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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Life, Love, and Loot--A Sermon

Life, Love, and Loot
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 30, 2011

Genesis 12:10-20

Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land. When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, ‘I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, “This is his wife”; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.’ When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.

But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, ‘What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, “She is my sister”, so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and be gone.’ And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.


Those of you who have watched the Major League Baseball playoffs and the World Series may have seen the advertisements for Captain Morgan Rum. The character is a swash-buckling 17th century pirate. He is suave and cool. When an enemy ship approaches, and begins shooting, he strips down, walks to the end of the ship’s plank and does a forward somersault dive. The enemy captain is amused and instead of fighting they all party and drink rum. Captain Morgan, the icon of the advertisement, is a lovable, cool, hip, non-violent pirate. To life, love, and loot.

The real Captain Morgan, Sir Henry Morgan, was a privateer. He was empowered by England to hassle and plunder Spanish ships. His pay was what he could loot. To do that kind of work you have to be a ruthless guy.

The title of my sermon, Life, Love, and Loot, came from the advertisement for Captain Morgan as I was reflecting on Captain Abram in our biblical story. In the midst of a famine, Abram and Sarai go to Egypt. They go there to survive, to live.

Life.

While there Abram is afraid that when the Egyptians see Sarai, they will kill him and take her because she is so beautiful. So instead, he has her say that she is his sister.

We have no idea what is going through Sarai’s mind. We don’t know what is going through Abram’s mind either. But she does it. To spare Abraham she apparently says she is his sister and she becomes a mistress or wife or something for Pharoah.

Love.

Since this is a myth of patriarchy, in which women always belong to some guy, fathers, brothers, or husbands, Abram gives her away to Pharoah in trade for sheep, oxen, male and female slaves, donkeys, and camels.

Loot.

The Lord doesn’t like this arrangement so he sends plagues on Pharoah. Somehow Pharoah knows that these plagues, whatever they are, are connected to Sarai and he learns the truth, that Sarai is Abram’s wife. Pharoah sends Abram home with his wife and his loot.

Did Abram and Sarai do well with this deal?
What is this story about?

Abram and Sarai together create the biblical icon for the married couple. Yet from our point of view, to say that they are opaque and distant is an understatement. We are given little dialogue between them and even less internal dialogue. The author of Genesis is not John Updike or Virginia Woolf.

This icon of marriage is a patriarchal icon. Human beings can be traded for sheep and donkeys. We don’t know what these characters were thinking. Sarai is Abram’s wife in a possessive sense. We don’t know if beyond patriarchy and the roles it prescribes for them if there is a relationship of love. The faithfulness of Sarai seems to be measured by her obedience to Abram. She follows him and his God.

These characters are like inkblots. We have the barest of narrative. There is no character description or development. It is up to us to give these characters voices and self-awareness. There is no right or wrong in doing that. It is an activity of creative expression on our part. The only limits might be the words in the text, but upon that bare skeleton we can put flesh, our flesh, on these icons, father Abram and mother Sarai.

Two books that I am reading as I am working through this series of sermons on the myths of Genesis are Peter Pitzele’s, Our Father’s Wells: A Personal Encounter with the Myths of Genesis and Carol Delaney, Abraham on Trial: The Social Legacy of Biblical Myth.

Pitzele uses psychodrama or what he calls bibliodrama to enter into the text. In his groups, he invites participants to take over the characters and be them in the first person. Instead of asking in the abstract what was Abram or Sarai thinking, he invites participants, you and me, to be Abram and Sarai and then say what are you thinking and feeling.

Pitzele says this:
But here a voice inside me asks, Why make up anything at all? We have what we have of the story. It is highly condensed, highly charged, but it is all we have. By what right and license do you fill in blanks and intrude your contemporary experience into these ancient figures who were wrought by the imagination of a distant, different age? These mute characters cannot step from the frieze of the old book and speak our words or borrow our voices that they might tell us more of their stories. This is, after all, the Bible.
He goes on…
Precisely these questions face me each time I pass from merely repeating the biblical stories to re-creating them. I must deal with the guardians of the text, those internalized deacons who warn me against toying with Holy Writ. Yet through my years of psychodramatic explorations I have come to recognize the immense vitality of these characters, and the silence of the text has become not a barrier but an invitation for acts of imaginative projection that seem at once to reflect ourselves and to reveal the biblical drama at a deeper and more human level. p. 98
I remember in seminary that my professors would criticize my papers for "psychologizing" the texts. They were trying to teach us disinterested, scientific exegesis. It was good to learn. But it was refreshing after seminary had ended to find Pitzele who breaks the rules and invites psychologizing. It is the opposite approach. Rather than remove yourself, instead insert yourself.

The other book, Carol Delaney’s Abraham on Trial is a critique of the patriarchal myths and their influence today. She shows us that patriarchy is not the natural human condition, but a particular social condition. One that we can reject. But we have to know its assumptions. She writes:
Religious myth has social implications….We can never recapture the living quality of the culture of the biblical writers, but we can investigate their vision of the world and its legacy. We can ask about the role of the Abraham story in that vision. And we can ask if this vision is one we wish to perpetuate. P. 11
Her book is specifically about the near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. We will get to that story in a couple of weeks. She is asking why Abraham’s willingness to kill his child is a model of faith and what that means for us who have inherited this story. What are the assumptions behind this story? Why is the story of sacrificing children a story of faithfulness as opposed to a story of saving children for example?

The Abraham story is central to Christianity. It is the model for the Christian myth of the Father sending his only begotten son to death on a cross for the sins of humanity. The myth says that humanity is saved by this. Why that myth? There could be other myths. A Divine Father killing the Divine Son to save the world is not a universal human myth. It is not eternally written in the heavens. It is a patriarchal myth. It arises from a particular social location. In this social set up, that is not universal, children are the property of fathers and women are tradable assets like sheep and donkeys. The Father’s honor is paramount and is maintained by violence. These assumptions continue to have effects in the way we regard children, issues of gender, and social roles.

These stories are fictions. But why these fictions? Why have these fictions become holy scripture? What are the implications and assumptions these stories have in our lives today? How do these stories inform what it means to be a good wife for instance or a good father?

October is domestic violence awareness month. The case is easily made that the assumptions behind the myths of Genesis still exist today in a culture that continues to look the other way in regards to violence in the home. Well, she is his wife. Those are his kids. The good, faithful wife forgives and follows her husband and whatever schemes he dreams up.

Here are the points I am trying to make:
  1. These stories are not quaint and harmless. They have a legacy and influence today on society.
  2. They are not stories of the universal human condition. They are not divinely ordained. They are human stories that have arisen out of a particular culture that is shaped by patriarchal assumptions.
  3. We who read these stories today and even call them scripture have the freedom and the obligation to deconstruct them and challenge their assumptions.
  4. Entering these stories with awareness may help us uncover these assumptions in the stories, in our own personal lives, and in the lives of our culture.
  5. We can then make choices about how we interpret these stories and how we might treat them.
With those points, that Carol Delaney helps me understand, I want to move toward the the Pitzele approach. I want to jump in and be the characters, take them over, and give these statues voice. The Delaney approach is to analyze behind the text and uncover their assumptions. I am trying to use both approaches in this series of sermons.

I invite you to enter the story. It would be best in a small group in which we could speak to each other and hear each other. In this setting I will lead you in a guided way and you will enter it yourself. Perhaps you can continue it with others later.

You are Sarai.

Both men and women can do this. I invite you to close your eyes if you wish. Enter into the character. I will ask a series of questions. They are not loaded. There is no right or wrong answer. There is no text we can go to look it up. I am just going to give the text, elaborate a little bit, and ask some questions. These are your responses. Don't respond how you might think the real Sarai would have responded, put yourself there. You have the freedom to be yourself in her. What would you do in her position? What do you think? What do you feel?

There is a famine. There is no food. You and Abram have nothing. You need to leave and live as aliens, as immigrants in a strange land. You go to survive. Just before you cross the border, Abram speaks:
‘I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, “This is his wife”; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.’
Is Abram asking you or telling you?
Do you agree with him?
Do you talk to him about it?
Does Abram have your interests in mind as well as his?
Is there another option?
Do you take ownership of this decision?
Is it yours and his together or is it his decision and you do what he wants?

As it turns out Abram was right about the men thinking you are beautiful. You catch the eye of the Pharaoh and he takes you into his house. We are given no details. We are not told how much time has passed. You have to fill in those details.

You are Sarai.
How are you feeling?
Do you manage to put the Pharaoh off?
How creative can you be?
Maybe you cannot?
How did you cope?
How do you retain your dignity?
Do you worry about Abram?

You are Abram.
What do you think is happening to Sarai?
How do you feel?
The Pharaoh gives you sheep, goats and loot.
What do you feel about that?
Would you rather have been killed?
Do you plan a daring rescue?
How do you sleep at night?
“But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai.”
Pharaoh releases Sarai and Abram and sends them home with all the loot.

You are Abram.
Do you ask what happened?

You are Sarai.
Will you ever tell Abram?

You are both.
Will your marriage ever be the same again?
Is forgiveness possible for the two of you?

This is a painful story. As I enter this story, I have a renewed sense of compassion for these characters. The suffering upon both Sarai and Abram is intense. What relationship can survive this? And yet they do.

Abram is no Captain Morgan. The loot, to me, is a distraction. If these characters are nothing more than patriarchal tropes, then there is no humanity here at all. But if there is any humanity in these characters, this story is pure anguish. And yet, and yet…they come through. We get no dialogue. We get no internal monologue. We have to make that up with our own stories of our own relationships.

I have to allow Abram to be a human being in love. I have to allow Sarai to be a human being in love. I have to have this choice be a choice they both make. I have to have them both be strong. I have to have them both be survivors. I have to have them both experience the pain. I have to have them both do anything for each other. I have to have them both find a way to forgive and be forgiven.

Amidst the greatest pain, amongst the most anguishing choices, they survive. Together.

Amen.

1 comment:

Sea Raven, D.Min. said...

Perfect for Hallowe’en: People pretending to be sombody else, pirates! Perfect for Reformation Sunday: What are these myths about anyway? Should we throw them out? Or is it more important to realize the effect they still have on us? Morgan the “non-violent pirate”? Maybe we’re a little farther ahead than we sometimes like to think.