Mothers day will always hold a very special place in my heart. For it was on Mothers Day that I first led a service in this Congregation during my Candidating Week two years ago that led to my being called to serve this congregation. And as I said then, I say again, Mothers day is not simple. Although everyone was born from a woman, Not everyone has a great relationship with their mother or their child. Perhaps someone is still feeling the pain of a mother’ illness or recent death. Or a mother whose children never call (I heard that one a lot – you never call, I thought maybe you died). Or a family who finds out that they cannot conceive a child biologically, Mothers Day can bring up deep emotions. I think of my of my own family, both of our children whom are adopted from Korea….when they became aware of what it meant to be adopted, Mothers day was always a reminder to them that there was a birth mother that will never know, and I wonder about their birth mother, and birth mother’s of all adopted children, and imagine what their feelings are on Mothers Day. And as I think about the parental challenges of families today, I realize many of the challenges that are with us today have been with us for millennium.
Thinking about adoption, and motherhood in general I am immediately drawn to the stories of Sarah, Hagar and Abraham in the Hebrew Scriptures. Such a troubling, complex story. Scriptures written by a patriarchal society for a patriarchal society and yet in some ways, the women in certain stories throughout the Scriptures challenge the patriarchal order and take charge of their lives and their families. Abraham is told by God that he would be (and quoting from Genesis) “an ancestor of a multitude of nations and you will be exceedingly fruitful, I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you”. Well late into his life, Abraham and Sarah had not yet had any children. Abraham didn’t seem to mind or even notice, focusing on building up his land and herds. How often is it that we bury our lives into our work or some other addiction to avoid dealing with the challenges in our personal lives. But in this story Sarah was very practical. She knew that Abraham could not be an ancestor of a multitude of nations if there were no descendants. So Sarah decides they should have their child through surrogacy. She offers her Egyptian slave Hagar to Abraham as a way to start their family.
To put this in context at the time this story was written, slavery was a part of the culture. And although today most parenting through surrogacy is voluntary on the part of the birth mother, the reality is that often birth mothers who are surrogates or whose children are adopted, are poor, and with limited options in life. Additionally we know even today as we have heard from our Immigration Social Justice Task Force, there is a large sex trafficking problem, where poor women often from foreign countries are tricked, trapped, and sold into slavery. Hagar represents to me the story of all women who have been oppressed, objectified, and abandoned by society. Hagar gives birth to Abraham’s first child Ishmael. And Abraham loved him. But this is where the story takes an uglier and complex turn. Throughout this whole process, Sarah despite suggesting all of this treats Hagar badly. Part of this is the story of privilege and power, but also it is about her fear and loss of her relationship with Abraham. And Many years later, after Sarah, gives birth to Isaac, she demands that Hagar and Ishmael be cast out. Actually she doesn’t even use their names. In fact Sarah and God never use their names. It is always slave woman and the boy. I have often said that it is in the naming of something, or in this case someone, that it becomes real. Not even mentioning them by name speaks to the invisibleness of these people within their society. So I ask you to think about who is invisible to us. Who do we not know. Who or what do we not name? For if they are not real to us, we don’t have to feel their pain and agony. Let us know our neighbor, let us understand both their sorrows and their joys, and let them know ours. Let us not cast out others into the wilderness, but let us welcome the other, the immigrant, the oppressed, the widow and orphan.
Whats more troubling to me though in this story is Abraham’s response or in reality his lack of a response. God basically says its Sarah’s call and Abraham acquiesces. So on the one hand, a woman gets to make the decision for the future of their family. It is the first of many woman characters in the Hebrew Scriptures who take matters into their own hands to determine the future for themselves and their families. There are many strong female characters from Sarah to the prophet Miriam, to Deborah who leads the Hebrew armies into war, to Esther who saves her community from destruction, to many others. Yet on the other hand, it places this hard and seemingly harsh decision as the responsibility of a woman while the male seems unattached to the outcome or their consequences.
And although it plays into a certain stereotype, I think these stories/visions of strong women is something that is still steeped into our culture and particularly within the Jewish Culture that I grew up in. This week NPR did a story on a report from the Newspaper “The Forward” where people were asked to describe their mother in six words. It was both humorous and poignant. Three that stood out to me were
"Mother, our lady of perpetual dissatisfaction.",
"Strong, independent re-thinker of tuna casserole.",
“Unconditional love, but hates my outfit”
You can go to the twitter hash tag nprmoms to see other reader submissions. My six word description for my mother is “you cant take it with you” for she believed in living fully and in the moment. I ask you later today to reflect on what would be the six words that you would use to describe your mother? I wonder how Ishmael would describe his mother. Maybe “we can do it together mom” or “thank you for always being there”.
So back to the story, God seeing Abraham’s anguish over Ishmael’s departure, promises that Ishmael as well will be the ancestor for many great nations. Islam traces their heritage back to Abraham as descendants of Ishmael. Ishmael, who multi-ethnic, and multi-cultural is the ancestor of Islam. In the Islamic tradition, Abraham comes to Mecca and he and Ishmael build the Kaaba, one of the holiest sites in Islam. One of the five pillars of faith in Islam is to make pilgrimage to the Kaaba, and to face it when they are doing their daily prayers no matter where they are in the world. If we combine the stories of both faiths, this sacred site is built due to the reconciliation of Abraham with Ishmael. The message I read into this is that we are all chosen. Not just one group of people but all people. All of us are blessed. From the land baron to the sheep herder to the poorest people suffering oppression. All of us have the opportunity for reconciliation and wholeness, despite our mistakes, and/or despite our position in life. Hagar in all her anguish, with all her trouble is allowed to see God face to face. In other parts of the Hebrew scripture it says no one can see the face of God and live. Yet Hagar not only sees the face of God but she also names God. She names God El-Rowi, meaning “the one who sees.” For her by naming it makes her experience real. And when Sarah and Abraham had exiled Hagar and Ishmael in the desert, when they were out of food and water, when they were at the end of their rope, Hagar says “do not let me look upon the death of my child”
and it says God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water and gave the boy a drink. So God is named the one who sees and Hagar had her eyes opened so she could see. When we open our eyes to see we see that we are one with God. What Hagar needed was there all along, when she was able to see, when she became self aware, when she could see what she needed for her life and the life of her child, not what others told her she needed to do, not what society tells her that her role should be, not that she should accept her fate and die, but when the core of her being is exposed, her love for another, the lover for her son, she sees her own worth, and then she is able to experience the life forming water of life that sustains her and her child. And her child grows up to fulfill his destiny to lead great nations. What this story tells me is that what we do, what we choose to look away from, what we choose to see, how we act affects not only us, but others and multiple future generations to come. So let us be sustained by the river of life, let our eyes be opened to the gifts that are all around us, let our eyes be opened to the love that we have to offer, and the love we can receive, let our eyes be opened to the wonder of the universe and the possibilities that offer us a way out of no way.
Family is what we make of it. It comes in many types, and in many forms. Sometimes it is the family we are born into. Of this we have no choice, we can do what we choose to with it. Our family of birth, and/or our adopted family is a part of our history. They are for better or worse, with support, or in response to a lack of it, a part of what made us who we are today. As I assume is the same with many of you, there are family members who are gone who I miss dearly, there are some who are not gone, who I try to miss, and there are mostly those who I intentionally love and accept with all their gifts and with all their faults, because we are tied by a united history. Over time people change, history is never forgotten, but over time we become our own selves, not just someone’s child, not just someone’s sister or brother, but our own selves, and we become self aware, and our choices are guided by that self awareness, and not solely by our history and that makes it easier to forgive and come together again, and maybe even to grow together. Even after Abraham’s death, Ishmael and Issac come together to bury their father. Despite their brokenness as a family, they were able to still come together to honor their history together.
We would hope to be accepted for who we are, and when we are not, we sometimes have to make the painful choice to create a new family. Whether that be friends, partners, children, Congregation. Let this be a reminder to us to accept each other for who we are, to love each other for who we are, to forgive each other our minor flaws, and to hold each other up to the light so we can learn to see ourselves for ourselves and to be our best selves. Let us remember all the myriad forms of families, of all who come to us looking to be a part of this family. Let us welcome them, Let us support them. That is part of why we are here. To come together, to be with each other in times of sorrow and in times of joy, to mourn and to celebrate. To celebrate the wholeness of who each of us are. Let us all be mothers in this act of creation. The creation of building a beloved community, where both a Sarah and a Hagar are welcomed. Sarah with her heartbreak and her fears. Let us be a place for her to ease those fears, fears of a struggling marriage, fears of infertility, fears of the other. And let us be a family where Hagar is welcomed as well, the other, the immigrant, the oppressed, the single parent, those struggling in the wilderness. Let us be that spring of water for them to drink from the fountain of life. And lastly, let us all be mothers in the creation of a beloved community that supports all children, no matter what their family circumstance, no matter what type of family structure. Let us be mentors and guides. We are all chosen people, and we have chosen to journey together. May it be so.