Foundry United Methodist Church

Jana Meyer, Minister of Mission




Whose Home Is This?

Sunday, August 5, 2007



Genesis 21: 8-19


Jana Meyer

Jana Meyer


Our biblical text today opens with the image of two children playing together, half brothers that have the same father.  Two children, but two very different futures.  By the end of the story one will be sent into the desert with his mother, and he and his people will be marginalized from the story; while the other will be affirmed as the center of the story and the heir to Abraham. 


We do not have to look very far to find children today whose futures are very different, where some children are marginalized and others are included.  Some children will have textbooks in their schools on the first day, and others won't.  Some will have athletic facilities and libraries in good condition, and others won't.  Some children in the same family have very different futures because one child was born here and is a citizen, and the other is undocumented.


Our neighborhoods and city are engaged in decisions that are defining who is included and who is not.  There are decisions about economic development, housing, homelessness, the schools, and the struggle of day laborers in ward 5.  Ultimately these are discussions about whose home this is, and whose future really matters. 


Today I would like to talk about home in the context of our relationships as Foundry in the home of our neighborhood and city.  In particular, who gets to decide who is included and who is excluded?


Most of us experience some degree of being included and excluded, of both marginality and privilege in different aspects of our life and identity, and depending on the context we are in. We look at this story from our own locations as both marginalized and privileged.  


The narrative leading up to our story today is the promise to Abraham and Sarah that they will have a child and many descendents.  Sarah does not immediately conceive.  She is in an untenable position as a childless woman in her time and place.  Hagar is a slave woman or a servant woman, a foreign woman, and Sarah gives her to Abraham.  The fact that this may have been the custom or culture does not remove the fact that it is a coerced and forced act.  Hagar has come to symbolize people who are foreigners, working people, homeless people, survivors of violence and abuse.  African American womanist theologians such as Delores Williams and Renita Weems have talked about Hagar through the lens of the historical experience of African American women, who were raped by white slave masters and bore their children, and who were mistreated by white women.  They have highlighted themes such as survival and desert experience in the story of Hagar.  Yet Hagar's experience is often marginalized and seldom do we refer to Hagar as the mother of the first born son of Abraham, and the matriarch of a people.


We have people who are marginalized in our neighborhood and city.  Like Hagar, homeless people are often marginalized right here in our neighborhood.  They come from many different backgrounds and are homeless for different reasons.  Foundry has relationship with homeless people in our walk-in mission, in our cooking groups, our Susanna Wesley house.  Current and former residents of Franklin shelter who are members of Until We’re Home are our partners in Washington Interfaith Network.  Homeless people also sleep on our steps.  We make choices about how we view and describe these relationships. Is someone who started sleeping on our steps a week ago as much of a neighbor as someone who moved into a condo down the block a week ago?  What about the people who panhandle in the neighborhood?  Or those who walk their dogs through our yard?   Those who work in the neighborhood or wait for transportation in the neighborhood?


We have also had relationships with day laborers, whom we also have referred to as neighbors, who use space in the neighborhood during the day.  A group of day laborers has formed the Washington DC workers Union that meets in our church on Thursday evenings.  That relationship has taken us into another neighborhood in Ward 5, where day laborers wait for work at the Home Depot.  It’s a complex situation – it’s a primarily African American neighborhood that is changing.  The presence of day laborers, as well as other people who have come to hang out around the day laborers has definitely impacted the neighborhood.   Janis Bowdler, I and others visit the day laborers at these two sites on alternating weeks.  Sometimes the workers have told me that the mere act of us talking to them changes how the neighborhood perceives them.


The fact that we refer to people who are homeless and day laborers as our neighbors can create tension with the neighborhood.  We are usually comfortable as long as marginal people and groups remain on the margins, but when they move into the center, we get uncomfortable.  In the text, Sarah eventually has a son of her own Isaac, and when she sees the two children playing together, she sees Ishmael as a threat to the future of Isaac.  “Cast out this slave woman with her son for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit along with my son”


The fact that Sarah feels threatened by the potential claim of Ishmael on Isaac's inheritance cannot be separated from the initial decision by Sarah and Abraham to use Hagar for their own interests.  In the same way, we make choices in this city about what property is used for, who can afford to live here, and whether we develop housing that can serves the needs of people with addictions and mental health issues, and poverty.  The presence of homeless people on our steps is a reflection of those choices today as well as the choices over the past years.  At Home Depot the day laborers are there because there is a demand for their labor. 


So often exclusion is justified as necessary to protect our future, our family's future, our way of life.   The narrator in this story does not talk about the threat of Isaac to the inheritance of Ishmael, who is after all the first born son, or the threat to Hagar, a single mother.


In Northern Virginia, communities like Herndon feel so threatened by immigrants that they want to shut down a day laborer center that is considered a successful model for the entire nation.  Prince William and Loudoun counties are in the process of imposing some of the most restrictive local ordinances ever.  Gay and lesbian people are excluded from marriage and ordination because they are perceived to be a threat to heterosexual marriage and the church.


These are all struggles about whose home this is.  Who gets to decide who is threatened, who is at the center, and who is excluded? 


What is our response?


In the story, the response of Abraham and God does not satisfy and seems inadequate.   God tells Abraham that he can go ahead and send Hagar and Ishmael away and God will take care of them.  Sort of separate promises.  He sends Hagar and Ishmael away with a bread and water, basically a death sentence in the desert.


I feel like Abraham every time I send someone away here at Foundry.  People come in during the walk-in mission and during the week with different situations and I make decisions about where we can help, and where I think we can't help, so that our resources are used most effectively.  Maybe they came too late, maybe they need help in an area we don't assist, maybe there is simply no logistical way I can get them what they want. I believe we do have to make choices, but I often feel that I have simply failed to think outside of the box, or that I have made an arbitrary decision about how much we or I will get involved.


Clearly the goal of the narrator in today’s text is to affirm Abraham's choice that his future was with Isaac, and that Hagar and Ishmael would be taken care of but would not be part of the story.


I wonder though about what the other options would have been. Given the choice, would Hagar and Ishmael have wanted to stay?  Or to leave but on their own terms?  How would Ishmael or Hagar have told this part of the story? What would it mean to honor Hagar as the mother of Abraham's first son?  How do we retell this story in our own context?


The final part of this story speaks to the experience of exile and the desert.  It is a powerful promise of hope and promise for all people who have been marginalized, and exiled, who have faced death for themselves and their children.  In the story God hears the cry of Hagar and Ishmael and reaffirms God's promise to them.  This is clearly a place of transformation in the story and it reminds us that the most difficult places in our lives often are the places of greatest transformation.  It also affirms God's saving presence with all those who are exiled and marginalized. 


But I come back to the earlier part, and to the missed opportunity for transformation.  There is a tension between the liberating message of the last part of the story and the non-liberating actions of God and Abraham in the middle.  This is the place of struggle.   Where are the places in our lives where we become accepting of the marginalization of others to the point that we fail to struggle with other options?  Struggling with the injustices of our relationships is difficult and messy work, and often the easiest thing is to simply send people away or not address the injustice.  Yet I believe this is where the work of justice happens, where we go beyond simply filling the immediate need of people who come to us, but seek to be in right relationship with them and to work through the tensions, the difficulties, and the imperfections as we seek greater justice in our lives.  This is our work as a reconciling congregation.  This is the example of Jesus who was always reaching out to people marginalized in all areas of society. 


Sometimes this reaching out may make our places of home seem very uncomfortable and we may even feel exiled from our own home.  Jesus made people uncomfortable. This is the type of transformative work that God calls us to.  


I think Councilman Harry Thomas' vision of a multicultural workers center is Ward 5 is a great example of this.  Rather than simply trying to exclude the day laborers, he has a bold vision that would serve the needs of unemployed workers in the neighborhood as well as the day laborers, and bring different communities together. 


When Amy-Ellen did the orientation for the new ESL tutors this summer, she told me that some were very anxious about the first day of class.  I thought it was wonderful that people were willing to step into that place of discomfort to build new relationships. This is why our involvement with Washington Interfaith Network is so important.  We are saying that this city, our home, is for everyone, so we are going to work to create more affordable housing and preserve existing housing.   As Foundry we have insisted that homeless people be included in the WIN city-wide agenda by including supportive housing that responds to the needs of people on the street and those who are long term shelter residents.  But WIN is also important because we do it together with churches from all over the city.  We step out of our comfort zone on 16th and stand with churches in Southeast and Northeast.


This is also why the VIM trip Yadira is organizing to Nicaragua is so important because it will focus on relationship building in a context of the inherent economic injustice that exists between the United States and Central America.  It is the work that Foundry is doing with the larger church to insist that LGBT people be included as full members of our church who can marry and celebrate unions with people they love in their place of worship and who can serve as ordained ministers.  There are other areas we are doing the hard work of creating more just relationships and there are also areas such as racial justice where we have a lot of work to do internally at Foundry and externally with other churches. 


In the text, the way the narrator describes the relationships helps justify the exclusion of Hagar and Ishmael, and the positioning of Isaac as heir to Abraham. Likewise the ways we describe and respond to the relationships in our neighborhood and city help to construct who we include and marginalize.   When we refer to people who sleep on our steps as neighbors, and day laborers at 15th and P as neighbors, when we refer to them by name, we are changing our relationship by the way we talk about it, and we also help change how others perceive the relationship.


Who are the Ishmaels and the Hagars inside our congregation and in our neighborhood?   Whose marginalization, including our own, have we become so used to that we fail to struggle with changing the injustice?  Who are the two children playing together who have such different futures and why? Where is God challenging each of us to step out of the margins into the center and to yield the center to those in the margins?


Let us be in prayer about these questions.  May God guide us forward with courage, love and justice.