Faith Undercover

Published: Monday, 14 August 2017

This sermon, the second in our series on Abraham and Sarah, was delivered by Keren McClelland on August 13, 2017. Some questions for personal reflection follow the text.

Genesis 12:10 - 20 Wendyterrarium KMc

This week I asked Ken whether he had been into WellSpring to see Wendy’s paintings. He turned around and reappeared some 10 minutes later.

I was intrigued… “Ken, what were you drawn to?”

“Oh, the ones with the bottles…”

I said, “They’ve all got bottles!”

There are a lot of bottles... or terrariums. When you go down and take a look I’d love to know which one/ones reflect you. Some are self-contained, while in others the life is bursting out or reflecting the wider setting.

Dad had a terrarium in the study growing up. I loved it. Thick glass with a wide neck and a big cork stopper. I sometimes replanted it for him when it had dried out or the plants were overgrown.

A terrarium has a particular humid microclimate; it’s an indoor green house. You can grow quite delicate plants and on the whole it’s pretty self-sufficient if you get it in the right light… the moisture collects in the air then runs down the walls and re-waters the soil. It’s a lush indoor garden.

I thought I’d use one of these terrarium paintings to help us to imagine ourselves into this story with three important characters. Most of the pictures of Wendy’s in WellSpring are of a singular bottle but our story has three main characters. Abram, Sarai and Pharaoh.


Wendy told me that some of the thought behind the terrarium series is about the face that we show I’ve thought a lot about the face I show at home or with my friends or at work.

In this reading we focus in on Sarai who is called on to play a very particular part in this story.

Their survival depends on the face she shows.

Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land…

Abram and Sarai have launched out in search of a new and fertile home, yet after a little while the promise evaporates, nothing is there to sustain them. The land is as barren as the couple. It brings to my mind parts of the world where there is sustained drought leading to desperate migration e.g. eastern Africa and Syria, where there is desperate famine.

This is no light test of faith.

It’s life and death.

And what desperation forces people into.

Abram urges Sarai forward…

I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, This is his wife; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.


You need to go undercover, behind enemy lines.

You need to play a game of truths and half truths.

You must not let on the grief of our childlessness, or shame of your barrenness.

You need to hide all that makes you a target for exclusion.

Cover up the raw, rough you.

Be beautiful even if it’s an illusion.

Sarai means - “my princess”

In this context princesses are for decoration, to make others feel comfortable and unthreatened. To bear and raise children. To accompany the rulers in their ceremonial roles and play diplomatic roles behind the scenes. To oversee the running of palaces and host meals where deals are sealed.

They live with little privacy and every garment and move scrutinised… A terrarium’s not a bad image for the sense of being observed from every direction?

I wonder if you are like me though and want to break out!

The feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi (Tayla and Geordie are studying in year 12) describes her mother’s training of her: in conversation women need to nod, smile (even when you don’t feel like it) and concede on occasion even when you don’t believe it is right.[1]

Adichi’s disagreement with her mother is fundamentally one of authenticity. Why should I be something on the surface that I am not inside?

I also see in parts of this narrative a questioning of patriarchy. This is not Abram’s finest moment. There’s some ruthless honesty in this being part of the Jewish/Islamic/Christian family history. Abram means “exalted father” (or great patriarch). Is there irony in this at this point in the story? It’s still some time in our story before he is given his new name. A change of name is an important flag. Look at what’s happening. The new name is usually a sign of re-birth, liberation or transformation from something you were captive to (E.g. Jacob to Israel). Abram is anxious for his life, and deceptive.

Abram’s desperate move is to send Sarai into the centre of power undercover… early espionage? How many good spy movies are about the spy finding the way into the enemy’s bedroom…? Sarai did a good job too.

And for her sake he (Pharaoh) dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels. 

But at what cost to Sarai? We certainly see her heartbreak growing into bitterness as she grows older. Abram doesn’t seem to learn from this experience (he repeats this deception in ch.20 and it’s repeated in the next generation in ch.26). Abraham might have taken some bold risks but there’s no making him out as faultless.

Mark Brett describes this story as an inverse of the Exodus from Egypt.

…But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abrams wife. So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, She is my sister,so that I took her for my wife?

It’s complete with a Pharaoh and plagues. This is a story focusing on going into slavery with deception… rather than being liberated from it.

Hagar’s presence also haunts this text. Genesis 16 describes her as having come from this time of crisis in Egypt. Perhaps she becomes close to Sarai in the palace. A slave assigned to care for her? Islamic and Rabbinic traditions suggest Hagar was a daughter of either a King or Pharaoh and wife to Abram. The Christian tradition has not treated her with the same elevation.

And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.

When they leave with wealth and livestock, male and female slaves…

But please don’t hear judgement from me. What’s the saying about living in glass houses? Don’t throw stones!

I can put myself into the role of Pharaoh, Abram, Sarai or Hagar.

Did any of these characters have freedom? Desperate circumstances forced them ALL undercover. Undercover they couldn’t see YHWH, the bigger vision!

We need communities where we can safely and playfully explore who we are at our best. If the face we have to show is different to that which is true underneath then this has a cost. If we cannot be truthful about ourselves we cannot grow. Suppressing our unique gifts and personhood leads us to stagnate. I think plagues and disease is an appropriate image for what happens when diversity is stifled. Secrecy and covering up leads to repeated mistakes.

In the past few weeks there have been many important articles on Domestic Violence and abuse in the church.[2]

A deep reading of this text in the light of the last few weeks should contain a trigger warning! Go gently reading this. I stopped an attempt watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” SBS series near the end of episode 1. It might have been just after the section where they read out the Genesis passage mirroring this one (Genesis 26).

When Cardinal George Pell was charged a few weeks ago the report on the sermon at St Patrick’s Cathedral the next Sunday was scathing.[3] That priest had an opportunity to reaffirm commitment to healthy flourishing community which the Catholic Church is aspiring to inside and out… Commitment to the safety of children and zero tolerance of violence and abuse for any person. But he didn’t. Victims need to hear this! Their complaints and pursuit of justice through the courts are partly because they don't see things changing. 

I was so disappointed that my friends who are teachers in Catholic schools or Spiritual Directors at the Campion Centre were not quoted. They would have been able to share their commitment to many of the values of socially just communities: authenticity, transparency, justice, protection of minority groups…

We could have said this also and we’ve done significant work on our Ashburton Baptist Church Safe Church policy (ASPIRE): agency, safety, positivity, inclusion, respect and equality are fundamental values.

It’s not just the church struggling with addressing abuse of women or other minority groups. Marie Hicks (on the conversation) talks about the corporate response in the example this week with a Google director’s actions in relation to women:

Google, for its part, has now fired the writer, an expected move after the bad publicity he has helped rain down on the company. But Google has also and in the very same week that I gave my talk there – refused to comply with a U.S. Department of Justice order to provide statistics on how it paid its women workers in comparison to men. The company claims that it might cost an estimated US$100,000 to compile that data, and complains that its too high a cost for their multibillion dollar corporation to bear.[4]

The nurturing of healthy habitats and shaping of inclusive communities is work we have to keep revisiting, challenging one another with, committing ourselves to.

Where am I not letting you be yourself? In what ways do you feel constrained in this environment? Where are the places where you are known and loved in your uniqueness and difference?

Who are the (5+) people you could say absolutely anything to safely? Am I that person for others?

Abram and Sarai are complex characters in this epic story of faith. Their story is one of faith forced undercover and survival in the face of overwhelming odds. A childless migrant couple not overcome by famine or absorbed into the powerful Egypt. Sarai is not just victim in this story - she is resilient and resistant to injustice.

This story is told for everyone feeling imperfect and insignificant.

I see YHWH in this picture not just sending plagues but lifting the lids on toxic environments and calling each of us to holiness and integrity.

Let’s have a moment of quiet...


Prayer Loving God,

you long for us to be showing ourselves in all our variety and giftedness

and yet circumstances take us back into Egypt and we become captive to illusions and falsehoods.

Mend our broken hearts, and show us the pathway to freedom.

Give us the courage to allow one another the space to express our deep parts with authenticity.

Let us use our strengths to establish your kingdom of love and justice here on earth

Give us the courage to speak truthful words

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen

*Small group questions:

Read through Genesis 12:10-20 again. Who do you relate to?

What do Pharaoh, Sarai and Abram represent for you?

Where do you feel most able to show your real face? (Who are five people you could say anything to?)

What conditions/values build this kind of safety and trust?

Which of the values of our Safe Church Policy do you feel we need more work on… ASPIRE (Agency, Safety, Positivity, Inclusion, Respect, Equality)?


An exhibition featuring the art of Wendy Neilson, shown here, is currently being held in the WellSpring Gallery, 10 Y Street, Ashburton. Read more.


[1] Wellesley College Commencement address 2015