Story for All Ages: "The Tale of How Hare Drank the Boiling Water and Married the Beautiful Princess" from Benin, West Africa
Reading: “Sarah Speaks”
You asked why I laughed at the promise of God. A woman in her barren years, old beyond bitterness, old beyond hope. Why should I laugh at the gift I had prayed for? So many years wanting, found wanting by God. Laugh that I should bear a son. The one thing, it seems, I have not borne on my back, in my belly, though all the spread and aching years. You asked why I laughed, unaware I could see through the fierce rush of wings, the knife upraised, the herd-mark of God on my baby’s flank. You would call this child The-Gift-of-God, meaning The-Lord-Giveth-and-the-Lord-Taketh-Away.
You may be wondering what a trickster story like the one I shared with the children this morning is doing in a service dedicated to the theme of love. This story seems to be nothing about love. The focus of the story is about creating a marriage that has nothing to do with love and more to do with political expediency. This is a story that is more about trickery and quick thinking than it is about love! It is about competition, not about affection. So what could this story possibly have to do with love?
But what God has given I shall hold, if the angel Himself must pay the price. I laugh at the name you have given my son, for whatever God or angel may say, his name, so long as this flesh shall live, is called The-Commanding-Power-of-Love. --"Blessing the Bread, Meditations" by Lynn Ungar
Well, I’ll tell you why it caught my fancy. In this story, the king establishes some ground rules for what it’s going to take to marry his daughter. Any suitor is going to have to successfully drink from a cauldron of boiling water. The problem was, this wasn’t working. Suitor after suitor tried and failed. It was proving impossible for anyone to drink the water and it began to look like the king would fail to find his daughter a husband. Someone had to find a loophole through those ground rules.
That someone was a lowly hare. It wasn’t a duke or a warrior or a nobleman. It wasn't even the mighty Lion. It was a lowly hare. And that hare decided to take a huge risk. He risked everything, and in his quick thinking he found a way to work around the groundrules and win the contest. Now what does that have to do with love?
Sometimes, that’s what love feels like. Love is something that has a lot of rules placed around it. We have expectations that come within ourselves, from our families, from religion, from the society we live in – about what it means to love and how we are supposed to love. And ironically, many of these expectations stand in the way of what it means to love and so, like the many suitors who tried to drink directly from the cauldron of boiling water, we often fail to experience what love is really like. Sometimes, and perhaps more than sometimes, we are asked to step outside of the ground rules set up for love so that we can really, truly and deeply love.
So let me ask you, when have you stepped outside the ground rules in order to experience love?
One of my friends told me a story about her first love. Her first love landed in prison, and my friend would fly halfway across the country to visit her. As she said to me, “I would have gone to the ends of the earth for her. And, I guess in many ways I did.” Looking back on it, my friend realizes now that it was pretty crazy. It was new love, her first love, and perhaps that lent to its intensity. She willingly sacrificed a part of herself to give her girlfriend back a little bit of her life, even if for a brief moment. She also realized she did it for herself. She wanted to see her girlfriend, to spend time with her. She needed that connection.
Did it work? Did their relationship survive? No, it didn’t. The same problems that landed her girlfriend in jail followed her on the outside, but there was much to be learned from the experience. In her willingness to make her own ground rules, my friend learned about boundaries, about taking care of herself, and what she needed in a relationship. In the end, her sacrifice did become worth it because of what she learned about love and about herself.
Love is a difficult concept to approach. It is so laden with complexity, truth, and misuse, that it’s hard to know what someone means when they say “I love you.” Sometimes love steals over you, and before you know it, it’s filled your life. Sometimes love is like a torrent that rips into you. It either burns itself out or gradually transforms into something more realistic and sustainable. Sometimes love is like the rising and setting of the sun, a regular dependable pattern always there for you, sometimes clouded over and distant, other times radiant and clear, but always, always there. Sometimes love is like a trickster, something you catch out of the corner of your eye. Look at it directly, and it evaporates. For some of us, love has been very elusive, leaving in its wake despair and loneliness. Sometimes love has been smothering, leaving no way to breathe for ourselves. Each of us has sacrificed for love. Others have sacrificed for our love. Each of us has been built up and strengthened by love. And each of us has likely been brought to our knees when we mistook something that was not love, for love.
SARAH, ABRAHAM & HAGAR
How many of you are familiar with the story of Sarah, Abraham and Hagar? Their story rests in the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible. According to this mythical story, Sarah and Abraham, who were husband and wife, made their lives in the desert in what is today Israel. Several times, God appeared to Abraham and promised him that he and his descendents would make a great nation. The promise, of course, hinged on Abraham and Sarah having children. Unfortunately, Sarah could not conceive. No doubt this weighed heavily on her. In these ancient times, a woman was valued by her ability to have children. You can imagine, then, the heaviness she might have carried, and the sense of failure, especially knowing that her inability to conceive threatened the great promise made to Abraham. When she grew old, she offered her maidservant Hagar to Abraham to bear them a child, and Hagar did in fact conceive.
You might think, then, that there is a happy ending to the story. But that was not to be. Once Hagar conceived, she became bitter towards Sarah. Why did she grow bitter? The story doesn’t tell us. Perhaps she grew resentful because this child would not be hers. She was the mere conduit for a baby that would be Sarah and Abraham’s. Perhaps her resentment grew because she was not free. As a maidservant she belonged to Sarah. Having her body used this way just reinforced that fact. For whatever reason, she grew bitter and resentful. Sarah, disturbed and distressed by Hagar’s reaction, turned to Abraham, who gave her little comfort. “She’s your responsibility,” he said. “You take care of it.” Faced with Hagar’s growing anger and Abraham’s distance, Sarah became bitter and frustrated herself and began to lash out at Hagar, who not surprisingly, decided to leave. Heavy with child, Hagar wandered through the desert, not the safest thing to do for anyone. Surely her life and the life of her baby were in danger. When she stopped to rest, an angel appeared to her and asked her why she had gone. “I am running from Sarah,” she said. The angel told her to go back and reassured Hagar that she would be taken care of, and that she would have many descendents herself. The angel instructed Hagar to call her son Ishmael, which means “God hears your affliction.” Hagar returned to Abraham and Sarah and gave birth to her baby.
When do we step out of the ground rules that surround love? What does it mean to take care of ourselves so that we can love? How do we communicate what we need?
Think of Sarah, sacrificing her desire to be the mother of Abraham’s child, so that Abraham could attain what had been promised him. Hagar, struggling with the reality that she was being used to fulfill someone else’s dream. Abraham, trying to live with the disconnect between the promises made to him and the actual unfolding of his life. Each of them struggling for dignity and a sense of worth, and each harming the other from inside their own pain. Sarah used her maidservant for her own means and then took out her frustration with Abraham and her own barrenness out on Hagar. Hagar endangered the life of her child because she allowed herself to be consumed with bitterness. Abraham turned his back on both of them.
So much for the promise of a nation. Abraham had been promised a walk into the sunset. Or had he? How often is love presented just this way? Something you receive, that fulfills your life, and sends you into a happily-ever-after? How much more likely is it that our desire for love will fill our lives with Sarahs and Abrahams and Hagars? How often do we fly to the ends of the earth only to find that the problems we left behind at the departure gate wait for us upon arrival?
Perhaps it is time for a new ground rule for love. Love not as destination, but love as journey… a journey filled with various and sundry characters, some who bring us closer to love, some who seem to take us away from love, or frustrate our desire for love. All are pivotal characters whose presence in our lives helps us learn what it means to choose for love. What does it mean to allow someone into our lives? What does it mean to have healthy boundaries so that we keep from spilling ourselves out for what is not love, saving what we have and treasuring what we have for the true love that enters our lives?
LOVE OR CONTROL?
Some of you may know that I spent several years attending Al-Anon, a 12 step program for family and friends of alcoholics. Everyone in those meetings has lives full of Abrahams and Hagars and Sarahs. Many come into the program blaming the addicts in our lives for all our problems, thinking that we only need to rid our lives of the addict or fix the addict and we’ll be fine. The challenge of the program is to learn to see how we ourselves are Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, that the way we are trying to live and love is really about the need to control, and is just as much a disease as alcoholism. We have our own addiction to heal from. We heal not by trying to heal everyone else, but by healing ourselves. It’s about allowing others to be who they are so that we can focus our energy and love on ourselves.
Somehow, I don’t think that those of us in Al-Anon are alone in confusing love with control. So often we try, as Sarah did, to manipulate those we love so they will be who we need them to be, only to have it explode. Love is not about control. Love is about creating room, room for ourselves, room for those we love. Love is about letting go and focusing on the most important relationship we have, the relationship with ourselves.
The story of Sarah and Abraham does not end with the birth of Ishmael. Years later, Abraham and Sarah are old, both in their nineties. God comes to Abraham again, and says, your wife is going to have a child. I will bless her and she shall give rise to nations.” Abraham laughed in doubt. “I don’t need another son! I have Ishmael?” he asked. “No. Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac, which means “He laughs.” When Sarah overheard, she too laughed, doubting this could really happen. “Why is she laughing?” God asks. Sarah grew frightened that she had been offensive, and denied that she laughed. “Oh no,” he said, “I heard you laugh!”
In theological circles, much has been made of Sarah’s laugh. Jewish and Christian scholars alike have scolded her, saying that she dared to question God. But others have given it a very different spin. One rabbi suggests that Sarah’s laughter was part of the divine plan. God was trying to point out to her the importance of her utterly human response to the news that she would bear a child. She didn’t need to stifle her laughter. She was being given the room to be who she was and to respond in a way that was authentic to who she was. This act of authenticity was so important that her son would be called “He laughs.” (To read more, click here.)
Would you say that Sarah was being loved? There was no attempt to control her, to demand of her a particular response. She was being loved in that she had room to simply be.
Do you have room ? Have you been given, or have you taken for yourself, the room to love and be loved, the room to simply be?
Unitarian Universalist minister Lynn Ungar explores Sarah’s Laugh in the meditation we read this morning. She presents a Sarah who takes one more step. Not only is Sarah being given the room to be who she is, Sarah is taking her own room. She is claiming her own space. “Sure,” she says. “You tell me I’m going to have a child. You even tell me what I’m going to name my child. But I tell you, this is what I am going to name my child. My child will be called 'The-Commanding-Power-of-Love.'” Sarah is not only taking her space, she is loving herself, and tending to the most important relationship she has, the one with herself.
The cornerstone of our liberal religious tradition is love. It’s not the kind of love that ushers you into a sunset. That kind of love doesn’t have much of a place here. It’s not realistic. It doesn’t last. The kind of love we try to practice is not the kind of love that allows you to escape from your life. It’s not the kind of love that asks you to make sacrifices that are beyond what you should be giving. It’s not the kind of love that asks you to drink from a boiling pot of water, but rather gives you the time to wait for it to cool so that you can drink from its endless bounty.
Our kind of love is a journey. It’s a love that provides room. Room for mistakes. Room for difference. Room for questioning. Room for tears and laughter, doubt and belief. We have the room to figure out what it means to live and to love in this finite life of ours.
So what are you going to do with your groundrules for love? Are you going to fly to the ends of the earth? Will you nestle down in your corner of the world? It’s really up to you.