As I read our scripture passages for today, I found myself thinking about systems and the tendency of systems to do everything they can to remain the same or to achieve “homeostasis.”
It took me back to my high school biology class when we learned about all the ways that the human body maintains a constant core temperature.
If we get too hot our blood vessels move toward the surface of our skin.
We breathe harder.
As these things happen, our body temperature goes down.
It is truly wonderful that our bodies can do this, because we would die if our bodies could not self-regulate in this way.
But did you know that family and societal systems also seek homeostasis?
Each of us is not only made up of a whole bunch of cellular biological systems, we also live within our family system and the larger systems that make up the society in which we live.
These family and societal systems also seek homeostasis, and indeed in most cases, like our bodies regulating our core body temperature, this is a good thing.
We are a cooperative species, and we need to know what to expect from one another in order to live with each other.
No human being functions well in complete disorder and chaos.
We need each other in order to live and move and have our being.
But, unlike our biological systems, sometimes this drive toward homeostasis, this resistance to change within our family and societal systems actually starts to destroy these systems rather than help them to maintain life.
When it comes to homeostasis within family or societal systems, homeostasis has no value system.
It doesn’t keep what is good and reject what is bad.
It just seeks to keep the system unchanged no matter what.
So, if a family or society has a way of functioning that is actually harming people within the family or society, the tendency of those systems will be to resist change to the system even if the change would bring about a healthier family or society for all its members.
Look at the story of Sarah, Hagar, and Abraham.
This is not a healthy family system.
Our reading from Genesis today is actually the second story of conflict between the three.
The first story came in chapter 16.
In that chapter we learn that Sarah, despairing of ever having a child, takes matters into her own hands and gives her slave, Hagar, to Abraham so that he can conceive a child through her.
What Sarah actually says is this: “go into my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.”
Once Hagar conceives, she apparently shows contempt toward Sarah for being able to conceive when Sarah cannot.
This enrages Sarah who complains to Abraham.
Abraham in truly passive aggressive style says, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.”
This is all he has to say about a woman he has been intimate with and who is going to give birth to his first child.
Sarah “deals harshly” with Hagar and Hagar runs away.
It is only through divine intervention that she is brought back to the family’s compound.
In today’s reading, Sarah again feels threatened.
She sees Ishmael and her son Isaac playing and her anxiety rises.
She realizes that Ishmael is Abraham’s first born and therefore entitled, by the rules of their society, to receive a double share of inheritance from Abraham when he dies.
She wants to protect her son’s inheritance and through him herself.
Therefore, she has Abraham kick Hagar and Ishmael out.
It does not matter to her that sending them alone into the desert will almost certainly mean that both will die.
In the family and societal systems in which Sarah, Hagar, and Abraham lived, men held primacy of place.
Men owned all property.
A woman’s identity came through her husband and through her sons.
A son would continue his father’s bloodline and offer protection and all the necessities of life for his mother should his father die.
People could be the property of other people.
A slave was at the bottom of the heap and had no value at all, except in what the slave could give to his or her owner.
Hagar had no value.
She is Sarah’s property and through Sarah Abraham’s.
Therefore, she could be used to serve whatever purpose Sarah wanted her to serve.
It really is a messed up system.
Now before you argue, “Well, Suzannah, you are looking at this with 21st century eyes,” remember there were other societies in other parts of the world at this time who operated very differently.
This wasn’t the “natural” way to be human.
Most scholars agree that prior to colonization, most tribes indigenous to North America were matrilineal with the family line passed down through the mother and upon marriage, men left their home of origin and moved in with their female spouse’s family of origin.
At the time of colonization, native women held considerably more authority and had more autonomy than European women.
It is not a given that families and cultures of ancient times had to be arranged the way they were.
Just as it is not a given that our families and culture have to be arranged the way they are today.
But systems being what they are, it never dawned on Sarah or Hagar to say, “Hey, maybe life would be better for both of us if we broke out of these systems.
What if we became allies rather than enemies?
Hey Abraham, why don’t you just leave us, the mother’s of your sons, enough goods to take care of ourselves if you should die, and split up everything else between both your sons?
Indeed, maybe because we all contribute in various ways to the well-being of our family, all this stuff you think is yours is not yours it is ours.
And this human property thing, let’s cut it out.
Sarah isn’t Abraham’s property and Hagar doesn’t belong to Sarah.
No human being should ever belong to any other human being.”
These things don’t dawn on any of them because it is the nature of systems to hide the processes that make them work, to make it seem as though these processes are simply “normal” and have to be this way, and to resist change.
Look at what happens when Hagar makes a small motion to exert her humanity and worth.
She gets beaten by her owner.
Look what happens when her son plays with his half-brother.
Hagar and Ishmael both get driven out into the desert.
And the system remains unchanged.
Abraham remains the owner of Sarah and all their property.
Sarah remains the owner of Hagar, even if Hagar is no longer with her.
The patriarchy continues.
The system is unchanged.
Except that God kind of changes things when he saves Hagar and Ishmael and makes Ishmael also the father of a great nation.
God has a way of disrupting our human created systems.
But from Sarah and Abraham’s perspective, everything remains the same.
It is obvious why Abraham would want things to remain the same, he gets to keep all the power.
Surely though it would have been better for Sarah to team up with Hagar for the good of all of them.
Surely it would have been better for Sarah and for Hagar if they could move beyond patriarchy to a system of mutual power between both genders, but Sarah has never experienced this and probably can’t even imagine it.
What she does know is that under the current rules of her family system, if her son isn’t the primary heir, she herself is at risk if her husband dies.
So, she resists any change in the system and the system remains the same.
Changing a system is scary.
It is risky.
It is hard.
If you try to change a system, be it your family or your society, you can expect backlash and resistance to your attempts at change.
I think this is what Jesus is talking about in our Gospel reading for today.
In his ministry, Jesus isn’t trying to change individuals.
Despite the message of modern evangelical Christianity, Jesus isn’t primarily concerned with personal and individual salvation.
Jesus, God incarnate, came into the world to change the world, to change the societies we have created on this earth.
What does Mary say when she learns that she is to give to birth to God incarnate?
“He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.”
She doesn’t thank God for saving her from her sins so she can go to heaven.
She gives a political speech in which she thanks God for coming into the world to change the systems of the world that give power to some and oppression to others.
Indeed, Jesus knows that this change that he is preaching, this change that he is calling his followers to be a part of will be scary to many.
In particular, it will be scary to those for whom the current way of doing things is working quite well.
He knows that some, particularly those with power and resources, will resist the change and at times resist it quite violently.
He wants to prepare his followers for what they will experience if they continue to follow his example.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”
And yet, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
God’s dream for us is a world in which power is shared equally among all and not determined by gender identity, ethnicity, race, socio-economic status, age, sexual orientation, nationality, physical ability, appearance, religion, or anything else.
And this kind of world would actually be better for everyone, not just those who are currently at the bottom of the heap.
Is this a dream?
Of course, it is.
Is it worth the conflict it will bring?
You bet, for in the process you will find true life.