The Impossible Hope

Reading #1 From “The Autobiography of Malcolm X

“Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and the overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by the people of all colors and races here in this Ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad and all the other prophets of the Holy Scriptures.  For the past week I have been utterly spellbound and speechless by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors.

I have been blessed to visit the Holy City of Mecca.  I have made my seven circuits around the Ka’ba.  I drank water from the well and I ran seven times back and forth between the hills.

There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world.  But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences of America had led me to believe could never happen.


Reading #2: The Story of Hagar and Ishmael

Today I want to read you a myth, an ancient religious story about a God and the people who worshipped it.  Now, I know that it’s odd to preach these stories to Unitarian Universalists, but I think that they’re valuable, so I invite you to think of them as myths, and enjoy the beauty and tensions within the mythology as you might enjoy the nuances and relationships of the norse or greek myths.  

Today, we turn to the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael.  

We look to not just the Torah and Christian Scriptures for the story of Abraham, but also to the Muslim writings of the Hadith. The Hadith are quotes of the Prophet Mohammed.  I have pieced together the story of Hagar and Ishmael by weaving together the Bible and Hadith.


First this from the Hadith:

Abraham’s wife Sarah was sterile. She had been given an Egyptian woman, Hagar, as a servant.  Abraham had aged, and his hair was gray after many years spent in calling people to Allah. Sarah thought that she and Abraham were lonely because she could not have a child. Therefore, she offered her husband her servant Hagar in marriage.

And now this from the Bible:

Sarah said to Abraham, “[please use] my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children by her….and Hagar conceived.”  And then, Sarah said to Abraham, “I gave my maid into your embrace; and when she saw that she had conceived, I became despised.”  So Abraham said to Sarah, “Indeed your maid is in your hand; do to her as you please.” And then Sarah dealt harshly with her.”

And finally, from the Hadith:

Abraham brought Hagar and her son Ishmael while she was suckling him, to the highest place. During those days there was nobody in Mecca, nor was there any water. So he made them sit and set out homeward. Ishmael’s mother followed him saying, ‘0 Abrahim! Where are you going, leaving us in this valley where there is no person?’ She repeated that to him many times, but he did not look back at her.”



A billion and a half people rose in the dark before dawn this morning.  They turned toward Mecca, laid out their prayer rugs, and bowed down.  A billion people and more, prostrate in reverence to a single spot on earth. A site so sacred that people reach for it with their bodies daily, turn their faces towards it five times a day.

I have to wonder, what is it about Mecca that is drawing so many people in?  What could be so compelling?  What is so downright beautiful to these people that they travel to the desert but once in their lives, halting on this pilgrimage only to bow down, each bow getting closer and closer to this holy site.

Well, most famously, Mecca is the birthplace of the prophet mohammed. But, that’s just the tip of the story iceberg.   

No, the story of Mecca goes much, much farther back, back to the very tippy top of Mohammed’s family tree.  All the way to Abraham himself.  As we heard in our story earlier, Abraham is an old man, withered and past his prime.  Who has been given the improbable task of starting a lineage.  A task made more improbable by his barren wife Sarah.  But lucky for them, they have a slave.  And in their society, as in most societies, if you own a person, you own their offspring as well.  

So, as we learned, from the version of the story in the Torah,

“Sarah had a “maidservant whose name was Hagar.  Sarah said to Abraham, “please [use] my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children by her.” And Hagar conceived.”

I just want to pause here for a second to raise up the character of Hagar.  Here, at the center of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, we have an immigrant, teenage, slave woman, assaulted, forced into surrogate motherhood.  I want to raise this up, because it’s incredible.  Here we have someone whose story of ostracism is being told, right at the very center of this ancestral myth.  This is the beauty of these three great books: without fail, they shine light onto the people who have been wrongly cast out.  

And cast out Hagar was.  Because naturally, Hagar was like, no, Sarah, you cannot have my baby.  And Sarah was like, rrrr, this isn’t working out like I’d planned.  So, Sarah “dealt harshly with her.”  AKA she made her husband take Hagar and Ishmael into the desert and leave them there to die.  

In fact, the exact story goes as this

“Abraham made them sit and Hagar followed him saying, ‘Where are you going, leaving us where there is no person?’  She repeated it many times, but he did not look back at her.”

“She repeated it many times, but he did not look back at her.”

It is to this illuminated story of struggle and loneliness that so many people bow.  This is the site Mecca.  Hagar was left at Mecca in the desert when there was no water.  

When you’re bowing to this spot, you’re not just submitting, you’re remembering that your very people were cast out.  You’re not just turning towards a random spot, you’re entering into a radical, subversive story that shines a light onto someone’s brokenness.  And you’re not just doing it alone, you’re sharing the difficulty of this life with a billion other people.  

Because this is a human thing.  We’ve all been cast out.  In our own ways.  Maybe it was your family, maybe a lover, the school, the church.  Maybe it’s still coming at you from every direction and there’s nothing to do but run in the way you’ve begun to run in hopes surviving until something random and beautiful bubbles up.  

I work, every day, in the hospital, as a chaplain.  I go to visit people during the worst moments of their lives.  I show up in that room, and enter into the world of grief and fright and sadness.  I sit in that space with someone, simply so that they are not alone in it.  When a patient shows me their brokenness, when a women asks me if she is in a dream that she is holding her dead child, when a man gets discharged from the psych ward onto the street, when people ask me “why has my God abandoned me?”…when I encounter that raw grief, there is nothing for me to do but look at it in its brilliant honesty, and bow down to it.  There are no words to say.  

There is only sharing in the burden.

There is only solidarity at that point, only a willingness to hold the broken shards of what we thought this life would be and to weep myself for the brokenness of this world.  

This brokenness is held right at the center of the Muslim story.  But not just the Muslim story, the whole story of Abraham’s family.  Because you know, everyone in the Torah, Christian Scriptures, and the Qu’ran is related.  It’s one family.  This is a huge epic ancestral myth…in which members of this family are cast out, over and over, into the desert: Jesus, Hagar, Mohammed, Moses, Joseph, Ishmael.  Over and over, people are disconnected from their God.  Over and over, people are broken.

But, the most amazing thing about these stories is that the narrative follows them into the desert.  They’re not just pushed into the margins: the story goes with them.  It becomes a story about them.  They’re not just cleared into the shadows, the narrative swings back around, and shines a light on them right at the most disconnected and cast out moment of their lives.  

Because the brokenness that we’ve pushed into the shadows need to be looked at.  Everything that is cleared to the margins needs to be brought back in, and not only brought back in, but shown in a bright and honest light so we can try to understand why we cast it out in the first place.  

Think of Hagar.  She’s at her wit’s end.  Letting go of Ishmael’s hot little hand, she runs toward the bright blinding nothingness, towards a swell of sand brushed upwards by the wind.  A hill.  Maybe there’s water at that hill.  Thinks Hagar.  Please be water, please please be water.  Screams Hagar’s mind.  She falls to her knees at the second, 3rd, 5th, 6th. 7th hill, just dry sand coating her mouth and hair.  

My feet are in the sand. Says Ishmael.  I am hot.  My feet are burning in the sand.

I am hot, says Ishmael.  I am cold, says Ishmael.  I do not have a winter coat, says Ishmael.  I am hungry, I do not have a home, says Ishmael.  I ride the subway and ask for money.  

I thought that this life would love me, thinks Hagar.  I thought that I could do it, thinks Hagar.  If only I could get Ishmael to the doctor, if only there was a job for me, screams Hagar.  Please be water, please please be water.  Screams Hagar’s mind.  

Yes, Hagar and Ishmael were cast out, but it was no accident.  Brokenness is no accident.  It’s not a natural part of our world. Being cast out is not just something that happens.  People do not suffer alone in the hospital, on accident.  The wall is not built between arizona and mexico on accident.  Gay youth are not kicked out of their homes on accident.

No, we are part of a broken system.  We have a system that would rather cast people out than look at them.  We have a chosen people, and worthless people, too!  People are systemically held outside of society, for us too.  Because to look at them would mean to look at the giant broken system.  It would mean to have our metanarrative swing back around and focus on the desert that is standing room only.  It would mean to shine a light on our great human family and make our story the story of those cast out.  

And it would mean to look at ourselves, too.  Because we all know better than to blame Hagar!  right?  We all know better than to blame the woman on the subway with a baby and a cup for coins?  don’t we?   We all know better than to think that poor people just need to work harder?  We all know that the man sleeping on the threshold is someone’s beautiful little brother who has a terminal illness called addiction, right?  

So, why shine the light on Hagar?  Because it’s is in us, too.  We have the capacity to cast out, too.  We have to think about whose trauma do we see as real, and who do we further traumatize by making them believe they deserve to be on the outside.

I am hot, says Ishmael.  My foot is in the sand.  My foot is burning.  Oh my God, says Hagar.  I am going to watch my child die, well lit by the sun’s brilliant light.  

But do you know what it would really mean to look at the brokenness, it would mean to feel the impossibility of our task.  And that would mean to share the burden, with everyone who is feeling it already.  And it would most certainly mean to despair!   It would mean to open the flood gates.  To tear down our buttresses and accept what is broken around us, within us, and between us.  It would mean to hold the shards of what we thought this life would be and to weep ourselves for this world.  

It would mean to just take an honest look at the impossibility that we encounter in our lives.  To see, in a bright light, the hopeless place.  

For someone in this room today, all seven hills are dry.  Someone here has been cast out and does not know where to go.  Someone here is Ishmael.  

Ishmael, who has no more thoughts.  Ishmael, who takes his foot and digs his heel into the sand.  Grinding down in a simple childish gesture.  This is in the scripture.  This is what Ishmael does, in what he must know are his final moments.  He digs with his heel into the sand.  

Because the best part of this mythological galaxy of the Abrahamic religions is that any time that someone is in the desert, who shows up, but God.  Just when we’ve given up hope on this forsaken world with its warming and its pain and it’s death, just when all seven hills are dry…each and every single time, this someone unexpectedly comes.  Something beautiful and salvific bubbles up from the most mundane place, like a child’s soft heel.  Something necessary and unexpected to get us through the desert.

What is this? thinks, Ishmael.  How come my feet are not burning any more?  What is this on my feet?!  Between his heel and the source of death, hope has sprung.  Into the life of this throw away child, sweet bubbles have arisen.  Because over and over in this epic, people meet their God in the desert.  It’s almost as if people need to be in the desert in order to meet their God.  They need to be looking at the impossibility of it in order for the impossible to happen.  This is where the sacredness happens.  The desert is where the divine relationship is formed, where God is named (in fact, the only place where god is named), named by Hagar, who is the only one who names God in the entire scriptures, and she name she chooses is “the god who sees me,” where the people are assured of their connection to this world.  

Hagar lifts her head and sees, from the hill where she’s slumped, a fountain of clean, clear, sparkling water bubbling up into the sky, with Ishmael’s heel planted squarely in the middle of the growing pool.  

Because the Qu’ran is just that beautiful.  Poetic enough to have the source of hope be something so mundane as a child’s soft heel.  Subversive enough to see the value in what society believes is worthless.

And we are just that beautiful, too.  We are subversive too, in our very nature.  We see the value in what society believes is worthless.  Because we are Universalists!  This is, truly, the boldest expression of hope I can imagine.  We believe that everyone can be good.  What is more resolutely hopeful than that?  That everyone is part of the one giant human family, all related, that there is dignity inherent in every single being.  

That if we did have a shared God, we would say that God would save everyone in the desert.  

Now, in this story, God is the one who brings the water.  But that’s it.  God doesn’t airlift them out of the desert, all their God does is give them a sip of water.  We don’t know what happens to them that after that, but we can assume they had more troubles!  In the desert, though, this sacredness was there, in solidarity, providing them with something to get them through: just a sip of water.  

Now, we may not all agree on this depiction of God, but what we do, all of us believe, is that human goodness is a real and powerful agent in this world, and we locate the divine in here, in love and human agency.  So, it’s on us to bring the hope into each other’s lives.  We become the divine force.  We are the someone who shows up in the desert.  We do it for each other.  It’s on us to break the system.  It’s on us to not push each other and parts of ourselves into the shadows, it’s on us to have a spirit of unity that our experiences of America have led us to believe could never happen.

And this is why I do ministry.  This is why I work as a chaplain on a double locked mental health unit for teenagers.  Where interesting, funny, kind, struggling youth have been scooped up from the street, from their homes, from their suicide attempts, and brought to a sunny, colorful unit way high up in the sky on a floor over-looking the glorious mississippi.  Where there is art and good food and bean bags.  And there’s one particular young man who sits on the couches next to the window with his arms crossed, staring up at the sky.  A slight, boy with thin blond hair to his shoulders whose addiction and mental illness is unremitting.  

He often sits like this, just staring out the window, for hours at a time.  He has spent much of his six months on the unit there, looking out at the sky. He has so much time because no one has ever come to visit him.  He must have called out many times after his parents, but they did not look back at him.  Not in 6 months.  He’s never had a single visitor.  Just us staff to spend time with.  The nurse’s and doctor’s care for his body and mind, but me, my job, is to bring the love.  To blast him with “I care”.  I am the person who shows up and believes him and I am the one shining a light on his brokenness and saying I see your terrible state, and I still love you.  

I let all these youth know that they aren’t cast out of my world.  They ask who I am, and I say, I’m the minister on the unit.  And I am acting out my Unitarian Universalism.  I am radically subverting the system.  To this young, abandoned man, I am saying, oh, you’re not wanted?  Well, I want you.  And sometimes, if I’m really sly about it, I can make him laugh.  And a beautiful, wide smile flashes across his face and a little chuckle, a precious chuckle escapes into the room.  I know it’s just a sip of water.

I know I can’t keep him safe his whole life.  And we can’t stop the difficulty.   But there is strength in numbers.  We may not have a billion, but we have this.  And we can be a fountain of clean, clear, sparkling hope bubbling up from the desert into the sky.  There is always hope within the impossibility, if others share it.  There is always a way to lessen the burden, there is always, love and hope in the desert when we are together.  

And all we can do is turn our faces again and again towards love.  To trust that if we shine an honest light on things that something beautiful and necessary will come unexpectedly to us, when we need it most.  All we can do is reach with our bodies towards a greater love in the human heart that breaks us open.  All we can do is go on a pilgrimage towards a better world, halting only to bow down, each bow getting closer and closer to a world where no one is cast out.