Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8
Good morning, and welcome to St. Paul’s! You’ve probably noticed that our altar hangings and vestments have turned to green—that’s because we are now in Ordinary time. It is not ordinary time because it is without any special feast to look forward to, or back on (although that is true); it is ordinary as in ordinal—we are counting. There are two periods of ordinary time in our calendar – the days after Epiphany until Ash Wednesday, and this, the days after Pentecost until Advent.
And in this long period we are now entering, our lectionary (that’s the three-year schedule of readings for each Sunday) gives us a choice to make: Would we like readings that, week to week, have a particular theme (that is, tie together), or would we like to have Old Testament readings that sequentially tell some of the stories of our pre-Christian tradition (paired with the same New Testament readings as in the other scheme)?
For the last two years we have followed the thematic route; but this year, I have decided we will walk the other road. And the reason for that choice for me this year is STORY.
In my study of scripture over the last year I have become increasingly interested in the role of story in our faith. This really came to a head for me with our recent study of the story of King David. As you may recall, we explored the tale of King David primarily through a recent novelization of the David story, The Secret Chord, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks. We compared her version of the story to the Biblical version, and we examined the ways David’s story has been told in movies and visual art. I really enjoyed our exploration of the core story and the many ways it has been expressed.
The stories of the Old Testament are particularly rich. We certainly learned that when we studied the book of Genesis last fall. As our guide for that exploration we used a great book by Walter Brueggemann, a leading Old Testament scholar of our time. One of the interesting themes he teased out in his journey through Genesis was that much of that story is about humanity learning to work with God and trust God, but not just that—it was also about God learning how to relate to humanity and how to be our God. Hang on to that idea—I’ll come back to it.
This morning we hear a portion of the story of Abraham and Sarah. You will recall that, before this morning’s passage picks up the story, God has promised Abraham a land, a nation of people, and a blessing. Then God promises that he and Sarah will have a boy through whom this line of descendants will flow.
So in today’s passage we are told that the Lord appears to Abraham. But interestingly, Abraham looks up and sees three men. Why three? Well, we don’t know. Some want to say this is about our Triune God—the one we were just focusing on last week. But, of course, that would be reading something into this text that is simply not there, since the idea of God in three persons is clearly not a theological concept at the time this story was written down or told. Others have suggested that it was the Lord God accompanied by two angels—the angels that will visit the city of Sodom in the next chapter.
And the question is further complicated by the fact that sometimes the text has singular verbs and pronouns, and sometimes plural—referring to the same visitors (or visitor). I have to say I find this puzzle in the text fascinating. What ideas of God have we lost to time? Why did the storyteller make these particular choices?
One explanation may be that this story is actually the fusion of two different stories—one with a single visitor, another with a trio. Hebrew scholar Robert Alter notes that this story seems to reflect many elements of a seminomadic tale from the Ugarit people, who lived in what is now Northern Syria. This is another reminder to us that our stories—particularly the ones of the Book of Genesis—are often adaptation of other stories of this rich geographic area and time. Again and again we see the ways that our forebears in the faith appropriated stories from other belief systems to help explain their origins and the origins of the world around them. As I like to say, these stories are not history, but I do think they are truth: They reflect the nature of the God that these people were coming to know, and they explain not only God, but also our response to God—and all through story.
Anyway, back to Abraham. He immediately goes into hospitality mode, in a big way. He runs to greet the visitors, and this is remarkable not only because it is the heat of the day, or because he is a 99 year-old man, but particularly because just prior to this passage, he, along with every male in his household, had been circumcised! Abraham is still recovering from surgery! He greets the visitors and offers a little water and a little bread, after which he promptly delivers to the visitors a feast!
Clearly we are expected to note these extraordinary actions of hospitality. Some experts say that this is to set up a contrast with actions the next chapter, when the inhabitants of Sodom violate the laws of hospitality.
But that’s not part of today’s story. Let’s move on. The visitors ask about Sarah, because she is in fact the focus of their visit. They remind Abraham of the Lord’s promise that he and Sarah will have a son.
And this is where the story gets really good. How does Sarah respond? She laughs! I love that reaction, because it is so honest. Really, what is God thinking? How can an eighty-nine year old woman believe that she will give birth? Her reaction is very real. I really appreciate her humanity here.
Some scholars say this is a story about faith. Abraham has it; Sarah doesn’t. Well, if that’s so, I’m afraid I have to put myself in Sarah’s camp. I just can’t imagine that I would have done anything but laugh if I were in her situation.
And yet again—remember this is story. It is not really about historical facts. Rather it is about trying to explain who God is, and who we are as God’s people. So what is really important is not that Sarah has such a real, human reaction, and that Abraham, frankly, seems to be a little out of it. (How could he believe that it was possible for these two old people to have a child? Maybe it was a post-surgical haze…) What is important is the contrast between their reactions. And that certainly points us to faith as the theme.
So God, in the form of these visitors, questions Sarah’s reaction. “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” God sets up the idea that these are the ones chosen by God, and that God can be trusted to do what God promises. Again, we are learning more about who this God is.
In contrast to Sarah, it seems that Abraham believes that God will do what God has promised. This sets him up to be the patriarch we want. But Sarah affirms our humanity—we see ourselves in her reaction. And we see ourselves in her denial when she is asked if she laughed. Even when our actions are completely justifiable, we are sometimes embarrassed to admit them.
And what does Abraham say? Nothing. He is silent. So maybe he believes; or maybe he just knows to keep his mouth shut. If we break down the elements of the narrative, we are presented with a tension: A tension between God’s promise and the doubt of Sarah as well as Abraham, whose doubt I think is implicit in his silence. Abraham and Sarah are not offered here as models of faith but as models of disbelief.[i]
Theologian Samuel Giere says this: “Against the soundscape of Abraham’s silence and Sarah’s incredulous laughter, the Lord’s extraordinary promise rings through. This promise does not usher in a utopia. Far from it. It does, however, confirm yet again that in the midst of humanity’s capacity for messing things up God remains faithful.”[ii]
The point of this story is not really Sarah’s or Abraham’s reactions. Rather, it is about God’s actions. God can be trusted to do what God says. Nothing is impossible for God.
Walter Brueggemann, the writer of the text that we used for our Genesis course last year, says this: “Once again, this story shows what a scandal and difficulty faith is. Faith is not a reasonable act which fits into the normal scheme of life and perception.”[iii]
And it is interesting to note that the Lord’s response to Abraham and Sarah is not to refute their doubt, or to assert God’s faithfulness, but to ask a question: Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? God is learning how to help us find faith. God is learning to be our God, the God who can reach into the hearts of humans and call up our faith.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is asked a similar question in the New Testament, when she is told that her elderly relative Elizabeth will bear a son (John the Baptist). And Mary does not doubt – she is established in the first chapter of Luke as a model of faith, because “she believed there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” (Luke 1:45)
Brueggemann says, “[But] the question does not linger with babies and birth narratives. It moves to the impossibility of discipleship, the impossibility of faith, and the impossibility of new community.”[iv]
We, listening to this story, must answer this question along with Abraham and Sarah. Brueggemann goes on to say, “How [we answer this question] determines everything else. If the question of the Lord is answered, ‘Yes, some things are too hard, impossible for God,’ then God is not yet confessed as God…. If, on the other hand, the question is answered, ‘No, nothing is impossible for God,’ that is an answer which so accepts God’s freedom that the self and the world are fully entrusted to God and to no other.”[v]
How do we find our way to believing that nothing is impossible for God? My friends, that is the journey of faith—a journey of a lifetime. I find that my faith waivers; there are times when I am sure of God, and many more times when I laugh, or am simply silent. But God is still faithful. God continues to ask the questions, and to show me the ways that God’s faithfulness is steadfast.
That faith—that willingness to give ourselves over to God, to trust that God will do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine—that is the key to a life here on earth that is fulfilling and filled with meaning, and an eternity resting in the faithful arms of God. And while all of this is mystery, a part of our story that tries to explain God, it is also truth.
May we all listen carefully to the stories, allow them into our hearts, and trust that God will be faithful to us. Amen.
[i] Brueggemann, Walter. Interpretation: Genesis. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982, p. 158.
[ii] Giere, Samuel. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2934, accessed 06/13/2017.
[iii] Brueggemann, op cit.
[iv] Ibid, pp. 160-161.
[v] Ibid, p. 159.