Readings for Proper 6 (11) Sixth Sunday after Pentecost 22 June 2008 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

For the Lectionary and other reflections, check out Proper 6A/Ordinary 11A/Pentecost +6 June 22, 2008 Textweek

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

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” The text must surely challenge what we’ve been taught by the church. If you just hold for a moment what it is you believe about Christ, what was revealed, what the story, the good news was about, there must be something grating when we hear, ‘I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.’ It’s good to hold that tension because the classic, the orthodox teaching of the church has and still tends to, give us an illustrated or child’s view of the Bible. You can buy them in bookshops and they’ve got all the pictures; the flood’s usually a good one to turn to. You get these pictures of the story that almost burn themselves on the back of your mind. I put in brackets here, ‘this is an evangelical view of the Bible’; what we get is an illustration of the story that makes clear the story, but it fails to seek the true wisdom that the very same story is seeking to illustrate. The orthodox teaching of the church gives us the opportunity to become familiar with the story but does it actually ask of us, does it take us to the place as to what that story is about? Where is my life in that story?

In the Romans reading, Paul is teaching on sin, grace, baptism and resurrection. He’s trying to impart to his readers or hearers the very process of dying and rising, so that, as he tells them in verse 4, so that ‘we too might walk in newness of life’. However, our understanding of sin is central to Paul’s teaching and so to our understanding of the divine promise that Paul is trying to reveal. If our notion of sin is being naughty, sin is not doing what the church says we should do, if that’s our notion of sin, then chuck Romans away, it does not make any sense at all. However, if we look again at sin, then we can look again at the whole of Paul’s teaching. Consider sin as an orientation away from God – might be too abstract, we’ve got to get there though. An orientation away from God: consider sin as a non-participation in the unfolding of creation; even worse, participation in the uncreation; consider sin as an orientation to self, rather than to my being a part of the whole. Immediately it changes the relationship between sin and grace. Baptism becomes a participating act, an engagement with the divine process, not some wiping clean of the ecclesiastical slate, and resurrection becomes a reality, not a magic act starring JC, a reality in the moment. Look at verse 4 then in full: ‘Therefore we have been buried with him (with Christ) by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Divine, so we too might walk in the newness of life.’ If we can get it, it’s stunning - all those stories about Jesus and the Resurrection, the Garden and the white bit, everything looking great thereafter, that’s us ‘walking in the newness of life’. Already we can see that it’s not peace, but it’s the sword of death that is instrumental in that process.

Paul explains that further. ‘Our old self’, (our old self, and we’ve all got one, most of us bring it to church on Sunday); our old self, not Jesus, is to be crucified. Oh, that changes Easter, doesn’t it? The whole story begins to change. ‘The body of sin is destroyed’ – the sword cutting us free from our enslavement to sin; the sword, the instrument, that will break us away from our self-orientation so that ‘we might be free’ – Easter morning, Resurrection, outside the tomb. And then in verse 9, ‘We being raised from the dead, might walk in the newness of life’. It’s an amazing, it’s a very short passage, Paul is trying to impart a lot in that short teaching. It all falls apart if one building block is out of place – ‘Oh, I thought sin was not being good.’ We just cannot build anything from Paul’s teaching unless we look again at some of those fundamentals.

The Old Testament narratives, they give us glimpses of the process that Paul is speaking about. They give us glimpses of movement and they do this by giving us characters that illuminate a part of ourselves and a part of life’s movement. It’s not like an old version of Neighbours, the Old Testament, which just seeks to replay lives of others that we can look in on. It actually is using characters so we might actually make connections with the characters within ourselves. In the first reading from Genesis, it is so easy to get caught up in the story of Sarah and Hagar and Abraham. It’s such a clear narrative, you look in and you’re thinking about them, we’re lost in their story. But if you look at it again: ‘Abraham made a great feast. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, "Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac." Don’t we each know the energy of Sarah, the wanting for self at the expense of an other? Just a note: it’s estimated that 40,000 children die of starvation each and every day. This week it was revealed in the news that Australia has achieved first place, above the U.S., as the most obese nation on earth. Back to Sarah. She comes from a place of differentiation, of creating a separation of the other from me and from mine. It must be one of the most prevalent worldviews in the contemporary age in the western world, a gap between me and mine and the other, and life becomes a balancing act with a credit card of just managing that gap.

In verse 16, we glimpse the abandonment of Hagar. Initially, when you heard it did you feel sorry for Hagar and think ‘poor mother’? It’s very cleverly crafted, though, because it can also be seen as Hagar withdrawing into herself and whether it’s abandonment or a self-withdrawing, again they are familiar life experiences to each and every one of us.

We see ourselves in the life of Sarah, we see ourselves in the life of Abraham, we see ourselves in the life of Hagar. Poor old Abraham, when Sarah is asking of him, he’s torn; it says he’s distressed and again each of us knows that place, thankfully, where we are distressed by those movements that we know somehow are out of integrity with the unfolding of life. Verse 17, subtle but brilliantly done, introduces the Divine perspective as seeing quite beyond any temporal differentiation; it’s as if the Divine has not got sucked into the story at all: ‘I see both, I see both of these children.’ Again when we get to verse 17, the divine perspective is introduced once again. God does not understand Hagar’s withdrawal, and it’s not a lack of understanding, it’s actually just not a part of the divine process, for the Divine was already aware of the nameless child, so there's almost a sense of surprise: ‘Hagar, what’s the matter?’ She’s withdrawn, she sees the nameless child as forsaken, but when the divine comes back into play the Divine has already seen, and perhaps it’s Hagar that is not aware of the divine process. So then in verse 19, God opened her eyes. It’s got a Hollywood ending; the nameless child goes on to be a Middle East version of Robin Hood, playing with his bow in the land of Paran. That Hollywood ending’s quite important because what it’s illustrating is that when Hagar can see the divine perspective, and, get off her bu m, stop crying and articipate in it, then she walks in newness of life. The world changes from death to life.

Matthew, the Gospel reading that we could probably spend another couple of hours on that, but I think the reason that reading is picked is that Matthew also affirms the divine awareness of the nameless child and it’s this affirmation of that opens us from our own Hagar moments. Verse 31, ‘do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.’ We probably know the place where we have sat and not even known that that was true. That’s the Hagar moment. Matthew is reaffirming what Paul is teaching, what’s there in the characters of Genesis. But there is another aspect from the Gospel in relation to abundant grace. You can’t go through today’s readings without the really affirming sense that the abundant grace of God is there for all. Now the other bit to that is, the other aspect that brings that into reality is our response and our participation. ‘Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’ Let’s keep looking; we’ll get we’ve got to ditch a lot. Accept the sword that's on offer today, not he peace, accept the sword. Take it home and together let’s work out what needs to be cut down, cut away and destroyed, in order that we may walk in newness of life.

Peter Humphris