How does your congregation relate to communities of other faiths? Have you ever welcomed persons of other faiths to your congregation? This past summer, my church had the privilege of hosting a group of international scholars who were in the U.S. to study religious pluralism through the Dialogue Institute.
As a program associate and teaching scholar with the Dialogue Institute, I invited the scholars to attend a Sunday morning worship service at my church in order to give them a taste of what an urban, progressive-leaning United Methodist Church looks like. For many in the group, it was their first visit to a Christian house of worship. The pastor had previously asked me to preach that Sunday, so I chose to craft the sermon in such a way as to invite reflection on commonalities between Christianity and Islam, and demonstrate that when we encounter the traditions of others, we can gain new insight into our own tradition. Here’s what I came up with…
This sermon was delivered by David M. Krueger, PhD at Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, PA on Sunday, June 25, 2017.
This morning, Arch Street UMC is privileged to have among us scholars from around the world. In all, there are 18 professors from 18 different universities representing 18 different countries. They are from a wide range of religious and non-religious traditions including Christianity (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox), Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Humanism, and others. They were selected by the U.S. State Department for a Study of the U.S. Institutes program dedicated to religious pluralism. They will spend six weeks with the Dialogue Institute, based at Temple University, to study the religious and political history of the United States. They will be visiting dozens of important American sites throughout the country and they will be engaged in a sustained conversation about religious diversity and pluralism. They just arrived yesterday, and our church is privileged to be their first stop. I also want to wish Eid Mubārak to our Muslim friends among us today. The month-long fast of Ramadan ended last night. Ramadan requires fasting from sun-up to sun-down but, Al-ḥamdu lillāh, or Praise be to God, it ended just in time because we are going to have lunch after the service today over at Reading Terminal Market.
The passage from Genesis 21 that was read this morning was not a passage that I chose. It was the scheduled text for today from the Revised Common Lectionary, a three-year schedule that encourages Christian preachers to cover most of the texts in Bible. Considering the honored guests in our church this morning, I’d like to think that it is more than a coincidence that today’s scripture features the story of a woman that is familiar to Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
Hagar in the Jewish and Christian Traditions
Hagar, in the Jewish and Christian tradition, or Hājar in the Islamic tradition, is known as the mother of Ishmael, Ismail in Arabic, a son of Abraham, or Ibrahim in Arabic. These three characters provide a meeting point for three religions. But each tradition, and even traditions within those traditions, have a slightly different perspective. I don’t mean to leave out Buddhists, Hindus, humanists, and others among us today, I promise I will come back to you later.
For now, I want to center on the person of Hagar. In earlier chapters in the Book of Genesis, we learn more about Hagar and the role that she played in the family of Abraham. For Jews and Christians, Abraham is known to be the great patriarch of the faith. Genesis says that God made a promise to Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation, that his descendants would be as numerous the grains of sand on the seashore. But there was a problem. Abraham and his wife Sarah were advanced in age, and Sarah was unable to bear children. In Genesis 16, we read Sarah took matters into her own hands. She said to her husband, “go into my slave-girl; it may be that I obtain children by her.” Abraham takes Hagar the Egyptian as a wife. Hagar becomes pregnant, and then according to Sarah, Hagar looked up on her mistress with contempt. We don’t know exactly what that means, but it suggests that Sarah was jealous of this slave woman’s elevated status and felt that Hagar had disrespected her. Sarah’s ego was so wounded by this perceived act of insolence that the text says that she “dealt harshly with her” — something permitted in the slave/master/mistress relationships. Several months later, Hagar’s son Ishmael was born.
Sarah eventually and miraculously becomes pregnant by Abraham and gives birth to a son, Isaac. At this point, Sarah had no use for Hagar and her son and she cast them out of the household, into the desert. Abraham was distressed by this on account that Ishmael was his son, but agrees to Sarah’s request after God speaks to him. Abraham gives Hagar a skin of water and some food, and sent her on her way into the desert. The water soon ran out, the food ran out and things were looking bad for both Hagar and her son. She placed him under a bush, some distance away. She couldn’t bear to watch her son die.
Feminist Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible, in her book Texts of Terror, writes that traditional readings of this text have distorted the story of Hagar. According to Trible, most readings of this text see Abraham and Sarah as the subjects, the actors in this story, the persons with agency, while Hagar is the object, the acted upon, the one with no agency. For Sarah, Hagar is simply an instrument and not a person. Notice that she refers to Hagar as “slave girl” and not by her name. When Hagar was no longer useful, she was cast out. Having been expelled from the household, this mother and young child were now facing certain death.
Thus far in a Christian/Jewish reading of the text, it looks like Hagar is nothing more than a side character with a minor role in a larger drama of noble, patriarchal line that would lead to King David, and finally, for Christians, to Jesus Christ. Let’s turn for a moment to how Muslims view this woman Hagar. (For a closer look at Jewish interpretations of the text, click here.)
Hājar in Islam
Hagar, or Hājar is viewed a bit differently in the Islamic tradition. I beg your forgiveness in advance if I misspeak or misrepresent the tradition this morning. I’m not formally trained in Islamic textual sources; my area of specialization is American religious history.
What I have learned about Hājar, in the Islamic tradition is that she is a deeply revered as a woman of faith. Although she is not mentioned by name in the Qur’an, she is mentioned in other sources. There is a direct line from the Hājar’s son Ismail to the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). According to the tradition, Hagar is the second wife Abraham or Ibrahim, known as a prophet (nabī) and messenger of God (rasul). Muslims believe that Hājar and Ismail were also sent out of the household by Sarah and Ibrahim accompanies them to a place called Makkah. Here again we see that Ibrahim leaves his wife and son and returns home. Hājar and her son are left to fend for themselves in this dry and desolate place. Hājar prays fervently to God, and runs between two mountains near Makkah in search of water. God answers that prayer and stream of water breaks forth from the ground. The places became known to Muslims as the Well of Zamzam. The ZamZam Well is just 20 meters from the Ka’bah, or the sacred center of Islam in the holy city Makkah. Millions of pilgrims visit this site each year to drink from these sacred waters. Some claim that these waters have special healing properties. Muslims on their hajj to Mecca will often retrace the steps of Hājar in her search for water. In short, Hājar plays a notable role in the Islamic tradition.
Reading Your Sacred Text from Another’s Perspective
With this mind, let’s return to Christian/Jewish text. If we continue reading in Genesis 21, we see that God does not abandon Hagar. God hears Hagar’s cry for her son and responds. “Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him. Then God opened her eyes. And right in front of her, was a spring of water.
From the Genesis text, it doesn’t say anything about God creating the well. It just says that turning to God in prayer helped her to recognize a source of strength and hydration what was there right in front of her all along. And that’s what faith in God does. It changes our perspective, helping us to see our circumstances differently.
Interfaith dialogue also opens up new possibilities for how we understand ourselves. When we read one another’s texts and study one another’s traditions, we can see our own tradition in a new light. We gain new perspectives that we didn’t see before.
These kinds of interfaith dialogue, exchange, and collective study is what we desperately need today. We need to read and study one another’s stories because our very survival depends on it. Here in the United States, we enjoy a relatively high degree of religious tolerance. A recent Pew Research study on religion shows that American’s attitudes toward persons of other faiths has actually improved in recent years. However things have begun to change in the last year or two. Religious minorities feel more at risk. Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated and Muslims have increasingly experienced hate crimes. Building relationships across religious traditions is more important than ever in the U.S.
However, recognizing common roots and common threads in our various traditions is not the endpoint, it is the starting point. When we read the story of Hagar, we ought to be reminded that God has a heart for those at the margins. African American theologian Dolores Williams in her book, Sisters in the Wilderness, reminds us that Hagar experienced slavery, poverty, sexual and economic exploitation, rape, domestic violence, and the struggles of being a single-parent. So often we read religious texts from the perspective of the what we deem the “main characters.” The folks who write books, commentaries, and theological statements have traditionally written them from the perspective of the privileged and powerful, and often from a male perspective. The Gospel text from Matthew 10 this morning reminds us that God as revealed in Jesus Christ is a God that knows the number of hairs on every person’s head. This is a God who cares for even the sparrows and perhaps even the pigeons that crowd our city sidewalks. When we read carefully and from a new perspective we can find (in both the Christian and Islamic traditions) a woman of remarkable faith, a woman who found the presence of God within her to persevere, in spite of those who cast her away.
At Arch St. Church, we are deeply committed to acting on behalf of the Hagars in our community: Grace Café serves our neighbors experiencing homelessness, we openly support lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons, and we provide sanctuary to our friend Javier who is a risk of deportation.
As you reflect on religious pluralism in the U.S. this summer, I encourage you to consider that interfaith relationship building is more than talk, it’s about taking action together.
Arch Street Church is part of an interfaith movement called P.O.W.E.R…Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild. It’s a coalition of churches, synagogues and mosques that work together to fight for a minimum wage, advocate for adequate health care.
Friends, won’t you come to the well this morning? Whether you call it the Well at Zamzam, or a spring that bubbles up in the desert in Beersheba; whether it is a stream that appeared out of nowhere by divine intervention or it is a stream that was there all along and only made visible through prayer, please come to the well. Encounter a God that is much bigger than you imagined, the God of Abraham/Ibrahim, and Hagar/Hājar. Although there are many doctrines and beliefs that divide us and distinguish us from one another, find ways to encounter God through uniting in actions of justice and compassion on behalf of the Hagars/Hājars of the world. Come to the well.
Swidler, Leonard. Ten Principles of Interreligious Dialogue.
Swidler, Leonard, Reuven Firestone, and Khalid Duran. Trialogue: Jews, Christians, Muslims in Dialogue. Twenty-Third Publications, 2007.
Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives . Fortress Press, 1984.
Williams, Dolores S. Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993.