Sunday, January 28, 2024
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“Morally Superior Enemies"
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, January 28
Reading: Genesis 20:1-18

Our story is part of our series on sibling rivalry. The more I preach on this, the more of you come to me and say yeah, my brother won’t talk to me. My sister can’t stand me. Some stories are of multiple generations of alienation, often over money, or the parental preference that money seems to signify. The longer we go in this series the more our musicians will struggle. There aren’t a lot of hymns about alienated siblings. Elaine says her song choices run the opposite way: they’re about siblings reunited, reconciled. Fair enough. The Bible gets there too. Eventually.

The story for today is . . . well. Some people think religion exists to teach people to be good. We act like that in children’s sermons: this story shows why we should be nice on the playground, or whatever. This story is about Abraham, our forebearer in faith, pimping out his wife, lying that she’s his sister, to save himself. Not really children’s sermon material. After today, you may argue it’s not grownup sermon material either. The story repeats twice more in Genesis, once with Abraham letting Pharaoh in Egypt take his wife, another with Isaac allowing the same with a foreign king and his wife Rebekah. Three times Genesis uses precious space in the Bible to show how reprehensibly our ancestors behaved. Martin Luther in the 16th century used to say he drew no comfort from stories of saints behaving well. But he drew great comfort from these stories of the patriarchs behaving badly. Because if God can use and bless such people as these, then God could even use and bless ole’ Martin Luther.

Most peoples don’t tell their stories like this. Most of us tell our stories to say how great we are, how bad other people are. My home country, the USA, tells its history as a succession of greatness. Then we did this perfect thing! Then we saved the world again! Canada does too in its own humble bragging way: mostly distinguishing ourselves from America (kind of a low bar y’all). Israel does differently. Israel’s scripture goes like this: then we failed again! Then, oh this is humiliating, then we did this moral horror, this ghastly transgression. The Old Testament is mostly an inventory of moral disaster. The first sort of story says “how great we art.” The second sort of story shows how great God is, to bless and use a people as wretched as we are. God spends most of the Old Testament, most of our lives, saying, oh no don’t do that. Argh, of course you did. Fine, I forgive you. Again. Don’t test me though!

Am I being too hard on poor Abraham? What choice does he have? Israel at this point is a promise that doesn’t exist yet. Abraham and Sarah are in what will become the promised land, but they don’t own a square inch. They are foreigners, passing through, and so have no power, no legal recourse if someone does, say, kill Abraham and take Sarah. This is also a problem for our planet’s 80 million displaced people today: will anyone protect them? If they call the police, will they just be deported, or worse? Can any hope not to be exploited? Maybe they’re doing their best in a bad situation. There are other stories where Abraham trusts: like when God asks for his firstborn Isaac. Righto, sure thing, where’s my sacrificing knife? Here, Abraham tries to hustle his own solution to a quandary. Elsewhere he’ll hustle again: when 90-year-old Sarah can’t conceive, the couple agree to let Abraham try to produce an heir with Hagar. Nope, God says, not what I meant. See the problem here isn’t just that Abraham is lying. It’s that he’s threatening the promise. God’s covenant will be with Sarah’s child, not Hagar’s. And with Abraham’s child, not some foreign king. You can admire Abraham’s hustle: I’ll handle this. It just would’ve been better if he’d trusted God to do the impossible.

A friend of mine who lived in Jerusalem for a while used to go swimming with a Palestinian friend. One day my friend came upon his friend with a flat tire. He was waiting for a tow truck. Tow truck, my American friend asked, are you serious? Let’s fix this thing. The Palestinian had never thought of that. A little good ole’ American elbow grease and they were on their way to the pool. My friend said, that’s the best of America. Let’s hustle this. It’s also what we did in Iraq. Let’s fix this thing. It didn’t go so well that time. Like people, nations’ strengths are often very close to their weaknesses. Abraham is a hustler, a fixer. Not a trust-er. Not yet anyway.

Here’s why Abraham’s sin is as bad as all that. It repeats the first sin. In the garden, Eve gives in to the serpent’s temptation, Adam goes along, and they’re both ruined, and so are all the rest of us. In Gerar, Abraham gives in to temptation. Sarah goes along, complicit. And the promise of God is nearly ruined. History may not exactly repeat but it rhymes: pay attention to the patterns.

So, God appears in a dream to King Abimelech of the Gerites and they have a little theological tete-a-tete. God says: she’s married, you’ll die. King Abimelech: hey man, I didn’t touch her. God: I kept you from touching her. Stop claiming credit. Now give her back or everybody dies.

Sounds sort of harsh and Old Testamenty, right? But then again, who is this king? A pagan neighbour of Abraham’s. The Gerites are a foreign people. Israel will often either sleep with or fight with its neighbours. Something very human, and sibling-rivalry, in that. But God appears to this foreign king in a dream to keep that people from dying and debates theology with him! Gets him to do the right thing. Tells king what’s his name that God kept him from doing the wrong thing. This is the Bible, remember? In this story, in the Bible, God’s people do everything wrong. And a foreign pagan not-God’s-people, do everything right.

And that’s staggering.

In some stories in the Bible, it seems the only good foreigner is a dead foreigner. Kill all the Amalekites! Kill all the Canaanites! But then in the next chapter there the Amalekites go, there the Canaanites still are. In other words, these commands to wipe people out never actually happen. But in other stories in Israel’s scripture, foreigners are the bearers of grace. Moses marries the daughter of a priest of Midian (another religion) and takes his advice often. Ruth the Moabite woman becomes King David’s great-grandmother. In these sorts of stories, there is no Israel without its foreign pagan wrong-believing neighbours. This story today is like that. The wrong people do everything right. The right people do everything wrong. God loves this sort of reversal. It’s the heart of Jesus’ teaching: the poor inherit everything, the mourning get all the comfort, the lowly super exalted. And you are not yourself without your enemy. In fact, God is using that enemy to make you holy. Not much fun though eh? The great Anne Lamott says: “you can be pretty sure you’ve remade God in your own image when you think God hates all the exact same people you do.”

Does this have any relevance for today? For our various sibling rivalries? Under our own roofs, with our neighbours? Between nations? Feels like . . . not. Not too many of us have been tempted to pimp out a spouse to a foreign king. But think a bit more. There’s a story the Mennonites tell when they’re asked if they’re a Christian. What do you say? Yes, I was baptized. Or yes, I accepted Jesus as my saviour. What does this Mennonite say? “I don’t know. Ask my neighbour.” Yikes. Here King Abimelech is a good neighbour. Abraham’s a terrible neighbour: not just betraying his wife to a foreign king’s harem, threatening God’s covenant. Abraham also threatens his neighbour: God would have wiped out Gerar. Abraham’s the sort of neighbour who leaves a casserole full of poison and then complains when he doesn’t get his dish back. Faith isn’t about some sort of status achieved to say someone else is bad. Faith is loving your neighbour, your enemy, and so being painfully transfigured into nothing but mercy. The Welsh poet Waldo Williams asked this:

What is forgiveness?
Finding a way through the thorns
To the side of the old enemy.

Enemy-love is not easy. It’s a crawl through thorns. But it’s the only way to life.

Whenever I get to do a wedding I say three words that will save your marriage. I lead you to think it’ll be “I love you.” Nope. Here they are. I. Am. Sorry. Repeat after me. “I. Am. Sorry.” Abimelech knows how to say he’s sorry. He not only restores Sarah to Abraham, untouched. He gives Abraham sheep and oxen, a thousand pieces of silver, and his first piece of the promised land. Abraham won the lottery. “Settle where it pleases you.” This foreign pagan king, wrong religion, wrong people, does what God commands, and then much, much more to make things right. It’s a master class in repentance. The wrong person gets it right. The right person gets it wrong.

What can we learn from this king of the wrong faith? We can at least learn to say, “I’m sorry.” We remember asking our kids what the hardest words are to say. We meant to pronounce. One said, “I am sorry, and I won’t do it again.” Some of the best peace initiatives between Israelis and Palestinians have been to have surviving family members talk about their grief at the loss of a child. That’s a place of humanity they can build on that makes for compassion instead of revenge.

So, Abraham comes out of all this a rich man. But Abimelech comes out of it well too. Abraham prays for him, and his wife’s womb is opened. In fact, all the women of Abimelech’s house bear children, they’d been barren previously, because of Sarah being in the harem. This is striking: God cares about whether the Gerites have children. Wants them to. God choosing Israel doesn’t mean others are cursed. Yes, God has a favourite, Israel. But God chooses Israel so as through Israel to bless everyone else. God’s blessings are Israel-shaped. Womb-shaped. God’s blessings aren’t for Israel alone, or for us. They’re through us, for everybody else. Remember this when we think of anybody as an enemy: whether for religious reasons, or anything else. God cares if they have children. God hears their cries. Answers their prayers. Appears to them in dreams. Wants them to live and do the right thing. Even, or especially, if we can’t stand them.

God loves granting life where it shouldn’t be. God does his best work in tombs, surrounded by death, or in wombs with no life. God says, perfect, I’m birthing life here. God loves to give the childless countless children. To give the lonely families, the poor friendships, the wounded healing. That’s true for Israelites, Gerites, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Ukrainians, Russians, you, and your neighbour. W.H. Auden said, “You must love your crooked neighbour, with your crooked heart.” If I’m asked if I’m a Christian I don’t say, “ask my neighbour,” I say, “ask this neighbour. Not that one. The one who likes me. Whom I like.” But Christ died for all of them. The worst first. Because God loves giving life where it shouldn’t be.

That brings us back to the point of this story. Here it is. Don’t pimp your spouse out to save your life from a foreign king. Really. It’s bad form. No here’s the actual point: God gives grace where there should be no grace. That’s it. Abraham is more poorly behaved here than nearly anybody else in the Bible. And he comes out smelling like roses. His wife back, a rich man, first plot of land. Not because he’s good but because God is. God is ridiculously generous. Salvation is like that. All we bring to God is failure. And all God gives us back is family.

There’s another story this foreshadows. When the entire Israelite nation is enslaved in Egypt. The covenant promise is under threat again. Pharaoh wants to annihilate them. But God delivers them via Moses. Did I say “them”? I mean us. And when the Israelites leave Egypt, heads held high, the Egyptians throw their treasures at them. Here, take my silver, my gold, we’ll pay you to leave. Israel goes from threatened with extinction to leaving with back-pay and reparations. The moral of this story is not that the Israelites are good. They come off particularly badly in some of the Exodus stories. It’s that God is generous and can be trusted to make a way out of no way.

Here’s a prayer from these stories from the Church of Scotland:

I have had enough of sad saints and sour religion
I have had enough of sin spotting and grace doubting.
I need some laughter, Lord, the kind you planted in Sarah.
But, please, may I not have to wait until I am ninety and pregnant.

We think faith says this: behave. Unlike those bad people out there. Here’s what the Bible actually says. Those guys you hate. They’re better than you are. Christ is transforming them, and you, together, into a whole new humanity. Starting now, today. Don’t think you deserve it for a second. You don’t—I mean, read the stories! It’s happening because God is everything. Amen.