Let us Seek: Sarai’s Exclusion

Today’s lectionary readings contains one of my favorite passages in the Hebrew Scriptures. The lectionary reading contains the call of God on the life of Abram which includes his wife Sarai. Here is what Genesis 12:1-3 says: (NRSV)

“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”

I adore this story for several reasons. Allow me to list a few:

  1. I’m an itinerant preacher. I am drawn to stories where God says “Go to the place I will show you.” It is my hope that God would lead me in the same way.
  2. I adore the fact that the blessings Abram will receive will be from many people and the curse will hopefully only fall on one entity. I love the optimism of that promise. Unfortunately, verse 3 has been translated many different ways. I remain optimistic and still find hope in these words, especially as my preferred translation (NRSV) has lines that fall in “pleasant places for me.”
  3. Abram’s life will become symbiotic to the world around him. As a result, his life causes “all of the families of the earth” to be blessed. This is about as far from an exclusivistic promise as one can get in the scriptures. All families means all families.

I love this story, but not everything is “sunshine and rainbows” between me and this verse. I struggle with this story for several reasons.

  1. Sarai is an important part of Abram’s story. She’s his partner. Her child will be a beloved part of the promise. It seems as if Adonai makes an assumption that Sarai and Abram will understand her role. What happens when you assume? A woman named Hagar is abused. Ishmael comes into being, which is wonderful for Ishmael’s descendants, but there are less abusive ways to bring life into the world.
  2. Abram’s call divides both Sarai and Abram from their families. I would like to say that the call of God does not require sacrifice, but that would be a lie. I am saddened that these sacrifices are required, but sometimes they are necessary.

While there is nothing that I can do about the second challenge, I will say that an awareness of the first challenge can easily bear fruit. What if we use Sarai’s exclusion from the call as a spur to ponder our own words, our own thoughts, and our own prayers? What if we take this as a reminder to focus on something beyond ourselves and beyond our own perspective?

"Abram's Counsel to Sarai" by James Jacque Joseph Tissot

Abram’s Counsel to Sarai, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902), gouache on board, 6 x 8 1/8 in. (15.2 x 20.7 cm), at the Jewish Museum, New York

I was recently invited by a friend to the Friends of the Tompkins County Public Library Book Sale in Ithaca, NY. While perusing the shelves I found a book called “Prayers for an Inclusive Church” by Steven Shakespeare. In that book, on this Sunday the following collect can be informative. I’d like to share a prayer in order to analyze the form, structure, and word choice. It is based on John 14:1-14:

“Generous God,

whose way is love,

whose truth is searching,

whose life is freely given

in Jesus Christ our Lord:

As you have opened for us

your house of many rooms,

so may we make a place

for the rejected and unloved,

and share the work of peace;

Through Jesus Christ, the image of God

Amen”

It is a very solid prayer and well written. I would recommend most of my clergy colleagues think of this as a good resource. Regardless, in taking Reverend Mr. Steven Shakespeare’s prayer as an archetype of a prayer with inclusive tendencies, we can note several things about the prayer construction: (Please note I’m using the etiquette recommended by the Church of England who ordained Mr. Shakespeare. Their etiquette is different than standard American etiquette)

  1. Mr. Shakespeare’s prayer refers to God with a gendered designation, but one which refers to a being in the Christian tradition which includes the image of humanity in all forms of gender. It isn’t perfect, but English is also not a perfect language.
  2. In Mr. Shakespeare’s prayer Jesus Christ is referred to as Lord, but this makes sense as Jesus Christ is generally considered male. The Lordship of Jesus is less of a challenge than the Lordship of God as Jesus is strongly identified with a particular gender, but not always. There are various books available about trans-theology including “Omnigender: A Trans-Religious Approach” by Virginia Mollenkott which explores other interpretations of Jesus’ gender and how that affects our view of gender.
  3. Mr. Shakespeare clearly makes an attempt to open the borders of the blessing. If Abram and Sarai are called to create a blessing to all of the families of the world, then this prayer sees that blessing as being inclusive. God’s way is love, God’s truth searches, and God’s life is given freely. Jesus’ blessing causes people to make space for the rejected and the unloved. There’s room for Ishmael and Hagar in God’s blessing. This blessing extends that grace.
  4. Mr. Shakespeare extends God’s welcome to us into the act of working towards peace. In a world which is filled with lives that often become insular to outsiders, Mr. Shakespeare’s prayer invites the blessing to become manifold in the work of our hands.

With these ideas in mind, I believe we can use Sarai’s exclusion as a spur to inclusion. Here are a few first steps:

  1. Be careful of gendered words. Be careful even if you think these concerns are hogwash. If you pray in public, think through your word choices. There is generally no need to stir up unnecessary trouble between sisters and brothers in the faith. Complications complicate things and life is complicated enough without doubling down on trivial matters.
  2. Consider the scope of your prayer. If you are praying with or for a small group, work an expansive vision into that prayer. If you are praying with a large group, include the vastness of their impact into your prayer. Why pray that an individual would be a blessing in their family when they could be a blessing in their family and neighborhood? Why pray for a church group to get along when you can pray that they get along and expand their love into the community? Prayer changes things including what we ourselves deem possible.
  3. Be wary of the barriers that you might unintentionally erect in your prayers. Does God see things your way? Does God see that town-line, those railroad tracks, or that border as a barrier to blessing? If not, why do you? Sometimes your prayers and thoughts may be the very thing blocking your ability to see the leading of God. Sarai couldn’t see that her disbelief was a barrier. She laughed when God’s inclusion stretched out to include her. Be wary.

All of this being said, if you are involved in worship planning, I believe you should get a hold of Mr. Shakespeare’s book. It is quite lovely and a good resource.

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