Thursday, June 22, 2017

June 25, Proper 7: A Handmaid's Tale, or When Pride Is Not a Deadly Sin

Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17, Romans 6:1-11, Matthew 10:24-39

Heidelberg Catechism Q 88-90.

Our story from Genesis makes Abraham look not so good. True, he was in a fix, but the story is on Hagar’s side.

It reminds me of The Handmaid’s Tale. Hagar was a slave who got used to bear a son for Abraham. Hagar had no say in the matter, and no right to her own son, not if her mistress claimed him for herself. But suddenly Hagar’s boy became inconvenient when Sarah gave birth to a boy of her own. So Abraham disinherited Hagar’s boy, which Abraham had the right to do.

Abraham had all the rights here, including the right to free his slaves, which he did to Hagar. Hagar had no rights, not even in her freedom. Her freedom was dangerous to her. Back then every woman had to be under the protection of some man, lest some other man take his way with her. Every village would be dangerous for Hagar and her boy, so she took her chances on the desert.

Of all that Abraham did to Hagar, setting her free was the worst. Though back then it was not unethical, the story depicts him as dishonorable. He sets her free in the dark, before dawn, by himself, surreptitiously, and he packs her provisions, which is a servant’s job, and he does it on the cheap, with just some bread and water, he who had just hosted a lavish feast to honor little Isaac. He puts the skin of water on her shoulder, touching her body, which once he had loved. She has to yield to him again. This is how he treats the mother of his firstborn son, for some years his only son: dishonorably and shamefully.

We are troubled by God’s complicity. God tells Abraham to do what Sarah said. True, God was not complicit in their having used Hagar in the first place, and it was their having doubted God that resulted in this shameful outcome. True, God promises Abraham that Hagar and her son will survive and someday flourish, but imagine him trying to tell her that as he casts her out in the dark.

We are troubled by God letting her suffer first. That it’s the crying of the boy that God responds to. Does she count for nothing? God watches her suffer and only saves her at the last resort. Does God prefer to wait till other hopes are gone? Do we say that God is always just in time? Where is the goodness in this story? Or is she the goodness, she who was the one true innocent, she who was being punished for having been obedient to her masters.

She reveals some strength and determination. It’s more than the desperate tenacity of a refugee mother because she determines to keep her freedom. She will not submit to some other man to be her protection. She determines freedom for her son, and that he be expert with the bow, which frees him from the culture of his rejecting father. She gets him a wife from Egypt, which frees him from social obligation to some other local chieftain. She persisted! Go Hagar. Who does she think she is? In the words of Hebrews 2, “She despised the shame.” She made honor out of their dishonor. It was Abraham who acted shamefully, but I think her son would have reasons to be proud of her.

I love it that we get this story on Pride Sunday, even though it’s only a coincidence. Now you know that it’s my discipline not to use the pulpit to augment secular holidays, like Mothers Day or Labor Day. I determine my preaching by the scripture lessons, not by topics of the day. But doesn’t this story speak to the experience of gay people in the church, cast out by the patriarchs, with the apparent complicity of God, sent off in the dark with a skin of water and a little bread, and only reluctantly rescued by God but kept out in the wilderness. If you had to pick an Old Testament lesson for Pride Sunday, what better could you select than this!

The other lessons are relevant as well. Take the opening charge of Romans 6: “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” That charge is used today against LGBTQ Christians who have accepted their orientation and seek to live wholesome lives within it. Take the gospel, where Jesus speaks about being divided from your family, and many LGBTQ Christians know this all too well.

It’s also my discipline not to preach to one group of people, but to the whole church. So while we note the special relevance of the lessons today, all of us are meant to feel the sharpness of St. Paul’s charge not to continue in sin. And we all have to face the challenge that ones foes will be members of one’ s own household. And all of us should consider with Abraham and Hagar our own experiences of shame and dishonor and exclusion and casting out, both when we do it or when it’s done to us. All of us are called to despise the shame and get free and stand up straight.

Pride is not a word that comes easy to Christians. Pride is considered one of the seven deadly sins. But the pride that is deadly is the pride that is the opposite of humility, the opposite of taking up your cross. The Lord Jesus says that those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for his sake will find it. That’s the humility of the cross, the surrender, the death that paradoxically is the way to life, and in this way to life one of the worst obstacles can be your pride. When you think you don’t need salvation, when you don’t need to repent and surrender to the gracious love of God, then your pride is a deadly sin.

But there’s also a pride that is the opposite of shame. The shame of those who cast you out even while saying they love you and they feel distressed in doing it. They give you a skin of water and a little bread and hope you go away quietly. And shame is contagious, so their shame you take upon yourself. Their rejection engenders your own self-rejection. But then look at Hagar who decides to despise the shame and seek her own freedom and hold her head up high. Well, if that’s pride, then good. And that of course is the kind of pride that we can honor today for gay folks in the church.

At issue of course is how we locate our sin and how we define our righteousness. Religion tends to locate sin as this kind of behavior or that kind of action. A sinful life is this kind of person and a righteous life is that kind of person. Those folks are sinners, and these are saints. St. Paul does it very differently in our Epistle. He says that everyone of you is both, both sinful and righteous, and all your behavior is both sinful and righteous.

St. Paul teaches, and our Catechism confirms, that there are two of you, simultaneously, the old self always dying, and the new self always rising. As certainly as you are baptized, your old you has been crucified with Christ and your new you has been born again in you. You both live on in you, your you who is enslaved to sin and death and your you who is already free from sin.

Your conversion is not a once-thing, as if before you were converted you were a sinner and after your conversion you’re a saint. Your conversion is a daily thing, a daily converting your old you to your new you, and every day you convert yourself again. This continues all your life till you die, and for Christians death is not a punishment, but a final casting off of that old you so that only the new you is left. Your old you will be dead for good, and your new you of the resurrection inherits the life of the world to come.

Do you find it realistic and helpful to consider yourself this way, simultaneously dead to sin and alive to God in Christ? Does it relieve you of the shame of your continuing sinful, selfish, and even morbid self in you despite your better intentions and your absolute desire to be righteous and joyful?

But is it psychologically healthy to consider yourself a double self or a divided self? Maybe, maybe not, but let me employ again the quantum mechanics that Jabe Ziino employed in his sermon last week. A remarkable discovery of quantum mechanics is that one electron can be in two places at once simultaneously. So, let’s say that it’s not that you are a divided self, but that you exist as a whole in two places at once—in the old you in the death of Christ, and in the new you in his rising again. It is your being in him that makes you righteous and holy, not your fitting in anywhere else.

Which is how I deal with the character of Abraham, that shameful and sinful saint. I’m all on Hagar’s side, but I can still love Abraham for the him that belongs to God. As I want to be dealt with myself, as I want to be loved, and in what I want to boast. I invite you to believe that this is how it works, and that this is how you are loved, and how you are loved by God.

Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved. 

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