Sunday Sermon – June 18, 2017

 

Daniel P. Strandlund

St. John’s Episcopal Church
Proper 6A
June 18, 2017

 

Abraham and Family Promise

 

“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” (Gen. 18:3-5).

 

We’re in chapter 18 of Genesis when the Lord appears to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre.  Abraham is sitting on the ground by the entrance to his tent.  It’s hot—the kind of heat that can be dangerous to work or even walk in—so Abraham is waiting on the worst of it to pass, when he looks up and sees three men standing near him.  Abraham immediately runs to them and bows his face to the ground and begs the men to stay with him, to eat and drink and rest a while.

 

We’re not given any details about these men or their appearance, though it’s tempting to imagine them decked out in glittering holiness.  Given Abraham’s reaction to them, surely there must be something unique or special about their appearance, right?  I mean, otherwise why would he rise with such urgency to approach them?  Why would he bow down?  It’s tempting to imagine that these men are some of the same men who appeared in glory at Jesus’ empty tomb (Luke 24:4), the ones whose garments are always dazzling white and whose faces shine like lightning (Matthew 28:3).  

 

It’s tempting to imagine that these men give off an aura of incredible power and mystery, like that strange adversary Jacob wrestled all night on the riverbank (Genesis 32:24-32).  Or that they appeared ones who are Sons of God, like that impossible fourth man King Nebuchadnezzar saw walking unharmed in the fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshac, and Abednego.

 

Most tempting of all, we want to imagine that these three men are the Holy Trinity Itself.  It would be so perfect!  But no!  Today, we are going to resist all of these shiny interpretive temptations because the Bible doesn’t say any of that; it just says that these are three men.  So, in an effort to put the FUN back in fundamentalism, we’re going to see what happens when we stick with the literal letter of the story and treat these three men as having the appearance of ordinary guys out walking in the heat of the day.

 

Given that this story is written down between 2,500 and 3,000 years ago chances are these three men are shorter than most men today, closer to 5’ than to 6’.  They’ve all got dark brown hair, dark tan skin, and dark brown eyes.  They’ve all got beards, and all their beards are a little out of control.  They probably smell a little because they’re outside all the time.  Their sandals, if they’re wearing any, aren’t much more than hardened strips of hide and plant fibers tied with thin thongs, and their feet are hard like livestock horns.  All three of these guys are probably terribly thirsty, and they rarely, if ever, get to eat meat because people who have enough animals on hand to slaughter one of them are people who have disposable income.

 

Abraham is a man with disposable income, not all of it honestly obtained, either.  More on that in a second.  What’s important here is that Abraham sees these three men and immediately rises to serve them, to offer them hospitality, to offer them the material goodness of his own household.  Water for drinking and water for washing.  Bread.  “A calf, tender and good,” with “curds and milk” to set before them (Gen. 18:8).  Abraham basically prepares for them an ancient charcuterie plate.  

 

But if these are three ordinary looking men, and not obviously angels or holy ones or Sons of God, why would Abraham do this?  I don’t think we can say that Abraham is simply a paragon of virtue or just a naturally generous person.  After all, most of his disposable income he got by pretending to be Sarah’s brother and effectively selling her to a rich Egyptian for a ton of money (Genesis 12).  So I think a better answer is that Abraham welcomes these three men because, despite all his swindling, Abraham knows that only God is God; he knows that God is good; and because in the chapter before this, God has renewed His covenant with Abraham.  

 

The covenant God renews is the covenant in which God promises to bless Abraham and to make Abraham a blessing for all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:2-3).  In this covenant renewal, God says, “I am the Almighty God, walk before me, and be thou perfect” (17:1).  God promises to multiply Abraham exceedingly (17:2), that Abraham will be a Father of many nations (17:4), and that the land of Canaan where Abraham now lives as a stranger will one day belong to Abraham’s line (17:8).  This is the covenant wherein God changes Abram’s name to Abraham (17:5).  This covenant is marked in Abraham’s flesh because this is the covenant that is marked by circumcision.  And all of this, remember, is a renewal of the covenant in which God blesses Abraham so that he himself might be a blessing to all families of the earth (Gen. 12:2-3).

 

I’m going to recap that: Abraham knows that this God alone is God; that this God is good; and that he is under this God’s covenant.  The terms of this covenant are these: God promises to multiply Abraham and make his line great; God promises to give Abraham the land and all its resources; and all of this is God’s blessing so that Abraham may in turn be a blessing to all families of the earth.  And to seal this covenant, God commands that Abraham and every male in his household should be circumcised (17:10-11).  

 

If circumcision doesn’t drive the terms of that covenant to the forefront of Abraham’s mind, then I don’t know what would!  So, when these three ordinary looking men stroll up to Abraham’s tent, Abraham is keenly aware that all of God’s goodness towards him serves one purpose: to bless every family of the earth, to pay forward God’s blessing of land and livestock and security to every family on earth, including these three straggly looking men who have wandered up.

 

“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” (Gen. 18:3-5).

 

Abraham does not invite them to rest and refresh themselves because they are richly dressed.  Abraham does not invite them to wash and eat and relax in the shade because they are powerful.  Abraham does not welcome them into his tent because anything about them is obviously holy or special or divine.  No, Abraham shows them eager hospitality because right before this episode God came to Abraham and said, “Remember that you live under my covenant, and that covenant is now sealed in your flesh.  I have called you, and you are mine.  This land was mine before I gave it to you, and this land and all its resources are mine still.  They are part of the blessing I have bestowed upon you, but don’t you ever forget that I blessed you for a reason.”

 

So what’s all this got to do with us?

 

This is a story about hospitality.  Hospitality is something St. John’s does well.  I’ve seen y’all at work, and for the past two years I’ve had the gift of being the recipient of that hospitality.  It comes in all forms.  Coffee on somebody’s porch.  Tea in the parlor.  Breakfast after the early service on Tuesdays.  A perfectly functional washer and dryer.  A home cooked five course meal.  A sack of Krystal burgers at Heavenly Hosts.  I’m grateful for that.

 

My hope for you, my hope for us in my last full week here, is that we will grow in our eagerness to extend that hospitality not only to new young clergy who wear shining white robes and get to stand in golden pulpits and at altars and other obviously holy places, but also to scraggly, weather-beaten men and women who are more ordinary looking in their appearance, people who have been on the road for too long, people who are in need of a place to rest and wash, eat and drink.  

To show my cards entirely and be up front with my agenda, I want St. John’s as a parish to recommit to Family Promise.  Family Promise is a ministry here in Montgomery and elsewhere that works with churches to provide safe housing and food for families who are currently homeless.  Each parish serves for one week at a time, usually about once a quarter.

 

When we at St. John’s hear about the three or four weeks we’re hosting in the coming year, I want us to spring up from the doors of our tents and run to greet those three heavenly men who have come to us, or those three heavenly kids and their single heavenly mom, or that out of work but no less heavenly family who’ve been living in their van all month, or whoever it is that has found their way to the doors of St. John’s through Family Promise.  I want us positively eager to welcome them and to serve them.  I want this simply because the God we worship, that God alone is God; that God is good; and we live under that God’s covenant.  That God became flesh and dwelt among us; he lived and died and rose again; and it is into his death and resurrection we are baptized. It is by His Holy Spirit that we are sealed in baptism.  Sealed, right here on our foreheads, sealed in our flesh.  

 

The truth, friends, is that our lives are not our own.  This beautiful Church, the cheese grits and scrambled eggs we eat on Sundays, all of our disposable and non-disposable income—none of it is ours at the end of the day simply because we’re Christian people.  We’re a big, steady church with an abundance of resources.  This doesn’t mean God has blessed us more than other folks.  But it does mean that our opportunity and capacity to respond to God’s blessing by becoming blessings ourselves is materially larger than it might otherwise be.  Plus, we’re already good at hospitality!  And to make things even better, we are already part of the Family Promise network, so several times a year we already have opportunities to respond to God’s hospitality by sharing it with others.  This is terrific news!  It is a perfect and—dare I say it?—providential recipe!

 

Family Promise arrives today.  We’ve got most of our volunteer needs taken care of this time.  But don’t despair!  Family Promise will be back, and I’m going to give you the dates right now: everybody get out your iPhone out and open your calendar app, or get a pen and paper and make a note and stick it in your pocket or do whatever it is you need to do to get these dates on your radar because at some point during these weeks, I want and expect Family Promise to derail your normal schedule as we seek to do like Abraham did and honor God’s covenant.  So here we go:

 

Family Promise will be here at St. John’s on September 17th-24th and December 3rd-10th.  I want those dates on your calendars.  I want us showing up to meet the families and talk with them.  I want our young people here goofing off with their kids.  I want you and your whole family, or you and your whole bridge group, or you and your regular Sunday afternoon golfing foursome to get together and make a homemade meal for these folks and then drop it off with smiles and hugs.  I want y’all to do all of that.  And even though I’m going to be in Texas by then, Debbie and Katharine and Libby, our volunteer team, they’re going to let me know if y’all aren’t doing a good job.  And if you’re not, well, I’ve got most of y’all’s cell phone numbers, and I’m going to check up on you real early in the morning.

 

Today is Father’s Day.  Today we are reminded of Abraham, the Father of many nations, who was blessed by God so that through him, the whole world might be blessed.  The favor God has shown us in baptism and through the body and blood of communion redeems us and makes us whole, and it binds us to God and His purposes.  We, too, are called to be a blessing.  We too are called to share God’s hospitality to all whom we meet, because the truth is that there are no ordinary people—only immortal vessels of God’s spirit.  You are the instruments by which God is redeeming this corner of the world.  

 

Finally, thank y’all for being so good to me these past two years.  Y’all have to listen to me preach again next week, but just in case you’re not here then I wanted to say it again today: thank you.  You’ve given Lucy and me your welcome and your hospitality, and I’m grateful that I’ll get to pay that forward at my new parish in Buda, TX starting in August.  I hope you’ll continue to show that kind of generosity to whatever new neighbors find their way to you here at St. John’s.   None of us can ever predict how the blessings we give will return to us.  After all, it’s one of these three, ordinary, scraggly looking men who says to Abraham and Sarah, “You will have a son, and his name will be laughter.”