Sunday, June 08, 2008

Sermon for June 8: Genesis Stories: Abram and Sarai

Proper 05, Genesis 12:1-9, Psalm 33:1-12, Romans 4:13-25, Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

Here is God’s new strategy, here in Genesis, with the story of Abram and Sarai. I mean God’s new strategy compared to the previous strategy which we saw last Sunday in the story of Noah’s Ark. I’m talking about the strategies of God for dealing with our corruption of creation and our violation of God’s good order and the intricate violence of human sin.

The strategy with Noah was huge and cataclysmic, while the strategy with Abram is small and very gradual.
The strategy with Noah was from the outside, from the windows of heaven and the fountains of the deep, while the strategy with Abram is from the inside, in the depth of his soul through the windows of his mind.
The strategy with Noah was to wash the planet clean, without regard for human interaction, while the strategy with Abram is to cleanse the human individual, one by one, and develop a community to bless the broken world.
The strategy with Noah took forty days and forty nights, and the strategy with Abram has taken forty centuries: twenty centuries BC and twenty centuries AD, first of leading up to Jesus and then of following him.

Forty days of divine catastrophe and forty centuries of divine forbearance, and patience, and interaction and investment, and of human hope and faith as the medium of God’s activity. God does it now through us. We move from a clear and sudden judgement to a long slow blessing, often small and weak and hidden, often ambiguous.

God tenders God’s sovereignty through our partnership and God filters God’s activity through our faith, and because God works it through our faith, to see it work takes faith, especially as this strategy contradicts so much of typical religion. To make sense of it takes faith and hope and love. To believe in it requires the wisdom of forgiveness and long-suffering. Indeed, to stay with it requires us to become like God, to be like God in how we deal with the corruption and violence in the world and even in ourselves.

Jesus shows us how a human being can be like God. And he invites us to follow him in this. His ministry is a ministry of blessing. He finds Matthew at the tax booth, and he blesses him, he blesses him by calling him to follow him. Matthew was working for the enemy, he was serving the system of taxation that was oppressive to his own people. Jesus judged him, yes, there is an implied judgement in Jesus calling Matthew to get up and follow him, but this judgement is not a condemnation but a blessing. It is a blessing that requires a change in Matthew’s life. To receive the blessing requires Matthew to make a judgement about himself and a decision to risk the blessing.

If Matthew was ethically compromised, the ruler of the synagogue was the opposite, he was honored and esteemed, and Jesus blesses him as well; he brings his daughter back to life. He touches her. He needn’t have touched her, his word was powerful enough, as with Lazarus, but he chooses to touch her, and thereby makes himself unclean. It was unkosher to touch a dead body. But here we see the strategy of God, which is counter to typical religion, so it takes faith. He was also made unkosher by unclean the woman touching him, the woman with the flow of blood. He made himself unkosher by eating food with sinners and traitors, as unkosher as was Matthew just by occupation.

Of course the Pharisees were upset, because the mission that they had been given by God was so fragile, and under siege, and compromised, and they felt it had to be protected. But the blessing of Jesus is not a blessing to be protected nor achieved, but a blessing to be risked by giving it, and given precisely to those are not considered to deserve it. Like to us.

This strategy of Jesus is the strategy that God began in Genesis already with Abram and Sarai, who had nothing to offer to God’s plan but simply to receive it and go along with it. God was beginning to gather a community here, a community of faith, and the purpose of this community was to be blessing, not just to themselves, but to rest of the world.

That is the mission of the chosen people. That’s why God made Abram and Sarai’s progeny the chosen people. And that is why God was giving them the promised land. They were chosen for mission. It is a privilege, yes, but for purpose. It was not for gathering to themselves, protecting their own special sanctity, preserving their own future. It was for bringing blessing to the other people of the world. (This theme of the activity of blessing is another theme that I will be developing the next few months as we follow these stories from Genesis.)

But what a difficult strategy of God. There are great drawbacks to being chosen. Downsides and liabilities. What about everybody else? If God will have a relationship now with Abram and Sarai and their descendants, doesn’t that imply a rejection of everyone else, or at least benign neglect? And what about the gift of the Promised Land. Did God consult with the people already living there? Doesn’t giving the land to Abraham’s descendants mean taking the land from someone else? If God graciously gathers, protects, and preserves some people in the community of faith, what about everybody else?

I cannot fully defend for you the strategy and choices of our God. Yes, I can maintain that being chosen is not for privilege but for mission, and I can repeat that the gift of the promised land is not a right based on ethnicity but a provision to enable the mission of blessing, and that the enjoyment of the promised land was always conditional upon obedience and repentance, and that God would take it away from them just as easily as giving it. But the election of certain people for a special bond with God is a problem, because deep in our hearts we know that separate but equal is finally not equal

So I find myself sometimes ambivalent about the choice and strategy of God, and even a little guilty, especially when I do interfaith activities and dialogue. I can’t take the easier tack of unitarianism or universalism; I don’t want to discard the difficult angularities of the story of the sovereignty of God, the reality of God’s strategy, God’s choices, God’s covenants, God’s commitments, God’s special bond with Abraham and Israel.

I am committed to God’s unique identity in Jesus Christ, who both connects me to Judaism and Islam and also is a stumbling-block, because we call him Lord. And this is a bit of trouble for our democratic instincts. The Yes of God here means the No of God there, and of that No we cannot help but feel unease and even a little bit of guilt.

Well, maybe this guilt can be a doorway for us. It opens us to a deep kind of humility. Just because we have been given the truth does not entail that we know better. Just because we are made holy does not mean we’re not unclean. And so we have a constant sacrifice to make, and that is both to keep requiring mercy and to practice mercy. And we cannot practice mercy unless we keep requiring it for ourselves.

Jesus says to the Pharisees, "Go find out what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’" He doesn’t tell them to sit down and research it. He tells them to go, find out. They have to find it out by acting it out. It’s not a theory but an attitude. It’s not an idea, it’s a skill. It’s a practice. It’s a habit. It is from out of our guilt that we discover and display our blessedness. It’s from the place of our own corruption that we exhibit grace and the condition of our own uncleanness that we exhibit holiness. The rights and privileges that come with our election to the community of God are the right to humility and the privilege to repent. I desire mercy, not sacrifice. The greatest sacrifice that God demands is that we live by mercy.

When Jesus came in to heal the little girl, they laughed at him. They meant it for mockery. If we try to bless the world like Jesus did, we will get laughed at. And we will deserve it. We can accept it, and keep on blessing people and blessing situations and blessing the world, in many foolish ways, and we can accept the laughter of mockery as the laughter of our judgement and our joy.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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