A Walking Dead Christmas Eve

A Christmas Eve sermon inspired by Isaiah 26:16-19 and Luke 2:1-14 as found in The Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church Year W

What are we even doing here? Not how you thought I was gonna start this, was it! Seriously though, why do we do this every year? Why do we put ourselves through all of this? I like Christmas as much as the next guy but dear lord, is it really worth it all? All the stress? All the running around? All the credit card debt? All the anxiety? All the manual labor? Emotional and mental labor? All the family drama? All the awkward conversations at Christmas parties? All the sitting and standing at church, not to mention another sermon! How many of these do you actually need? Didn’t the last one stick? – Is anybody out there thinking, now that you put it that way, why do we do this every year? It’s a lot, isn’t it! I mean, baby Jesus is cute and all, just look at him, he’s adorable! But he ain’t no baby no more! 

Even he is too old for Christmas! So the question remains. Why do we do continue to do this every year? Hold that thought, cuz I’d like to highlight one of our readings that Stephanie just read for us. Thank you, Stephanie. It was the first one, which came from the book of Isaiah. I don’t know if you noticed, but it wasn’t your typical Christmas Eve reading, to say the least! Isaiah was throwing around words like distress, disciplined, labor pains, writhing, dust, and just for good measure, corpses! Well, now that I say them out loud, that does sound a lot like Christmas! When did I become such a Grinch? Honestly though, I had to double check that I didn’t look up the wrong reading! This sounds more like an episode of The Walking Dead than Christmas Eve! And for those of you who’ve never seen that show, it’s about zombies, walking corpses. That’s really all you need to know to get that reference. 

So, I read it again, and it made me cry, right there in the library! I didn’t make a fool of myself or anything, but tears were formed. And I think it’s because it is one of the most real, authentic, raw, Christmas Eve readings I’ve ever heard. You adults, do you remember when we were kids, and Christmas was just nothing but fun and joy and receiving? And I know that not everyone experienced that as children, and if that’s you, my heart goes with you. But then we became adults and realized that Christmas doesn’t just happen, does it? We adults have to make all that happen! On top of all of the family stress, work stress, relationship stress, children stress, financial stress, mourning the faces we won’t see at the Christmas dinner table this year. On top of all that and more, we got to make Christmas happen! 

Isaiah, describes a woman giving birth, and it’s the perfect analogy. Think about it, for those of you who have seen a woman give birth, up close and personal like, and that same woman decides later to have another one, tell me you didn’t think, Why!? Why would you do that again? That was horrible! It was horrible for me! And I just stood there like an idiot taking pictures! If ever there was a reason why women should rule the world, that’s it right there. Those who can push a baby out their body and say, Let’s do that again, should be calling the shots! Am I right? I have a strong feeling that Isaiah, like Jesus, had a good momma. I think if they had asked their mothers, why did you have me if it hurts so much, they’d have said, because I couldn’t wait to meet you, silly! 

Because they knew, as most mothers do, that it’s not about them, it’s about something bigger than them, something more profound than even a mother. If we’re honest, we don’t know as parents how our kids are gonna turn out! So why go through all the trouble, all the pain, if there’s no guarantee it’ll be worth it all!? Well, here’s my answer to that question. Because mothers, like Mary and Isaiah’s momma, have this uncanny ability to sense a bigger picture at work in their lives and the lives of those around them—an insight into 

a hope bigger than any kind of hope we humans can muster,

a love bigger than our love,

a promise bigger than our flailing attempts to keep our word,

a faithfulness so big that it puts our human loyalties to shame,

a selflessness that makes us question if we even know what sacrifice is! 

That, my friends, is why we gather here, year in and year out, on this night, during a time when the nights are at their longest, and we succumb to the Earth’s shadow for so long that our very hearts and souls can feel its weight! We do this every year because this is our opportunity to thumb our noses at all that tries to keep us down, 

at all that tries to lead us to despair,

at all the walking corpses that follow us around,

the corpses of pain,

the corpses of heartache,

the corpses of stress,

the corpses of unrealistic expectations,

the corpses of self-doubt,

and all the other walking corpses who aren’t worthy to be named,

on this night we tell them all where they can go,

because Mary didn’t raise no baby! 

Mary raised the very hope she knew was bigger than our hope,

the very love she knew was bigger than our love,

the very promise she knew was bigger than ours,

the very faithfulness she knew was bigger than ours,

the very selflessness she knew was bigger than ours…


That, my friends, is why we find ourselves here again: Mary’s little baby boy, born for us again, when we need it the most. Amen? Amen.


Hannah, Mary, & Paying It Forward

A sermon inspired by 1 Samuel 1:19–28, 2:1–10, & Matthew 1:18–25 as found in A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church

One of the challenges with this new lectionary so far, has been keeping God as the central mover and shaker every Sunday. And I think that’s because all these women from these stories so far have been so fascinating and movers and shakers in their own right! They are all forces to be reckoned with, and I have to resist the urge to make them the core of the message. Thankfully, my seminary training has kept me in check, reminding me to keep scripture foundational, and God central, specifically Jesus. ‘Cuz let’s face it, we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. But these ladies from these stories, my goodness! They weren’t playing around! They meant business! 

Which makes sense because anyone who comes from a disenfranchised group, has to work harder to be seen, to be heard, to get ahead in life, to exist. And so it was with just about every female character in the Bible. What has been fascinating for me, and I hope for you too, is the way these Biblical women have been paired with the Jesus narrative, the way their stories run alongside it, and thereby highlighting things I’ve never considered before. It’s been just as enlightening to find similarities in these stories, as it has been differences. And since we are keeping Christ central in all of this, what has happened is that each of these women have shown us a piece of God’s character. By getting to know them, we have gotten to know God, a little better each time. 

So, before we dive into today’s stories, let’s do a quick recap of what they’ve revealed to us about God so far. We started in Genesis with the story of Hagar, Sarah’s African slave who after being abused by her, runs into the wilderness to escape, only to be found by God, revealing to us a God who not only sees us, but allows us to see her. And more than that, our God sees the invisible of our society. Hagar, shows us a God who sees. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, laughs at God’s promise of a baby at her old age. And instead of striking her down where she stood for laughing, God engages in a playful back and forth with her. Sarah, shows us a God who can take a jab and not get bent out of shape. 

Mary and Elizabeth show what it looks like to affirm and support others, rather than compete with them. They show us a God whose ego isn’t bigger than her heart. And in her unnamed state, Samson’s mother shows us the importance of being named and seen for who we are. She shows us a God who upholds the dignity and respect of others. This brings us to today’s first reading, which is yet another Bible story that has never been assigned to be read in Sunday worship services. So, if you’re not that familiar with this one either, it’s not your fault. This is the story of Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel. Now, he should be way more familiar to many of you, we’ve read lot’s of stories about him over our lifetimes. 

His mom Hannah, however, like many mothers, has had to be content working in the background, in the shadows of the men around her. I’d say this is the case with many parents, doing the things that good parents do and not getting much credit for it. And it’s not until you become a parent yourself, and you see the lengths that you would go to, to raise your children, to guide them, to protect them, to provide for them, that you realize, “Wait sec, is this what my parents did for me?” Odds are, yes, they did, but I say that knowing that not everyone has had the privilege of having loving parents. Hannah was though, but I got to admit, she has a unique way of expressing that love. The back story is basically another tale of a barren woman in a very abusive, dysfunctional family. 

I know, how many times are we gonna hear a story like that, right! It’s almost like God is trying to tell us something, isn’t it? Anyway, Hannah, still childless, endured some pretty harsh treatment, both from her husband, and her husband’s other wife. When he would divvy out the food, he would give much less to her, then he would to his other wife, because he thought that God was keeping Hannah from conceiving. You have to remember that their progeny was closely tied to their identity both as humans and as religious adherents. Meaning, if you didn’t have kids, male or female, then two things were assured in their minds, you were incomplete and would be forgotten when you die, and that there must be a reason why God is keeping you childless. 

Which was code for, you must have done something wrong to deserve that. Let me be clear, we do not believe such things today, well, some brands of Christianity do, but not here. Unfortunately, our Bible is chock full of not only characters that believed such things, but authors too. It’s a lot to wade through and sort out but that’s why you have geeky pastors like me to do it with you! So, not only was he withholding food from her, but his other wife, would emotionally abuse her constantly! She would mock her and laugh at her and make her feel worthless. She was merciless. The author states that Hannah would cry every time and not eat, and that this went on for years. Today we would call that depression and an eating disorder. You can’t tell me the Bible isn’t relatable to our modern ears.

Hannah’s husband then has the audacity to ask why she is so sad all the time! Like I said, a very dysfunctional family. So, Hannah goes to the temple to pray, still crying, only to be dismissed by the priest who assumes she was drunk. Yet another abusive man in her life, only this time it’s spiritual abuse. Then she makes this very unusual deal with God. She says, if you give me a son, I’ll give him back to you so that he can serve you his entire life. A very odd deal, especially from someone who wanted a baby so badly. It’s not like she had ten kids and didn’t mind losing one! She had none! A very odd deal indeed. But not as odd as following through with it! And that’s exactly what happens! 

She does have a baby boy, and that’s where our reading picks up the story, and she gives him to the temple priest, the same one that accused her of being drunk, to be raised by him, and trained to serve in the temple for the rest of his life. Talk about commitment! I’ll have to remember this story the next time I preach on stewardship! Not only is she generous in giving to God but she gives off the top, her only son! Hmmmmm, now where have I heard about an only son before? Oh well, it’ll come back to me. In our Gospel reading, we have another story of God intervening on a woman’s behalf. Joseph, is about to divorce Mary, quietly, how kind of him, after finding out she was pregnant and he ain’t the baby’s daddy! 

She was on the brink of living a hard life of alienation and poverty, as their society did not look kindly on that kind of behavior. But God, as she always does, advocates for Mary and appears to Joseph to tell him what’s up. And though we all know how that story ends, our first reading gives us a glimpse into another aspect of Mary’s motherhood. The fact that she too, had to give up her son in service to God. But unlike the prophet Samuel, his service cost him his very life. But I’d like to leave you with a bit of a twist to Hannah and Mary’s gift, because it’s not really that they were paying back to God what had been given to them. In reality, they were both paying it forward. And so, they show us a God who is selfless. We know that because of their songs. 

This is the part where we ensure Jesus remains central to the message. Like Mary’s Magnificat from last Sunday, Hannah also prayed a song right afterward, which we also read together, and because of this song, the ancient rabbis considered Hannah a prophet as well. You may have noticed the similarity in both their songs. Each of them saw their baby boys as being part of a larger picture, and each of them saw their sons as coworkers with God, bringing justice and peace to their people. For Hannah and Samuel, their people were their fellow Jewish people. But Mary knew that Jesus was called to serve everyone, the entire world, past, present, and future. 

Which is why the author Matthew gives him the title, Emmanuel, God with us. Because only God could claim you and I as their own, two thousand years beforehand. As we close out this final week of Advent, your homework is a two-parter. First, identify the many ways that God has blessed you, has answered your prayers, even if it wasn’t exactly what you imagined. And second, ponder how you can follow Hannah and Mary’s lead, by discovering ways that you too can pay it forward, for the sake of the world, with the bigger picture of God’s faithful love as your foundation. And as you do my friends, may a songful prayer of God’s wonders stir within your hearts as well. Thanks be to the one who is with us always, Jesus our Emmanuel. Amen.


Mary's Battle Cry

Sermon inspired by Judges 13:2–7 and Luke 1:46–56 as found in The Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church

In our first reading, we have yet another Bible story that is not found in any other lectionary, and so, once again, you have never heard that story read in Sunday worship before; which is kind of odd because the baby boy that is spoken about is none other than Samson! Known for his superhuman strength, as well as his long hair, he’s one of the better-known Bible characters. Believe it or not, you can even find Samson action figures! And then of course there’s the bitter love story between him and Delilah. But the portion of the story we read doesn’t focus on him, he hasn’t even been born yet. No, it focuses on his mother. I don’t know if you’ve picked up on this yet, but Advent has been full of annunciation stories. 

First, we had a messenger of God announce the miraculous birth of Hagar’s baby boy. Then we had a messenger of God announce the miraculous birth of Mary’s baby boy. Then the miraculous birth of Sarah’s baby boy. Then the miraculous birth of Elizabeth’s baby boy. And now we have the announcement of the miraculous birth of…oh, what was her name? It must be here somewhere. Where did I put it? Oh, that’s right, the author never gave her a name! Did you notice that? The mother of one of the biggest names in the Bible, not to mention the miraculous birth after she had struggled with infertility, doesn’t get a name? I find that not only odd, but also disrespectful. Clearly a result of the androcentric world that this story comes from. I only wish this was an isolated case. 

Unfortunately, she is in a long line of women in the Bible who were never given a name. Some of them played major roles, and some minor, not that it really matters. Cain’s wife? Nameless. Noah’s wife? Nameless. Queen of Sheba? Nameless. Job’s wife? Nameless. Peter’s wife and mother-in-law? Nameless. The woman healed by touching the hem of Jesus’ robe? Nameless. Jesus’ sisters? Nameless. The many other women standing in support of Jesus while he died on the cross. Nameless. And that’s just a small sampling of the well over a hundred women who go nameless in the Bible. And let’s be clear about this, they all of course had names, but these authors took it upon themselves to unname them. Yes, I know that’s not a real word, I just invented a new verb. 

These biblical authors, that we call “inspired by God”, stripped these women of the first identifying marker given to them at birth. Disrespectful doesn’t even begin to describe that act. Because it’s not just a stripping of one’s identity, but of one’s dignity as well. I’ve seen two examples of this recently in the news. The first was after the mass shooting at Club Q, a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs. Police Chief Adrian Vasquez released the names of the five who were murdered, and when he did so, he not only was careful to use their correct names, because not all of them were using their names given at birth, but he also stated their correct pronouns. I had never heard that before, not from an official of any kind in a press conference, and certainly not from law enforcement. It was a profound moment. 

Profound not just for the dead, but for their supportive family members they left behind who got to witness their loved one be named and seen for who they were. And profound for all our living LGBTQ+ siblings who yearn to be named and seen correctly. Police Chief Adrian Vasquez began by saying, “"We respect all of our community members including our LGBTQ community. Therefore, we will be identifying the victims by how they identified themselves and how their families have loved and identified them." After reading their names and pronouns, he said, “We strive to give the victims the dignity and respect that they deserve.” 

The other example of the importance of being named that I recently saw in the news came out of Philadelphia. There was a huge crack in a cold case from 1957 of a murdered four year old boy, only known as The Boy in the Box, as the technology of the day prevented them from identifying him, until now. New DNA tests finally came back with helpful results, allowing them to finally identify him, Joseph Augustus Zarelli. What really struck me about this, was that they had been working on this for 66 years, and never gave up! Not only that, but the entire city has not only heard of the Boy in the Box but actively memorializes him by leaving flowers on his grave on the date of his discovery, and toys at Christmas. He has remained in their hearts for so long, even though they’ve never met him! 

Why? Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said this at the press conference, “When people think about the boy in the box, a profound sadness is felt, not just because a child was murdered, but because his entire identity and his rightful claim to own his existence was taken away.” Whew! I know, heavy stuff. Thank you for sticking with me. We’re not going to end on a sour note, trust me! Back to our Bible story. The mother of Samson gets this great news from this heavenly messenger that she’s going to have a baby, and she runs to tell the good news to her husband, who doesn’t believe her. Because, why would a messenger come to you and not me, he thought. And he doesn’t know what to do, even though she just told him the instructions that she was given. 

So, he asks for the messenger to return, still not believing that this was really a messenger from God! God obliges, and the messenger returns, but not to him, to her. She runs to get her husband, and the messenger basically tells him, I’ve already told her what to do, just let her do it. Her husband burns an offering to God and in the fire the messenger ascends into the heavens right before their eyes. Her husband, still looking upward like a deer in headlights says, “Great, we’re dead.” I’m paraphrasing, but he was convinced that God was now going to kill them! And it takes his wife to calm him down and say, if God was going to kill us, why would God bother with any of this? Because she knew, that this was bigger than her, this was bigger than him, bigger than them. 

She may not have known the details but her gut was telling her that this story they were a part of had a larger purpose. And was she right! Her baby boy grows up to save his people from both themselves and an outside threat, sacrificing himself along the way to do so. Hmmmm, foreshadowing the story of a future baby boy? I’d say so! Speaking of whom, in our Gospel reading, we have what’s known as the Magnificat, where today’s first and last hymns come from. It’s Mary’s response to her own annunciation, as well as Elizabeth’s. And like the nameless mother-to-be from our first reading, Mary and Elizabeth know that they are part of something much larger than them. They know that this is going to be a difficult road for both their sons and themselves as mothers of sons called to fight injustice in the world. 

And Mary, speaks some of the most astonishing and insightful words ever recorded in scripture, which Luke put into verse and many have set to music for two thousand years now. These words are astonishing because they are not what you’d expect from the sweet, little, Mary that we’ve seen on TV. She begins by acknowledging her own blessedness to be a part of such a story of God’s, and that quickly turns into nothing short of a battle cry. Somehow, like her nameless ancestor from long ago, she has this insight into the bigger picture that’s going on, of the work that God is going to do through her and her baby boy. Somehow, she knows that he will be both salvation and destruction for so many people. 

Not because of whether they believe in him or not, but because she has been given eyes to see the world for what it is, with all its beauty and with all its heartache, and she has every intention of giving those eyes to him to see the world through—eyes that can see both the goodness and evil in this world, eyes that can see who the privileged are, and who the nameless are, the forgotten, the unseen, the dismissed, the different, the unheard. Somehow, she knew that her little baby boy was either gonna mean salvation for those whose hearts were broken, and a whole lotta trouble for those who took advantage of them. 

How was she so confident in that? Because she had the same God you and I do. A God who names us and sees us for who we are, calling us her very own children. A God who sees the nameless of our world and points us toward them. A God who sees the privileged of our world, and sometimes that’s us, and calls them to use their privilege for the greater good, for the bigger picture. For we have the privilege to be a part of a story so much greater than us, both as recipients, and as coworkers with Christ, bringing justice and dignity to a world who still needs it so badly. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Affirming Relationships

Sermon inspired by Genesis 17:15-22 and Luke 1:39-45 in A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church.

I’ve had several names over the course of my lifetime. Not in the alias kind of way, I wasn’t running from the law or anything like that. But when I was very little, and I can’t believe I’m sharing this publicly, my sister and mom used to call me Tinkers. We don’t need to get into where that came from but luckily it didn’t stick for too long. Then when I was around four, my favorite uncle, Uncle Dennis, came up with a new name for me. Mostly because, not only was my name Ron, but my dad’s name was also Ron, and to top that off, my then brother-in-law’s name was, you guessed it, also Ron. So, rather than having three people answer when anyone said Ron, and I have a feeling my Uncle Dennis was trying to help me out by ditching that other name, he decided to start calling me JR, short for junior in Ron Jr. 

And it worked! It stuck. Everyone from my childhood family still calls me JR to this day! Crisis averted. Well, that may be an exaggeration because it’s not really about the name, is it. Whether they called me Ron, or Ron Jr., or JR, or that other name, it’s less about the actual name and more about the relationship that each name represents. Though I may not care for the name that my mom and sister used to call me, I remember fondly the relationship that the name sprung from. Same with my given name, and the connection that it represents between my dad and I. And with JR, and the memories with Uncle Dennis that continue to serve me throughout my life, long after he left this world. And with the new names I’ve been given since, like Dad, and Pastor, and the many terms of endearment that my wife uses. 

All the names for me, past, present, and future, are all beautifully wrapped up in so many wonderful relationships and memories. And speaking of names and relationships, our first reading continues with the theme of naming from last week. Only instead of God getting a name, it is Sarai that gets a name, as well as her future baby boy. Let’s start with Sarai though. In this story, Sarai is given the same blessing that Hagar and Abraham received, she would become a mother of nations, rulers would come from her womb, for generations to come! And to mark this promise, God gives her a new name, Sarah. Well, sort of. Here’s the interesting thing about this “new” name. It turns out to just be an alternate spelling of the same name. Its meaning does not change. 

Sarai and Sarah both mean “princess.” A fact that my wife Sara likes to remind of occasionally. So, what’s the big deal then? Why the spelling change? If it’s the same name, what’s the point? Two things came to mind. First, we talk a lot about God’s transforming power in our lives, creating us into something new from our very core. What we might not talk enough about is that at the same time, God accepts us as we are, and no amount of transformation will cause God to love us any more than God already did at first sight. So, changing the spelling of her name, is a recognition of who she is, faults and all. And remember, just last week, she was portrayed as an abusive slave owner. So, these are not perfect people that God was dealing with here, neither Sarah nor Abraham! 

In fact, you could easily make the argument that God isn’t even dealing with “good” people here! But I think that’s the point, I think that’s what makes these stories so powerful, and these people so fascinating and relatable! The conclusion that the author wants us to come to is, if God can use them, as faulty as they were, God can use anybody, even us. And the other thing that came to mind was that though this spelling change didn’t represent a new person, as if Sarah was now this new and improved version of herself, it did represent a new relationship, with God—a relationship that would have a profound affect on this 90 year old mother to be. And just to make sure that they didn’t forget how far they’d come, God names her baby boy, Isaac—which means, laughter.  

God’s way of saying, for the rest of your lives I’m gonna make sure you remember that you both laughed at me! Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor! For generations to come, it would be a reminder to think twice before laughing at God’s promises. And speaking of God’s promises, the two women in our Gospel reading are overflowing with them! Like Sarah, Elizabeth is also having a baby in old age, and Mary is having one at a very young age, and out of wedlock at that, a very dangerous circumstance to find oneself in that day and age as a woman. And yet, both of these women carry within them two very special babies. Elizabeth’s baby turns out to be John the Baptizer, aka, John the Baptist, and Mary’s baby turns out to be the long-awaited messiah! 

What struck me though about this part of the story was not their babies, it was the interaction between these two pillars of the faith. As amazing as their babies would turn out to be, their mothers were already pretty amazing! It’s no wonder that they turned out as good as they did with mothers like these. What struck me about their interaction was in both what was said and what was not said. They both come to each other with pure affirmation of each other, to lift up one another, in solidarity and support. What is not here is any sense of competition. And I know that might sound funny, but just think of their ancestors and all the competing they wasted their time on, even within the same family.  

I mean, Mary would not be telling a lie if she said to Elizabeth, “Well, good for you, having a baby at your age! Look at you! All I have is the savior of the entire universe right here!” We laugh but we also know how human of a response that would be. But not from these two. Mary travels far to be with Elizabeth, and Elizabeth, she’s just tickled pink at the sound of Mary’s voice, so much so that the miracle child within her leaps for joy! You can’t tell who is honored more, to be in the other’s presence. And in a world where we’re expected to compete with everyone and everything, I just found that so profound and inspiring. If our first reading was all about relationships, then this Gospel reading shows us what they can look like. And for Mary and Elizabeth, it looks like affirmation, support, encouragement, care, love, and honor.  

What our world could be like, if we could be more like Mary and Elizabeth in this moment between them. What our world could be like, if we were more affirming of others, supportive of others, encouraging, caring, loving, and honoring of the child of God found in everyone, especially those we’ve never met, those we’ll never meet. From the way we treat others, to how we greet others, is it Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, to making the effort to use the correct pronoun. There are so many ways we can follow Mary and Elizabeth’s lead of lovingly affirming those around us. 

I thought this sermon was going to end with me asking you, “What makes joy leap from within you?” But instead, I think the question before us is this, “How can you make joy leap from those around you, family, friend, or stranger? What can you do to affirm, support, encourage, care, love, and honor those that God puts in your path, so that pure joy leaps from within them? May the God of Elizabeth, Mary, and Sarah, go with you, as you find out. Thanks be to God. Amen.


"The God Who Saw Me"

Sermon inspired by Genesis 17:15–22 and Luke 1:39–45 from "A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W"

Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard the story of Abraham and Sarah as abusive slave owners! Don’t be embarrassed by that! It’s not a story that gets read a whole lot. In fact, it isn’t found in the Revised Common Lectionary or the Narrative Lectionary! So, you’ve never heard it read on a Sunday morning before. At best, you may have heard it in a Bible study but even then, it’s a disturbing story to read, let alone study. Which is why I think this new lectionary that we begin today, will be fascinating and eye-opening for us! The simple question, Why don’t we hear the story of Abraham and Sarah as abusive slave owners read in worship, is enough to spark a fantastic conversation! But for now, let’s just stick to the story itself. First, a little background is in order. 

Not long before our reading from Genesis, Abraham was given a promise. He was promised that a nation would grow from his family, that would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. This story is most notable by the fact that when Sarah, his wife, hears this, she laughs, denies it, but God insists that indeed, she laughed. That is the Sarah that we’ve come to know and love, the woman who laughs at God’s promise, and is able to have this playful exchange between the two of them. A very different Sarah than found in our first reading for today! Still childless, Abraham and Sarah wait for this promise to come true. They wait and they wait and they wait. Until finally, Sarah decides to put matters into their own hands and takes her African slave named Hagar, and gives her to Abraham to have a child with! 

Now, every study Bible that I grew up with always had a note at this spot to let the reader know that this was indeed a common practice in that day. I don’t know if that was their way of sidestepping the gigantic elephant in the room, or if they were just in denial, but, I don’t care how common it was, this was a disturbing practice! Wrong is wrong, no matter the century! And make no mistake, this was not consensual! Hagar was a slave. This was no more consensual than when a slave is told to make dinner or harvest the grain. It’s no wonder the Church hasn’t had us read this on Sunday mornings! But wait, it gets worse! After Hagar gets pregnant, Sarah gets jealous of her, even though this was her idea! Criminy! We think our families have issues! But the hits don’t stop there! 

Sarah goes to Abraham, who, by the way, is a spineless buffoon in this story, just going along with whatever Sarah says. She goes to him to deal with this slave of hers who thinks she’s better than her now just because she’s got his baby, according to Sarah. I swear this sounds like a trashy reality TV show, doesn’t it! Spineless Abraham says, she’s your slave, do with her what you want. So, Sarah beats her! Yeah, let that sink in for a bit. This was the last straw for Hagar who promptly ran away. And this is where our first reading picks up. God finds her out in the wilderness by a spring, heading in the direction of Africa, her homeland. Like her master Sarah, Hagar has her own profound interaction with the Almighty, but there is no laughter here. 

After explaining to God why she was there and where she was going, God’s response is nothing short of alarming. God tells her, in no uncertain terms, “Return to your mistress, and subject yourself to her.” I’m guessing that was not the response that Hagar was expecting. But who knows what she was expecting, this wasn’t even her god, this was her cruel master’s God. For all we know she thought, so that’s where they get their cruelness from! And this is where it gets tricky. Because we all know that our God is not a cruel god, and yet, in this story God seems to do something that seems a bit heartless. And I think that needs to be named here, not sugar-coated, not explained away, not made excuses for, just named. Not for God’s sake, but for the sake of Hagar and her story she left behind for us. 

As well as for the sake of everyone who has ever been asked to do something horrifically difficult for the greater good. Sometimes, it’s just enough that your plight is recognized, by someone, by anyone. I feel like we need to be a good friend to Hagar in this moment and just say, “Wow, that must have been really rough, that must have really stung.” I’m guessing many of you have experienced something similar. When you’ve gone through a terrible experience, and no one seems to recognize just how horrible it was? And I’m hoping you’ve also had the opposite of that, when someone not only recognizes it but acknowledges it with you. Doesn’t that feel like such a weight lifted from you? And I think most of the time we’re not looking for a pity party, we’re not looking to put a team together to get retribution. 

Heck, we’re not even looking for help! Sometimes all we want is to be seen, for our current struggle to be seen for what it is. Someone to end all the second-guessing that we do with ourselves: Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe it’s not that bad. Maybe I’m being too sensitive. Maybe I’m the problem. What a breath of fresh air to have someone say, “No, you’re not overreacting, that was horrible.” But back to our story because it doesn’t end on such a sour note, and we haven’t even talked about Mary yet! So, God doesn’t end there, God continues the conversation with a promise. God says that she also will be the mother of a nation. Her offspring will eventually be too numerous to count! And it will start with the baby boy growing in her belly, Ishmael. And that’s when something truly fascinating happens. 

Hagar gives God a name! Not only that, she is the only person, in the entire Bible, to give God a name! Hagar, an enslaved, African, single mom, says to this god who appeared to her in her wilderness, “You are El-ro’I”, which means “God who saw me.” Lest we try to label her as only a lowly victim, Hagar proves to us that she is so much more. In spite of horrible circumstances, she is a force to be reckoned with. So much so, that when she meets God, she defines their relationship. And speaking of another powerful woman, Mary gets a promise of her own in our Gospel reading. The promise of all promises, and like Hagar, this promise comes to fruition through her future baby boy. Only this baby boy doesn’t end up being the father of a nation, he turns out to be the ruler of the entire cosmos! 

And like Hagar, God comes to her not as a stranger, but as someone who knows her, who sees her, who has kept a caring eye on her, and her extended family, like Elizabeth, who has some amazing news of her own to share! And with the strength of Hagar, Mary says, “How can this be…?” As if to say, hold up a sec, run that by me again! How exactly is that gonna work? Mary needs a few more details before she agrees to anything! Unlike her ancestor Abraham, who just went along with whatever Sarah said. After getting a few more details of the plan, Mary of course, like her ancestor Hagar, acquiesced. And also like Hagar, it would mean a difficult road for her from here on out. God knows, parenthood is a hard road as it is! But their roads were fraught with so much more. 

Not unlike most of our lives, if we’re honest. So, what name would you give God? As you look back on your life, and the experiences that God has walked with you through, and maybe even nudged you into, or shoved, sometimes it feels more like being shoved, how have those experiences shaped your relationship with God? And how might that be captured in a name? For Hagar it was El-ro’I, God who saw me. For Mary, it was Jesus, which means “God who saves.” This Advent, I encourage you to ponder what name you might give God. That is your homework. 

And for extra credit, also ponder how your own name for God could be a breath of fresh air for someone else who has experienced something similar and might feel less lonely after hearing your name for God. As you engage in this work of naming God this Advent, may you be comforted by the God who Sees You, may you be strengthened by the God who saves, and may you be inspired by Hagar, the woman who named God, and Mary, the woman who birthed God. Thanks be to the God who has named us her Beloved Children. Amen.