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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 16B
Joshua 24:1-2a,14-25
Ephesians 5:21-33
John 6:60-69
Psalm 16 or 34:15-22

Seminaries are small schools. Add up all the classes that were on campus in any given term at Seabury-Western, and you still wouldn’t get a total of 100 students. In my graduating class, there were about two dozen of us who were there for the whole three years. Because we were such a small group, and spending most of our waking hours together-- in class, in worship, at meals and in social activities-- we got to know one another very well. Almost too well, sometimes! In many ways, it was like an extended family. You knew who was dependable, and who was flighty. Who you could turn to for support, and where to go for a laugh. Who would get on your nerves just by opening their mouths, and who to count on when you needed to know something.

Everyone knew, for example, that Susie was the person to ask about music. She can not only sing like an angel, but she’s the first non-church-musician I ever met who knew hymns by number, and even the name of the tune! Dave was the Prayer Book guy. Ask him a question about the liturgies of the church, and he could not only answer immediately, but likely tell you the page number on which the rubric could be found, from memory.

Me? Well, it seems that I developed something of a reputation for being the class “Bible geek.” No, I would not proclaim myself an expert, not by any stretch. There are far too many people out there who have a whole lot more scripture memorized than I do, and who have studied it longer and more in depth. But it is true that I love scripture, and the ways the books of the Bible speak to us across the spans of time and space, culture and circumstance. Part of my ordination vows required publicly testifying that “I believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.” And I do, wholeheartedly. What this means, among other things, is that I tend to be particular about how the Word is handled.

This is the long explanation for why the reading inserts look a little different this morning. I did not distribute the regular sheet, because I wanted to extend the Epistle reading beyond what was printed in the standard insert.

In the original selection, the reading ends after the instructions to husbands and wives are read. I feel that stopping at the point does a disservice to the text, and to the understanding of the passage.

Leaving that section to stand alone gives rise to objections in some quarters, as you might expect. It often seems, to modern ears, to be reinforcing some patriarchal notion of husband as boss-in-charge, with the wife as obedient subordinate. I know that there are those who credit and support that as the intent. This is one of those passages that regularly gets held up as a standard for “good wives” in a women’s Bible study (while the far more extensive instruction to husbands is conveniently overlooked!)

So, let’s look at it again. There are instructions to husbands and wives, yes-- but if you keep going, there are also directions for parents and children, and masters and slaves. In reading the whole section, I notice a couple of significant things here. First, the nature of all these relationships had some commonalities in that time and place. The prerogatives of the husband/father/master of the house were very similar: almost total control. Women and children and slaves were all essentially owned-- legal property, or at least under so much authority that they might as well have been. Given that reality, the notion of mutual submission was a radical teaching. A challenge. And yet, that is what the scripture says. The opening verse this morning is one which summarizes everything after it: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” What follows is simply a series of examples of both sides of what that might look like, in the culture of the day.

Which brings me to the second thing I notice in reading this passage: what was understood as accepted and appropriate behavior for God’s followers there and then is not necessarily the same thing as here and now.

Slavery, for example, was obviously tolerated in the early church-- and not only tolerated, but accepted as reasonable, normal practice. This is not the only bit of scripture that conveys that impression. You can even find in the Old Testament instructions from God as to which people the Israelites were permitted to buy as slaves!

As time has gone on, however, this has ceased to be acceptable. We have come to understand that ownership of one human being by another is wrong-- that it is in fact contrary to God’s will to treat men and women, beloved children of God and created in God’s image, as chattel to be bought and sold.

Does this mean that God changed his mind? I don’t think so. Rather, I believe that the way we understand God, and God’s work in this world, has shifted and changed as time and generations have passed.

Here’s another example of what I mean: In today’s Old Testament reading, Joshua is urging the Israelites to turn away from foreign gods and idols, and to serve only the Lord. He warns them about what will happen if they backslide:
"You cannot serve the LORD; for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good."

Now, compare that with what we know of God’s behavior throughout other portions of scripture, and you’ll see why we have come to comprehend our Creator far differently than Joshua and the Israelites did. We have seen, over and over again, the mercy of God as he has welcomed back and forgiven and cared for his followers. In the New Testament, we hear the radical forgiveness in Jesus’ teachings. We see in the life and death of Jesus the lengths to which God will go to restore relationship. We know the covenant promise that whenever we fall into sin, we can “repent and return to the Lord.” We can turn back and know that we will be forgiven. God is a god of infinite second chances!

So, it seems reasonable to expect that “being subject to one another” may also look very different than the culture of Paul's day. It seems reasonable to believe that the point of this passage is not a specific, cultural imperative about how men and women are to interact; but rather to emphasize that we are responsible to and for each another. Wives and husbands are to be mutually committed, each to the welfare of the other. Children and parents are both sacred responsibilities, to be cared for and nurtured. Those who perform work, and those who direct that work, are to treat one another with respect, and to give their best effort. It’s not about “knowing your place.” It’s about loving one another, and about godly discipleship-- and this, my friends, is what discipleship is. For in “being subject to one another out of reverence for Christ," we can truly show the face of Jesus to the world around us.



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