we find the love of God in these Bible readings, and where is the love of God to be found in the Church today?

Hagar and Ishmael abandoned in the wilderness (Source)

I imagine the story in our Old Testament reading is being heard with shock, dismay and a sense of cruelty by many women throughout Ireland this morning, as they think of their children and wonder what has happened to them.

Sarah is an old woman, worried that her husband Abraham has no children to inherit his name and his wealth. So, at Sarah’s own suggestion, Abraham has a child with Hagar.

Ishmael is Abraham’s first-born child, and is somewhat older than Sarah’s own son, Isaac. Sarah is not jealous of Abraham and Hagar. But when she sees Ishmael playing with Isaac, she worries about Isaac’s future and inheritance.

At Sarah’s demand, Abraham takes Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness and abandons them, leaving only a small supply of water, not knowing what is going to happen to them, but believing he is doing what God has told him to.

Imagine the plight of this abandoned woman. The man she once had a child for has cast her aside, left her and her child, apparently not caring whether they live or die.

How often have similar things happened, even in recent years, in Irish society?

Until recent decades, Irish families, worried about the way a woman in the family conceived, sent her away. But, unlike Hagar, they were often sent away even before they gave birth. They were abandoned in so-called ‘Mother and Baby’ homes, county homes and Magdalene laundries in every county in this land.

So often not just the Church but society at large moralised about these women and sent them into isolation, not worrying how they would survive or about the future facing their children.

Families often remained silent in the face of these great and grave injustices. But silence did not always mean acceptance or acquiescence. It was a shameful time, where shame was transferred unto young and vulnerable women, when the real shame lay with those who exercised control in this way on behalf of all society.

Silently, many sisters, mothers, and to be honest, fathers and brothers too, grieved in their hearts at this harsh judgment, this immoral moralising.

And even today, to speak out about what has happened divides families, communities and societies. A deep, searing division that makes it easy to understand Christ’s apocalyptic warning in this morning’s Gospel reading: “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” (Matthew 10: 34-36).

In the history of Judaism and of Christianity, there have been complicated, tortuous efforts to justify Abraham’s gross injustice towards Hagar.

The Apostle Paul makes Hagar’s experience an allegory of the difference between law and grace (see Galatians 4: 21-31). But he is not passing judgment on either Hagar or Sarah; he is simply using them as examples to illustrate a point he is making about law and grace, whether we should live by the letter or live by the spirit of our spiritual and religious values.

Later, Saint Augustine said Hagar symbolises an “earthly city,” or the sinful condition of humanity (see Augustine, City of God 15: 2).

Yet Hagar committed no sin, did nothing wrong, for she only did what Sarah and Abraham had suggested. Certainly, her child Ishmael was innocent beyond doubt when they were both abandoned to seemingly certain death.

Augustine’s view was built on by Thomas Aquinas and by John Wycliffe, who compared the children of Sarah to the redeemed, and those of Hagar to the unredeemed, who are “carnal by nature and mere exiles.”

Surely if Hagar was “carnal by nature” then so too were Abraham and Sarah; yet they go without any condemnation.

The rabbis were much kinder when it came to commenting on Hagar, and often describe her as Pharaoh’s daughter.

The Midrash Genesis Rabbah says Hagar was Pharaoh’s daughter but that Sarah treated her harshly, imposing heavy work on her and striking her. It sounds so like Wednesday’s shocking analysis in The Irish Times by Dr Seán Lucey of the forced labour conditions imposed on hundreds if not thousands of women in county homes the length and breadth of Ireland from the 1920s on.

Some rabbinical commentators identify Hagar with Keturah, the woman Abraham marries after Sarah’s death, saying Abraham seeks her out after Sarah’s death. One great mediaeval rabbi suggests Hagar is given the name Keturah to signify that her deeds are as beautiful as incense and that she remains chaste from the time she Abraham abandons her until he returns for her.

So even Abraham can get things wrong, and think that when his family puts pressure on him he is listening to the voice of God.

Two of the most boring passages in the New Testament must be the genealogies of Jesus in the Gospels (see Matthew 1: 1-17; Luke 3: 23-38). Archbishop Rowan Williams reminded us at a conference in Cambridge last weekend that these genealogies tell us that God cares for each generation, including individuals who are marginalised or forgotten, as part of God’s plans for the future.

Both genealogies are almost exclusively male. But, unlike Saint Luke, Saint Matthew includes five women among the ancestors of Jesus.

Saint Matthew is anxious to prove the royal ancestry and lineage of Christ, so we might expect his choice of women to include queens, princesses, or the daughters of mighty warriors or great prophets. Instead, he names five women on the margins of society. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary are seen as prostitutes, foreigners, adulterers or single mothers – certainly not the sort of women one might want to boast about in a family tree in some Biblical version of Burke’s Peerage or Burke’s Landed Gentry.

But Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary challenge the Jewish restrictions on marriage to Gentiles, on socially acceptable marriages and the very definition of Jewish-ness which depends on a mother’s Jewish identity. By those definitions, Perez, Boaz, or Solomon, or for that matter David and the whole line of kings of Israel and Judah could never be acceptable.

God still looks lovingly on the women we would push aside and marginalise in our families and in our society. God ignores the moralising, narrow-minded judgmentalism of society, of the religious authorities of our day, or even in our own families.

Hagar, when she is abandoned in the wilderness and the water she is left with dries up, expects her child to die, and even begins to mourn his death. Like many unmarried mothers in Ireland must have done, she lifts up her voice and weeps, crying out: “Do not let me look on the death of the child” (verse 16).

But God hears the voice of the boy; and the angel of God asks his abandoned mother: ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ Then God opens her eyes, and she sees a well of water. She fetches fresh water, and gives the child a drink. She realises now, in that almost baptismal-like moment, that God is with the boy (verses 17-20).

Hagar thirsts not just for water but for justice, truth and mercy. Her parallel in the New Testament is not Mary Magdalene, for there is not a shred of evidence to identify Mary Magdalene with a prostitute or the woman about to be stoned for adultery. Indeed, the Magdalene laundries are not only a shameful blot on our history but, ironically, they were misnamed.

Hagar’s parallel in the Gospels is the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar (John 4: 5-42), who is also seen as living an immoral life. While the disciples refuse to engage with her or to talk with her, Christ reveals himself to her as the Living Water, and in yet another baptismal-like moment she comes to a fullness of faith that they have yet to mature into, and becomes one of the first great missionaries.

How is God working through the horrific narrative of the abandoned mothers and the babies left to die from malnutrition and curable diseases, the unloved women used as slave labour in the Magdalene laundries, Mother and Baby Homes and County Homes across this land, even in my own lifetime, in my generation?

The voice of the Church needs to be heard – not defensively but speaking out for them. We may have abandoned them as a society, but God never abandons them.

We may have misread the Bible to provide justification for society’s sins, but God never sees them as sinners. And the whole Church, irrespective of denominational boundaries, must speak with one voice saying this was never God’s judgment on these women. This was wrong, it always was, and always will be.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Parish Eucharist in All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman, Dublin, on Sunday 22 June 2014.

Inside All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


the strength of all those who put their trust in you:
Mercifully accept our prayers
and, because through the weakness of our mortal nature
we can do no good thing without you, grant us the help of your grace,
that in the keeping of your commandments
we may please you, both in will and deed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Eternal Father,
we thank you for nourishing us
with these heavenly gifts.
May our communion strengthen us in faith,
build us up in hope,
and make us grow in love;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.

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