Monday, June 19, 2017

What is your answer . . . What is our answer?

     Happy Father’s Day.  Those looking at the readings probably thought I would preach on the Old Testament today.  After all, it has been almost three months since I was able to give an Old Testament sermon and Genesis 18 is the only reading about fatherhood today, right?
     As background to our passage, let me remind you of some of the setting and some of the significant details.  Those who suffered through the Genesis Bible study can read the catechesis in the back of the BCP.  What?  You don’t think I have not done that during boring or repeated sermons myself?
     The first thing we need to remember is that this story takes place in about the 24th year of a 25 year unveiling of the covenant.  24 years prior to this reading, Sarah and Abraham responded to God’s call on their lives by leaving Ur and heading southwest some 500 miles—on foot.  In that time, God has continued to unfold His covenant plans for them.  First, there was the promise of an heir.  Then it was the promise of an heir that was of Abraham’s issue.  Now they both learn, in their late 90’s, that the heir will be a child who belongs to both of them.  Spread amongst that unveiling are lots of little stories.  Despite her age, Sarah seems to be a hottie.  Kings want her for their harems.  There is a risk about the land with Lot, and then further risk when Abraham leads his men into battle against five kings in order to free Lot.  Sometimes, because Sarah and Abraham do not have all the information, they make decisions which seem reasonable but actually prove to be an obstacle to God’s planned covenant.  They adopt a son, as was the cultural practice.  Sarah gives her handmaid to her husband to have a child.  In short, there are lots and lots of obstacles to God’s plan for this couple and their family, some of which are self-inflicted.  And we get only the highlights and lowlights.
     Imagine if I asked you to write a narrative about your life the last couple decades and confine it to only 6-8 chapters.  What would you include?  What would you exclude?  Now pretend that I wanted you only writing about your faith walk with the Lord.  How would that change what you shared?  Would you focus only on the blessings?  Would you maybe share how you believed and acted in one way only to learn that God had a better plan for you?  How would you choose what to share?  And what of your day to day “ordinary” life?  Would you expect us to think you had no ordinary days over a 24 year period?  Of course not!  That’s what we have from the life of Sarah and Abraham.  Of course, they had help.  God caused the important parts of their walk with Him to be recorded and preserved for our benefit.
     Because last week was Trinity Sunday, we did not get to read what happened right before our story today.  The prior section was all about circumcision.  I’m sorry, gentlemen.  I know it’s Father’s Day.  I know the last thing you wanted to think about today was adult circumcision.  But that lets us understand why Abraham and his retinue are reclining under the tree.  God has used circumcision as an outward sign of the inward and invisible grace present in Abraham and his family.  The outward mark is the circumcision.  The inward grace is that this family has been chosen by God to be a blessing to the world!  One insignificant family will be the means by which God’s redeeming love will be made known to all.  The seed of that covenant will be our Lord Christ, but there will be lots to do in the interim.  Abraham and the fellas do not really want to be working.  Things hurt.  And in that warm climate in the sun, sweat is a bit too common.  How many of us like getting salt in our paper cuts or hangnails?  Just think of sweating after circumcision!
     Look at the location.  It is a place called Mamre.  You probably know nothing about Mamre.  Mamre was important for at least three reasons.  Josephus, the famous Jewish-Roman historian, records that some thought the tree at Mamre was as old as the world.  The tree was really a terebinth—more of a big branchy shrub than what you and I consider a tree in Middle Tennessee.  This was the biggest anyone had ever seen, so they assumed it was the oldest.  That caused some sacred value to be assigned to the place.  Mamre is also the place where Abraham built the altar to the Lord after the renewal of the covenant.  Not only was Abraham given a renewed and further revealed covenant in this place; he built an altar of thanksgiving for that renewal and the outward mark of that inner grace that cause us men to squirm!  It is that history that caused some Jews to want the Temple of the Lord to be built in Mamre rather than Jerusalem.  Obviously, Jerusalem won.  David and Solomon, however, had to contend with this “secular” and historical significance when building the Temple in Jerusalem rather than this location.  We don’t hear lots about those fights, but you can imagine them in your minds.  And Mamre will become the burial location for Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac.  Imagine the cultural draw to build the Temple in this place!  I share all this with you this morning to give you some sense of the background the Jews would have known when they encountered this story.  In some ways, the terebinth of Mamre was a precursor to the burning bush!
     Now to our story.  In the middle of the heat of the day, we are told, three strangers appear travelling.  Those of us who have travelled understand that cultures in warm environments often task a break during the noonday sun.  Going back three thousand years or so, we can easily understand why some people would not risk the heat of the day to travel.  It was simply too dangerous, especially when one lacked the caravan goods like water!  Yet three men come strolling by Abraham in the heat of the day.  Abraham, still recovering from his circumcision, jumps up from under the big bush and runs to greet the men on the road.
     We are not told who the men are.  Much hay has been made over the years interpreting the passage.  Are they angels?  Are they somehow the Triune God walking the earth?  Are they just common men given the voice of the Lord?  We do not know, and Scripture seems not to think that detail important.  What we do know is that despite his physical discomfort, Abraham runs to the men and enjoins them to rest with him during the heat of the day.  It is at this point that we often hear long sermons on the obligation of hospitality.  I will not be taking that path as I do not believe it is the lesson we are called to consider here at Advent.  But notice the details.  Abraham offers water to drink and to clean themselves, a morsel of bread, and a place in the shade.  What he gives them is bread made from the “king’s flour,” the best flour he has available, curds and milk – dare we think butter--, and meat.  Abraham offers a small repast and escape and provides a feast.
     Then begins the part that should interest us this day at Advent.  One of the strangers asks Abraham where his wife Sarah is.  Hmmm.  How do they know her name?  Has a servant let her name slip?  Has Abraham called her name out loud in giving instructions?  We just don’t know.  What we do know is that she is inside the tent.  You have probably heard it told to you over and over and over again that Jewish women were simply property of their husbands.  You have probably heard it so many times that you accept that idea as a foundational truth.  It is not.  I will not go into all the details this morning, as it is not the focus of this sermon for today, but the Jews in particular were weird in the Ancient Near East because they elevated women.  Oh, to be sure, by modern standards, there was no exact equality.  But it is the Jews who make the revealed claim to the world that women and men both are created in the image of God.  For a Jewish male to be able to sit at the gate and make decisions for a village, a wife had to be running the household well.  They had different jobs, but no faithful Jewish male would have ever thought of his wife as property.  And if he did, she would likely disabuse him of that stupid notion quickly and loudly.  The first Jewish audience would have likely thought it weird that Sarah was not playing the proper role of hostess with respect to these three strangers, just as her husband was playing the role of host.  What details we have remind us of that, right?  While Abraham is choosing the calf, Sarah is making the loaves of bread.  She is as active in hospitality as her husband except for this one detail: she stays in the tent.  Why?
     I think the reason is told us in the passage.  Our translators render her condition in such wonderful euphemism.  She was advanced in age and it had ceased to be with her in the manner of women.  LOL  I wish I had been videoing you all as I said that sentence.  I thought there was a lot of squirming when I spoke of the circumcision of Abraham’s retinue.  Yes.  Sarah is post-menopausal.  Big shock, I know.  A ninety year old woman no longer menstruates.  That is a significant detail on two accounts, though.  Given the upcoming revelation, how can she and Abraham have a child together?  Not to be crass, but they are of an age when one need not worry about birth control.  In fact, our society spends a small fortune annually trying to reverse the effects of such aging on our libidos and on our ability to enjoy sex.
     Just as significantly, though, I think it provides us with the reason why Sarah stays in the tent and avoids hosting the strangers with her husband.  Your squirming a few moments ago, when I pointed out she was post-menopausal, hints at the discomfort we feel about menstruating women.  It’s culturally ingrained in us.  Many cultures freak at the idea of menstruating women.  We have texts from the ANE, in particular, which forbid menstruating women coming into the presence of a king or his retinue.  Heck, the Jews will received God’s holy instruction, the torah, which will tell them that menstruating women cannot go to the Temple while on their periods and that ritual purification will be required after the bleeding stops in order to worship God.  Blood “down there” is a subject to be avoided at all costs.
     Now, place yourself in Sarah’s tent.  Culturally, you are likely expected to absent yourself from others while menstruating.  You have been feted by kings.  You were courageous enough to follow your husband on a crazy journey.  You have been left in charge while he went after Lot.  You are not known for your timidity or lack of confidence.  Yet now you stay in a tent?  When hospitality demands your presence, you absent yourself?  I think the likely happening here was that she started bleeding while making the bread.  Being a woman of a certain age and wisdom, she understands what this means.  Today we would recognize it as a sign of cervical or other internal cancers.  For women of her day, it was a sign of death.  Old women bleeding down there was never a good sign.
     Is this explicit in the text?  No.  But it does answer a couple important questions.  Why does she stay in the tent?  What prompts the stranger to make the weird prophesy?  To our ears, the prophesy sounds out of place.  Why not wait until they are both there?  The stranger knows Sarah’s name.  Now that we learn it is the Lord, we know He knows everything about her.  What prompts Him to make that promise in this way?  Imagine the timing.  She thinks she has received a death sentence, and the Lord tells her and Abraham that He will return in a year to see her son.  That might cause any of us to laugh, to scoff at the Lord’s promise, and to do so determinedly.
     Laughter, of course, figures prominently into this section of the life of the holy family.  Much is made of her laughing and Abraham’s laughing.  Abraham will stop laughing, and Sarah will deny that she laughed.  The child born as a result of this prophesy will be named, Isaac, which means “he laughs.”  The split between Ishmael and Isaac will be over what?  Laughter.  Sarah will see Ishmael making young Isaac laugh, and she decides to cast Hagar and the young man out.  The cultural root of the Arab-Israeli conflict is laughter.
     What would cause Sarah to scoff so much?  What would cause her not to believe the Lord, once she knew His identity?  Given their shared experiences and multiple redemptive events, what would cause Sarah to be a bit harder of heart than Abraham?  It fits, does it not?  That’s not to say something else might fit, but maybe it helps us understand Sarah’s fear.  She and her husband have had 24 years of experience the presence and provision of the Lord.  What could cause her to fear but death itself?
     Into that scoffing and reflection, the Lord hurls another question.  Is anything too wonderful / too hard for the Lord?  Clearly the question is rhetorical.  He expects a “no” answer.  And His question carries a range of meaning.  The word our translators chose to render as wonderful can also mean hard or difficult.  A fairer translation for us might be, Ís anything beyond the Lord?  He can do anything.  It does not matter how hard it seems to us, how wonderful it seems to us, how out of place it may seem to us, God can do whatever He pleases.  He can even cause a woman almost a hundred years of age to become pregnant for the first time and bear a son, even when her experience and the world’s wisdom proclaims something else!  And such knowledge, such faith, ought to inspire in us a joyful laughter.  Why do we gather here this morning?  What is the meaning of Eucharist?  It is good thanks.  It is joyful thanks.  We gather here each week to remind ourselves of the saving work God has done through the birth of another Babe, and we gather to thank Him joyfully for all that He has done is our lives.
     How does such a narrative apply to us at Church of the Advent in Nashville Tennessee some three thousand years later?  The connection, it seems to me, is easy to see.  Do we reflect a community, a Christian community, that is joyfully confident in the promises and power of God?  Certainly the events of the last couple months would testify against us.  In many ways, we have been a community of scoffers like Sarah, rather than a community of joyful believers.  What’s the impact?  Place yourself in the role of a visitor, either someone who believes in the promises and power of God already or one who is seeking this person we call God.  How would you the visitor respond to us?  If the people you encountered lived fearful or angry or scoffing lives, would you be drawn in?  Or would you continue to look elsewhere?  Would you wonder whether such a community of so-called faith knew God?
     And please do not hear me condemning you this morning.  This is an “us” thing.  I am often the chief scoffer among you.  After eight o’clock I was asked when I scoff.  An easy one was during the search process.  At that time I knew very few Adventers, maybe Dale and Dick.  I had met Tina in the office and talked to Hunter on the phone and by e-mail.  The rest of you were pictures or blank spaces in a directory.  That first morning I get the e-mail and then the phone call from Justin’s secretary about Rome.  Talk about a scoffer.  I am the guy who hangs up the phone because stuff like that does not happen!  I have laid hands on a dying person and watched God heal them.  I have experienced provision in the most incredible ways.  And I thought something as unremarkable as a secretary calling for an Archbishop of Canterbury was unbelievable.  Not once did it occur to me that she had tracked me down to a Holiday Inn Express in Cool Springs.  I can certainly relate to Sarah’s scoffing.
     Most of you all know that in a prior life I was a broker.  Prior to that I had studied Classics.  One of Karen’s and my dreams or grand plans was that, after we made our fortune and the four kids had grown, we would go to Rome and Athens.  We would do it right.  When I finally accepted a call to seminary, that was just one of the dreams that Karen and I had to accept was never going to happen.  In my finite wisdom, I knew churches could not support priests with four kids.  It was too hard; it was too expensive.  And I found myself in a hotel in Cool Springs listening to the Archbishop’s secretary asking me to work for him and the Holy Father, at the Holy Father’s request!  What I got out of that was a bit of a tour of Rome that I would never have gotten otherwise.  I could have been as rich as our current President, and it would have done me no good.  And yes, there is more that I wish I could have seen and done, and all of it with my wife, but it was beyond my wildest dreams.  Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?  My laughter changed from scoffing to something far more joyful.
     I was reminded of that question again this week when James Harvey came into my office.  Due to our schedules, I don’t think we had connected since Lent.  We chuckle at how we met, sometimes, but James came in this week to touch base and share a couple stories.  For those of you wondering why the name is tickling your ears, you pray for him and his family every week in the Prayer of the People and you have supported them through discretionary funds. 
     James recently returned from a mission trip to Siberia.  James and his team had gone with the intention of planting a church in an unchurched valley in Siberia.  When they arrived in this valley, they found that God had gone ahead of them.  Though the world thought this valley unchurched, there was a man functioning as a bi-vocational clergy there.  Well, bi-vocational in the sense that he was paid for his secular work and able to do the pastoring stuff for free.  As they spent time with this man, the team realized they had misheard their call.  They were helping water and nurture a church that had already formed before their arrival.  They had to set aside their plans and do the work God had given them to do.
     Unknown to them at the beginning was the redemptive role they were playing in this pastor’s life.  You see, when he first felt this urge or call to start a home church, he went to the next valley over and spoke to the mainline missionaries over there.  They were encouraging in that they were excited he had been called.  But they were discouraging in that there was a lot he needed to do before they would sign off on him being a pastor in their traditions.  This group of missionaries simply accepted the man and began working with him to teach him what he kind of already knew.  They let him ask lots of questions and steer the conversation where he wanted, no doubt with sharing bits of their wisdom.  When the man was too busy with work, the missionary team even dug him a new mechanic’s bay, so he could work on more cars—or hire others to do the work for him, freeing him up for more of the work of a church.  By the end of their time there, the team and the pastor were sharing their personal stories of redemption in their lives—how God had provided in the midst of privation, how God had healed bodies that were broken, and how God is always to be glorified for that amazing grace in their lives.  A pastor, who had been rejected for lack of learning and a lack of not doing this planting thing the right way by some, found himself encouraged by others, others who were rejoicing that in this pastor, yet another of God’s promises had been fulfilled!  He runs ahead of us and with us!  He uses the uneducated to His wise purposes!
     And, lest you think that these are special stories, that God rewards priests and missionaries because they are special, think of our collective history at Advent.  Our spiritual forebears fought poverty in the early and mid 1800’s.  Think of the absurdity of that notion.  Our Episcopal forebears, the rich and power Episcopalians of the cathedral in Nashville, TN, decided that the poor should be free to worship God with the rich and powerful.  How do you think other Episcopalians took to that odd notion?  Today it seems rather passé, but in those days it was revolutionary!  And they were the shakers and movers of this community!  They were the politicians, the doctors, the accountants.  We are not known for our work with blue collar folks today.  We tend to attract white collar or entrepreneurial individuals to our worship.  Yet our forebears held so tightly to the idea that God loves the poor that they split from that congregation and founded a church that rejected pew taxes.  Can you imagine!  And yet that scoffing turned to joy years later in the Church, when the Church finally lived up to the reminder that God loves the widow, the orphan, the outcast, and the poor.
     And then, some three decades later, another later generation of our spiritual forebears found themselves in the middle of the race wars of the 1870’s.  As crazy as suggesting that God loves poor people might sound, can you imagine yourself with the courage and conviction to tell your recently defeated brothers and sisters that God loved the freed slave as much as he loved the wealthy white folk?  Who among us would have that kind of courage?  Yet Adventers did.  Adventers helped lead the effort to incorporate the freed slaves in the life of worship in the Southern Church, especially in and around Nashville.  Can you imagine the scoffing they faced?  Can you imagine the resistance?  When George and Billy stepped into the anti-racism leadership role in the diocese, I know they wondered the use.  I’m sure some of you wondered what good it would do.  But in God’s eyes, it seems rather normal for Adventers to be taking on incredible evil, such as slavery, poverty, or racism, confident in His promises and His ability to redeem.  While the work may be daunting and oppressive, we can face it with joyful laughter, expectant that He will use our faithful labors to His redemptive purposes, and bring true joy.  Such has been His work since the days of Abraham and Sarah, such as been His work during the first generations of this parish, and such will be His work in this day and in this place, if we but seek out His will and His purposes.
     Brothers and sisters, fellow Adventers, I realize that these last few months have been challenging.  I recognize that there is a level of anxiety as we have been working to figure out our Lord’s plan for us in this community and in our age.  I get all that.  There is much about which we can be concerned and some things which could easily distract us.  But we are the inheritors of those promises made to Abraham and Sarah so long ago in Mamre.  We are the inheritors of that courage and perseverance imparted to Adventers in ages past.  We are, each of us, by virtue of our baptism into our Lord’s death and Resurrection, promised that He is with us in whatever journey we take, even when we take detours or choose routes that seemingly make things tougher for Him to redeem.  And we are promised that, so long as we seek to glorify Him in our lives, both collectively and individually, He will bless us and glorify Himself in us.  That is His promise to us as sons and daughters; that is His promise to us as His covenantal Bride.  The real question for us, the question that others likely have for us when they visit, is whether we are scoffers or joyful believers.  How we act, how we speak, how we love, even how we dispute testifies to them our answer to that question, Is anything too wonderful or too hard for the Lord?

In Christ’s Peace,

Brian†