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25 February 2015

Jews, Christians, Muslims: Covenant Siblings (Lent 2)

Genesis 17: 1-7(8). 15-16(17)
Psalm 22


In 1965 Flannery O'Connor published a short story entitled "Revelation". Ruby Turpin is a large Southern woman who is stuck in a narrow way of perceiving the world. She feels her actions and decisions make her superior to black people and those she calls "white trash." The story opens as she and her husband Claud enter a doctor's crowded waiting room. She insists that he take the last vacant chair. She notices a dirty toddler with a runny nose lying across two seats and is quietly affronted that the child's dirty, uncouth mother doesn't make him move over for Mrs Turpin to sit.

Mrs. Turpin strikes up a conversation with a "pleasant" woman who is apparently there with her college age daughter named Mary Grace. The daughter is studying a book with the title "Human Development," and only looks up from her reading to glare hatefully at Mrs Turpin.

She and the pleasant woman chat about the importance of being hard working, clean, and having a good disposition. They also talk about being grateful and how it is important to be thankful for the good things you have been given in life.

As the pleasant lady and Mrs Turpin chat, Mary Grace seems to grow angrier. The pleasant lady begins to speak about Mary Grace in the 3rd person: "I know a girl ... whose parents would give her anything..." and obviously frustrated, says that "this girl" should be grateful for all she has in life. Claud then suggests that "this girl" ought to be paddled.

Outraged, Mary Grace hurls the book, "Human Development", at Mrs. Turpin, lunges across a table, and clutches Mrs Turpin's throat. The book strikes Mrs. Turpin above her eye. The girl is subdued and given a sedative by the doctor and nurse who call an ambulance.

Mrs Turpin now has a visceral feeling that Mary Grace has a message of truth for her. Before Mary Grace succumbs to the sedative, Mrs Turpin feels the need to confront her: "What you got to say to me?" she asks Mary Grace. She sees some kind of revelatory light in Mary Grace's blue eyes. "Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog," whispers Mary Grace as the sedative takes effect and she is taken away.

Mrs. Turpin finds this comment very unsettling, and she wonders if it may have been a message from God, who may be trying to intervene in her life. Hating the notion, and still upset, she returns home.

While hosing down her own hogs in their sty (which she calls a "pig parlor"), and obsessing on what she is terrified may be an intrinsically true message from God, Mrs. Turpin rages. She scolds God, demanding to know how she could possibly be herself -- the upstanding, polite, good Christian she sees herself as -- and a "wart hog" at the same time. As the sun sinks low in front of her at the pig sty, she angrily echoes Job's question to God: "Who do you think you are?" She then has a vision of redeemed souls winding their way to Heaven as if on a highway of crimson light "through a field of fire". 

What is telling about her vision is that she, Claud, and "proper" white Christians are at the back of the throng. In front of them, arriving in heaven first, are all the people Mrs Turpin considers inferior and unworthy of either her or God's love. At the rear of this great parade into heaven she sees the faces of herself, Claud, and her proper Christian friends as they appear "shocked and altered" as "even their virtues were being burned away." 

This seems to be her revelation: that even what she considers to be basic human virtues are incomparable and expendable to God's all-loving embrace. There, the vision ends and she stands stunned holding onto the walls of the pig sty for a moment, then walks back to the house slowly as the sun sets behind the tree line.

Each of us is familiar with Ms. Turpin's narrow ways of thinking.  We all know at least one narrow and inflexible "Ms. Turpin" among our acquaintances.  But do you ever look in the mirror and find yourself staring at Ms. Turpin?

This week's Old Testament lesson from Genesis 17 delivers one reason why none of us has any business running around spouting narrow-mindedness.


When Abram was 99 years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, "I am the sovereign God. Walk before me and be blameless. 2 Then I will confirm my covenant between me and you, and I will give you a multitude of descendants." 

3 Abram bowed down with his face to the ground, and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer will your name be Abram. Instead, your name will be Abraham because I will make you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you extremely fruitful. I will make nations of you, and kings will descend from you. 7 I will confirm my covenant as a perpetual covenant between me and you. It will extend to your descendants after you throughout their generations. I will be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 I will give the whole land of Canaan -- the land where you are now residing -- to you and your descendants after you as a permanent possession. I will be their God. ... 

15 Then God said to Abraham, “As for your wife, you must no longer call her Sarai; Sarah will be her name. 16 I will bless her and will give you a son through her. I will bless her and she will become a mother of nations. Kings of countries will come from her!”  17 Then Abraham bowed down with his face to the ground and laughed as he said to himself, "Can a son be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?"


As last Sunday's Old Testament reading brought us God’s covenant with Noah, this Sunday we are presented with God’s covenant with Abraham.  Covenants in the ancient Near East were not just legal documents but also expressions of a relationship between two partners.

This relationship aspect is even more pronounced in the covenants between God and the People of God. A central element of the Abraham stories is that God makes promises, mostly in the first person.

Note also that Sarah is not treated as a footnote or even a sidekick: in our text she receives a promise in her own right, not simply through Abraham. Kings of countries will come from her! (VV 15-16)

One of the striking elements in Genesis 17 is the emphasis on "descendants".  Four times in this chapter we hear of the great numbers of Abram and Sarai's descendants. The "exceedingly numerous" nations that will come from Abraham's line will belong to God, and God will be theirs.

וְנָתַתִּ֣י לְ֠ךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ֨ אַחֲרֶ֜יךָ אֵ֣ת אֶ֣רֶץ מְגֻרֶ֗יךָ 
And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings. (V 8)

When the captives sat "by the waters of Babylon", they were telling each other the stories about  these ancient ancestors, Abraham and Sarah. In the midst of their lonely exile experience, hearing these stories reminded them of the goodness of God, who can turn barenness into new life and utter hopelessness into a bright future.
  
I imagine the captives smiling as they recalled just how ancient Abram and Sarai were when God called them to get up and leave everything they knew to walk into the unknown. And now, some twenty years later, this ancient couple is receiving the ridiculous promise of land and descendants. 

It shouldn't surprise anyone that Abram is rolling on the floor with laughter (V 17) when he hears the outrageous announcement that the two of them would become the ancestors of a multitude of nations. 

The end of Psalm 22 fits perfectly into this discussion, as the Psalmist describes how God's blessings spread in ever-widening circles:

27 All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, 28 for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations. ... 30 They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that he has done*.

This is nothing less than the story of our ancestors in the faith. The outrageous promise of God begins to take shape when indeed this stone-old couple has a son, Isaac (which means in plain English, "Someone's Laughing"). Today we who are Jews, Christians and Muslims consider Abraham and Sarah our spiritual ancestors.  

Together with Jews and Muslims we Christians are "covenant siblings". That fact won't change just because we can't seem to find a way to make peace with each other.

As mystics in all three religions have asserted again and again, we are all One: not just as Jews, Christians and Muslims, but as all of humanity, to the ends of the earth.  In fact, we are also one with those who came before us and one with those who haven't been born as yet!

Since all creation is One, we have no business turning away from any part of creation ... to do so is not only an insult to God, but such narrow-minded and bigoted ways harm the human family as a whole.

I want to end with words by King Hussein I of Jordan: "For our part, we shall continue to work for the new dawn when all the Children of Abraham and their descendants are living together in the birthplace of their three great monotheistic religions, a life free from fear, a life free from want—a life in peace".

...

*While my Scripture quotations are usually from the NET Bible, in Psalm 22:30 I chose the translation still in my ear from many a Good Friday service: that of the Book of Common Prayer, as adopted by the LBW.




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