June 15, 2008
Last week the Hebrew Scriptures passage was about God, out of grace, calling to Abram — but not to his wife Sarai. Abram was 75 years old when they moved into the land of Canaan, Sarai was presumed barren (the name Sarai means mockery) and as we just heard, this week’s passage is about how the now 99 year old Abraham, as he has since been renamed to mean "father of many nations", and Sarah, as she has been renamed to mean "princess", were, out of God’s grace, promised a son within the next year.
One of the things I really dislike about the lectionary we follow is how much context it omits as it leaps from passage to passage, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures. Here’s some of what we missed. Abram and Sarai went into Egypt where he claimed she was his sister and Pharaoh took her into his harem. For Abraham, this would keep her alive until he could bear a son. Commentators have speculated whether Sarai went into the harem willingly, possibly thinking Abram was impotent and that she could get a son by Pharaoh to bring about God’s promise of Abraham as the father of a great nation. But Pharaoh realized that Sarai was Abram’s wife and expelled both of them from Egypt. Abram later had a vision in which God renewed his promise to give him a great reward, and that he would have descendents as numerous as the stars. But nothing happened to make that come true.
Sarai then decided it was up to her to get her husband a son. She told Abram to have intercourse with her Egyptian slave girl, so that she, Sarai could claim the boy as her son. Sarai depersonalized this woman – she never spoke her name, Hagar, and never acknowledged that Hagar might have a claim on the boy. We are not told what either Hagar or Abram thought about this, but the now 85 year old Abram complied and impregnated Hagar. Then Hagar looked at Sarai with contempt, but instead of Sarai taking responsibility for her presumption in acting for God, she demanded that Abram give her justice. And in what is one of the saddest parts of Scripture for me, Abram wimped out – he gave the green light to Sarai to mistreat Hagar. We refer to Father Abraham, but let’s be honest, in this tale he’s not a particularly good role model of a prospective father. God sent an angel to Hagar telling her to submit to Sarai’s abuse, and a blessing that Ishmael would bear her descendents. Hagar did return and bore Abram’s first son, Ishmael.
Thirteen years later Abram was now 99. This time God appeared to him and, out of grace, renewed the covenant, this time renaming him as Abraham, the father of many nations, and renaming Sarai as Sarah, promising that she would bear Abraham a son and that she would be the mother of nations. Abraham pleaded that Ishmael would live under God’s special care. But while God promised that Ishmael would be a great nation, God insisted that the promise to Abraham would come through Sarah’s son to be, to be named Isaac. We don’t know why Abram tried to do right by Ishmael. Maybe he felt guilty for allowing Ishmael’s mother to be abused by Sarah. Maybe he saw special potential in Ishmael. Maybe he grew into being a good father.
That’s only part of what was skipped between the readings for last week and the readings for this week. By the time the three messengers came and told Abraham that he would have a son by Sarah, he was already a father. But after Isaac is born, soon – within two chapters -Sarah will drive Hagar and Ishmael away into the desert again, and so Abraham will lose his first son, Ishmael. And two chapters after that God will test Abraham by telling him to take "Isaac, your only son, whom you love," and offer him as a sacrifice. Abraham will comply, willing to lose his second son. Again, Abraham’s response is not exactly what I would call that of a good father. But let’s not be too hard on him; for centuries fathers (and mothers) have been willing to sacrifice the lives of their sons (and now their daughters) in war. To be honest, we Americans do this indirectly – we entrust to the President and the Congress the responsibility to send our sons and daughters who have volunteered to serve in the military to places where their lives can be sacrificed.
The Bible makes it clear that after God provides, out of grace, a ram so that Isaac is spared, Abraham returns to Sarah with his men but without Isaac – and what son would want to go back home with such a father? What son wouldn’t be emotionally scarred by knowing his father had been trying to kill him, particularly at the command of a god that the son had never heard of or dreamed of or seen? For decades Abraham craved a son as the means by which the promises of land and many descendents would come true, and then in a few short years he winds up estranged from both sons. What redeems Abraham’s fatherhood a little bit for me is that at his death, Ishmael and Isaac reunited to bury him at Hebron.
Father Abraham, Happy Father’s Day, even though you weren’t a perfect father! I know some of you men and women have had fathers and step-fathers who were far worse than Abraham – you’ve shared that in prayers, in School of Christian Living classes, in small groups and mission groups, and on retreats. And yet, as I look at the men in the congregation, I see a pretty good group of fathers and step-fathers, and grandfathers. So not all the sins of one generation have to be visited upon another. Men can and do choose life-giving roles as fathers. I want to read you a short list of attributes of a father distributed a few years ago in the Army –
Protects his family
Teaches his children
Provides for his family
Helps his children develop character
Helps his children develop competence
Is a companion to his wife
Teaches his children physical prowess
Is involved with his children
Can be relied on to do the right thing
Uses his strength to help his family
You might quibble with one or two things in it, but all in all, it’s not a bad list of what a good father should do. To me it describes the fathers in this room. So Happy Father’s Day to all of my fellow fathers.
At first I wondered why the lectionary linked the story of the annunciation of Sarah’s pregnancy to today’s Gospel. At first I thought, it’s a parallel story. It’s about messengers going to make an announcement, about the kind of welcome they would get, which would determine whether they would give a blessing.
Then I thought that the linkage may be more about the message. It’s about God’s grace. God’s grace to Abraham in the promise of a son through which Abraham would have as many descendents as there are stars in the sky, through which Abraham and the descendents would have a claim to the land, and through which God’s covenant would last from generation to generation. God’s grace to the lost sheep of Israel, the kingdom of God has arrived in the person and ministry of Jesus.
But what is the kingdom of God? In the latest issue of The Christian Century there is an essay entitled "Kingdom Come: The public meaning of the Gospels," by N.T. Wright, bishop of Durham in the Church of England, and a person known for his insightful dialogues with Marcus Borg. Wright says that
The central message of all four canonical Gospels is that the Creator god, Israel’s God, is at last reclaiming the whole world as his own, in and through Jesus of Nazareth which is Jesus’ answer to the question, What would it look like if God were running this show?
but that there is a
determination of the Western world and church to make sure that the four Gospels will not be able to say what they want to say, but will be patronized, muzzled, dismembered and eventually eliminated altogether as a force to be reckoned with.
This comes from our fear that "God running the world" will be a
celestial tyrant imposing his will on an unwilling world and unwilling human beings, cramping their style, squashing their individuality and their very humanness, requiring them to conform to arbitrary and hurtful laws, and threatening them with dire consequences if they resist…But the whole point of the Gospels is that the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven is precisely not the imposition of an alien and dehumanizing tyranny, but rather the confrontation of alien and dehumanizing tyrannies with the news of a God – the God recognized in Jesus – who is radically different from them all, and whose inbreaking justice aims at rescuing and restoring genuine humanness.
The lesson is twofold: (1) Yes, Jesus did indeed launch God’s saving sovereignty on earth as in heaven; but this could not be accomplished without his death and resurrection. The problem to which God’s kingdom-project was and is the answer is deeper than can be addressed by a social program alone.
(2) Yes, Jesus did, as Paul says, die for our sins, but his whole agenda of dealing with sin and all its effects and consequences was never about rescuing individual souls from the world but about saving humans so that they could become part of his project of saving the world.
Then I thought that the linkage may be more about the reception to the message. Sarah doubted the good news and laughed, and then denied that she doubted and laughed, and the three men went on down the way to Sodom, prepared to destroy it. Jesus instructed the disciples that if anyone would not receive them or listen to what they had to say, then they should leave and it would be worse off for that place than it was for Sodom and Gomorrah.
Are we really open to grace, to hearing that the kingdom of God has come, that God is truly running the show here in the Washington, DC area now in June of 2008? I am not sure that I am really open to grace, to the idea that God is truly running the show, let alone to the news that it has already happened. I suspect that I am not alone, that we as Seekers are challenged to truly listen with open ears, open minds, and open hearts to the news that God’s grace, the kingdom of God, has come. Have there already been messengers to Seekers? How have we received those messengers to us?
Then I thought, the linkage is about the messengers. The Jewish legends interpreting the story of the annunciation to Sarah name the three men as angels, but angels in early Judaism merely are messengers who brought God’s word to a person. And here in Matthew’s Gospel are the 12 disciples, re-described now as apostles because they are sent to bring a message: the Kingdom of God is here. In the text they are individually named right after they are given their new mission, and right after that they are sent out two by two with five tasks: to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out devils. They didn’t go to seminary first. They hadn’t gone to medical school or been trained as a psychotherapist first. They hadn’t taken a commitment to be a Steward of Seekers Church. They hadn’t had a class on "call" in the School of Christian Living, or worked on discerning God’s particular call for their lives.
All that had happened was that a few chapters earlier Jesus had come to them and invited them to come and fish for humanity and for some reason they had decided to take him at his word. And now, here they are, being sent out as missionaries of God’s grace, being told to do the very same things Jesus had done: proclaim that the Kingdom of God had come, heal the sick, cleanse lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons.
Jesus just assumes they are capable of doing it, without any special training. And even they seem to assume they can do it. Think about it: on numerous occasions in all four of the Gospels we read that the disciples griped and grumbled about what they found themselves doing because they were with Jesus, or needed help understanding what they were to do. And yet here, not a single objection or discouraging word or question.
And, frankly, that scares me. Because when I call myself a Christian, I am claiming to be a disciple. At any moment Jesus can say, "David, I’m going to give you someone to partner with, and you are going to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out devils." "But, Jesus, what about my call?" "Oh, you are still going to live out your call, but in addition, you’re going to do exactly what I do and what the other disciples have done. You’re going to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out devils." "But…" "No but’s. Just do it."
What would my life be like if I really took being a disciple of Jesus seriously? Now, at my age. What would Seekers Church be like if all of us, now, at our respective ages, took our acceptance of discipleship seriously enough to do exactly what Jesus expects his disciples to do — to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out devils.
Do I, do we, want to risk finding out? We are in Pentecost, the Spirit has been given to us. Can we dare to say, "Here am I, Lord, send me"?