Scripture: Genesis 21:8-20
February 7, 2016
I will never forget the first time I set foot in a prison.
The year was 2004. It was a lovely May day and the sun had just begun to warm the earth as California entered the summer months. It was a beautiful day. But. There was a light breeze that kept whispering to me, “Turn around. Go back.”
As I walked up to the doors of the women’s prison, all fourteen years of me, saw the guard towers and the barbed wire and the whisper grew into louder voice, telling me, “It’s not too late, It’s not too late to change your mind”.
I think there was a part of me that knew this was the beginning of a calling. My feet argued with head as I walked up to the front door. I walked through the metal detector which was at this point screaming, “Stop, right now. You don’t belong here.” Yet I sailed through security and into the common room. I was greeted by four women in jumpsuits who asked if I was there to help cook. I replied that I was and was shuffled into the back where a grill was awaiting the hot dogs and hamburgers I pulled with me in a cooler.
Get on the Bus, an organization that many of you in this space are familiar with, is an organization that takes kids to see their mother’s in prison for mother’s day. I had always been a curious kid, pushing myself to do things that others thought silly or unnecessary, but being in a prison was certainly not something I was familiar with.
As I began to help grill the food for lunch with the women, I felt incredibly reserved. I knew there was something telling me to engage in conversation with them, but they were scary, society had told me from a young age that people in prison are bad. Drugs are bad. THOSE PEOPLE are bad.
A woman noticed that I was hanging back, reserved, and not entering into conversation. She came over and asked me questions about my family, myself, and my school. Once I got more comfortable, I asked her questions about herself. Josie told her about her life growing up and how challenging it was. Her mother had used drugs and she had been raised in an unstable household. By the time Josie turned 15 she had already had issues with drugs, and by 17 she had been incarcerated for the first time.
I didn’t even know what to say to her story. Here I was, 14 years old and had had the complete opposite life than Josie. It was at this point that I began to see Josie as a real person, right in front of me. She became so much more than a felon. She became a person, with a story, a person who had had all the cards stacked against her and had succumbed to the outside pressures.
But she was no longer the “bad person” I had been taught to believe she was, she had just been put into circumstances beyond her control and had hardly been given a chance. This lesson of humanity has stayed with me as I have grown. Society’s temptation to label people as good and bad isn’t a realistic view of human nature. How many of us have ever made a huge mistake? THOSE people in prison are not the only ones who have ever done anything wrong. And if we accept the idea that poor decisions make us bad people, then I imagine every single one of us in this room is “bad”.
Reading the story of Sarah and Hagar I have to admit, my first thought was, ah! Sarah is kind of — and by kind of — I mean extremely — rude and selfish and whiny. I put her into that BAD category.
So much so that I went home to my mom and asked her, WHY WHY did you name me Sarah? I can’t find anything redeeming to preach about! And her response was, “I love Sarah. Come on, she laughed at God.” So, I sat down and looked the rest of Sarah’s story. Here’s a woman who has been completely barren, the single most scarring sign for a woman – not to be able to have children. She’s absolutely miserable and Hagar and Ishmael are the constant reminder of all that she has been through.
And the minute Ishmael bullies her kid, the kid she waited for for so long, she snaps and becomes someone who is jealous and bitter and mean, and insists that Abraham cast her out. Abraham protests, because he loves his son, but Sarah is so furious that all she can remember is how angry she is. We don’t get into Sarah’s head, but I’m willing to bet that this is not the life she envisioned for herself. I doubt she would have chosen to be barren and have her slave bear a child that would receive her family’s inheritance.
She is certainly feeling like the victim and just wants someone to stick up for her and her son. How many of us would want to be known for our worst moment? To be known for the time we were the reason someone was banished from society. How many of us would want all of the good things we’ve done to be replaced by THAT ONE worst thing we’ve done.
I want us to think a little about those people in our lives that we have deemed GOOD. Maybe this is a parent, a mentor, world or religious leader… Has everything they have ever done been right?
Many of the heroes I have looked up to over my lifetime have been incredibly flawed… One of those heroes is Mahatma Gandhi, a man dedicated to freedom and decolonization. I went to India idolizing this man and the work he did, and then… I remember learning about Gandhi’s issues around race and gender. Let me tell you, my first reaction was to write off Gandhi as worthless, but taking a step back, I can wholeheartedly disagree with his racist and sexist undertones, while also acknowledging the whole lot of good that he did for the world.
Likewise Martin Luther King, a civil rights giant, maybe didn’t treat women how he should have. Does this mean that we can’t admire him for what he did?
Albert Schweitzer? Amazing humanitarian that promoted colonial and racist ideals? Is anyone exempt from imperfection?
After dismantling of my heroes, all I had left was Mother Theresa. And my goodness, did I hold on to her as tight as I possibly could. A woman who’s house I visited in India, who I believed to be truly selfless and free of problematic philosophies or actions. Guess what… forced baptisms of the dying. NOT perfect.
So instead of cashing in all my heroes, rendering them useless, I was forced to see that these people were more than the worst things they did and believed. Otherwise, I’d probably be left with no one to look up to and learn from.
Maybe the offering of humanity and living with imperfections is the true nature of a hero.
People are not meant to be perfect. The point of the Sarah and Hagar story is not perfection. In fact, I would argue that pretty much no one is perfect in this story. If the objective was finding the person who acts the most perfectly, nobody in these ancient stories would ever do anything wrong. Instead of looking in this story for who was the best and take lessons from them, we see that God ultimately sees the goodness in all and provides hope for everyone through a line of inheritance for each son.
This doesn’t mean we need to excuse poor behavior. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not up here telling you to just ignore the bad things people do, and only focus on the good. But rather, I invite you to take things in context, realize humanity, and offer grace. Just like I was able to see Josie as more than her drug problems, we have to see Sarah as more than her rash decisions. God challenges us to love the “other” even those who have harmed us.
The other day I had a conversation with a woman, Debbie, who had been in prison recently. She was talking about wanting to go and volunteer at a local animal shelter. I told her I thought it would be a great idea. And she looked down and to the side and said, yeah maybe. After a little bit longer of talking I asked her again about the shelter work and she said, ah, well I don’t think they would take me. I asked her why? They’re always looking for volunteers. She replied. Ah, well, because I’m a felon. I told her oh, no, they don’t ask about that, I’m sure they would LOVE to have you. She then explained to me that she always feels like she has the word felon written across her forehead.
We have all made huge mistakes in our lifetimes. But I assure you, that we don’t have to go around with the words felon, adulterer, impatient, rash, selfish across our foreheads. God sees the word human written across our foreheads, and maybe this passage is that we are invited to see “human” too? Both in ourselves and in the other. Sister Helen Prejean says, “People are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives” She tells us to move away from judgement and into a world where we see people in their whole selves.
The story of Hagar and Sarah reminds me of an extremely dysfunctional family. People who are talking past each other and demanding things without thinking about their consequences. Unfortunately, it seems like families often treat each other so much worse than they would anyone else. But how would this story change if everyone in the story recognized each other’s humanity? Instead of Sarah seeing Hagar solely as slave or life-ruiner, she would see her as mother, as giver, as caretaker. And likewise, Hagar would see Sarah not as jealous or angry, but also as mother and as healing. I imagine there would be more forgiveness, more conversation, more love.
I think many of the stories we read from the Bible have an obvious hero, that were supposed to live our lives like. This is not one of those stories. Heroes are not perfect, and the real lesson here is to learn from our imperfections, forgive others in there’s, and see each other the way God sees us. As human. As imperfect beings who generally want to be dealt with in kindness and compassion. Go out and find someone. Recognize their mistakes, their good qualities, and allow them to be in your mind as nothing less than human.
Amen and blessed be.