The Good Portion

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper C 11
July 21, 2013

Genesis 18:1-15: 1The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2He 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. 3He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5Let 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.” 6And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” 7Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8Then 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.

9They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10Then 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. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 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.” 15 But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

Luke 10:38-42:  38Now as Jesus and his disciples went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

The Prayer of the Day:

Gracious God, with courage and boldness Mary dared to sit at your feet as a disciple and you defended her choice.  Give us hearts that yearn to sit at your feet and, amid all the distractions of life, help us dwell in your word and follow in your paths.

Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

The Work of God

We come to ponder these ancient texts this morning because we trust the promise of God that through these writings God will speak to us today.  God uses these writings to shape our lives, creating and deepening our trust in God, freeing us from those things that keep us bound, and shaping us to be the hands and voice of God in the world.  These three: 1) To create faith, 2) to free us from whatever binds us, and 3) to send us to embody the love of God for the world.

We could use the word ‘inspire’ as long as we understand the word to mean that we are filled with the Spirit of God.  Worship doesn’t seek to make you feel good for a moment; it wants you to be good through the week.  The scriptures, the liturgy, the bread and wine, are tools by which God creates a holy people, by which God creates vessels of his Spirit, by which God adds goodness and kindness and mercy to the world.  God is not creating a holy people in the sense that they are removed from the world; God is creating medics.

The world doesn’t need any more voices of anger; it needs voices of peace.  The world doesn’t need any more voices of judgment and prejudice; it needs voices of grace and compassion.  The world doesn’t need any more voices of outrage; it needs voices of truth.  The world doesn’t need any more selfishness; it needs deeds of justice and mercy.

My job is not to inspire you; my job is to let the texts speak so that the Spirit of God can fill you.  And the work of the Spirit is to create faith, to free us from whatever binds us, and to send us to embody God’s love.  The power is in the text – or, more precisely, the power is in the voice of God that speaks to us through the text.

The right worshiper

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

You should hear in the reference to the “tent” the tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that traveled with the people of Israel through the wilderness, and “the holy hill” is a reference to the temple in Jerusalem where the objects in the tabernacle finally come to rest.  The poet is asking who is acceptable to come into God’s presence.  Who is acceptable to come and offer sacrifice, to come and worship?

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
2 Those who walk blamelessly,
and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
3 who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
4 in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honor those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath
even to their hurt;
5 who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.
Those who do these things
shall never be moved.

Do you hear in this psalm that instead of answering the question “Who is worthy to come into God’s presence?” it gives a portrait of the kind of person God seeks to send out into the world?  It’s not a picture of personal righteousness; it’s a portrait of the person who embodies the grace of God in daily life.  It is not a person who follows the rules, but a person who embodies the character of God.

These three: faith, liberty, love; trust in God, freedom from our sins, love of neighbor.  This is what God is here to create in us today.

Sarah’s laugh

Our first reading was the story of Abraham, the three visitors and Sarah laughing.  It’s a wonderful story on many levels.  On the one hand it gives us a glimpse of ancient life – life, as it were, on the prairie – and how important it was to show hospitality to strangers.  In an arid climate, where people are few and far between, a cup of water is life.  We take water for granted.  Everywhere we travel there’s at least a McDonalds.  And we don’t worry about bandits on the highway, but in the days of Abraham, life often depended on the kindness of strangers.  I suspect, that if we thought about it carefully, we would realize that it continues to be true in our time: life depends upon the kindness of strangers.

Abraham and Sarah have set up their tents near the sacred site known as the Oaks of Mamre.  This is a place where the boundary between heaven and earth is thin – or, to use an image from the prairie, this is a place where the water is shallow and you can safely ford the river.  That boundary between heaven and earth can be crossed here.  This means that strangers might not just be strangers.  As it is written in Hebrews, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (13:2)

The Oaks of Mamre is a place like Bethel, where Jacob has his dream of the ladder (a stairway) between heaven and earth, where God’s messengers were coming and going.  So in this place where heavenly messengers are coming and going, Abraham meets three strangers and bids them stop to refresh themselves.  He kills the fatted calf.  Sarah makes bread.  They set before them a proper feast.

And then comes the promise, the promise often spoken but never fulfilled that Abraham and Sarah would have a son and through his descendant would come blessing for the earth.

But it’s too late.  Abraham is just shy of 100; Sarah just shy of 80.  They know there will be no children for them, and so Sarah laughs.

God’s question

Then God asks that delicious and troubling question, “Why did Sarah laugh?”  It’s exactly the question that God asks Adam and Eve in the garden after they have eaten from the tree of which they were commanded not to eat.  They are hiding in the bushes and God says, “Where are you?”  God doesn’t need the answer to that question; Adam and Eve need to answer it.  Again, this is like the question to Cain after he has killed his brother Abel.  God asks, “Where is your brother Abel?”  God knows where Abel is – the blood of Abel cries out to God from the ground – but Cain needs the question.  God asks these questions to reveal the human heart.

“Why did Sarah laugh?”

And then, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”

Remember that the purpose of the question is to expose the heart.

“Is anything too hard for the Lord?” is a great line.  “With God all things are possible!”  Such ideas come up repeatedly in scripture.  But the important thing to recognize in this text is that we are not talking about Abraham needing a job or having a health issue.  We are not talking about all that stuff that falls in the realm of daily bread: work, family, good government.  God wants us to bring all such concerns to him, but the question “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” isn’t about these; it’s about the promise of a son.

The promise God made to Abraham was not an end to their childlessness, it was a promise to bring blessing to all the earth.  God promises Abraham and Sarah descendants like the stars through whom all nations of the earth shall be blessed.  The promise of a son is given after God’s love for Noah makes it impossible to solve the problem of a corrupt earth by wiping out humanity with a flood.  Humanity gets off the ark and immediately continue their corrupt and rebellious ways, refusing God’s command to fill the earth and building instead the tower of Babel in order to storm the gates of heaven and seize God’s throne.  The promise of a son is a promise that, instead of destroying humanity, God will save it.  The promise of a son is the promise of salvation: God will bring God’s grace and life to all the earth.  God will reconcile humanity to himself.  God will restore the harmony of the Garden of Eden.

The question God is asking in the words “Why did Sarah laugh?”  the question that reveals the heart is, “Do you think I cannot heal the earth?  Do you think I cannot fulfill my promise of bringing my peace to the world?”

From Abraham will come God’s anointed who will bring salvation to all.  From Abraham will come God’s answer to the rebellion of our first parents.  From Abraham will come God’s healing of a torn and broken world.  From Abraham will come God’s gathering of all people to break bread at one table.  From Abraham will come swords beaten into plowshares and the lion lying down with the lamb.  That’s the promise that is at stake here.

God can do anything.  We need to say that.  And God can make a way when there’s no way.  There is spiritual truth in this.  God can solve all kinds of problems in our individual lives if we will turn to him and trust him.  But solving our problems is not God’s ultimate concern; redeeming us is.  Bringing us and all creation into the realm of his Spirit and life – that’s God’s ultimate purpose.  God is a loving father who cares about whether we have a job, but God is willing to let us go without one if it will bring us into the realm of his grace and life – if it will make us holy: if it will create trust, free from what binds us, and cause us to live his love in the world.

The promise of a son is the promise of salvation for all the earth.  And that’s what Sarah and Abraham no longer believe.  They look at the facts of life and say it cannot happen.

But the next year there is a child.

The promise is fulfilled with or without their trust in it.

When Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of Jesus and Salome stood and watched them take down the body of Jesus on Good Friday, they knew there would be no future.  They went to the grave to grieve not to look for the resurrection.  They went to the grave to honor the dead not to find the living.  None of them believed, but God’s promise was fulfilled.

In the next year Sarah has a child.

Maybe we don’t laugh outright at the promise of a world where every sin is forgiven and every table shared.  Maybe we just smile politely at the idealism of the promise and go about our regular lives.  But God catches us and asks, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”

And if God can redeem the world – then he can redeem you and me.  If God can save the world, he can save me.  If God can forgive every sin, he can forgive my sins.  If God can heal the world, he can heal me.  If he can bring the banquet of peace to all creation – then I can share my bread now.  I can forgive now.  I can love my neighbor now.

The Scandal of Mary’s choice

This is what I tried to say about Mary at Jesus’ feet in my blog this week – which, from some of the response I received, I didn’t make very clear.  Yes, this is a story about two women and the dynamics of family relationships – but that is not the point.  Jesus loves Martha as much as he loves Mary.  Jesus honors Martha’s work as much as he honors Mary.  Lots of other teachings of Jesus suggest that Mary should help her sister.  And lots of other teachings in scripture tell us not to be anxious.  Neither of these are the point of this text.  That’s not what makes this text explode off the page.  What makes the text jump off the page is the audacity of Mary’s behavior.

Imagine that you were at an elegant restaurant – on of those restaurants where the waiter takes the napkin and places it in your lap.  Years ago Deb and I were given a dinner at the Whitney in Detroit – it was an old robber baron’s estate now in a desolate part of the city, a multi story, pink granite, elegant old home near downtown.  They had converted the library and the parlor and the dining room into dining areas. They served exquisite food in an elegant way that wasn’t pretentious, but was – as I said – very elegant.  Imagine that you are in such a restaurant and when your waiter brings your meal, he pulls up a chair, and starts eating with you!  That’s the kind of shock that is in this story.  Mary is acting far outside her social role.

Martha’s request is not just a plea for help in the kitchen – she is the maître de demanding that the owner put the waiter in his place.

Imagine if the owner responded, “No he’s good there.  He’s made the right choice.”!!

That’s the scandal of the story.  But that “scandal” is not just about social roles.  This is not simply a text in support of women’s liberation.  The narrative proclaims the liberation of all humanity because the reign of God is dawning.  The promise of salvation is at hand.

Jesus is not saying that women deserve a place in business and public life.  He is saying that the day when God’s word is written on every human heart is dawning, the day when the Spirit gives life to dry bones, the day when the banquet of God begins, when the Spirit is poured out on all people, men and women, young and old – the day when all the earth is gathered, Jew and Samaritan and Greek, Black and White and Hispanic, West and East, North and South, Male and Female, rich and poor, homeless and homebound, master and servant, slave and free, all are gathered to feast at God’s table.

The point isn’t that Mary chose the good portion; the point is that the good portion has come.  The good portion is here.  And it is here now, for you and for all.

No one who comes to sit at Jesus’ feet will be denied.

The good portion has come

The good portion has come.  It is the one thing needful.  It is the true banquet of God.  And we are invited to sit at Jesus feet, to feast on his word, to live in his Spirit, to taste the life of eternity now.

We are welcomed at Jesus feet, we are gathered by and for this word that creates faith, that frees us from whatever binds us, and that sends us out live the reign of God – to be the hands and voice and presence of Christ in our wounded world.

The son is born; the grave is empty; and nothing is too hard for the Lord.


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