A sermon for July 17, 2022: Year C Proper 11
Abraham was camped out at the oaks of Mamre, when God visited him and Sarah at their home. In a flurry of activity, Abraham set Sarah to making quick cakes of bread, then he ran to the field and picked out a calf, handing it to a servant to complete the preparations – he had that liberty – then he stands by his unexpected guests while they eat, attentive to their bodily needs (do angels have bodily needs?), but also to their wildly improbable message: you, Abraham, and Sarah are about to have a son.
Abraham and Sarah both laughed when they first heard that promise (see Genesis 17:17). Yet God is faithful and merciful, and apparently did not hold it against them.
Jesus visited Mary and Martha in their home at Bethany, and they scurried about like schoolgirls making ready. Then Mary sat at his feet, rapt with attention, while Martha continued to attend to the details that she was sure her hospitality demanded. In fact, she was so wrapped up in them that she forgot herself, and asked the guest of honour himself to intervene. Can you imagine hosting a dinner party and then telling your guests they are simply too much work for you? Jesus demurred, but kindly. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” (Luke 10:42)
Sarah laughed, Martha forgot her manners, yet God is faithful and merciful, and, as Jesus has shown us, endlessly loving.
I am struck, reading these stories again, by their settings. Abraham was at the oaks of Mamre, which was most likely a shrine of sorts: he had chosen the site to pitch his tent as one of refuge, of contemplation.(1) He located himself on holy ground, then he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day, and looked up to find three men, three angels of the Lord, attending him.
Martha and Mary live in Bethany, on the far slope of the Mount of Olives, a stone’s throw from Jerusalem. They are close to the centre and climax of Jesus’ action on earth, and Mary wants only to become closer still, to sit at his feet, and to anoint them. Both sisters recognize Jesus for who he is, and they love him, and he loves them, too.
I found myself reflecting on these settings as I return from a General Convention that was busy and full and tight, as I remember the work that was done and all that is left to be done, the tasks we have set ourselves, and the commandments that God has given us.
We met against a background of violence. Even we arrived, there was tension between those who heard Baltimore as a code for danger, and those who saw its humanity through a more merciful and loving lens. We were told, moreover, that we would be in the tourist part of town, protected by economics from harm.
But while I was inside the Convention Center for the first time, registering, outside something had broken on the streets. A motorist apparently raged at some windscreen squeegee people, armed with a baseball bat. One of them struck back with a gun. Now a father of two is dead, and a child is charged as an adult with his murder.
Inside the Convention Center, we did a lot of work: we passed a budget, we reformed the budget process, we commissioned an audit of how we came by our wealth, and what reparations might be owed. We heard emotional testimony from those affected by our historical support of boarding schools for indigenous children. We agreed to re-read our common prayers with our eyes open and our hearts broken to the language of colonialism and white supremacy. We discussed the hospitality of our future Conventions and how we will protect the health and welfare of pregnant people in places where certain kinds of healthcare are hard to come by, even in an emergency.
But this is the setting against which we do our work. The inequality of labour and economics: Abraham ordering his servant to butcher and prepare a calf in short order, while he stands with his guests; Martha run off her feet and out of her mind. The violence that erupts between those who do not understand nor see one another as a father, as a child, as a person, but code them as an obstacle, an aggressor, or a threat.
We met, too, on holy ground, not because we hallowed it with prayers, anointed it with the promises that God has made to us, the church, and through us to the children of God: but because even in the valley of the shadow of death, there is no one who is beyond the reach of God’s mercy; because God so loved the world as to come among us, to live for us and die for us; because God is in the mayhem, with the living and the dying; because with God, nothing wonderful will be impossible, like peace, like justice, however outlandish and improbable it may seem; because God’s mercy endures forever, and everywhere.
Abraham had positioned himself and his home in a holy space in readiness to receive the messengers of God. Martha and Mary lived likewise, and Mary made sure that she did not miss a moment of Jesus’ time among them, because she knew where it would end. That was what she meant when she anointed him (John 12). She knew, because she paid attention. Abraham and Sarah heard the angels’ promise, because they paid attention. They placed themselves in the presence of the Spirit of God, and that, too, is our work, and our joy, and our promise.
They still laughed when they heard what the angels had to say, and Martha still stumbled, and Jesus caught her, “Martha, Martha,” and bid her sit with her sister next to him.
We are distracted with many things, and there are many things that rightly call for our attention. But if we can locate ourselves in the presence of God, at the feet of Christ, at the foot of the Cross; if we can remember that we occupy holy ground – and in all the wonders of the universe, in the vastness of the abyss, there is nowhere that is not holy ground -; if we set alarms as reminders to pray, and never hit snooze; if we will make time, in the heat of the day and its demands, in the cool of the night and its shadows, to pay attention to the presence of God, the gentle voice of Jesus, we will find mercy, perhaps even mercy enough to share with the living and the dying.
If we will prepare ourselves and live with prayer and pay attention to the Word of God, not only within the walls of the church, or our own conventional work, but especially when we think there is no time, no place for it, out in the world, then we will be ready with Abraham and Sarah for the improbable promises of God, for unexpected laughter, for mercy, and hope, even joy; for such is the irrepressible grace of God, and it is only by God’s grace that we live.
(1) See W Sibley Towner, Genesis, Westminster Bible Companion series (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 169