Reflection of the Week - 27th June 2023

By Rev Dr Josephine Inkpin

Posted in Faith

Pentecost 4 A; Uniting Church Anniversary Genesis 21: 8-21

Contemporary Reading: Hagar in the Wilderness by Tyehimba Jess

As I have lived most of my church life primarily in Anglican and ecumenical settings, I have to admit to some bemusement about the annual marking of the Uniting Church’s founding. I guess it is partly the equivalent of the patronal festivals in other mainstream Churches. However, these typically centre on a particular saint, or an aspect of faith (such as the Holy Trinity), after which a particular congregation is named, not a particular Christian denomination. Denominationalism is, after all, a modern idea, and would be a horror to our Uniting Church Reformation forebears.

John Calvin, for example, was seeking to reform the one universal Church of God, not to create an alternative. The great Methodist pioneer John Wesley also formed a vital and innovative new movement but never sought to leave the Church of England. That is pertinent in marking this anniversary. For it directs us back to the Uniting Church’s crucial ecumenical and ‘open future’ charisms. These are clear in The Basis of Union, the key Uniting Church founding document. As a body, we are only one very small part of the universal Church through time and space. Therefore, rather than being yet one more denomination, we are called to help pioneer new paths of faith and relationships.

Our calling is always to be a Uniting Church, holding our structures lightly and open to new ways of being followers of Jesus with others. So how what might today’s story about Hagar say to us in that? For it is certainly a powerful challenge ...

Hagar’s story is both shocking and also full of liberation. Like Sarah’s story last week, we are invited to wrestle with the texts and discover the true, living, God beyond. On the one hand we encounter several intersectional oppressions, as Hagar experiences misuse of power, racism, sexual abuse and economic exploitation, interfaith/religious violence, and slavery. In this she represents those who have been ‘other-ed’ by the apparent victors of history, who have also betrayed their own best selves and traditions in doing so. On the other hand, and ultimately most significantly, Hagar represents not only survivors of such injustices but those who have discovered the true, living, God amid them. Indeed, with Hagar they name that God afresh, calling us to travel onward together.

Hagar’s story helps reveal many of the shadows and separations of our human histories. The reading (from Genesis chapter 21: verses 8-21) is a continuation of Genesis 16, where Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham in order to produce a child. Resentment develops between the women and Hagar runs away. She is, after all, an Egyptian, a foreigner, with no rights, or status. Asked to choose between them, Abraham sides with Sarah, leaving Hagar helpless. ‘Your slave is in your power,’ he says, ‘do to her as you please.’

However, Hagar is not without comfort. Rather she is given a similar blessing to Abraham: ‘I will increase your descendants so much,’ God says to Hagar, ‘that they will be too numerous to count’ (Genesis 16:10). As with many other biblical patriarchal narratives, we have aetiological, or origin, stories here, helping to explain later differences between peoples. Hagar and Ishmael’s descendants will eventually flourish as a blessed people of God, alongside Abraham and Sarah’s descendants. We are thereby challenged to acknowledge how the God of our Faith tradition is so much more than a God of one tribe, social or religious. Rather God seeks healing, justice and reconciliation, beyond the shadows and separations we human beings inflict and consolidate.

Race and slavery issues are powerfully present in the continuing use of the Hagar stories. It is significant how Hagar has a very different place in white churches, where she is rarely mentioned, and in black churches, especially African-American, where she is iconic. For Hagar, as an African (an Egyptian), and a slave, speaks powerfully of liberation, emerging from a deep transformative relationship with God. Black life and theology, not least womanist, is thus typically full of reflection on Hagar. For whilst we may also identify with Sarah, and Abraham, in their stories there is also misuse of power and abuse, flowing from their privileges of race, wealth and status.

These need naming, so that God’s liberation may flow freely to all. Even more importantly, we need to name and celebrate the love and power of God flowing through Hagar and people like her.

When we feel that others have truly seen or heard us, things change. Hagar witnesses to this and, above all, to the reality that, even in the wilderness - when no one else sees or hears, never mind cares – God does. Even in the most desperate of circumstances, our lives can be transformed, by that love and power.

Reference:

Josephine, I 2023, Steps and shapes beyond shadows and separations, 25 June,

230625-Rev-Dr-Josephine-Inkpin-Pentecost-4A-Uniting-Church-Anniversary.pdf (pittstreetuniting.org.au)


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