Saturday, October 27, 2012

Preaching on the Household Codes

For my first preaching assignment at Saint Peter's Church, where I am currently a vicar, I was asked to preach on the texts listed in an older Catholic lectionary used during their Wednesday evening peace mass: Ephesians 6: 1 - 9, Psalm 145: 10 - 14 and Luke 13: 22 - 30The Ephesians text, as one version of the household codes, is a very difficult text, and thus I decided to focus on it.  Please provide me with some feedback and I'll incorporate it into my sermon this Wednesday.  Thanks so much!

Source: Wikipedia
While I’ve been a vicar at Saint Peter’s for about a month and a half now, even before starting here, I was very excited to start preaching in a real parish, so you can imagine my joy when I was asked me to deliver today’s homily.  Upon looking up the proscribed texts for today however, particularly the Ephesians’ passage, my joy turned to dismay…  “Children, obey your parents in the Lord” doesn’t seem that bad, but what about “slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling…” You heard it right folks, “slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.”  Boy, it seems pretty tough to find the good news in a line like that, no matter what follows it...  For my very first preaching assignment of the year, I was asked to preach on the household codes.

The two hierarchical commands of children to obey their parents and slaves to obey their masters in today’s passage of Ephesians, combined with an additional command in the preceding verses for wives to submit to their husbands, form a set of instructions known to Biblical scholars as the household codes.  These codes are reflected in the Epistle to the Colossians and have similar counterparts in 1 Peter and Titus as well.  Despite being written in the Holy Scriptures, one cannot help but find the household codes heartbreaking, particularly in a country still haunted by a dark past, and in a few cases, a current history of slavery, along with contemporary racism and sexism.  Even more heartbreaking is the way in which these verses have frequently been used throughout history.  Many Civil War-era preachers used the codes to encourage African Americans to remain submissive under the dehumanizing yoke of chattel slavery.  Christians often cited them as a way to encourage wives to stay with battering husbands.  Children have been advised by the Church to obey their parents and remain silent about physical and sexual abuse because of an overly simplistic reading of verses like the household codes.  In many Christian communities, similar abuses of the Scriptures and human dignity continue to this day.

My sisters and brothers, perhaps the most heartbreaking thing about the household codes is not just how they’ve been misused throughout history… but how they’ve been misused throughout Christian history… throughout your history and my history… throughout our history.  The oppression and dehumanization wrecked upon the world by the misuse of passages like the household codes prove one of the most rotten spots in the collective story of our faith as Christians... and people know about this part of the story.  This is one of the reasons why many of our churches are shrinking rather than growing.  In my own life this is one of the reasons why many of my friends questioned why I would ever want to be a pastor, and I imagine many of you have been hurt by messages of intolerance inspired by misuse of the Scriptures as well.  The misuse of verses like the household codes is one of the main reasons why many see the Church as an oppressive force in the world, rather than a force of loving-kindness.

There is however good news in tonight’s text from Ephesians, at least if read with the proper historical lens in mind.  You see, for the earliest Christian communities, the structure of the household codes would have sounded very familiar.  Aristotle wrote about the very same three pairs of social classes, as did first century philosophers like Josephus and Philo.  This hierarchical pattern of unilateral control with man always at the top was in fact expanded the throughout Greco-Roman social order all the way up to Caesar.  Patriarchy was thus seen by most as the main source of peace and stability, as essential to society as most of us would consider the rule of law today.

Most critical scholars would agree that Ephesians was written at a relatively later date than most of the Pauline epistles.  Its audience was thus not focused on Jesus’ immediate return but was instead concerned with how to live out their lives in a world where the kindom of God was, as it is today, in-breaking but not fully realized.  While the household codes would have been familiar throughout Greco-Roman society, they never would have been accompanied by admonitions for husbands to love their wives as their own bodies or for fathers to be kind to their children as they are in Ephesians.  The author is thus critiquing the patriarchy, oppression and empire of the so-called Pax Romana by instructing his audience about God’s in-breaking kindom… a kindom where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male or female in Christ.  The author is doing so simply under a rubric that wouldn’t have been as suspicious to Roman authorities.

The household codes therefore do not support patriarchy and oppression in the name of God but rather provide us with an example of what Christianity truly is… a subversive faith.  Yes, my sisters and brothers, the good news in tonight’s Ephesians text is that in Christ all are free and all are equal.  In Christ we have a faith that subverts oppressive power and that turns any unjust social system that would tell us otherwise upside down.  While horrible misuse of the household codes is part of our collective Christian history, so are the stories of subversive saints like the writer of Ephesians, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, like Dorothy Day and like the Honduran woman I met last week at the UN, who is organizing rural peasants against an illegitimate administration that is grabbing their land and selling their rivers to trans-national corporations.  Yes, the stories of these and other subversive saints, while instructive, even more importantly demonstrate to us that the kindom of God is indeed in-breaking, and it is a kindom where all are free, all serve one another and all are forgiven.

Dustin is currently a vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in Manhattan, having recently completed his second year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice building in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

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