Sunday, September 20, 2015

Talking to Strangers--a sermon on Genesis 18

Rev. Teri Peterson
Talking to Strangers
Genesis 18.1-15, 21.1-7
20 September 2015, NL2-2, Harvest 1-2

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favour 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.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
 They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’
The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’ And she said, ‘Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.’

One Sunday during my first Easter season as an ordained pastor, I was sitting on the floor of the sanctuary with a dozen or so children seated on the steps in front of me. We were talking about the story of Jesus’ disciples walking to Emmaus, and being met by Jesus along the way, though they did not recognize him. At some point, as I was talking, I realized that I had painted myself into a corner. Over the edge of the communion table, I saw the head of staff realize it at the same time, and his poker face was briefly interrupted by one slightly raised eyebrow. I kept talking, trying desperately to think of a way out, but there was nowhere else to go. The only thing I could say to these children, ranging in age from 3 to 9, was that they should talk to strangers because they might be Jesus.

I rushed the words out and tried to cover with something about how on the first day at a new school, everyone is a stranger, and then I ended as quickly as possible and hoped no one had noticed. Even 8 years and hundreds of children’s moments later, I still get nervous when stories like this one appear in the lectionary.

Because, unlike what we teach our children, scripture is full of stories that essentially say that you absolutely should talk to strangers.

These three strangers arrived at Abraham’s place at just about the most inconvenient time possible—the heat of the day. Midafternoon. The lull time, nap time. The only worse time would be the middle of the night. And yet Abraham runs out to greet them. He runs to Sarah and tells her to get baking—three measures of flour is about 22 pounds, so Abraham seems to expect a full complement of breads and cakes, not just a few finger sandwiches. Then he runs to the field and tells a servant to kill the fatted calf and fire up the grill.

What started as “let me bring you a little bread” has become a feast of epic proportions. Why would Abraham kill the fatted calf—the best and most celebratory meat—for strangers? Why bake so furiously? Why so much running during the hottest part of the day?

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews, reflecting on this story, says it gives a clear lesson: “do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Heb. 13.2)

This seems like an awful lot of hospitality, though. Surely just offering them water and whatever he had handy, easily accessible leftovers, would have done?

Granted, it turns out to be God visiting Abraham and Sarah’s tent. So maybe the welcome is just enough after all.

The text doesn’t say that they knew it was God. Sarah seems to realize, just at the end of the story, but by then they’ve been hanging out in the shade of the oak trees for hours. These were just three guys, dusty from travel. In some neighborhoods, they would be called a gang. In others, their sitting under the tree might be called loitering. Many of us would hesitate to open the door to three strange men who come up the front walk. Today we might wonder if all three of them would make it to the doorway alive, or if they’d become a statistic and a hashtag. But Abraham rolls out the red carpet and pulls out all the stops. He serves them a feast on the fine china—and he stands by, ready to refill their cups and offer them seconds, to attend to every need.

It seems ridiculous to us. We have become so used to not really looking at people. We are practiced at suspicion-at-first-sight. We like our personal space and the private enjoyment of our things. We’re perfectly willing to give what we have left after we’ve made sure we have enough for ourselves. But in scripture, especially in the desert but also in town, hospitality is the most important practice there is. Any traveler was to be welcomed and cared for, no matter who they were or where they came from.

Every traveler.

Some have entertained angels…or even the Lord himself.

More accurately, everyone who has shown hospitality to a stranger has been in the presence of God—Jesus says whenever we do it to the least of these, we do it to him. Every person is made in God’s image, every breath comes from the Spirit, so everyone, stranger or friend, is a chance to welcome God in our midst.

Part of what makes this difficult, for us and for Sarah and Abraham, is that an important element of hospitality is not just food and water and a place to rest, but also making room for the person and their words to enter our lives. You never know what the strangers might say or how they might touch your heart or change your life.

In this case, the strangers bring news that defies the limits of imagination. After all these years, following a promise and fearing she might never see it fulfilled, all these years waiting and hoping and being disappointed, Sarah will have a son. It is almost cruel, to tell a woman who has tried so hard that she needs to try again. I hear Sarah’s laugh in my mind as that nervous-and-incredulous laugh that is an attempt to defuse tension and mask pain. But the words of the stranger have entered the house, and there’s no shooing them out now. Just as Abraham made every effort to make them comfortable and welcome, now Sarah will have to make every effort to accommodate these words, ponder them in her heart, and make space for Abraham in her bed.

Sometimes the words of a stranger are as disruptive as their physical presence. They demand things of us—expanding and shifting our mental space the way we add leaves and more chairs to the dining room table.

No wonder we prefer to be afraid of strangers.

This week I heard the political leader of one of the European nations that is refusing to allow refugees say they could not take them because too many non-Christians would change the Christian character of the culture. The same was once said of the Irish Catholics coming to this country. It is true, when we welcome the stranger, we also make room for the ways they are different. When I think about how often our ancestors in the faith migrated for one reason or another—most notably to Egypt to escape famine, and out of Egypt to escape leaders who were needlessly afraid of them—and then I hear this story of Abraham’s family in the midst of migrating and still offering extravagant welcome, and think of the least of these Jesus talks about, and hear the strong words from Hebrews: “Do Not Neglect to show hospitality to strangers”…I can’t help but think that we are replaying this same story. Do we, with Abraham, see the image of God in the face of the stranger? Are we willing to offer our best in welcome? Will we go out of our way to bring them in? Or are we too unwilling to make both mental and physical space for people who are different?

Sarah and Abraham extended themselves, their resources, and their emotional lives to offer hospitality. And ultimately, that changed their lives. They had to then make even more room, this time for a baby…a baby named laughter, to remind them always of that day they talked to strangers, and saw the face of God.

May we follow their faithful example.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Putting a Name to a Face--a sermon on Genesis 2

Rev. Teri Peterson
Putting a Name to a Face
Genesis 2.4b-25
13 September 2015, Harvest 1-1, NL2-1

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
 A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’
 Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
‘This at last is bone of my bones
   and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
   for out of Man this one was taken.’
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.

Here we are again—in the beginning. A couple of years ago, when we read the creation story in worship, we then created it—the mosaics that form the front of the balcony remind us of the great liturgy of In The Beginning: God speaks, and the world comes into being, day by day.

Today we begin with the second creation story—a separate account, giving us a different glimpse of how God works. In the first story, God says something, and it is so, and God says it is good. Repeat for each day, from light and dark, through water and land, sun and moon, plants, sea creatures, land animals, humanity, rest.

In this second version of the story, God is much more hands-on. The first story was the tell, and this is the show. God sits down in the dirt and builds things—a person, a garden, rivers, animals. God forms the dust, and with a breath makes it beautiful. This is up close, down-and-dirty creation. Right from the start, God is close enough for us to feel holy breath on our cheeks, molding and sculpting the stuff of life by hand.

It seems so different from the first story—so intimate where the other was so grand and philosophical.

It’s not too far into the story when something sounds familiar, though. God realizes that it is not good for the man to be alone. So God gets to work again, playing in the dirt and making all kinds of things, and bringing each one to the man “to see what he would call them.”

God hands over the power of creating with words to this brand new mud-man. And whatever he called an animal, that was its name.

I think too often we gloss over this part of the story, thinking it’s cute but not the point. We want to get to the part where the man and the woman mess up, because our culture has, for centuries, been built on the idea that we are flawed, and we want to get to the root of that.

But first, deeper in our history, planted deeply at the heart of humanity, is this: God entrusted us with the gift of words—words that, much like God’s, create reality. Just as in the first telling of the story, God creates with a word, so now we are offered the possibility of creating with a word. Or, as we know too well, the possibility of destroying with a word. But here, in this moment in the garden, God looks at Adam and trusts humanity enough to give us incredible power: to create alongside God. Where the first story simply says that God created humankind in God’s image, this story shows God bringing all the animals to see what Adam would call them, and that is what they were, because such is the power of words.

It took me a week to figure out the name of my cat. Can you imagine the responsibility of naming the cow, the platypus, the aardvark, the swan, the cricket? With a word, Adam made it so. And God saw that it was good. Each name made something new. Each name mattered. Each name was said out loud, and there is power in saying a name. We know it when we carefully choose names for children, for communities, even for pets. We know the power of a name when we remember our families, when we pray for friends, when we unroll the big family tree to tell their stories. To put a name to a face may have been Adam’s greatest task, and that power of words is still ours today. We so easily name things and they become reality: beautiful and ugly…safe and dangerous…high achieving and at-risk… We also so easily erase people and their stories by refusing to say their names, or to learn to say or spell them correctly. The words we use create our reality—and when we take names away rather than putting the name to the face, we use this power to tear down rather than to build up. This is why it matters so much that we say the names of those killed in the twin towers, or at Mother Emanuel church, or in the streets of our cities. This is why we encourage people to say the names of their children who die by suicide, or who never made it out of the womb. This is why the Vietnam Wall is one of the most powerful memorials in Washington DC. This is why names carry on through generations. Because God has trusted us with the power to create with a word—and when we put a name to a face, we make it real and give it meaning.

How we use that gift of power is, of course, up to us. Throughout history we have used our words wisely and poorly, to create and to destroy. We have torn down at least as much as we have built up. With this power comes responsibility—and it’s responsibility that God has shown us how to use.

Right here, in the beginning, God shows us what it means to be in this partnership: to care for the garden the same way God does, to tend and keep, stewarding the earth toward fruitfulness and beauty, ensuring justice and care. To keep our hands in the dirt, up close and personal with the creation God placed us in. To love each leaf, each whisker, each face, each body, the way God does.

God even gives us a physical lesson in what it means to be partners. When the animals have all been named, it is clear that they may be helpers, but they are not partners. There is an imbalance in the relationship. While we have often misused this story to suggest that Adam needed a subservient helper, the reality of the word ezer is that it is usually used to describe God: our helper. When we look at this kind of helping partnership, as it is described by the psalmist and the prophets, it becomes clear why it demanded so much of Adam. No true partner could be found among the creatures he had power over. Only when he gave something of himself, something real and costly and messy, could there be a partner. Real relationship requires something of us.

And isn’t this the whole story of scripture, really? Throughout the history of God’s people, God has trusted us to follow the example: to get down and dirty, to stay close, to share the holy breath of life, to use our words and our work to create alongside God. And throughout the story, God has given us God’s own self—offering us the very essence of partnership with the divine. Even when we have betrayed that trust and disregarded the gift, God has kept on offering, and trusting, and calling. Jesus gets God’s hands dirty again, touching the sick and reaching out to the outcast and mixing up mud that brings new life, breathing and teaching and walking and praying and giving…all the way to giving everything—even his own life—to bring us in as partners in this great cosmic and yet intimate enterprise of creating the world. It’s a messy thing, to grow a world. Even messier when you add the difficulties of real relationship and authentic community. But God stays with it, speaking and sculpting and trusting, all the way from in the beginning until the last breath. And we are made in God’s image, called to create and care, together.

May it be so. Amen.