Sunday 21 June 2020
St Andrew’s Parish of Indooroopilly
Psalm 86.1-10, 16-17
A God who sees, a God who hears ©Suzanne Grimmett It has felt to me lately like there has been a shift in the universe.
It has felt like many things which have been oppressive but partly hidden or unspoken are being brought to light- things like racism, sexism, classism, the economic domination of large corporations, the lack of care of some governments for their peoples.
It may be that this kind of revealing can be disheartening. Who are we, that we cannot find better ways to live together in peace and compassion for all?
But I think there is also space opening up for a huge amount of hope; a hope that the injustice and violence of powers which have dominated are being exposed and change is coming.
This is partly the theme of today’s Gospel. Jesus is telling us not to be afraid, because although many things may impede God’s activity in the world through Christ, it cannot crush the revelation of God’s kingdom on earth.
Jesus speaks of everything coming to the light; of a freedom where truth-telling will cause division and by the very loving nature of God, some institutions of violence will need to be overturned. Jesus, the human one, came to show us the fullness of humanity, that we may all be humanised again and restored to one another.
In an important book called “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, a work written in the context of the author’s experience of teaching impoverished students in Brazil,
Paulo Freire speaks of the reciprocal nature of dehumanisation, but also the correlative power of the restoration of dignity saying;
As the oppressors dehumanise others and violate their rights, they themselves also become dehumanised. As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors’ power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression.1
Friere is making the point that in the act of robbing the humanity of another, we cannot help but rob ourselves. The reverse is true; as our ability to dominate and control is taken away from us, we find we can let go of our fear and those whom we have oppressed become agents of restoring our humanity.
I think we are seeing this in the “Black Lives Matter” movement. When we respond with “all lives matter” we miss Freire’s principle that unless Black Lives Matter in the way all other lives matter, no one’s lives can matter because we have lost our humanity. We will all be caught in endless patterns of oppression and suffering, where abuse and violation creates generational and cultural trauma.
We don’t need to look far in scripture to find the same point.
The Hebrew scriptures are full of stories of domination and colonisation, but through it all the thread of God’s revelation of something better: a creation reconciled and restored to relationship through divine love. Today’s story of Hagar the Egyptian woman from Genesis is one that reveals the pain of the oppressed and the reciprocal dehumanisation that can occur.
The narrator of this story describes Hagar as a woman who is passed between Abraham and Sarah because of her body’s usefulness in being able bear a child. When Hagar conceives a child through this enforced surrogacy the text says she becomes “contemptuous.” (I think you need to hear that judgmental word carefully in the context of Hagar’s suffering). Sarah appears jealous and resentful; (again, read her story in the context of a patriarchal culture that judged women for not being able to bear children). Sarah ‘deals harshly’ with her until the pregnant Egyptian woman runs away to the desert. This all happens in an earlier part of the story we did not hear today.
But Hagar cannot survive in the desert. It is there in her despair that she is visited by an angel of the Lord, who tells her to return to her mistress, but with a promise closely akin to the promise given to Abraham. The descendants of her son will be so great that they will not be able to be counted.
This story of Hagar has ‘spoken’ to generations of black women because her story has been validated as true by suffering black people. She and Ishmael together, as family, model many black families in which a lone mother struggles to hold the family together in spite of the poverty to which ruling class economics consign it.2 Hagar, like many black women, goes into the wide world to make a living for herself and her child, with only God by her side.
Theologian Phyllis Trible honours Hagar as the first person in the Bible to name God.3 Hagar calls God, “the one who sees”, because the Lord had seen her and her troubles and was with her. She exclaims, “Have I really seen God and remained alive?” Or, using Hagar’s words, “Have I really seen the One who sees me?” And her child would carry a similarly significant name; Ishmael- or “God hears”.
Our reading from Genesis today picks up the story much later, after Hagar and Ishmael had lived with Abraham and Sarah and their son Isaac for some time. Jealousies had again flared up and Hagar and Ishmael are banished to the wilderness by Sarah with Abraham’s consent. Hagar is again a lone mother, with only God by her side. But God was there, seeing and hearing every part of the suffering and insults her body and spirit had endured and every cry from her heart. Hagar leaves the boy, Ishmael crying under a tree and sits a distance from him because she does not want to be there, watching him die in the desert from dehydration and exposure. The storyteller in Genesis then makes another delightful play on words in saying, “God heard the voice of the boy”. This is the equivalent of saying, “God heard the boy named ‘God hears’.” Ishmael, the heir of Islam and cousin to Jews and Christians, bears a name that signals a promise to every human being.4 God is not deaf to the cries of the broken hearted or blind to the systemic injustice which afflicts so many. The truth of hidden violence will always be revealed, and God is always on the side of the oppressed; a God who sees and who hears.
I think in these days that is a source of enormous hope. Nothing can eradicate God’s loving care of all creation nor thwart God’s purpose in redeeming humanity. This is a God who, far from being some kind of impersonal deity or absentee landlord, counts all the hairs on our head. While the world may gauge importance in terms of power or economic value, like those insignificant swallows which Jesus reminds us are sold for half a penny each, God is attentive to even those little birds in their living and in their dying. How much more, says Jesus, are we cherished. In each life, in our cares and sorrows, in the abuses we have suffered and the ways we have harmed ourselves, our struggles and our griefs, we are seen and we are heard and we are loved and forgiven. God carries our pain and calls us to follow in the same way of seeing and hearing one another, taking up our cross to play our part in healing the pain of the world.
There are many powers that will dehumanise. It is important to recognise that we cannot dehumanise others without dehumanising our self. You cannot take up the way of the cross without being prepared to see and hear such truth and then of course, speak truth. This of course will disturb people. Some will criticise us, some will abandon us, some will move to silence us. But taking up our cross also means the sacrifice that comes with living authentically- we must speak, even if it is quietly and tearfully and gently. In this way we are ambassadors of hope, proclaiming a God who sees and hears us, and has promised to always be with us as we together build a world where no one is unseen and unheard.
1 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, (Penguin Books UK: 1993) p 30.
2Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1993),p. 33.
3 Phyllis Trible, “Hagar: The Desolation of Rejection,” chap. in Texts of Terror (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), pp. 9-35.