August 11, 2019
Christ Church Gardiner
Last Sunday we woke up to the news of a third mass shooting within a week. I was on vacation with my family in Kentucky and had been slow to follow the news and so I discovered the tragedies of El Paso and Dayton at the same time. And I felt like the air had been knocked out of me. As we had our breakfast that morning, Jeff and I discussed where we would go to church that morning. We often go to boat church, right on the lake, when we are in Kentucky in the summer. Our kids love it because they can actually float in the water while “church” is going on. But I needed a familiar liturgy that morning and space to sit with the news of this tragedy and so we made our way to Trinity Episcopal Church in Russellville—a church that holds a special place in my heart. It was the first Episcopal Church that I ever attended, and the place where I began to make sense of my faith in the midst of all my questioning. It’s also where Jeff and I were married.
So last Sunday, I slipped into those familiar pews and slipped into that familiar worship. I was relieved, honestly, not to be preaching or leading worship. Relieved that it wasn’t my job that morning to try to make sense of the madness and grief and fear and helplessness that comes with every mass shooting. I needed time for my own grief. The deacon who was preaching that day had abandoned his prepared sermon in order to read a letter from Episcopal Bishops responding to the ongoing tragedy of these mass shootings.
To be honest, I don’t remember much of that letter. But the simple acknowledgment that our hearts were grieving and that we needed to hear a word in response to our despair opened up the door to all those feelings I had been keeping in check that morning. The tears rolled down my cheeks as I thought about those mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and friends and husbands and wives that had been mercilessly shot down that weekend.
I was so grateful for that space which allowed me to be vulnerable. I felt as if the entire congregation was holding our collective grief in the wake of the news. There were no answers offered. No partisan politics being proclaimed and argued about like on social media. Just space to be sad. To be weary. To lament.
In a letter on August 6th,the group, Bishops Against Gun Violence, wrote, “Today we are weary of witnessing the slaughter gripping our country. But we are no less determined to continue speaking, even when it seems our words make no difference; to continue praying in order to gather our strength to act; and to follow Jesus in speaking truth, especially when it seems that truth is out of season.” Last Sunday, I was stuck in the first part of their statement. I was weary of witnessing the violence and needed strength to continue speaking and praying and acting and following Jesus.
Our worship last Sunday at Trinity was Morning Prayer, and while I appreciate the beauty of that service, I missed Communion, missed being at the table. I wanted to go to the rail with that community of faith, to kneel before the altar, and to be fed. I know a priest who offers the bread with the words, “The body of Christ. Strength for the journey.” I was weary, and I needed that strength.
But even without Communion, I can’t tell you how grateful I was that Trinity, that little church in Russellville, Kentucky, made space for my lament that day—made space for the congregation’s expression of our grief and sorrow. The Church doesn’t always do that well. We tend to like sermonizing and lessons and answers. And sometimes we try too hard to make sense of a world that just doesn’t make sense.
Now, it may seem like a stretch to shift this sermon to the story of Hagar. But her story, like the one of the nightmare of gun violence that we currently live in, also requires us to make space for lament. Because it is grief, sorrow, and even terror that define this Genesis narrative about Hagar.
For years I only read the story of Hagar in the shadow of Abraham and Sarah’s story—the great patriarch and matriarch of Israel. Hagar and Ishmael were just the backup plan when Sarah and Abraham lost their faith in the promise of God. When as they grew older and older, they just couldn’t believe that God would ever give them those descendants that he claimed would outnumber the stars in heaven.
But when we read this story with Hagar as the main character, we see its tragic nature. Despite being visited by a messenger of God. Despite being the only person in the Bible who gets to name God. Hagar does not get to define herself or control what happens to her. Hagar is treated as an instrument, not a person, by Sarah and Abraham, and even by God. When she flees the mistreatment of Sarah, God orders her to return and submit. Think about that for a minute.
God does promise to greatly multiply her offspring, but the suffering that she must endure at the hands of Abraham and Sarah undercuts the hope of that promise. And then, after Hagar bears Ishmael, Sarah miraculously conceives and bears the long-awaited child and heir, Isaac. And Sarah’s jealousy flares up again. This time out of fear that Ishmael will threaten Isaac’s inheritance. So she demands that Abraham cast Hagar and Ishmael out. And God goes along with this brutal treatment. And in a laughable attempt to soften the cruelty, Abraham gives Hagar a small portion of bread and water to sustain them in the wilderness.
But as this story draws to a close, we hear the compassion of God reaching out to Hagar and Ishmael. Hagar is desolate. Her child is going to die. She cannot bear to hear his cries. And then God speaks. A well of water appears. Another promise is made of the great nation that will come from Ishmael. But this all-too common depiction in our Scriptures of a cruel God who shifts to compassion just before it’s too late should not soothe our conscience. Hagar’s story presents a challenge to our belief in a loving and compassionate God. The god in this story is surely not the God of love that we proclaim today. We have to name that. Our faith must grapple with these stories and not ignore them.
This is a story of a broken world and we must name it as such. It is a broken world in which Hagar can be given to a man and then be disposed of when she is no longer useful. It is a broken world that turns out a young boy and his mother to certain death because of fears about inheritance and who will have power.
Outrage and lament are the proper responses to the story of Hagar and Ishmael. We lament a time when their story was a reality. And then we ask ourselves in what ways does our world today still allow such cruel treatment of women and children. Where are the places where power and inheritance and chosenness push the vulnerable to the margins even today?
Our churches must be a place for lament—spaces where we can grieve the cruelty and the wrongs of the world. But they must also be a place for naming those wrongs.
And so today we lament…we grieve for Hagar and Ishmael and all of the women and children mistreated throughout history. And in the wake of these latest mass shootings, we lament a society that seems paralyzed by its gun violence and offers few, if any, real responses to protecting our people from that violence.
So we make space for lament and naming and we seek the courage to turn our outrage into instruments of change. We come to this community and to this table to give us courage to not hide from a cruel world but to live in it in ways that make it better. As we say in the eucharistic prayer that we have been using this summer, “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to the Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.”
I hope you find in this faith community a space for your grief. But I pray that you also leave here strengthened and renewed to do God’s good work in the world. Amen.