Faith Exposed

Published: Monday, 18 September 2017

This sermon was presented at ABC by Rev. Keren McClelland. It is the sixth in our series about Abraham and Sarah.

This is a story about the Willie Wagtail, Jitta Jitta…[1]

Long ago before the sea surrounded this land as we now know it the Raven and his wife, the Magpie, travelled here from far away.

They came here through the kingdom of the Eagle. On account of the Magpie’s beauty they had accumulated great wealth.

The Magpie had sung and the Eagle and his kingdom were spellbound. The Raven and Magpie, however, had deceived the Eagle.

 

Shamed and broken hearted, having taken one already married as his wife, the Eagle had sent them away making them take everything that reminded him of them.

The Raven always wanted to be the boss of his own destiny anyhow, so he felt liberated. He was an impressive leader, a generous and clever negotiator. Birds of all kinds were proud to be in his company and to serve him and he always travelled with a huge flock.

The Raven and Magpie were in search of land to call their own but most of all they wanted a place to raise their own children in peace.

Each autumn/winter they would settle for a place where Magpie would build a nest. Raven would get his workers to clear the land of all the dense scrub so they could see any dangers approaching, and Magpie would sing them along, but year after year come spring their own nest would still be empty.

Raven’s croaky voice became more like a wail. Magpie learnt to collect beautiful things to distract herself in the boredom. She lined her nest with bright and shiny treasures and guarded them jealously. She perfected swooping potential thieves. The other birds knew to stay away from her in nesting season when she was particularly vigilant.

Through it all Magpie’s closest friend was the Willie Wagtail. Her name was Jitta Jitta on account of her playful chatter. She had come from the land of the Eagle, a princess with royal lineage, a daughter of one of the Eagle’s many wives. She had served Magpie in the palace. Jitta Jitta adored Magpie and had joyfully travelled away from all that she knew.

She was a fast learner and hard worker. She was little but fearless. She became invaluable to Magpie, a confidant but also a spy in all of Raven’s secret negotiations when Raven and Magpie had grown apart.

When Magpie suggested that Jitta Jitta become the Raven’s second wife she knew that it was not just for nest making. She could keep a better eye on Raven and all of his schemes. The following spring, however, Jitta Jitta, found herself distracted. She missed important meetings between Raven and other migrating birds and spent her time gathering materials to build her own nest.

Magpie had more than ruffled feathers - she was one angry bird. She had lost her close watch on Raven. She turned her beady eyes onto Jitta Jitta.

Jitta Jitta had forgotten her normal tasks too, but what was most galling was that she did not honour Magpie’s gift to her: was it not a privilege to become the Raven’s wife? Jitta Jitta did not notice Magpie’s beauty anymore and Magpie was determined Jitta Jitta would pay.

***

This is the the story of Jitta Jitta (Hagar),

why she had the title of second wife to the (Abram) Raven taken from her,

and why she flew off into the bush for cover

where she met the kookaburra

who asked her two questions,

and gave her a command

and a promise.

In the strength of that encounter

Jitta Jitta returned to the Raven and Magpie (Sarai)

with her “tut tut” and became mother

to the bird that would be the thorn in the side of Raven and Magpie and their descendants:

the Noisy Miner.

***

How many small birds do you have around your home?

When was the last time you saw a Willy Wagtail in the city?

They have the most stunning conversational voice and song!

There’s clear evidence that deforestation and increasing urbanisation have not only reduced biodiversity and numbers of the tiny native birds but increased the aggressive territorial behaviours  of the larger birds.[2]

I’ve been swooped by a Noisy Miner in High Street, Ashburton, outside the arcade!

We've upset the natural balance in the bird kingdom by removing habitat for birds and particularly safe places for the smaller birds.

Planting indigenous/native plants is a start in the garden but there must a greater variety including habitat for the more vulnerable birds where the bigger birds cannot go… There must be bushy plants with tight foliage and spikes and branches that don’t support the weight of the bigger birds.

Without the care of Sarai and Abram, Hagar did not stand a chance.

I’d like to walk through our reading today looking in a bit more detail at the background of this story about Sarai and Abram,

but mostly at the conversation between Hagar (Jitta Jitta) and the angel/Spirit/Lord.

There is a play in the Hebrew text with the senses of seeing and hearing. Look out for it!

Our reading today comes from Genesis 16: 1-16

 

Now Sarai, Abrams wife, bore him no children.

She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar,

and Sarai said to Abram,

 

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.

 

And Abram listened to the voice (song?) of Sarai 

So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan,

Sarai, Abrams 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;

and when she saw that she had conceived,

her mistress became of no account to her/was diminished in her eyes [3]

 

Then Sarai said to Abram,

May the wrong done to me be on you!

I gave my slave-girl to your embrace,

and when she saw that she had conceived,

I was diminished in her eyes/no longer noticed.

May the Lord judge between you and me!

 

But Abram said to Sarai,

Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.

Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.

 

The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness,

the spring on the way to Shur.

 

And the angel said,

Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai,

where have you come from

and where are you going?”

Hagar said,

I am running away from (the face/gaze of) my mistress Sarai.

 

The angel of the Lord said to her,

Return to your mistress, and submit to her.

 

The angel of the Lord also said to her,

I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.

 

Hagar is never addressed directly by Abram or Sarai.

She’s not even named by them…

but here she has a complete conversation with the God who sees her…

 

She is asked where she has come from and where she is going. These two questions only get one answer…

She is running away.

Why doesn’t Hagar say she comes from Egypt?

Is that because she has given herself completely to the protection of this couple? Her whole world has become Sarai and Abram’s.

Without them Hagar is completely exposed.

A mother-to-be cannot give birth and raise a child without a community to support her.

Go back she is told!

Hang on! Sorry?

Yes go back!

Into the role that you held before being taken as wife.

Return Hagar, your child will be the justice to your unjust treatment.

Your child will be your protector!

…the promise to Hagar matches the promise to Abram and Sarai of many descendants. God does not exclude her from the promise.

 

Four times this story tells us Hagar is addressed directly with the phrase “the angel of the Lord…”

Actually, it builds

  1. The angel said…
  2. The angel of the Lord said…
  3. The angel of the Lord also said to her…

 

And the angel of the Lord said to Hagar,

Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;

    you shall call him Ishmael,[4]

    for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.

He shall be a wild ass of a man,

with his hand against everyone,

    and everyones hand against him;

and he shall live at odds with all his kin.[5]

 

So she named the Lord who spoke to her,

You are El-roi”;[6]

for she said,

Have I really seen God and remained alive after looking?”[7]

 

Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi;[8]

it lies between Kadesh and Bered.

 

Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram named his son,

whom Hagar bore, Ishmael.

Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him[9] Ishmael.

Hagar is the first woman after the Garden of Eden who sees God and lives. We don’t have another encounter like this until Moses with the burning bush.

This passage also has echoes in one at the start of the Gospel story - Mary meeting the angel. “You have conceived, and shall bear a son and you shall call him…”

Here we have a much earlier un-wed mother to be encountering the living God.

Hagar named the well where she meets God as the “Well of the living one who sees me”.

And the well appears again and again throughout our Bible with significant women!

This story is a disturbing story (and my retelling with the story of Jitta Jitta was generous to Sarai/Abram).

If we are not disturbed by this story then I have not done my job.

This story continues the inversion of the Exodus (where Sarah and Abraham’s descendants are made slaves in Egypt).

In chapter 12 Sarai and Abram deceived Pharaoh.

In this chapter (and ch.21) they abuse an Egyptian slave-woman.

The Egyptians are not the villains, they are the victims…

Our storyteller is teasing us… weaving a challenge and giving an explanation of reversal of oppressed and oppressor…

What is conceived, in this harsh environment, in Hagar is the seed of the enslavement of Abram’s descendants (Gen 15:13-14).

Ishmael/Ishma-El means…God who hears,

God who leans toward the one who is exposed and vulnerable.

The one who is wronged is to be vindicated, restored, and protected…

Tri talked a few weeks ago about Melchizedek’s naming of God: El-Elyon (Gen 14) “God most high”, last week Geoff spoke about Abram introducing Adonai (Lord)[10] (the word to use as a veil with the unspeakable YHWH in Genesis 15) and this week we are introduced to a third new Holy name of God

“El Roi" - God who sees.

God who sees not only the kings (Gen. 14) or those who are righteous (Gen.15), but the outsider, the least important, the enslaved.

God who sees and turns towards those who are suffering.

God who sees us in our weakness.

God who sees the path back when we have gone to the end of the road.

Last week in Genesis 15, Geoff reminded us of the promise to Abram: Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield…”

or your “tree to hide behind”[11]

but neither he nor Sarai shield Hagar.

This is Abram and Sarai’s lack of faith exposed.

 

In our common garden I’ve been planting spiny Sweet Bursaria and Hedge Wattles (with many vicious spikes that go straight through regular garden gloves) for two reasons…

Firstly to increase the habitat for small native wildlife and birds, and secondly, to keep people off the garden – to reduce the attractiveness of our garden being used as a hiding place for students from the school across the road.

A few weeks ago we had some concreting done at our front driveway. Eddie (introduced to me as “Eddie, the muscle” several days earlier) was in the hedge wattle yelping with pain. He’d drawn the short straw and had to smooth off that edge of the concrete.

“Why did you plant these bushes with all these spikes?”

Those plants are doing exactly what they are meant to be doing!

I had no sympathy, he was trampling all over the ground-covers,

and I heard the kookaburra laugh!

Matthew and Luke both remind us…

Luke 12: 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 

 

Matthew 6:26 (NRSV) Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

 

Matthew 10:29-31Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

What do you see and hear?

Let’s have some quiet and in this time you are invited to come and light a taper to mark your response.

God who sees you at your most vulnerable and calls you into courage, and God who sees you in your strength…

 

Benediction

God who sees us,

the weak and the strong,

lift us up to soar toward our calling

to be the church here in this place and time.

Let us work and rest in the grace of your Spirit,

and be free. 

Small group questions…

Warming up

It’s Springtime in Melbourne. Life is bursting out after the cold with blossoms and green leaves quickly covering the deciduous trees.

What birds would you like to add to the story of Jitta Jitta?

What characters would they be in this story?

There are three Holy names of God mentioned in chapters 14, 15 and 16 all used for the first time in the Hebrew Scriptures (El Elyon, Adonai/Tetragrammaton, El Roi). If you can’t think of any others look some up to list!

Looking at the text

Look back at the text of Genesis 16:1-16 and notice the play on the language of seeing and hearing.

What do you notice?

What questions do you have?

Dr. Mark Brett talks about the stories in chapters 12, 16 (and 21) of Genesis being an inverse of the Exodus story. Moses and Hagar both have face to face encounters with God. Have a brief look at Exodus chapter 3.

What do you notice about their different dialogues?

What are the components that both stories contain?

So Hagar named the Lord who spoke to her,

You are El-roi”;[12]

for she said,

Have I really seen God and remained alive after looking?”[13]

Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi;[14]

it lies between Kadesh and Bered.

Hagar marked the well where she meets God as the “Well of the living one who sees me”. Who are some other women in stories where the well appears (Old and New Testaments)?

What does this mean for us?

The angel/Spirit of the Lord asks Hagar where she has come from and where she is going.

What would you answer?

Have you run away from something and had the courage to return?

“Ishma-El” means “God hearkens/hears”.

What injustices in the world do you lean towards?

Name some environmental causes or humanitarian issues you are particularly concerned about…

Where do you advocate for this issue?

What are you planting and growing to provide safe habitat for the vulnerable?

Taking the response into prayer

Spend some time praying about our response to this story as a church.

 

[1]Have a look here for some more interesting info on the Willie Wagtail’s symbolism http://nativesymbols.info/willy-wagtail/

[2] https://theconversation.com/why-we-hate-certain-birds-and-why-their-behaviour-might-be-our-fault-54404, https://theconversation.com/blocks-and-flocks-why-are-some-bird-species-so-successful-in-cities-56279, https://theconversation.com/stop-the-miners-you-can-help-australias-birds-by-planting-native-gardens-49998

[3] "She looked with contempt on her mistress" NRSV. “I want to offer a more precise translation. In this sentence it is not Hagar, but Sarai, that is the subject of the verb (which comes from the root qll, "be slight, swift, trifling, of no account”): And when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was/became of no account in her eyes. Hagar in Paul's Eyes and in the Eyes of Yahweh

(Genesis 16): A Study in Horizons, J. Gerald Janzen, Indianapolis Indiana

[4] Genesis 16:11 That is God hears

[5] Though she must return to face the mistress from whom she had fled (v. 6 reads literally, "she fled from her face”), he will dwell in the presence of (literally, "over against the face of”) his peers (literally, "all his brothers”). Hagar in Paul's Eyes and in the Eyes of Yahweh (Genesis 16): A Study in Horizons J. Gerald Janzen

[6] Genesis 16:13 Perhaps God of seeing or God who sees

[7] Genesis 16:13 Meaning of Heb uncertain

[8] Genesis 16:14 That is the Well of the Living One who sees me

[9] Genesis 16:16 Heb Abram

[10] Geoff Pound 10th September 2017 http://www.ashburtonbaptist.org.au/teaching/sermons/600-faith-during-delay

[11] Geoff Pound 10th September 2017 http://ashburtonbaptist.org.au/teaching/sermons/600-faith-during-delay

[12] Genesis 16:13 Perhaps God of seeing or God who sees

[13] Genesis 16:13 Meaning of Heb uncertain

[14] Genesis 16:14 That is the Well of the Living One who sees me