Begetting Generations of Those Who Care
A sermon based on Genesis 18:1-15
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on June 18, 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A church member was talking to his pastor about prayer, and when the topic turned to the best prayer the member had ever heard without skipping a beat he said it was “Dear God, please help me to be the person my dog thinks I am.”
I like that prayer . . . a lot. Dogs have faith in us no matter what, and none of us can match up to what our dogs think of us. I know I can’t. I’m sure that Seeley Booth, our rescue German Shepherd, pretty much thinks I am a magical creature. I can reach into a magic bag and pull out supper. If he stands at certain places along the wall I can turn an enchanted knob and that opens a portal to the world. And when we get outside all I have to do is attach a bewitched cord to him and he gets to explore all sorts of things well beyond our front yard.
If God helped me be the person my dog thought I was through prayer, I am pretty sure I be Harry Potter or maybe even Albus Dumbledore! Of course we know that is not possible. I could pray and have everyone pray that I become as magical Albus Dumbledore, but, sadly we all know that will not succeed. Indeed if I told you that I would one day be that magical – or magical at all– we’d find it laughable.
Magic in the sense I am talking about is not something we’ve ever seen in our life experiences which is what makes it funny. It’s fiction, so prayers to have it are nonsensical. But there are things in life we may pray for that are not nonsense, or not magical, they may seem improbable odds-wise, but there are at least some sort of odds it might occur. Anything from a war ending; to overcoming racism; to someone coming home safe after missing; to a disease not being found during an exam; to illness going away; to a relationship healing; to getting a new job; to meeting someone; to falling in love; to getting pregnant . . . The list is endless.
Today’s story seems to most of us modern world people to be about an improbable to us type prayer being answered. But we need to recognize that the story was written in a very different time. If we were to time-travel there the culture would be almost completely disorienting to us. As my Old Testament professor put it, it’d be like going to another world.
And a part of its disorientation is that it was a very non-scientific time when supernatural intervention was not considered out of the realm of possibility . . .magic maybe happened. Appeasement of gods could maybe have an affect on nature. In some ways many today still sort of think along those lines in the West, though we temper it a lot with a sense of science. We know it could stop raining so we might pray for that, but we are aware it is not possible for, say, a ninety year old woman to become pregnant, so I doubt many of us would pray for her to have a baby. (I’m guessing she’d be thankful about that too!)
If we think about it, without the understanding of science (that we take for granted) much of the way the world operates can seem like magic. Even today from little things like winter snowflakes, spring blossoms, summer fireflies and autumn leaves to bigger things like the universe, life and birth they all have a sort of magic, a great wonder, to them. This is especially so with birth and life. So in Genesis there are these great stories about the great wonder of creation and life and birth that resonate with us, still. But the lack of a sense of modern science can make Bible Stories disconcerting at times.
The Bible starts out with a broad view of creation what we moderns can image as an aerial view. Then the view narrows down and in on humankind, telling the story of how humans relate to God, creation and each other. The Old Testament Lectionary readings this summer include a number of chapters and verses from Genesis. These are formative stories for both the Judaism of Jesus and his followers as well as the Gospel writers who came a generation or more later. The stories are therefore also formative for us as Christians, even modern Christians. So I hope to go over a number of them. It is important that we at least hear the stories read by our liturgists, and then hopefully feel that the sermon help us both remember them and understand them better, or at least think about them.
We heard the Genesis broader aerial view section last week on creation and how it zooms in on a special section on humankind’s creation.Our story today narrows the focus down on Abraham and Sarah and God. We find them in our reading gathered at a Sacred place called the Oaks of Mamre.
I think it is important that we hear at least a summary of what has transpired in the story up to this point Prior to this we’ve been shown these two human characters as having amazing faith in God, responding without batting an eye to God’s call to leave and go to the Promised Land. In return God has promised to make of Abraham a great nation and to bless him . . . and that in him all families of the earth shall be blessed. It’s important to understand that the Bible story as a whole is not about a faith where the main character God sets out to ONLY bless a select group. If you take only one thing home from the lesson and this sermon today remember that the Bible starts out, and is infused throughout, with stories of faith journeys – religions ways– intended to provide blessings for ALL families on earth.
Abraham when he starts out by the way is known as Abram, and he’s already 75 years old. He and Sarah (then known as Sarai . . . who is 65) travel with some of their family to Canaan, the Promised Land. The stories about Abraham and Sarah tend to focus on their remarkable faith. They have a faith so powerful they are the founding father and mother of three major religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In each of those faith traditions they epitomize good and faithful believers.
After Sarah and Abraham arrive in the Promised Land, there’s a severe famine. So they travel to Egypt where they live as alien refugees. Abraham is worried a resident of Egypt might kill him as alien to take his wife Sarah. So he concocts a plan for them to tell everyone Sarah is his sister. Sarah would be his property as either husband or brother, but only as a brother can he give her away. (I told you, it’s a very foreign and a disturbing time to us.) Sure enough 65 year old Sarah catches the attention of Pharaoh and he takes her as a wife. Abraham, as the putative brother, is given livestock and servants as gratitude in the exchange.
Then things get spooky weird for Pharaoh’s household. They suffer plagues. Pharaoh wants to find out why and appease God or gods to end the trouble. He is very upset when he finds out that Sarah is a married woman. To end what he thinks is a divine curse for adultery, Pharaoh gives Sarah back to Abraham and makes the entire clan leave Egypt.
The clan travels back to the Promised Land then split up with Abraham and Sarah settling in the plain of Mamre (mam-ree). After settling the rest of the clan that split away gets in trouble and Abraham rescues them with a small army.
Later Abraham has a vision and God repeats the promise of the Promised Land and abundant descendants for him and Sarah. Abraham and Sarah try to make sense of this given their barrenness and old age. Sarah decides she needs to give Abraham a second wife, her slave Hagar– who becomes pregnant.
Sarah mistreats her. So Hagar flees. Alone in the desert Hagar has her own encounter with God. God convinces Hagar to return to the safety of the clan and give birth to a son, Ishmael. Abraham is eighty-six at the time. Thirteen years go by and then ninety-nine year old Abraham is alone and receives instructions from God for a covenant that include the need for all males of age to be circumcised. In that encounter God blesses Sarah and tells Abraham that Sarah (who is ninety) will have their son. Alone with God when he hears this, Abraham laughs at the thought.
Okay, that is a summary of what’s happened in the Abraham and Sarah story leading up to today’s Lectionary lesson where we find Abraham sitting in a Sacred place in the heat of the day. Three men approach. WE know they represent God, but Abraham does not yet know that. To these strangers who are vulnerable in a foreign land without local help, Abraham offers quintessential hospitality. In spite of his being the head of a clan, he himself bows to them and offers to wash their feet and feed them. And he provides more than just bread and water, he provides a feast under the shade of the Sacred trees outside his tent which Sarah safely resides in.
One of the visitors tells Abraham he’ll be back next year and by then Sarah will have son. Sarah overhears this from inside the tent and laughs about the prospect of them conceiving a child in their nineties. The visitor asks Abraham why his wife is laughing.
Abraham is accountable since he failed to tell Sarah the news he got previously from God that she’d bear a child at ninety. Sarah, unprepared, laughed at the idea (just as Abraham had). 1.
One of the remarkable parts about this story is Sarah and Abraham, who are usually portrayed as full of faith , are portrayed as having doubts. When Sarah asks “Is there anything too wonderful for the Lord?” it can be heard as both an affirmation and questioning. She and her husband have justifiable doubts. Modern people hearing that a ninety year woman and a ninety-nine year old man long promised children have a right in our minds, the minds of the listeners, to scoff, to laugh at that idea. Even for those who do not understand science or want to suspend it’s application to this story get why it was laughable to think that the unthinkable could happen, though back then (and today) there are some who considered it possible with supernatural intervention.
We know for sure as a matter of science that a ninety year old couple could no more biologically conceive in their nineties, than I could have the powers of Albus Dumbledore in my fifties.
But back then, bending-the-laws-of-nature type miracles apparently may have been prayed for, believed in. There’s a superstitions nature that pervades pre-science history–and even some people’s beliefs today. A part of the disorientation of the ancient world was is that it was a very non-scientific time when supernatural intervention was not considered out of the realm of possibility . . .magic maybe happened. Appeasement of gods could maybe have an affect on nature.
In our experiences the laws of nature are not defied, but followed. We can choose to disregard that, and anyone here has the right to do so. But for those of us who cannot cancel out the scientifically trained part of our brains we need to find meaning in the story. I think we do this story a disservice if we think the Truth of the story lies in believing that God bends the laws of the nature for those who are faithful enough, that this event is a matter of history. That God actually made a 90 year old pregnant is the point.
Again, I am not begrudging anyone the right to believe that, I am addressing that fact that many of us can’t in the modern world. And my point is that either way, the Truth of the story does not lie in its historicity. It lies in the metaphoric meaning that all our lives long God seeks blessings for us. God wants blessings for us . . . ALL families on earth.
Our well being matters to God. There is nothing too wonderful for the Lord, provided it is within the realm of the possible. In Bible times it may have been thought that literally God could and would not just bend, but break, the laws of nature. The evidence in our science based lives is that is not true. Reason dictates that I cannot be a magical being and ninety year old women do not conceive children.
Nonetheless faithfulness can alter reality that’s the ultimate truth in the story. Faith can and it does bring the work of God into human hands and feet and voices and in return the image of God part of every person is blessed. Abraham and Sarah bless God in the strangers with amazing hospitality. They demonstrate how humans are to tend to the well being of others. It’s about having a faith journey, following a religious way intending to provide blessings to ALL, whether we know them or not. Our nurturing, caring, hospitable God wants nurturing, caring hospitable followers. Why? Because tending to the well being of others blesses all families on earth– the entire world, ALL whom God loves. It leads to others doing it and so continues on and on into the generations. Such conduct changes a world barren of blessings to one bountiful in blessings. Such conduct changes strangers’ sense of unwelcome, and even of being cursed as aliens, to a sense of welcome and blessing.
The metaphoric possibilities, the symbolic meanings, of this story are many. I’d am honing in on one suggestion, that Abraham and Sarah’s care for the well being of others beneath the Oaks of Mamre (mam-re) begat the God spark in others to do the same for others. Begetting generation after generation that cared. The offspring of Abraham and Sarah can on one level be understood as a new faith, a path to humbly walk with God a path that was born of love and continues on in three religions and their adherents. Abraham and Sarah conceive and give birth to a faithful way to experience God and be in relationship with God. It is a way that cares for others as God does, regardless of benefits.
Whether they are actually rewarded, or promised with a reward for being hospitable, Abraham and Sarah are caring to strangers regardless. For years they want a child and even when that desire was denied they remain faithful. They trail blaze a loving path to God for all people, not just elites in a time and place where religions understood that gods sided with the elite. Sarah and Abraham are remarkable for giving birth to generations of adherents to paths that lovingly lead to God and the care and nurture of god in others.
See, the point of the story can be understood not as Sarah and Abraham begetting progeny of their flesh, but by that being a blessing to others they begat generations of faithful who follow their example and provide blessings that continue through the ages. One way or another the Truth is their acts of being faithful and tending to the well being of others, begat generations of those who care. Including us. In the ancient world of not caring for strangers, for aliens and refugees that may have seemed as impossible. But thankfully it was not.
1. I used both the Abrahamic stories in the Book of Genesis and an outline in Wikipedia as a template for this summary. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham
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