Dying to sin

Proper 7A (RCL)
Genesis 21:8-21
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

The story from Genesis is one of those stories I wish wasn’t in the Bible. God seems to acquiesce in some very tawdry human decisions, and this one of them. Sarah demands that Abraham send Hagar and her son Ishmael packing. It is interesting to note, however, that in chapter 17 of Genesis (v. 25) that Ishmael was 13 years old and Abraham 99 years old when they participated in the covenant of circumcision. We’re also told that Abraham is 100 years old when Isaac is born. That would make Ishmael at least 14 years old in this story. But the story, the way it’s told, would lead me to believe that Ishmael is an infant who can be loaded onto his mother’s back, not a strapping lad of 14 or 15 years old.

So, what’s going on? I suspect that this is one of those oral stories that got told around the fire, and probably existed in many forms. Certainly the Quran tells it from Ishmael’s perspective. Perhaps here, it is being set down during the Solomonic monarchy to explain why Solomon, a younger son of David, should have the kingship rather than any of his older brothers. In that case, keeping the chronology of the story intact is less important than making the point.

Which of our stories exist in a number of tellings only to get set down by the winning side? Manifest Destiny might be one — how would that look from a Native American point of view? On Wednesday evening, Fr. Nathaniel talked about seeing a session of Canadian Parliament in which the Parliament apologized to Native Americans for the centuries of harm. The presidents and chiefs of the tribes in attendance accepted the apology gracefully. It takes us hearing the stories from all perspectives to bring about peace.

But Jesus, of course, says he does not come to bring peace but a sword. He is setting up a community (or the writers of this bit of the gospel tradition are) that doesn’t depend on father or mother or marriage or children for its identity and continuity. The community comes in for some rough treatment, and so Jesus assures them that God loves them more than all the rest. They have to be ready to dare leaving family, city and all for this new identity.

Paul is making essentially the same point. In baptism, we have died to sin, to those modes of identity that make separations — jew/greek, male/female, slave/free, or whatever the current equivalents are. Having died a death with Jesus, we now walk in newness of life. It’s risky, scary stuff. There is a line in the Romans passage that could be translated, “That which one has died, one has died to sin; that which one lives, on lives to God.” That’s not just about Jesus; it’s about us.

Even the Genesis story redeems itself a little, by having God say that Ishmael will continue to live to God; not very satisfying since Ishmael will come to stand in for those peoples the David monarchy wants to displace. How costly would it be for us to live in newness of life, not divided by christian/muslim, american/foreign, black/white, or fill in you own dichotomy? Perhaps the sword that Jesus brings is meant to sever us from those ways of self-definition and to make possible new ones.

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