Strangers on Holy Ground Assignment for October 2
One of the persistent themes in the collections of both branches of the holy library called the Bible is that there are no strangers in God’s creation. We don’t find that on the sixth day, God created humanity and then marked a special set of that human creation as strangers. Strangers are a creation of human beings, related to an idolatry of narrow self-interest and sibling rivalry.
Those we name as strangers, aliens, exiles, and the rest of that motley crew are those who don’t belong to family or neighbors. Yet, because we have been strangers, we are asked to live out a way that leaves no one strangers. We belong to every stranger and every stranger belongs to us; we have a kinship birthed in being strangers. When we create strangers, or deny them acceptance as family we exile ourselves from the Holy.
On the other hand, there are often enormous social pressures to maintain people as strangers, aliens and exiles, people who can be reviled and treated as less than children of God. When we embrace the stranger, we enter a dangerous place, even if it is a holy place. Holy places are often dangerous, which is a challenge to many who have equated safety and security with holy places. But creation and change both come out of destruction and danger, out of testing and growing in adverse conditions, out of adventure and risking our whole selves to live the values we profess. Solidarity with strangers means we are also strangers, again, and in a society that persecutes strangers, that’s a dangerous thing.
Two early stories play out these themes. They are both difficult and painful texts. They are texts that have thousands of years of interpretation wrapping them in cotton wool to try and make them not texts of challenge to keep open to the jealousies and other distinctions that make having strangers to persecute acceptable. The story of Hagar and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah are wrapped around the story of Abraham and Sarah at the oaks of Mamre, welcoming the stranger.
Imagine telling each of these stories over three nights, beginning with a terrible tale of breaking covenant on night one and going to sleep wondering what can be done to turn back to God. Then we have the tale of the second night, which reconfirms the covenant with God and we go to sleep “ahhhhh, all is well” conveniently forgetting that there was a turning that needed to happen which is what created the necessity of reconfirming the covenant. Then we have the third night and another terrible story is told, with extra images, and these are frightening stories for many reasons. Whenever you find a story you love in this library, look for the stories that make you uncomfortable on either side: they will challenge the easy interpretation.
What do you know of Hagar and Ishmael? Stop for a moment and call up your recollections. Journal them. Do you number Hagar among your spiritual ancestors? Do you feel a kinship with her? With Ishmael? What does it mean to you, if you do or do not feel that kinship?
The story of Hagar was long used as a defense of sexual abuse of slaves, an example of a interpretation wrapped to comfort one group of people and dehumanize another. In Islam, this story is alluded to in Sura Ibrahim (14:37), retold in the hadiths, and reenacted during the Haj. During the Haj, pilgrims race back and forth seven times, honoring’s Hagar’s search for water in the desert for her baby.
Now, read Genesis 16. What do you know now of Hagar? What arguments rise in your heart to make what Sarai and Abram do to Hagar and Ishmael acceptable or understandable? What does it mean that Hagar is told to submit? What kind of submission is this? Would be a radical kind of submission that works differently than we usually imagine? What kind of courage is needed to refuse to die and instead live in terrible circumstances? What kind of love?
What do you know about Sodom and Gomorrah? What images come to mind? Journal your recollections. What have you learned is the primary reason for the destruction of the cities? Where is holy ground?
Now read Genesis 19:1-29. What challenges you about the text? What do you find comforting? Can you imagine contemporary situations where the crowd demanding the strangers would be justified? What would you do? Would you give away everything you had and risk everyone you love for strangers who show up at your, pursued by a crowd? What about if they were pursued by the police or the anti-terrorism squad?
Where is holy ground? Everywhere. Who belongs there? Everyone. Yet we are regularly creating miserable situations and aiding and abetting misery for others, by setting up this people or that circumstance as outside our range of concern. Readiness to be in danger by accepting and being strangers is an old spiritual path, as we can find in these stories. Yet even the spiritual mothers and fathers in these stories struggle with what they are to do, with how to be truly and fully loving of one another – and they’re having direct experiences with angels and God every day. Traditions treat these ancestors as holier than we can possibly be, and as somehow more perfect. Yet when we spend time with the texts, we can appreciate them as imperfect, just like us, and focus instead on how they lived lives of discipleship. They paid attention to God, and their attention wandered, with other stuff coming in. They turned again and again back to God, while God was already there with them, and slowly, they were challenged and they changed. That’s the discipline of submitting ourselves to the Holy, which isn’t comfortable and, as Hagar, Ishmael, Lot, Lot’s daughters, Lot’s wife, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham and Sarah teach us, is a challenging way.