Text: Genesis 21:8-21, Revelation 3:7-13
The Hebrew Scriptures trace the story of the people of Israel from their beginnings, into and out of slavery in Egypt, into and out of their desert wanderings, into and out of nationhood and kingship, into and out of exile, and the diaspora that follows. This is the story of peoplehood into which Jesus and his early followers were born. It’s the one that non-Jews like us get adopted into. The story begins with a couple, Abram and Sarai, who miraculously have a son in their old age. The lineage of the people of Israel is traced through that son, Isaac, the child of promise.
But one of the endearing and enduring features Scripture is that it also includes stories that don’t fit so well into that main narrative. Some of them are even shameful, or at least embarrassing to tell. The story in Genesis 21 about Hagar and Ishmael is one of those.
Ishmael was the oldest son of Abraham, born through his slave woman Hagar. It was Sara’s idea to give Hagar to Abraham. Sara was unable to have children, and so a child through Hagar would serve as her own, giving her husband an heir. When Sara does conceive in her old age, she gives birth to Isaac. She quickly feels a rivalry between her and Hagar, her son and the older Ishmael. Her solution is to have Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away, so Isaac can get the family’s full inheritance. Abraham gets a message from God that, when it doubt, listen to your wife. He gives Hagar and his oldest son some bread and water, and sends them away, into the desert, where they wander until they have nothing left to drink. It must not have been much bread and water.
It’s not a very flattering story to tell about your revered patriarch and matriarch.
Hagar is unable to watch her son die. She sets him under a shrub and then walks a ways off so she can’t see him. This is how Genesis describes what happens next: “And as Hagar sat opposite Ishmael, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness.”
As an origins story this works on a few different fronts. It portrays the god who will be so closely identified with the children of Isaac as a god who sees and cares for the needs of those outside that particular lineage. More specifically it is a story that honors today’s Muslims who trace their lineage through Ishmael. And it humanizes the founding mother and father by telling a story in which they are, to put it kindly, not at their best. If Abraham and Sara are saints, then there’s hope for all of us after all.
The last couple years we’ve tried something that I hope to continue for years to come: We use this first Sunday of November to highlight the story of one of our Anabaptist/Mennonite forbears. Halloween gets most of the press, but historically the reason for the season is a little more substantive than pixie sticks and Kit Kats. Although Kit Kats are a highlight. The intergenerational neighborly sidewalk festival that is trick or treating on Hallow’s Eve is a prelude to something quite profound. In the All Saints and All Souls observance that follows, we in the church remember the dead, especially those who touched us in life. We open ourselves to the possibility that even those from whom we are separated by many generations are somehow present, even Abraham and Hagar and Sara. We consider the mystery that in God all are alive. And we’re comfortable acknowledging this means different things to different ones of us.
Two years ago we looked at the story of Anna Janz from the 16th century. She died a martyr in her early 30’s, leaving behind a young son and a heart wrenching letter she wrote to him in her prison cell.
Last year we looked at Menno Simons, the man who put the Menno in Menno-nite, shepherding the young Anabaptist movement toward sustainability and peacableness. .
Anna and Menno are pillars of the faith. We remember them as heroes, perhaps even saints, although we don’t use that language much.
This year I want to take a different angle and tell a Hagar and Ishmael kind of story. As we’ve been talking about sanctuary over the last month I’ve been mindful that most of the stories I’ve told have been from the perspective of providing sanctuary. Saintly
So today I want to tell an unflattering story. A story that, if it has been remembered at all, has been remembered with shame. A story in which we are not the heroes. A story in which we were not the providers of sanctuary but the recipients.
It’s the story of Claas Epp and a wayward group of Mennonites who followed him. Interest in this has been revived in the last decade by a group that re-traced the steps of these events, discovered new things, and thus offered new ways to see the story.
It has been called the Great Trek. It begins in Russia in the year 1880. Mennonites had been invited to Russia about 100 years earlier, by Catherine the Great, to occupy farm land recently conquered by the Russian army. But now they were facing forced military conscription. Most of the Mennonite communities were responding by moving to the Americas. But there was a group of families and leaders who felt it was a mistake to go West. Their ancestors had always kept moving East to escape persecution. They believed there was significance in heading toward the rising sun. From the Ukraine, five wagon trains, about 200 families, headed east. They kept going beyond the reach of the Russian empire into Muslim ruled territory in Central Asia. The trek would ultimately cover 2000 miles and land them in Uzbekistan.
There were unfamiliar with the land. Much of it was desert, and they faced incredible difficulties. Eventually they abandoned their wagons and mounted all that they had on camels to make it through the desert. They often relied on the knowledge of the Muslim leaders they encountered and the hospitality of the villages where they would stay for winters.
Two years into the Trek, the largest wagon train settled and established four different farming villages. Those who kept traveling were driven by strong apocalyptic beliefs. One of the leaders in particular, Claas Epp, believed that Christ’s return to earth was imminent. He believed it was the mission of this community to travel to the site where Christ would return. They would present themselves as the bride, and rule with Christ in the millennial kingdom on earth.
Claas Epp saw their community reflected in the imagery of Revelation. He believed they were like the 1st century church in Philadelphia, one of the seven churches addressed at the beginning of Revelation in the letters to the angels of the churches. He often quoted the line from the letter addressed to Philadelphia: “See, I have set before you an open door.” Claas Epp believed a door was being opened for them to trek toward the place where they would meet Christ.
They wandered in Uzbekistan for four years, looking for the proper site. Claas Epp declared that March 8, 1889 would be the day of the Lord’s return. When the day arrived the community waited with great anticipation. When the day passed and nothing happened, Epp extended the time to 1891. Just two more years, and then the end will come. The Mennonites settled in the region, and when Christ didn’t return again, again, they continued to live there until fleeing Stalin’s forces 50 years later.
So that’s the story. Up until recently little more was known than this sketchy outline. Our un-hero Claas Epp has been remembered at best as the butt of a few jokes. He does have his own Facebook profile where he occasionally comments about the end of the world. At worst, he is remembered shamefully. Or just not remembered. Overall, he’s been someone about who we now say “I’m not with him.” Someone who, like Abraham and Sara with Hagar, represents a time when the tradition was, to be kind, not at its best.
The reason this story is being reconsidered is that ten years ago a group of scholars, writers, filmmakers, and descendants of those involved retraced this journey. They were looking for more details about what the trip was like and what may be learned. Part of what made them especially interested was they felt there are aspects of the Great Trek that have particular relevance in our own setting, ten years ago and now, even this past week. I had plans to tell this story well before a man born in Uzbekistan aimed his truck down a bike path in New York on Tuesday, killing eight.
What this modern day group of North American pilgrims to Uzbekistan discovered and experienced was rather remarkable. From diaries that had recently resurfaced they knew that one of the wagon trains set up camp for nine months in the village of Serabulak. Those original German-Russian Mennonites were of course trying to escape notice from the Russians. They were greeted and taken in by local Muslim leaders. Five of the Mennonite families had been given sanctuary within the mosque courtyard. The locals had also offered their mosque as a place of worship for the Mennonites. The Muslims would use it on their holy day, Friday. The Mennonites used it on Sunday. Several weddings and funerals were held in the mosque and 21 youth were baptized there.
While the investigative tour group was exploring Serabulak, they had a fresh encounter with the hospitality of the village. They met with the local imam who allowed them to pray and sing inside the mosque. They offered a gift to the imam so he would remember them. In turn he offered them a blessing. One of the pilgrims, Jesse Nathan, wrote this: “Astounding as this experience feels, it fits with what we’ve been discovering as we retrace. These peaceful Christians built friendships with Muslims – Muslims, who in turn, shepherded the Mennonites through difficulty. In exchange, Mennonites introduced tomatoes, potatoes, dairy cattle, butter, and cheese to Uzbekistan” (Through the Desert Goes our Journey film).
As they kept traveling and retracing the steps of the Trek they continued to discover that not only were the Mennonites remembered in the region, but they were remembered with respect . In another of the villages the imam still does the annual springtime blessing of the crops on the land where the Mennonites lived because of the fruitful agriculture that thrived while they cared for it.
Maybe most surprising was that the people of Uzbekistan had no associations with the Mennonites as being a group getting ready for the end of the world. We know that they were a group getting ready for the end of the world, but the way they related with their Muslim neighbors was one of making an investment in this world. These Mennonite guests and migrants are remembered by the local residents for their nonviolent practices, frugal economics, and generous wages that they gave to those who worked for them (Mennonite World Review, July 14, 2008).
One of the group participants, a direct descendant of Claas Epp, felt her travels offered a reinterpretation of the open door. She commented that this history could provide an open door to thinking about how Christians and Muslims relate to each other across differences and how the mutual respect and neighborliness that these group showed to each other could be a model for us. (Through the Desert Goes Our Journey film).
Maybe today it’s enough to remember that a little over 100 years ago, a group of theologically misguided Mennonites were given sanctuary in Uzbekistan. It’s a story in which we are not the heroes. In which God worked through Uzbek Muslims to welcome and shelter our people, and thus create the conditions in which we could be mutual blessings for one another.
In a time when the children of Ishmael and the children of Isaac continue to be suspicious of each other and commit acts of violence against each other, we can remember that we are all children of Abraham. There are times in our life together when we have been friends and a blessing to each other. We can believe that God has set before us an open door, to live out the story of God’s reconciling love that is meant for all people. Ultimately that is our story.
A 10 minute preview of the Through the Desert Goes our Journey documentary film can be viewed HERE. The title song for the soundtrack won a regional Emmy.