Genesis 18:1-15 (21:1-7). The lectionary frustrates, as it skips Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Babel, and the early phases of Abraham’s life. Alas. Without retelling all that, we come to the marvelous drama of the three visitors who materialize under the Oaks of Mamre – depicted in the famous fresco in Ravenna.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his insightful Covenant and Conversation reading, sees Genesis 1-11 as a “tightly constructed four act drama on the theme of responsibility and moral development.” Adam and Eve fail to take personal responsibility; Cain refuses to assume moral responsibility; Noah (who saved only himself!) took no collective responsibility; and the builders of Babel know no ontological responsibility. Abraham reverses all four. He assumes personal responsibility, following God’s call; he is morally responsible, doing all he can to save Lot (so he is his brother’s son’s keeper!); he accept collective responsibility, intervening for the people of Sodom (unlike Noah, who just boarded his boat without protest!); and he understand his ontological responsibility, willing to sacrifice even his son.
Sacks sees Abraham as “a new human type.” Until now, people viewed God’s command as “a constraint from which they strive to break free.” For Abraham, God’s command is his life. He calls him the “unheroic hero,” as it’s not about him, but about God. He’s flawed, laughable at times. And then the last laugh comes.
Abraham’s legendary hospitality takes on a startling reading among the rabbis who composed the Midrashim. Lingering over the Hebrew word by word, they read it as “The Lord appeared to Abraham. Seeing three men, Abraham hurried to them, interrupting God’s speech, asking God to wait until he had waited on his visitors.” Hospitality trumps even the Divine Presence in Judaism – or maybe Abraham models how to see and hear God in the persons of strangers.
Maybe spirituality is seeing strangers, noticing them, and maybe discerning something angelic or even divine in them. They have a kind of omniscience. They know Sarah’s impending pregnancy – and they can even read her silent thoughts just inside the tent. Robert Alter’s rendering is vivid: “Sarah no longer had her woman’s flow. And Sarah laughed inwardly, saying ‘After being shriveled, shall I have pleasure?’” The laugh, yitzak, is cynical, and ironic – since we know the baby is coming, and that his very name Isaac, yitzak, means laughter. The sermon just has to play on this, how we might snicker at the possibility of new life, and then how when it comes we laugh – for the joy, or even at ourselves for our prior snickering.
Is the sermon about hospitality as a Christian virtue? What is hospitality during Covid-19? And during a season of racial tension? “He who receives you receives me” (Matthew 10:40)? Or about God doing what we can’t manage, even the impossible? I doubt many people I preach to expect anything extraordinary or beyond human capacity from God – and that’s likely because I as their pastor don’t expect so much either. Perhaps it’s because we’ve reduced the impossible we fantasize about from God to health issues. I wonder if the hospitality is linked to the divine impossible. In a pretty cool Maybe God podcast about ministry with immigrants at the border (“Can Loving ‘Illegals’ Save Our Souls?”), pastor John Garland steadfastly refuses to talk about what he actually does. Instead, he speaks of simply being there to witness to the new thing God is doing. Can we get there without it appearing to be or even being bullsh-t, or clergy PR?
Interesting, isn't it, how immigration has faded from sight, yielding to race (since George Floyd)... but it's all cut from the same cloth isn't it, theologically, sociologically, politically?
Romans 5:1-8 just appeared in the lectionary on March 15, so check out my blog from Lent 3 with fairly extensive reflection on this great text.
Matthew 9:35-10:8 (9-23) provides an intriguing snapshot into a turning point in Jesus’ ministry – between when he dazzles the crowds and draws a following to his sending out his followers to continue, expand and even augment his ministry. Matthew reports that Jesus has been curing “every” disease and “every” sickness – which can’t be reality. Donald Hagner calls the “every” here “hyperbolic and symbolic.” People still had cancer and Alzheimer’s and tooth decay and deafness after Jesus left town. If anything, his healings weren’t so people could feel better, but so serve as object lessons for his sermons. His #1 cure was for blindness – and he always then pointed out how the righteous people thought they could see but couldn’t.
This Jesus, the one who wept when Lazarus died and prayed in intense agony, had “compassion” on the crowds. The Greek esplanchnisthe connotes a twisting pain in the entrails, a writhing, intense emotion. It’s a common translation for the Hebrew riham, which means “womb” and then the pangs the womb underwent during the agonies of childbirth. Watch a woman in labor: that’s how Jesus felt when he saw the crowds, total strangers – and yet he knew them so intimately.
He didn’t blame them for their plight, or pity their lackluster, colorless, futile existence as the utterly impoverished and despised people in the Roman empire. He understood that they were “harassed and helpless.” How harassed are your people? By their employers, by heartbreaking friends and family, by the chipper Facebook culture that depresses them, by the rancor of political ideology, by ads, by loneliness. The Greek for “helpless,” errimmenoi, means literally “cast down to the ground.” The preacher portrays, imitates and embodies Jesus himself by simply naming the miseries and niggling frustrations people undergo all the time.
In Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus, besieged by throngs seeking help, sings “There’s too many of you; don’t push me; there’s too little of me; don’t crowd me.” He needs help, more of himself. In our Gospel, Jesus asks his laborers to pray for more laborers! How do we join him in this prayer today? By poking around for laity who’ll get busy? Connecting with non-church people who might turn out to be the naïve, zealous type of new Christian who doesn’t know to be a lazy Christian yet? Or even investing time with sharp young people, middle- and high-schoolers, college students, and daring to ask if they’ve thought about ministry? I became a laborer in the field because an Episcopal priest took an interest in me, somebody with a zero religious resume, and asked if I’d thought about ministry. Never, ever… but it planted a seed that grew years later.
What does the relationship with Jesus look like? I’m fond of “following” as the image. Jesus goes, I try to stay close. He sets the path, I simply trail behind in his wake. In Matthew 9, Jesus looks at his followers and “sends” them. That is, without him – unless you count spiritually or mystically. They have to figure out where and how to go, and what to do. They have “authority” – but what would that be for us? Not an M.Div. or that some bishop laid hands on me. It’s something more organic in me, or despite me. Maybe it’s just being fool enough to try: is that the authority? Is it trying to get out of the way and let Jesus be where I am?
I love it that the Gospels provide names of the twelve – although the lists are happily inconsistent. A dozen – with some wiggle room. They are in stained glass in my sanctuary, and little biographies (95% of which is total guesswork/fiction!) are posted in our children’s building.
Jesus, unhappily for me, directs them not to go to Gentiles but only to the Jews. I wish he’d urged the opposite, given anti-Semitism and often strained relationships with Judaism. Hagner reminds us that this limitation is “temporary,” as Matthew’s Gospel later on sends Jesus’ people to the whole world. Maybe, if you're white, we translate this into our world as We begin with white people. So much to work on in here before we can connect and change out there - although dithering on self for long is so lame.
Maybe we do go to the Jews first – not to proselytize, but to find common ground. As you saw above, my greatest learning in Scripture lately is from Rabbi Sacks. In our city of Charlotte, we have more in common, and can work more effectively with the synagogues than with many of the churches – including my own cantankerous Methodist denomination!
And while I’ve never tried it in a sermon, I do wonder about playing with the notion that the Kingdom “has come near.” It’s not in me, it’s not fully realized. But it’s close. It’s near. What’s near? My wife sitting next to me on the couch. My fears and anxieties, always hovering close by. Maybe it’s about developing some sort of dual vision/perception. I see the world as it is; but between the lines, as near as the breath I just took, the Kingdom really is close by – maybe like St. Augustine’s City of God?
Of course, if I really believed it were so close by, I wouldn’t build up securities or be so dang timid. St. Francis heard Jesus’ words about “take no bag, no silver,” and he and his friars (Italian for “brothers”!) did just that. I can't get there. I'm taking my bags, checking out my portfolio, garnering funds. I can only stand in awe, with a restless sense of penitence and yearning.
Check out my new book, Birth: The Mystery of Being Born (in the new Pastoring for Life: Theological Wisdom for Ministering Well series). Loved researching it, learned so much - and it's reshaped my own thinking about life, birth, parenting, adoption, and being "born again."