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Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church Budapest, Hungary Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 69; Romans 6:1-11; Matthew 10:24-39 His mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt. The rise of the Middle Class, which continues to this day in most developed and developing parts of the world, began in late medieval Europe as people left the countryside and its vast feudal estates and once again settled in towns and cities, such as Florence and London; two of the largest cities in Europe by the late fifteenth century. This trend toward urbanization in human societies, and thus the development of a Middle Class, accelerated during the Reformation and Renaissance and was arguably nowhere stronger than in the Low Countries of northwestern Europe, particularly the Netherlands. Scholars debate the reasons for this. Perhaps it had to do with geography and the closeness to rivers and the sea which made commerce and trade easier. Others suggest that the rise of the Middle Class was due to the Reformation itself and its emphasis upon personal virtue and industry. I am not so sure about that. It sounds awfully self-serving. But in any case, the period of the Reformation also marked the beginning of a renaissance in Dutch art and painting which culminated a hundred years later with artistic greats such as Rembrandt and his disciples, whom we value to this day. And while most of us are familiar with beautiful depictions from the Dutch School of charming urban landscapes and domestic tranquility – just think of Vermeer – art historians tell us that the most frequently depicted biblical scene of this place and period was not the birth of our Lord or his Crucifixion or any other scene from his life but rather, as improbable as it may seem, the Expulsion of Hagar, the story we heard related to us this morning in our first reading from the Book of Genesis. The painting shown on the first page of our Order of Service is in fact one of the earliest such examples in the history of art. Now, if you are asking yourself, why the Expulsion of Hagar, you are not alone. The experts and professors ask themselves the same question. What could it have been about this relatively obscure vignette or scene from Genesis that so caught the imagination specifically of Dutch painters, such that well over a hundred-and-fifty examples of the genre remain hanging in museums and galleries to this day...? Some speculate that in the tight-knit and interdependent towns of the Netherlands of the time nothing could have been more frightening than expulsion into the outer wilderness and the dangers and deprivations it represented. No doubt the Dutch also knew that the theme of expulsion and eviction is a familiar one in the biblical literature and lore. Eve and Adam are famously the first in Scripture to have their residency permits revoked as they are summarily deported from the Republic of Paradise and, well, told to go get a job. But they were most certainly not the last in Scripture to experience exile and its hardships. Still Hagar

is, I think, the only woman in Scripture to be banished in such a seemingly uncaring and callous fashion that it shocks us to this day as it apparently shocked the Dutch as well. And so Hagar remains forever a figure of particular pathos. Yet Hagar has been vilified and disparaged over the centuries, mostly by men almost needless to say. Paul in his Letter to the Galatians depicts her, and obliquely her son, as a type of the old dispensation, that is, of that which Christ came to replace, Jerusalem, the law, and all that they represent. Saint Augustine on the other hand sees Hagar as not much more than a useful tool or vessel for the production of Abraham’s progeny. If anyone should have known better, given his own track record with women, it should have been Augustine. Have you read his Confessions...? The story of Hagar is of course also replete with emotion and drama; perfect subject matter again for the realism and humanism of post-Reformation art in northern Europe, a time when family life and civic belonging were treasured as seldom before, and a time when nationhood itself was becoming a thing. The very thought that any father, much less the father of his people, should send the mother of his son packing into the unforgiving wilderness, along with that firstborn son, must surely have caused confusion, outrage and indignation in a strongly theistic society such as was the Netherlands at the time. Probably only paint could fully capture the panoply of emotion the story evokes. An angel of course intervenes in the story of Hagar and her expulsion and saves the day; what the Greeks might have called a deus-ex-machina. “Do not be afraid,” says the angel, “for, God has heard the voice of the boy.” “Do not be afraid,” is probably the most common admonishment in all of Scripture. By the way, we also find in our passage today from the Gospel of Matthew. In any case, water is suddenly provided, and the boy, who curiously in this account remains unnamed, is to become, in the words of the angel, the progenitor of a great nation, which is also unnamed. Still, this is more than a happy ending, more than biblical melodrama. It is, it seems to me, a potent reminder of the power of hope; and a reminder of God’s unwavering love for his people, all his people, no matter the circumstances of their birth, their sex or sexuality, or their skin colour, language, or religion. A lesson, needless to say, the world still needs to learn, as refugees desperate for peace seek refuge in the finely-tuned contemporary Middle Class urban societies of Europe and North America. The story of Hagar and her expulsion continues to raise profound questions of just who is who; of who belongs and who does not; who is us; and who is the other. Questions alas which remain as pressing today as they were in the sixteenth century and in the time of Hagar and her hapless son. “His mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.” A curious way to end the narrative, I am tempted to think. But then, Hagar is nothing if not resourceful. And I suppose as far as Hagar would have been concerned, the wife could as easily have come from the Netherlands, Britain, or Hungary; for the message is surely that in the eyes of God we are all one people, all one nation. Exile and hardship are part of the human condition, to be sure; but so are hope and regeneration. Just ask Jan Mostaert, the obscure Dutch artist who was among the first to paint the Expulsion of Hagar in the sixteenth century. For that matter, ask Hagar. Or the boy, or his Egyptian wife. Amen. The Revd Dr Frank Hegedűs

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