Readings for Proper 5 (10)Fifth Sunday after Pentecost 15 June 2008 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

For the Lectionary and other reflections, check out Proper 5A/Ordinary 10A/Pentecost +5 June 15, 2008 Textweek

Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7); Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

Pick a number between one and twelve: when you hear the Gospel, ‘Jesus called the twelve’, we must know ourselves as one of those twelve; the Gospel makes no sense if you think those twelve were somewhere else. He called the twelve: you picked your number: read the Gospel again just holding that number in mind. It reads quite differently.

Now I want to talk about Abraham. Abraham in today’s reading, encounters, like the icon that we had on Trinity Sunday, the icon that’s up on the prayer table, Abraham encounters the divine trinity. And just as we pick a number to find ourselves as one of the twelve disciples, so again we can look at Abraham and seek parallels with ourselves: it’s not him; he is there that we might see ourselves. Abraham encounters the Divine; where was he for this encounter? Chapter 18, verse 1: ‘he sat at the entrance of his tent’. The tent is quite symbolic: the tent is not a settled place, and yet it’s a place of being at home anywhere and everywhere; the tent suggests movement and transition, going somewhere; it’s a place of shelter for refugees; it’s a place of rest for pioneers and the tent also has many parallels with the church, the church has often been portrayed as a tent – the chapel at Wollaston College is designed with a tent in mind. There are some tent-like qualities that are being considered and held as we design the development of the St Paul’s precinct. ‘He sat at the entrance of his tent’ – the place of welcome, the place of coming and going. Just in that first line of this narrative our attention is drawn away from a suburbia that gathers round a shopping centre, we’re drawn away to another place that we know within ourselves. The place of Abraham sitting at the entrance of his tent is a place within each of us.

When did Abraham encounter the divine? Again we’re still in the first verse: it was in the heat of the day, not in the stillness of night prayer; he encounters the Divine when the heat is on, when it’s uncomfortable, when it’s not cool. As we start to look closely at the narrative we can, it’s so easy to understand how the icon writers wanted to capture the image that we’re reading today. When we look at the icon, Rublev’s icon of this reading, there’s so much to be seen and again as we look at the reading itself, it leads us through, there’s a doorway in which we can find ourselves.

Verse 2: ‘He looked up’. Abraham has an orientation towards higher things, an orientation to the Divine, a looking and a seeking beyond the world, the sensate world in which we sometimes feel so weightily grounded. Verse 3 sees him making an offer of hospitality. There’s an openness in that offer, a desire to give and to share, not what I have, but rather a desire to give and to share with an orientation towards the need of the other. And then the hospitality is described in some detail. Verse 4, we have water, the washing of feet and rest from the shade and the heat. There’s almost a Christ-like honouring of the guest and a giving of comfort. Verse 5, bread, ‘that you may refresh yourself and pass on’, calls to our minds perhaps the Eucharist, the place of Holy Communion, companions sharing bread. Verses 6 and 7 then provide a really wholesome recipe: ‘choice flour’, ‘a calf, tender and good’. Go back to early chapters in Genesis and we’ll find that these are the foods of Cain and Abel, children of Eden.
Then there is ‘curds and milk’, the food of nurturing from the mother’s own body. Together the recipe gives us the very foods of creation, an offering from Abraham (from us), the food of creation to the creator.

Then 18, verse 9, the Divine speaks and signals a complete break with tradition, there’s a fracture in the status quo: "Where is your wife Sarah?" In the context of the culture it’s a stunningly irrelevant question. It’s a stupid thing to ask, because the men always ate alone; they would be served by the women, the women would cook, would not be present. The fact that the Divine speaks that question into being illustrates the divine inclusiveness, it’s almost as if the Divine is completely unaware of the segregations and the exclusions that we make. It’s voiced from the Divine in a sense, "Where’s Sarah?" Surely the assumption is that everyone is included and together. Verse 10 and 11, and there’s the promise of a future, a new creation, a birth, a future that is beyond the present imagination. Why is it beyond the present imagination? We learn that when we look at the next verse: because Abraham and Sarah are caught within the bounds of their own mortality, they do not look beyond their years. Verse 12, Sarah laughs at the possibility of pleasure, at the possibility of a life lived in Eden because she has grown old. Sometimes it’s good to contemplate how many ‘growing-olds’ we go through in our lives, those times where we lose sight of promise and possibility, those times where we consign ourselves to the front of the TV set. Sarah laughs at the possibility.

And then in verses 13 to 15, the Divine responds to Sarah’s laugh, to Sarah’s doubt: ‘Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?’ It’s a divine way to question unbelief, because there’s an implied answer, ‘Of course not.’ And in the asking of it we become aware of the paradox; we laugh at the promise, and yet we also hold a faith that any and every promise is possible.

Having got to that point in the narrative, we then jump to Chapter 21. We then read about the promise fulfilled. I just thought that was amazingly auspicious in the light of today’s Annual General Meeting, because when we looked at the theme for the meeting we looked at the tagline the 2020 vision. 2020 – 20 is the chapter before 21, the chapter before the fulfilment of promise. And perhaps that’s the place that we might seek to find ourselves in, in the chapter before the promise being fulfilled.

Now I’m just going to take a very brief look at Romans, because again it’s quite interesting in the light of the AGM. We might adopt Paul’s vision statement, when we’re asked well what are we all about: peace with God, access to divine grace and the hope of sharing the glory of God. And in verses 1-3, Paul affirms that these are fruits of those who are justified by faith, suggesting that ‘justified by faith’ provides us with a place to come from where that vision might be realized. We then get one of those typical lists that are found in the writings of Paul: ‘suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and the important line, hope does not disappoint us. There is a chapter 21 for us as well as for Abraham - hope does not disappoint us.

The important thing to see in that list of Paul, is not to see it as a sugared lolly to take because we’re suffering - ‘It’ll be all right, bit of endurance, you’ll end up with character, that’ll lead to hope. Everything will be all right’. This is not where Paul’s coming from, he’s providing a movement and the key word he uses is ‘produces’, it’s the word of creation. It’s the word of a tent-like people, not stuck in any one state, not stuck in suffering; no, I will pack up that tent and move on to a place of endurance; I will then pack up that tent and move on, becoming more full in character, and I will pack up that tent and move on in hope, a hope that will not disappoint, a chapter 21. Paul is amazingly confident in the hope that does not disappoint. It’s a confidence that the divine promise and our vision can be aligned. The confidence comes ‘because God's love has been poured into our hearts and the Holy Spirit that has been given’. He underlines that confidence in the last verse, the proof of Christ: ‘But God proves his love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us.’ ‘While we still were sinners’ is really linked to Paul’s notion of weakness. Now that proof is not about a payment or a verification, it’s not, ‘Look, I know you guys don’t really believe this so here comes Jesus, I’m going to prove to you what this is all about’, it’s not that sort of proof. Rather it’s like a proof-sheet. What Paul is talking about is ‘just have a look at this proof-sheet like we do with photos, have a look at it then it needs to be developed and exposed in order to bring to light the full image. That’s the proof that Paul speaks about.

And Matthew also calls us to realise that proof. We’re shown an image of Jesus as teaching, proclaiming the good news and caring, an icon of plentiful, an icon of abundance. We’re shown an image of crowds; they’re harassed, helpless, and like sheep without a shepherd, an image of scarcity, of few. Then Jesus summons the disciples and calls them – this is where your number comes in. He calls them, to develop and make real the proof, to live divinely empowered.

As we contemplate how we live and where we go in this place, let’s just hold in mind that we’re called to live at the entrance of our tents. Why are we called to live at the entrance of our tents? Because the kingdom of heaven is so very near, it’s so very near. There’s a sense that at the entrance of my tent, I am ready, welcoming, open to realize what the proof of Christ has given, that the Holy Spirit is poured into our hearts: the love of God is a given. Just as I pick a number to be one of the disciples, the ask of them, as they encounter the Divine in the entrance of their tents, the ask of them is to do and be as Christ.

The Lord be with you.
Peter Humphris