Sunday, June 18, 2017

Divine Comedy

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7 (NRSV)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Welcome to Ordinary Time. Or this liturgical season we also call “Time after Pentecost.” It’s a season we mark with green. Green paraments. Green stoles. Green banners. Green, a color that signifies growth. When lawns are growing. Gardens are growing, Crops are growing.

There’s growth in the church, too.

Our texts from the Gospel of Matthew go on for several weeks to explain to us what discipleship means, how we grow in our faith and how we grow in our response to God’s grace.

In our readings from the Old Testament (or Hebrew scripture) during this Ordinary time, we have two patterns to choose from. The first is a series of texts that are selected to complement the Matthew readings. The second pattern--the one we’ll be following over the next 12 weeks--tell us of the family stories of Abraham. Of God’s call to Abraham and covenant with him. It is these stories that will be the focus of my preaching. And, hopefully, the focus of your further study and thought at home.

We don’t often hear these stories. And so, this is an opportunity for us to dig deep into them. Some of us may have never heard these stories. For others, it may be the first time since childhood. Nevertheless, this is an opportunity for us to learn of Abraham and Sarah, and to see how God worked in their lives and, perhaps, envision how God might work in ours.

So, let’s begin.

Well, almost.

I say that because our story today doesn’t actually start at the beginning of Abraham’s story. Through a quirk in the liturgical season this year, we’ve lost a few chapters of the story.

We’ve missed God’s call to Abraham and his family to move from Ur in Mesopotamia down to Canaan. Seemingly, out of the blue, God calls Abraham to move away from his homeland, away from his family, away from his father’s household. And to make a long journey. Away to a place that is culturally foreign to him.

One of the things I’ve found interesting since moving here is how deep-rooted many families are in this state. Going back for generations. A few weeks ago I was talking to a family at the pantry--the Preston family, of the Preston Plantation in Trimble Co.. This family has lived in Kentucky for generations.

God’s call to Abraham to move from Ur to Canaan would have been like a call for the Preston’s to move from Bedford to Boston, Massachusetts. To a land completely different. Away from their family and their roots. To a place culturally foreign to them.

With God’s call, though, came a promise. A threefold promise. God promised to make of Abraham a great nation. God promised that Abraham’s name would be respected for generations. And God promised to bless him so that he could be a blessing to all the families of the earth.

And, so, they set out. Abraham, Sarah, and Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Eventually, they made it to Canaan. At first, they didn’t settle down. They lived a rather nomadic life, moving down to Egypt, then up to southern Canaan, and a few more places in between. And, also, in between, Abraham and Lot decided to go their separate ways.

After a while, Abraham and Sarah arrived in Hebron. It was there, in Hebron, located between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean, that they settled. In Canaan. Near--as our story reads--near the “oaks of Mamre.”

Time passed. Abraham and Sarah were getting on in years. And still, no children. The promise from God that they were the beginning of a great nation hung over them. So, they decided to take things into their own hands.

We have a tendency as human beings to do that, don’t we? We become impatient. Or we seek to control our circumstances. Or even to control God and God’s promises.

Abraham and Sarah were no different that we. They developed a plan. Abraham decided that his chief servant, his head of household, would become his heir.

God’s response? “No, I don’t think so. That’s not what I promised you, Abraham. I promised you that you would have a son. A blood heir. And from this blood relative, I promised you would become a great people.”

So, Abraham and Sarah developed a second plan. Sarah offered her maid-servant, Hagar, to Abraham, so that Abraham could have a son who was of his own flesh and blood. And, that worked. For a moment.

Until God, once again, said, “No. This isn’t my plan for you. My plan is that you will have a son with Sarah.” Then, God renewed the covenant with Abraham. Promising, once again, that Abraham would be the father of nations. And calling for a visible mark, a reminder of this promise, upon every male in Abraham’s household.

Abraham’s response? Well, to the men in this room, if God came to you at age 99 and said you would be the father of many nations, what would your response be?
Yes. Abraham laughed. He was no different. Yet, even in the midst of his own doubt and cynicism, and the ridiculousness of God’s plan, he went along with it. And, he, along with all of the men in his household, was circumcised.
And Abraham and Sarah, once again, waited.

It is here, finally, that today’s story picks up. It open with the sentence, “The Lord appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre while he sat at the entrance of his tent in the day’s heat.” In reading this, we know that God appeared to Abraham. Abraham, however, didn’t. At least, not initially.

What Abraham experienced that day, as he was sitting in his tent to get away from the heat of the day, three men approached him. He sees them and immediately runs to them to invite them in. Do you notice that Abraham goes out to them?

Then, Abraham shows deep hospitality to them.  It’s similar to the hospitality that I’ve experienced myself, both in Texas and here.

He brings his guests to the shade of the nearby trees. He brings them water to wash their feet and to drink and refresh themselves. And then he really opens the hospitality floodgates. He tells Sarah to prepare bread. And this isn’t any small amount. According to our story, he tells her to get 23 quarts of flour and make bread out of it. (That’s close to 25 loaves of bread.) And he tells his servant to kill one of the calves and to cook it.

Abraham then serves a sumptuous feast of veal and bread and butter and milk, and I’m sure there probably was a little wine in there, too.  It was amazing hospitality!

As they are eating, these three strangers reveal the purpose of their visit. It’s to announce that within the next year, Sarah, at around age 99, and Abraham, at around age 100, will have a child. A boy, named Isaac.

Now, Sarah, has not been present at this meal. She is not allowed there culturally. But, like any good wife, she’s listening in. And when she hears this announcement, she, like Abraham, laughs.

I put this proposition out to the WISE group on Thursday. I asked them how they might respond if God came to them and said that, at age 90 (I knocked down ten years!), they would get pregnant and give birth to a child.

They, laughed, too. Just like Sarah.

We are not that different from Abraham and Sarah. God promises these amazing things from inconceivable people and places and we laugh. Maybe it’s doubt. Maybe it’s cynicism. Maybe it’s because so often we make all of these great plans and everything just seems to fall apart.

But, it is there. In the midst of our cynicism. And our doubt. And our failed plans. And our laughter. It is there, that God steps in. Like some great divine comedy. God steps in and turns it all around to accomplish God’s purpose. Just like Abraham and Sarah. Just like us.

And, that, my friends, in this ordinary time, is anything but ordinary. Amen.

Preached June 18, 2017, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
2nd Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7; Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8.

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