Sunday, 14 October 2018

Incest and Lot's Daughters: Who do you think you are?

A Sermon preached at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
14 October 2018

Listen to the audio here:

On Monday evening this week,
            I went to the launch of a new book, entitled
            ‘Confronting Religious Violence: A Counternarrative’

In this book, Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi,
            talks about the way in which, as humans,
            we are shaped by the stories we tell ourselves.

This is true both at an individual level,
            and also at a collective or communal level.

He says that,

‘We come to know who we are
            by discovering the story or stories of which we are a part.’

This is because, he says, we are narrative creatures.
            We respond to, and are defined by, the stories that shape us.

Who we are in the present, for both good and bad,
            is the product of the stories that we have taken deep within ourselves.

And this is true for us both personally, and communally.

At a personal level, the stories of our families
            will have a huge effect on the kind of people we are.
And understanding the legacy of our family systems,
            can be a vital part of learning to understand who we are,
            and why we are the way we are.

I think that the dramatic rise in people taking the Ancestry DNA test,
            coupled with the huge popularity of Genealogical research,
            and TV programmes such as ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’
speaks of a growing desire in our culture
            for us to construct personalised stories
            that give us meaning and identity.

A few weeks ago I got the results of my Ancestry DNA test.
            It turns out that I’m
                        18% Norwegian,
                        23% Irish or Scottish, and
                        59% English or North-western European.

Apparently this is a very English profile.
            And whilst it may account for my hair and skin colour,
                        I don’t think I can blame my Home Counties accent on my DNA.
                                    I suspect my upbringing in Kent has something to do with that.
                        And I’ve never noticed any residual ability
                                    to speak Viking or Glaswegian coming through.

So whilst this is all very interesting,
            it doesn’t really tell me who am,
But I could, if I chose to, use the story of my DNA, or my family tree research,
            to construct a narrative for me to live by:
                        So I could use my DNA profile to become an English nationalist!
                                    Or not!!!
                        In fact, part of me wondered whether being 23% Irish
                                    and having the middle name of Patrick
                        might qualify me for an Irish passport in a post-Brexit world,
                                    but I think that’s wishful thinking.

There’s a wonderful video on the internet
            of people getting their DNA results
            and discovering that their genes don’t match their perception of their identity.[1]
So the English Nationalist rather delightfully discovers that he’s mostly German,
            and others are similarly shocked by the way their stories of origin
            are altered by the story locked in their DNA.

And in a world of ever greater fragmentation,
            where nation states and federations are under threat,
the importance of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves
            will become ever more important to us.
At a communal level,
            the importance of stories for understanding religious violence
is that the way different religious communities relate to each other
            will be determined by the stories they tell of themselves.

So whether I think God wants my tribe
            to go to war with a different tribe,
will be determined by the founding stories, the master narratives as they’re called,
            that our different tribes have been shaped by.

And often these master narratives
            are to do with issues such as the ownership of the land,

If you want to understand the current tensions between Israel and Palestine,
            you need to look long and hard at the founding stories of the two nations,
                        the historic claim that each believes they have to the land,
            and the way they tell their ancient stories
                        to justify and shape who they are
                        and how they will act in the present day.

And this is nothing new.

In fact, in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible,
            many of the stories we encounter
            would fit in this category of master narratives.

The Ancient Near East was a land of tribes,
            and it was a land of tribal warfare,
            as people fought over property and trade routes.

Different tribes would come together in alliances,
            and then split apart again,
and their tribal stories, their master narratives,
            would amalgamate and fracture
            to express these changing affiliations.

And it’s in this context
            that we need to begin hearing stories such as our passage this morning
            about Lot and his daughters in the cave.

This is story that is preserved within the scriptures of Israel,
            who are, according to their master narrative, the descendants of Jacob.

If we take a look at this genealogy of Jacob’s family,
            we start to get a picture of how they understood their relationship
            to the various other tribal groups in their area in the ancient world.

Here we see that Jacob, the father of the 12 tribes of Israel
            is the brother of Esau, who is the ancestor of the Edomites.
He’s also cousin to the 12 sons of Ishamel,
            and it’s famously a ‘hairy bunch of Ishmaelites’
                        to whom Jacob’s sons sell Joseph into slavery.

Jacob is also second cousin to Ammon and Moab,
            who are the founding patriarchs of the Ammonites and the Moabites,
                        Israel’s ancient enemies.
And it’s the story of the origin of Ammon and Moab
            that we meet with the incestuous story
            of Lot and his daughters in the cave above Zoar.

So, at one level, this story is making a clear point:
            which is that the Ammonites and the Moabites are,
            quite literally, a bunch of bastards.

Although, of course, not so alienated
            that one of the books in the Hebrew Bible couldn’t be named after a Moabitess,
                        as Ruth from Moab gets written back into the story of Israel
                        as no less than one of the ancestors of their great mythic king David.

And here’s the complexity.
            It’s not clear-cut.
Enemies become friends, and friends become enemies,
            tribal alliances form, and they fail.
And the stories reflect this.

As John Rogerson put it:

‘One of the purposes of Genesis was to link these ancestors together by means of genealogy and story and then to plot this unified story onto a larger genealogical canvas. To call this ‘fiction’ is not to describe it as deceit or fraud. Genealogies, for ancient Israel as for many other peoples, were not a type of history: rather, they were the expression of a need to plot existing social realities onto a chart that explained them in terms of a comprehensive scheme.’ - John Rogerson.

And, of course, we need to remember that these stories
            were not written down at the time in the form we have them preserved.
There is a thousand or more years of oral traditioning
                        from the time these stories are set
            to the point where they get preserved in the 6th-7th centuries BC.

But is this all we can learn from this story,
            that it’s a master narrative to define the Israelites as the true heirs of Abraham,
            over against the Moabites and the Ammonites?

I think there’s more to be gleaned.

If you were here a few weeks ago,
            you might have heard Luke preaching on the story of Sodom and Gomorrah,
and in his sermon he helpfully addressed
            the way in which this story has been incorrectly used
            to condemn homosexuality.

He reminded us that it is actually a story of the abuse of hospitality,
            and challenged us to think about who our society abuses rather than welcomes.

During the course of his sermon, Luke noted
            that there are a number of highly problematic aspects
                        to the story of Lot’s family in Sodom,
            which were beyond the scope of his sermon on that Sunday.

One of those problems is the way Lot treats his two daughters,
            and I want us to come back to this story today as we pick up the narrative again.

Do you remember the setting?
            Lot is at home with his family in the city of Sodom,
                        when two angels in disguise come to the door.
            Lot insists that they stay at his house,
                        and gives them dinner.
            But the men of the city are unhappy with this act of hospitality to strangers,
                        and want Lot to turn them out so they can be killed.
            Lot refuses - so far, so good.

            But then he makes a strange and horrific offer. He says,

‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.’ - Genesis 19.7-8

We’re not told what the daughters think of this offer,
            or indeed what their betrothed husbands-to-be who are also in the house think.
But in any case, the angels save the situation by striking the mob blind,
            and warn Lot to take his family out of Sodom          
                        to avoid the coming destruction that God is going to bring on it
                        because of its wickedness.
So Lot escapes, with his daughters,
            but their husbands-to-be ridicule his warning and choose to stay behind,
                        presumably to be killed in the destruction of the city,
            while his wife looks back and becomes a pillar of salt.

And so we pick up the story in our reading,
            with Lot and his daughters alone in the cave,
            convincing themselves that they, and only they, are left.

The big threat here,
                        from the point of view of the story’s role
                        in the history of the Ancient Near East,
            is that Lot may die without descendants.

Being child-free in the ancient world was not a valid lifestyle choice,
            it was a symptom of being cursed by God.

            And entire nations depend on his having two sons / grandsons.

And so the daughters get their father drunk two nights running,
            and one after the other, they have sex with him,
            and conceive their two sons.

The interesting question to ask here,
            is whether they were right or wrong to do so?

Certainly, in most of the history of this text’s interpretation,
            they have been criticised for initiating these two incestuous conceptions,
and the text is certainly at pains to show that Lot is so drunk
            that he is absolved of any personal responsibility for things.

Although, I might note, he’s clearly not that drunk,
            but anyway, moving on…

The interesting thing is that, within the text itself,
            the two daughters are not actually criticised for their actions.
Any moral judgment on what happens in the cave
            is very much left for the reader to decide.

And whilst, clearly, from a contemporary perspective,
            we would be very clear in condemning incest,
                        and sexual abuse of any kind.
From the perspective of the text,
            things are left rather ambiguous,
            certainly with regard to whether the daughters are condemned.

The first thing to note here, I think, is a number of key ways,
            Lot’s family is highly dysfunctional,
and the blame for that dysfunction
            lies squarely with Lot himself.

This wannabe Patriarch, the nephew of Abraham,
            who was the great patriarch of the Jewish people,
            keeps trying to behave in patriarchal ways, but failing.

Like his Uncle Abraham, he entertains angels unawares,
            Like Uncle Abraham, he offers to sacrifice his children.
But at every turn, it doesn’t work out for him.
            He comes across as needy, vicious, and vindictive.
Lot is not the hero of the Lot narrative,
            he’s the villain.

The family dynamics under Lot’s leadership
            are, frankly, horrific.

And there is something almost poetic
            in the fact that the father who offered his daughters
                        for gang rape at the hands of the village mob
            finds himself ultimately rendered powerless
                        and the victim himself of a sexual assault.

But my concern in all of these readings so far,
            is that they are very male-centric.

The unnamed daughters remain unnamed and unvoiced,
            and their actions are mere cyphers for the male stories
            of patriarchy, progeny, and inheritance.

I think we need to hear the voices of these two women, if we are able,
            speaking to us through their silence and through their actions.

The biblical scholar Sandra Collins[2] says that,
‘these are women of survival and invention, as heinous and despicable as their actions might be.’ - Sandra Collins

She suggests that we need to make the effort to read the story
            from the point of view of the women, rather than the men,
and that when we do this
            they move from being archetypical evil women
                        who sexually abuse their own father,
            to become women who are themselves the victims
                        of sexual violence and constraint,
            and whose actions are acts of great courage in the face of great threat.

Does this make you feel uncomfortable, I wonder?
            Are you starting to question or undermine what I’m saying?
If so, then good,
            because it means that the invitation to hear the text differently is working,
            and our implicit assumptions about male power are being challenged.

Ask yourself, for a moment, what choice these women had?
            In a world where it was better to be dead than childless,
                        where their father had threatened them with rape,
                        where their husbands had been killed by God,
                        where, as far as they knew,
                                    the only man left alive on the earth, was their own father.
            What choice did they have?

And who would condemn them?

Christian history is full of stories of women condemned for sexual deviance,
            as female voices are silenced and male choices are privileged.
From the tradition of a male clergy,
            to the ongoing evangelical obsession with husbands as the head of their wives,
the church that bears Christs name has an appalling record
            of female subjugation and gender based violence.

This is not a problem that is ‘out there’.
            It is a problem that is ‘in here’.

The story we heard earlier of Jesus, and the murderous crowd of men,
            and the woman caught in adultery,
has startling resonances with the story of the daughters of Lot and their father:
            yet another powerless woman, once again at the mercy of men.

And we could write their story a thousand times in every generation.
            Lot’s daughters continue to face impossible choices in our own time,
                        as women have to figure out how to survive
                                    in impossible situations,
                        with impossible choices forced on them by powerful men.

Just last week I read in the Guardian the story of Nadia Murad
            the Iraqi woman who was sold as an Isis sex slave,
                        who has just won the Nobel peace prize
                        for her campaigning against human trafficking.[3]

And the current President of the United States
            is on record as saying that his daughter is ‘hot’
            and that if she wasn’t his daughter,
                        he’d probably be dating her.[4]

If the violence, misogyny, and objectification is ever to end,
            then we have to change the story.

We have to hear, unflinchingly, the stories of the past,
            and allow the suppressed voices of the victims to speak.

We have to resist the temptation to scapegoat and condemn,
            and we have to learn to not rush to judgment.

Instead we have to allow these uncomfortable stories
            to shape us in ways that challenge our own assumptions
            about power and gender.

These stories are in our tradition for a reason,
            and suppressing them is not the answer.

As Jonathan Sacks rightly said,
            ‘We come to know who we are
            by discovering the story or stories of which we are a part.’

[2] Collins, S L, Weapons Upon Her Body: The Female Heroic in the Hebrew Bible, PhD, Pittsburg, 2009.

Monday, 8 October 2018

Consider the Lilies

A short sermon for Harvest Sunday
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 7 October 2018
Matthew 6.25-34

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I can find the whole conversation
            around environmentalism, global warming,
            and the many and varied ways humans fail to care for creation,
                        to be a hugely distressing topic.

I remember a few years ago now,
            I was at a conference and I heard a talk about this,
which pulled no punches on the damage we were doing,
            and the devastations that were coming,
and I found myself unable to sleep properly for some weeks,
            because as soon as my mind relaxed,
                        I started worrying and worrying
            about what kind of a world we were creating for future generations.

And yet against this, in today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount,
            we hear Jesus saying, ‘do not worry about tomorrow,
                        for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.
            Today’s trouble is enough for today.’ (6.34).

Which is fine, at one level, I suppose.

‘There there Simon, it’ll be alright, or it won’t,
            but don’t worry about it either way.
Just focus on today, and leave tomorrow to tomorrow.’

Great, well, thanks Jesus.

But I don’t know how this helps really
            – I mean, for starters, telling me not to worry about something
                        is a bit like telling me not to think of a pink elephant.
            Immediately, it’s all I can think of.

And anyway, if the climate scientists are right,
            today’s trouble is nothing compared to the trouble that’s coming for the future,
            so a bit of worry might seem a perfectly proportionate response!

And I find myself wondering,
            is the appropriate Christian response to environmental concerns
                        to simply busy ourselves with the problems of today,
                        and put tomorrow’s problems out of our minds?

There are certainly plenty of Christians around
            who will tell us that this is exactly what we should do:
focus on issues of the moment,
            such as personal morality, or the conversion of the nations;
            and leave the environment to its own future.

In fact, some Christians will go even further than this,
            and will say that they believe that the earth
                        is going to be re-created in the near future anyway,
            and so the reason they don’t need to worry about the future of the planet
                        is because God is going to make a new heaven and a new earth,
                        and the old one is going to pass away.

Sadly, this morning isn’t the time for a sermon the eschatology of catastrophe.
            Maybe we can come back to that another day.

But I do wonder whether this is all something of a misreading
            of what Jesus is getting at in the Sermon on the Mount.

After all, his advice to not worry about tomorrow isn’t the starting point,
            it’s his conclusion,
and I’m not sure he’s talking about creation care,
            although he is clearly talking about creation.

I’m also not sure he’s talking primarily to people like me,
            who have enough money and power
            to make strategic choices about the future.

In our reading, Jesus starts by telling those listening to him
            not to worry about their life,
                        what they will eat or what they will drink,
                        or about their body, what they will wear. (6.25).

He’s talking to people facing death through starvation and thirst,
            to people who didn’t have enough in the way of clothing.
He’s talking to Jewish peasants,
            the victims of the Roman occupation of their country,
            the people at the bottom end of society, not the top.

To those who have been damaged by society,
            the marginalised and the impoverished,
Jesus offers an analogy with the birds and the lilies.
            And he does this to assure them of God’s great love
            and care for all that has been made, including them.

One of the conversations that sticks in my mind
            from my first year of helping with the night shelter here at Bloomsbury,
was the observation from the trainer
            about how a person’s horizon of planning
            can shrink when they are made homeless.

So, for example, my horizon of planning stretches to when I’m in my 80s.
            I invest in my pension,
                        I hope for a long and healthy retirement.
            I save for the next time I need to change my car.
                        I save for my next holiday.
                        I plan for the future.

By contrast, a person who has lost everything,
            who has no home, no stability, no job,
will often find that their horizon of planning shrinks,
            sometimes to just today.

The only questions on their mind might well be
            ‘where shall I sleep tonight’,
            and ‘what shall I eat today’.

If you want to understand Jesus’ words
            about not worrying about the future,
            because today has enough worries of its own,
                        talk to someone who is homeless.
Better yet, volunteer to help with our Night Shelter.

But back to worrying about the future,
            and way we care for creation.

I do not think that it is possible for us to separate out
            our environmental concerns
            from our concerns for the poor,
and we cannot separate our desire to help the poor and vulnerable
            from our care for the world we are asking them to live in.
These are two sides of the same coin.

The liberation theologian Pablo Richard sums it up quite well. He says:

[The various plagues of the Bible]:earthquakes, volcanic explosions, floods, droughts, cyclones, hurricanes, [and so on], are not natural disasters since such they fall [primarily] on the poor. Agonies of this kind… [are the] direct consequences of the structure[s] of domination and oppression [that humans create]: the poor die in floods because they are pushed out of safe places and forced to live alongside rivers; in earthquakes and hurricanes the poor lose their flimsy houses because they are poor and cannot build better ones; plagues, such as cholera and tuberculosis, fall primarily on the poor who are malnourished, uneducated, and lacking in sanitation infrastructure. Hence the [various] plagues of [the Bible are not] ‘natural’ disasters, but the agonies of history that [humans both cause] and suffer; they are … the disastrous results of ecological destruction, the arms race, irrational consumerism, the idolatrous logic of the market, and the irrational use of technology and of natural resources. – Pablo Richard.

So, if we think back to what we’ve heard already in this service.

There is enough abundance in creation to sustain all that live on this planet.
            There is no need for anyone to be starving.
There is no need for us to live destructively.
            We live in a resourceful world,
            and as Christians we need to learn to see this as a gift from God.

But our faith also tells us that we have a responsibility before God
            to be good stewards of creation,
to ensure ‘a just and equal sharing, of the things that earth affords’,
            as Fred Kaan’s hymn that we sing sometimes puts it.

And we need to realise that it is human behaviour
            that forces people from abundance to scarcity,
which means that the decision of who gets food and who doesn’t,
            of who lives and who dies,
is a spiritual one, because it comes from human choices,
            which are informed by human consciences and ethics.

So, should we worry about tomorrow?

Well, Jesus asks the question:
            ‘Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?’ (6.27)

And maybe the first part of our answer to this needs to be
            ‘no, it’s true, we can’t add a day to our own lives by worrying about tomorrow.’

But, as Dawn said to me when we were planning this service,
            maybe the second part of our answer to Jesus’ question
needs to be a recognition that by considering the futures of others,
            particularly those who are the victims of our globally destructive systems,
and by acting accordingly,
            we might well be able to add an extra day to their lives.