Slave Lives Matter

The historic slave cabin and future playscape, Grace UMC, Manassas, VA

I can’t wait. This week our church’s brand new playground equipment arrives. Thanks to the good work and extravagant generosity, new equipment will be installed on our playscape this week for the children and families in our pre-school, church, and community. I can’t wait to see the children’s faces and hear their voices as they explore, sing, play, and laugh.

As some of you have noticed, it is still a little peculiar that our playscape is installed next to a centuries old slave dwelling on our campus. The Historic Slave Cabin has been preserved by the Johnson family whose farmland was given for the church almost 30 years ago. Since then it has been restored by the church including documenting the names of as many of the persons enslaved here as we could.

Some of you have wondered, “Isn’t it odd to have the joy of children at play so close to this reminder of slavery?” To which I must reply, “Of course it’s odd. But it’s also biblical.”

Sarah and Hagar, Wenceslaus Hollar, c. 1619

Her name is Hagar, though neither Abraham nor Sarah call her by that name. To them she’s an Egyptian slave girl turned Abraham’s secondary wife.

Sarah, Hagar’s mistress, was anxious, sorrowful, and fed up with the delay of God’s promise that she would have a child. So she and Abraham decide to take matters into their own hands. Sarah gives her slave girl to Abraham as a wife and Hagar quickly conceives.

Immediately the strife between these two “sisterwives” proves too much. A domestic dispute breaks out and leaves the now pregnant Egyptian slave girl foresaken, wandering in the wilderness, despised and rejected by God’s own people.

Hagar means fleeing, flight, but no one has actually called her by that name yet. Until, out in the wilderness, beside a spring of water, an angel of the Lord appears to her, saying “Hagar, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

“I’m running, fleeing from my mistress Sarah,” Hagar relies

Of course she is fleeing. That’s no shock. What’s shocking in this story is that this is the a first visitation of an angel in the Bible and it’s a visit to a fugitive slave girl, a foreigner in the desert, forsaken by God’s chosen people.

Shock upon shock, the angel instructs Hagar to return to servitude in the household of this founding family for reasons which puzzle us to this day. But she is not sent back empty. She’s sent with a promise similar to God’s promise to Abraham.

The Lord says “Go back, and I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted.” Apparently this was a promise that Hagar could live with, a promise she could live off of for years, even in slavery.

And so, she returns but not before one more Biblical first. Hagar is the first person in the Bible to give God a name: El-roi which means “the God Who Sees.”

Read the full article here

A new database came out this week documenting the number of American congressmen in US history who at one time owned slaves. Of course the vast majority of founding fathers were slave owners, but in all of US history the total is over 1700 members of congress. That’s one in every eight American lawmakers who at one time owned other people as slaves.

Their careers stretch well into the 20th century. In fact, the last of the congressman who had owned slaves was actually a former slave-owning congresswoman, a senator from Georgia who served in 1922.

Why would I bring this up? Why would I draw attention to thes slave stories? Because the Bible brings them up. And why would the Bible bring up and preserve a story that paints the founding father and mother of the world’s greatest religions in such an unflattering and sinful light?

It gets even worse, you know? After Hagar gives birth to Abraham’s son they all live together for years until in chapter twenty-one Sarah finally conceives and gives birth to her son. She does so to her great delight and laughter. That’s what his name Isaac means: laughter.

After years, decades of waiting, she finally gets to see his face, hear his voice, watch him explore and sing, play and laugh, until, only two verses later, she sees him playing together with Hagar’s boy. She sees her child of God, playing with that child of a slave and she can’t take it.

“Cast out this slave woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not inheret what is meant for my child,” Sarah says.

The next morning, once again despised and rejected, Hagar is cast out. Abraham loads her up with bread, water, and their boy, and she walks off into the wilderness.

She carries it all for a while, but it doesn’t take long for the water and bread to run out, along with her hope of survival. Hagar can’t bear to watch, so not knowing what to do she lays her boy under a bush. Hearing him cry, she walks off until she collapses and cries with him.

Hagar in the Desert, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Camille Corot, 1834

But then, a voice.

“Hagar, what troubles you?” 

She doesn’t answer.

“Do not be afraid,” the voice from heaven commands, “for God has heard the voice of your boy. Lift him up. Hold him close.” 

Then the God Who Sees opens Hagar’s eyes, and she sees a well in the wilderness. A well of living water. She draws from the well and gives water to her son. His name is Ishmael which means God Hears.

They both survive, and Ishmael is given many descendants to this day.

Slave stories like these ones don’t make the people of God look too good. So why do we tell them? We tell them because the Bible is not a story about good people. The Bible is a story about God. In the Bible, because of stories like these, all people can see and hear this good news that the God of our salvation is a God who sees and hears.

The God of the Bible will not let these stories and others like them be lost or silenced because these too are stories in which God chooses to be revealed. This Living God shows himself to us in the desert as he ministers to a fugitive slave insisting on making it known to us that the God of Abraham and Sarah is also the God of Hagar and Ishmael. It is this same God who was made man. God shows up in the desert again in Christ, and there encounters another woman, at a different well.

She is a fleeing foreigner, coming to the well at midday alone because she’s been rejected. She’s been married multiple times, but she has no children. Part Sarah, part Hagar, this woman brings to the well the thirst of many, the barren and the abused, the sinsick and the scorned.

Christ and the Samaritan Woman, by Duccio di Buoninsegna

But then, a voice. “I’m thirsty. Would you give me a drink?” He has seen her before she saw him. A dialogue ensues. It’s the longest conversation he has with any person in the Bible, and it’s with a forsaken foreign fugitive woman at a well. He makes it clear that he sees her. He hears her. He knows her. And then he proclaims a promise to her, “If you ask me, I will give you Living Water, and you will never be thirsty again.”

“Sir, give me this living water,” she says, and he responds, “It is me. I AM he.”

He, our Living Water, was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows. He poured out his life like water, layed down his life in obedience like a slave, to the point of death, even death on a cross.

The Bible tells us that in him all who suffer and thirst are seen, heard, found. But shock upon shock, in him even the ones who forsook him are loved. Our sin is seen, and heard, and forgiven. From his wounded side the blood of father Abraham flows, mixed with the Living Water given for Hagar as by his wounds we are all healed.

It’s not lost on me that tomorrow is the day we remember and honor the life and ministry of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. And it’s not lost on me that I didn’t realize that back in November when I planned this Genesis series. It’s also not lost on me that in just a matter of days the children of our preschool will be playing out there. My children will be playing with children of different colors, races, ethnicities, and religions too, including living descendants of slaves.

In other words, it’s not lost on me that a matter of days from today, in the words of Rev. Dr. King, little black and brown boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls inches away from a slave story. It may seem odd, but it is also Biblical.

It is a revelation of the work of a Living God whose Word does not return empty, a small foretaste of our great and final reconciliation at the hands of the God who sees, and hears, and forgives people marred by sorrow and sin—from the chief of sinners to slaves in the desert.

All of this is not lost on me. In fact I believe it’s intended for me, and for you, for us to see and hear this Word from a Living God revealed in scripture, made flesh in Jesus Christ, alive and showing up in the world today.

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