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St. Paul’s – Proper 7 – 6/25/2023

Today I am wondering,

Why does God bless bad people? 

I used to take teenagers to Appalachia to work on houses there. One time this old lady was sitting on her front porch, shelling peas with several of her grandchildren and some of the grandchildren worked with our crew. One of them began to complain, loudly and vigorously, about Uncle Jehu, who was, according to her, an embarrassment to the entire family. After a long rendition of his many faults, including dirtiness, drunkenness, laziness, dishonesty, and general all-around sorry-ness, she ended by expressing the wish that he would just go away and never be heard from again. Grandma took a deep breath and said, Yes child, I’ll admit that my brother Jehu is all those things you mentioned. But we must remember, Jesus loves Jehu as much as Jesus loves us. Then she paused for almost a minute, staring out in space before she said, Of course, that could be ‘cause Jesus don’t know Jehu as good as we do.

Again, why DOES God bless bad people. In Grandma’s terms, why does Jesus love the Jehus of this world just as much as Jesus loves you, or me, or anybody else? This began to bother me as I read over  the story of Abraham and Sarah kicking Hagar and Ishmael out of the camp and into the desert to die with nothing but a little bread and water.

We count Abraham and Sarah as some of the really good people in the Bible, exemplars of faithfulness, trusting God in all things, holding on to the promises of God. Really? Remember, Abraham and Sarah were already old, childless, and past the age of having children when God promised them a land and a son. And it took many years before that child was born. Along the way, Abraham and Sarah both behaved badly, and often lost faith in God’s promise.

Twice Abraham got scared that a powerful king would kill him to steal Sarah because Sarah was very beautiful, so twice he told everybody that Sarah was his sister, not his wife, and allowed the king to take her into his harem.

And then today’s passage…..Well, here, let’s blame Sarah, the mother of Isaac and three religions. She was jealous. She viewed Hagar as a rival. She deemed Ishmael a threat, if not to Isaac’s very life, at least to how Abraham might divide his fatherly time and treasure between two sons.

Sarah instructed her husband Abraham to relocate those two (I’m being polite here.) Dump the slave. Banish her child. While God reassured Abraham that everything would be fine for Hagar and Ishmael, I wonder if Holy comfort was as persuasive as the spousal demands?

Lickety-split, Abraham gathered bread and water early the next morning. He then handed this sparse nourishment to Hagar and Ishmael. Genesis description about their    leave-taking was also sparse. There’s no final kiss between the former lovers. The patriarch offered no fare-thee-well slap on the back to his teen son. Perhaps Abraham was too numb to speak, too embarrassed to hug the slave he had given freedom to (at the price of her leaving) or to even shake the hand of his firstborn.

Did the former slave girl and playmate of the father of three religions turn to gaze at Abraham one . . . last . . . time? Would it be a melancholy wave or a bitter, symbolic spit in his direction? And if Hagar glanced back, did she also hear Sarah cackling in the shadows of that early morning?

Again, my question,“Why does God bless bad people?” Abraham and Sarah are clearly bad people – or at least ordinary people who regularly do bad things – why does God bless them?

Well, for one thing, the whole idea of good and bad people is a false dichotomy, a figment of our ethical imaginations. If God didn’t bless bad people, nobody would ever get blessed. We are all bad people. We are all good people. We are all just people. The reformation reformers called it being simul justus et peccator, or simultaneously  justified and sinful. The pithy way to say it is We are saint and sinner at the same time. This runs against our natural human tendency to divide the world into sides, us and them right and wrongred and blue good and bad – we prefer to ignore the vast amount of gradation in all these categories.

Religiously, we have the saved and unsaved. We tend to reduce God’s concern to the individual and the question of who gets to go to heaven and who doesn’t, or who God really likes and who God merely tolerates, or something like that. We think the faith is about us personally, and about our own, individual, eternal destiny. We all spend way too much time thinking about ourselves. Augustine defined sin as being bent in on oneself. Thus, we divide the world into good and bad, believing that God blesses the good and damns the bad, then we work to make sure we are a part of the good category. And it simply doesn’t work that way.

God’s concern is not just for us individually, nor merely for us as those like us. God’s concern is for all. When the Nicene Creed says For us and for our salvation…, Us means three things: us individually; us as a community of faith; and us as everybody in the world. God does not just do good things for good people, God blesses everybody in the world through individuals and communities. God blessed Abraham and Sarah IN ORDER TO fulfill the divine promise of blessing the world through Abraham and Sarah. God’s blessing of them, even though they were bad people, was not a reward for their past good behavior, but a holy act of grace and blessing for the future of all people.

A friend of mine recently sent me a very interesting article about the hymn Amazing Grace. (It appeared in the Texas Monthly on June 9, 2023).  Two things in that piece stood out to me. One was a discussion of how many popular singers, who didn’t really understand the theology of the hymn, had changed the words to fit their different understanding of how God works, particularly the line that said, Twas grace that taught my heart to fear. . . Not wanting to believe that God would teach anyone to fear, they changed it to Twas grace that taught my heart to feel. . . because that just felt better.

But Father John Newton knew what he was saying when he wrote fear. John Newton had long been a sea captain deeply involved in the transatlantic slave trade. He was a bad man by anyone’s estimation. And he feared no one, not man nor God. That is, until a frightening and holy encounter with God’s grace did indeed teach his heart to fear because of his own evil, and then that very same grace his fears relieved. God’s grace, God’s blessing, came to him in spite of his badness, and God’s blessing changed his heart, not just for his own sake, but for the sake of the world.

The second thing is the extra line, the line John Newton didn’t write. When we’ve been there 10,000 years, bright shining as the sun… Newton had left slave trading and became an Anglican priest when he wrote Amazing Grace. It had quickly become popular, including in America. The extra verse became widely known because it appeared in the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Though we can’t be sure, it appears that it was created by slaves to add to the hymn that they had learned from their masters. So it is that God blessed a bad man, the slave trader John Newton, so that his words could bless and inspire an enslaved people, so that their combined words could inspire and bless all people all over the world. Why does God bless bad people? Why does Jesus love the

Uncle Jehus of the world? Because “for US and OUR slavation he came down from heaven. . .”