A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 22nd June 2008 by Ms. Phyllis Wong. The scripture readings that day were Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17 and Matthew 10:24-39.
Dear living God, may Your Words open our heart and mind through the Holy Spirit. We ask for your presence and guidance in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Do you agree that we are living in a troubled world? Natural disasters occur in different parts of the world. Endless war and violence are found in everyday newspaper. The recent world-wide food and oil price rise affect every one of us, and apparently cause troubles to many people. You may be one of them.
What is the recent event that troubles you? In your life, what troubles you in most of the time?
Today, I would like to take Hagar’s story and her encounter with God in Genesis 21:8-21, that we read this morning for our reflection in overcoming troubles in our life situation.
Overcome troubles with the love of God
Overcoming troubles, I will start with the love of God.
Hagar, Sarah’s slave girl used as an object to give birth for her husband Abraham, was badly treated. In Genesis 21:8-21, it was the second bible account of Hagar leaving home in desperation into the desert. The first account for Hagar’s maltreatment was in Genesis 16:1-16: she ran away from home because she could not stand it any longer.
The second account of leaving home as recorded in Genesis 21 had a difference. Hagar had a son, Ishmael. And it was Abraham her husband who dismissed her and her son with the instruction from Sarah, his first wife.
It was not difficult to imagine that life for Hagar, a single mother with her only son, being forced to leave home to a place and future unknown, could be very harsh. Hagar had a moment of distress when she tried to give up her son. From the Jerusalem Bible, it said that, “Hagar abandoned the child under the bush.” But Hagar loved her child. It was the situation that made her life very difficult. God of compassion came to her through the angel and gave her the promise of making her son a great nation. Besides this promise, God enabled Hagar to see a new vision. In Genesis 21:19, “God opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw a well”. A well as source of water, had given this desperate woman a source of life and hope.
There are times in life when trouble and stress is so great that some people may give up.
I would like to share a story of an abused woman, I call her Mary. Mary was born in Hong Kong. She was abused by her husband and their relationship ended up in divorce. Mary was extremely upset and had no hope. Out of desperation, she attempted suicide. When she was about to kill herself, she suddenly remembered her only daughter. Her thought and heart once focused on her daughter, she immediately realized that if she died, her daughter will be the one who suffer the most because the little one would lose her dear mother and end up with no one taking care of her. She would be very pitiful. With such a shift of thinking from her own plight to that of her daughter, Mary did not attempt suicide anymore. Instead, she became aware of her important role. She then determined to start a new life with her daughter after divorce. In that critical moment, God helped Mary to hear the plight of her daughter. The compassion of God towards the little one changed Mary’s course of mind. Mary was reminded of her daughter. It is only when she loves and takes good care of herself, can she take care of her dear daughter. Eventually, both Mary and her daughter were saved by the love of God. The God of love continues to touch her heart and let her know that God’s gracious and steadfast love is with her. Mary shared also her direct encounter with the love of God in church when God spoke to her through a banner with a single big word of LOVE printed on it which was hanged on the wall of the alter when she attended a Service. God’s love comforts her and gives her strength through the holy spirit.
‘God was with the boy’ (Genesis 21:20) indicates clearly God’s nature of caring for the most vulnerable. Children are obviously one of the most neglected ones in our world. Too often, children’s needs and rights have been neglected.
On and off we hear news of parents in great crisis killing their children before committing suicide. Last year, there was a mother who threw herself and her two young children from her flat and three of them died instantly in Tin Shui Wai. The children should have the rights to live a life with sufficient provision of basic necessities, but the responsibility to love and care for them not only rest on their family, but also on the society too. Sometimes I find that our society is paying too much lip service for taking care of our children. The hypocrisy can be seen when over 200,000 children were reported living in poverty in Hong Kong, a city regarded as one of the richest cities in the world. If our society emphasizes that individual family needs to take the prime responsibility, the poor families who lack the means of life will be very difficult. Therefore collective support from community is equally important to bring hope and love to people who are in hard times. Can the society or the church perform the role of Hagar’s well that gives a source of means to the people who are desperately in need of tangible and non-tangible supports?
While some people condemn the cruelty of the mother who killed her children and took her own life, we need also to ask what made women like her so desperate and without hope? What about the husband’s responsibility? What is the responsibility of our society and our government in helping families in distress because of economic hardship or suffering from domestic violence or some other reasons?
In Mary’s story, her troubles not only came from the lack of economic support, but also the negative label of being a divorced woman and a single family in society. Even though divorce is becoming more common in Hong Kong, and yet, the discrimination against single parent family is still prevalent. Therefore, many single parents will keep their change of family status a secret. Many of the single mothers suffer in silence. Even within churches, there are pastors and Christians who judge Christian divorcees as sinners. They use the bible to justify their view point without understanding the context and the situation of the married couples. The dogmatic and judgmental attitude does much more harm than good to the divorced couples who may have been deeply hurt and struggling for recovery.
In my past work experience in Harmony House, an agency that serves women and children suffering from domestic violence, I found out that if single mothers were able to overcome the psychological barrier and acknowledged their change of marital status without fear of being judged, they could lead a freer and happier life. Of course, it is not only the efforts of the individual women, but also the society as a whole to transform its tradition and norm of defining the so called ‘normal family’. What constitutes a good family is not defined by its composition, but by the qualities of the relationship. Single parent families can be equally harmonious and healthy. They are also entitled to have joy and happiness even though the couple separated for some reasons.
In Hagar’s family as described in the scripture, she and her son could survive a stable family. Hagar was able to plan for their future by getting a wife for her son who grew in healthy manner and became an expert archer. God of love had helped Hagar to overcome troubles and continue to lead a normal life. God is love and justice, and will never discriminate people according to social status, marital status or family status.
Overcome troubles with the love of one another
In Genesis 21:17, it said that the angel of God comforted Hagar by telling her don’t be afraid and then asked her to “go and pick the boy up and hold him safe.” God opened Hagar’s eyes to see the well. With this vision of hope, Hagar ‘went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. With God’s help, Hagar was able to restore her relationship with her son, a loving relationship. I have come across many abused women who have suffered for a long time that they themselves have a lot of personal problems that have damaged their relationship with their children. The rebuilding of relationship with the loved ones is definitely an important area that helps people to face their troubles and stressful moments. There are two reasons, with improved relationship in family it helps to develop better supportive network. Secondly, many people’s troubles and distress come from their families. Improved family relationship will definitely helps people to lead a life of peace ad joy.
Overcome troubles with the love of self
In the scripture of Genesis that we read this morning, it did not state clearly of this aspect. But one thing that was pretty sure was Hagar did not give up. She chose life and continued to lead a normal life with her son.
In addition, Hagar did not complain but actively responded to God’s advice. Just like Mary’s story, this had reflected Hagar’s willingness to take up her responsibility as a mother to her son and a life for herself. Self love is important for us to have confidence that we are able to stand on our own feet. The source of self love is again coming from God who creates human being according to his image and thus we all share the basic dignity and self worth. We are all unique creation by God. God called and wanted us by names, as shared by Maggie in her sermon last Sunday.
In many occasion when people are abused or continuously experience failure for a long time, it is easy for them to develop the sense of helplessness for they may find that they are unable to change and they have totally lost confidence of themselves.
Empowerment and growth: taking responsibility and actively respond; no more a victim but survivor is an important aspect for people who may have been victimized and/or experienced failure one way or the other to overcome troubles in life. Whenever there is voice of self-denial and self-doubts that discourage us, say ‘NO’ to the destructive forces. The destructive forces can come from individuals, institutions and social systems. No one has the right to take away our dignity and self worth that God has given to everyone of us. Whenever God is with us, God will assure us as her dear daughter, dear son, a dear friend, and a dear disciple that we will be well taken care of. With such an unconditional love, we are then empowered to encounter the challenges and troubles with courage.
In Hebrew, Hagar means ‘wandering’. This name in Hebrew constitutes little or no dignity as a person. From the human point of view, Hagar as a slave girl, was very low in value and status. But in the eyes of God, all people are entitled equal worth and dignity.
Troubles will appear in different times of our life in different forms and with different causes.
To paraphrase from Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities”, perhaps the worst of time is also the best of time to make a change. At the worst moment, it could be the best moment for it may be the time that God is right there to speak to us and open our eyes to see a new vision and alternatives.
God is always there when we are in trouble. He never abandons us as our Lord is God of love. As the author of the Psalm shared in chapter 86:5, our Lord is good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who calls on Him.
Let’s remember that God is a living God who is our creator, redeemer and sustainer. God’s ways are the ways of mercy and grace, of patience and faithfulness. With faith in God, we are able to experience the gracious love of God in every trouble moment. Amen.