Proper 8 (13), Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
2 July 2023
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
From time to time I share with you about my family. I do that with limitations and with permissions where permissions are available. I once referenced our eldest when she was two, it was an innocent enough reference and I thought that it would go right over her head, but she called me on it, and she was right.
I talk about my family because as Jesus was born in Bethlehem and God took on our humanity in a particular time and place, so the Gospel also comes to us in our times and places, and in our contexts. We speak of the incarnation, of God taking on our flesh at Christmas, but God also took on flesh in the words of the scriptures, and takes on flesh in our lives.
So here’s this week’s instalment of my family of origin.
I came to study at the Vancouver School of Theology when I was 23. Jackie and I met near the end of that year. We were married two years later. Jackie moved to Germany, and we returned to Canada two years after that, in part because I wanted to come back.
It took me many more years to realize that the family that had raised me was part of the reason I had wanted to return to Canada. My mother suffered from an undiagnosed narcissistic personality disorder and the way this personality disorder manifested itself most painfully (for everyone involved, including her) was that she viewed the world from the perspective of a victim. It was possible for her to see herself in that way because it was true that her husband had been unfaithful and eventually left her, it was true that our family life was unhappy, and it was not untrue that she was not understood, but it was not the whole picture. Almost twenty years ago I had asked her to write down the family history. She was an only child and the only way for her two sons to be able to preserve the family history was if it were told to us. She wrote down, not the family history but her personal history that began with, “I suffer greatly and no one understands me.” I did not ask again for a family history as it seemed unlikely I would receive one.
Now, my mother was obviously ill and how does one respond to injuries that are the result of mental illness? They are real injuries, and yet dwelling on them is unable to make anyone’s life better.
The thing with my mother was that she always looked at the world from the perspective of the victim, which meant that others must be perpetrators or at least threats. But her personality disorder only exaggerated what we are all capable of. When we are injured we lick our wounds, feel sorry for ourselves, and look at the world with distrust. Now, not having a personality disorder we can get over it, but I think that most of us know from experience that licking our wounds and looking at others with suspicion does no one any good. It does not lead to reconciliation, and it does not lead to healing, but makes us the centre of our universe.
This can happen in more ways than one.
It can also happen when I feel guilty. I wonder if at times the Christian emphasis on forgiveness has turned into an emphasis on sinfulness, so that feeling particularly sinful never getting to the forgiveness part, because, you know, we were born in sin. That too makes me the centre of the universe because cultivating a feeling of unworthiness I am no longer able to see God’s love and forgiveness, I am not able to move into the new life God offers because it feels much safer to know that I am unworthy and sinful.
Then there is the modern way of approaching the world as being essentially about me. You don’t even have to be a hedonist to know the truth of this. Capitalism has made us all into consumers, and everything is a commodity, and to everything, including the practice of our faith and personal relationships we apply the question of how something can benefit me. And in a world that has largely been sanitized of religion, we cannot but see ourselves at the centre of the universe. But we know or should know that this is a dead end.
And that is where the Apostle Paul comes in because Paul tells us that having been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, having had our lives joined to the death and the life of Christ Jesus, sin no longer has dominion over us.
But what is sin?
Paul describes a profound change, the defeat of principalities and powers, the transfer from a life under sin to a life for God, but often our ability to understand what Paul is talking about is impeded by our inadequate understanding of sin.
Sin is not primarily sexual, or referring to that extra piece of chocolate, or the big sins of embezzlement, deceit, and murder. Sin, Luther says, following St Augustine, is to to be curved in upon oneself and thus being unable to perceive the world as God’s and unable to see the purposes of God, unable to see the world through God’s eyes, and unable to see the world through our neighbour’s eyes. I have always liked the idiom of navel-gazing because it describes so vividly how small the world becomes for those who are curved in upon themselves, and despite the best intentions unable to see beyond their own horizon.1
At the Evening Prayer I join on Thursday’s, the one leading us this week prayed, “Great God, … free all your people from our addiction to wealth, our lust for power and our allegiance to the false gods of nation, blood, soil and race.”
To be baptized into Christ institutes a regime change. While we still sin, no longer will sin have dominion over us, but we have become slaves to righteousness.
The author of 1 Peter says it like this,
Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:10)
And in Galatians Paul can say,
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. (Galatians 2:19b-20a)
In Christ we have become slaves to righteousness. The world is bigger now, much bigger.
No longer are we stuck looking at ourselves. We are no longer curved in on ourselves. We can see the horizon of the Kingdom of God now, whereas before we could only see our own needs, and pains, and our own perspectives.
That is what God has done for us.
Thanks be to God.