Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Absurdity of Hope (7/6/14)

The Absurdity of Hope
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

July 6, 2014

Genesis 17:1-2, 15-19a, 18:1-15
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous….’

God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.’ Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘O that Ishmael might live in your sight!’ God said, ‘No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him….

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.’

“If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”  --Albert Einstein

The theme for the summer is famous and not so famous meals of the Bible.   I don’t know how many stories in the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible are connected in some way with a meal.  Hundreds I suppose.    Someone could make an entire three-year lectionary cycle on meal stories.   The stories I chose are top of mind selections from both the Old and New Testaments.

Most of the stories I chose are more famous than not famous.   Some are fairly significant stories in the overall drama of the biblical narrative.     I will preach a sermon on the Last Supper for example.  That is a big one.   The Passover meal as well is on the summer menu.   There are some popular ones that did not make my summer list.   For example, I didn’t include the very first meal of fruit that Adam and Eve ate together.    I am sure that you will be aware of other meal stories that were not included. 

I chose these as a sample of some stories that I think are important to the overall narrative.   I also thought these stories would help us focus our spyglass on some larger issues and themes.

The setting for today’s story is the meal that Sarah and Abraham prepare for the Lord.    

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.

Isn’t that a wonderful sentence?  Can’t you just picture that?   Old Abraham sits in the hot desert in front of his tent.  Perhaps he is reminiscing on the strange twists and turns his life has taken from that first time he answered the call to pack up his family and leave his country and kinfolk to follow the Lord to God knows where.    Now at the age of 99, one would think the poor old guy could get a rest.   But no, the Lord has more demands to make of him.

I don’t care if you believe that these stories are the Word of God, or literally true, or inspired by the Holy Ghost.  These are the stories that vibrate in the marrow of our bones.    They are the founding myths of Western Culture.   For good and ill these are the stories that have shaped our notions of patriarchy, chosenness, destiny, exceptionalism, divine purpose, and hope.    

Abraham is considered the father of three distinctive, self-assured, competing, often aggressive, and world-defining religions:  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.    What do you make of yourself when you read this text in the context of worship, in which the Lord speaks:

No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.  I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.  I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.  And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.  Gen. 17:5-8

According to Genesis, Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac.  Ishmael’s mother was Hagar.  Isaac’s mother was Sarah.    According to Genesis, the Lord’s covenant is with Isaac.

1500 years ago, Mohammad appropriated this text.  According to the Qur’an, the real covenant is with Ishmael.   Abraham was a Muslim. 

2000 years ago, Christians appropriated this text.  Not Isaac.  Not Ishmael.   The heirs of the covenant, the new covenant, are those who accept Jesus, who according to the Gospel of John was the son of God before Abraham.  

Each religion has a favored son.  Each religion looks at the other with a mix of acknowledgment, suspicion, and sibling rivalry.   Each says to other:

“Yes, God loves you.  But I’m his favorite.”    

Mix ancient myth, contemporary ethnic and religious identity, centuries of relationships that oscillate from peaceful co-existence to horrific violence, empire building, the Holocaust, the modern state of Israel, the Nakba, the occupation of Palestine, the military industrial complex, the United States and Christian Zionism and you get the Middle East.  

God loves you.  But I’m his favorite.

As a commissioner to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, I was assigned to a committee.  I was on the ecumenical and inter-faith relations committee.  One of the overtures we were asked to consider was to ask the denomination provide educational resources and worship resources for Presbyterians to distinguish biblical Israel from the modern state of Israel.   

For example, when we sing at Advent,

“O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel”

to what extent does that hymn have contemporary resonance?    How does a Palestinian Christian sing that hymn when from their experience, the modern state of Israel is not captive, but oppressor? 

Is this covenant that God made with Abraham through his son Isaac, and through his son, Jacob who is named by God, Israel, still in place?   Specifically, a covenant in which God, according to Genesis 17:

“…gives to you and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding…” Gen. 17:8.

One question for Presbyterians was whether or not we believe that the biblical deal God made with Abraham is in effect with the modern state of Israel.  Is God still cutting deals with Netanyahu and the settlers?   

We know in our heads that biblical Israel and the modern state of Israel are not the same thing.     Even though the PCUSA has advocated for a two-state solution, for an end to the occupation and to settlement building, and an end to violence on all sides for a long time, the language problem remains.

It took a long time, but we are finally learning that language matters.  When we use exclusively male images for God or for humans even though we know in our heads that God or “the human” is not male, we are reinforcing gender inequities in the present.   Similarly, the resolution argued, that language in worship about Israel reinforces inequities in the present between the modern state of Israel and Palestinians both within Israel and in the occupied territories. 

The committee as a whole punted on the resolution.  It voted against providing resources but added the comment that language was important and needed to be taken seriously.   The major issue facing this General Assembly regarding Israel-Palestine was divestment.   This language issue was put to the side to face that larger question.  

If you haven’t read the news, the PCUSA did vote to divest its funds from three American corporations that are engaged in non-peaceful activities inconsistent with the church’s socially responsible investment policy:
  • Caterpillar provides bulldozers used in the destruction of Palestinian homes and for clearing land of fruit and olive tree groves.
  • Hewlett Packard provides electronic systems at checkpoints, logistics and communications systems to support the naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, as well as business relationships with illegal settlements in the West Bank.
  • Motorola Solutions provides military communications and surveillance systems in illegal Israeli settlements.

The PCUSA has been in conversations with these corporations for ten years and seeing no change, divested from them as a last resort.  

Back to the Bible.

How do we interpret this marvelous story of Abraham and Sarah that doesn’t reinforce ethnic and religious exceptionalism, manifest destiny, and all of that?   

First of all, we should take the Bible seriously, but not literally.   That means we need to understand these texts in their historical and cultural context and location.   These stories were written long before we developed notions such as democracy or human rights.  They were written from the standpoint of patriarchy.  They were pre-scientific and many of their ideas were based on what we would call superstition today.  

Second, some texts and concepts are better read as parable and symbol.  For example, what is Canaan?  What is the Promised Land?  Is it a strip of land with a longitude and a latitude?  Or is it a metaphor for home and freedom for all people all over Earth?   What is Israel?  Is it perhaps a symbol, too, for God's choice for the oppressed, the alien, and the outcast?

Third, we should listen for the transformative music of the Bible.    I did an interview this week with biblical scholar, Marcus Borg.  His latest book is called Convictions:  How I Learned What Matters Most.   He wrote about a conversion he had in college.  He was a member of the Young Republicans.  Then he read the book of Amos and he had a political conversion.    In our interview, he wanted to be clear that we wasn’t talking about partisan politics, but speaking of the transformation the prophet Amos had in his life.    Amos is about speaking truth to political power on behalf of the poor and the oppressed.    Borg realized that to take his faith seriously, he had to take seriously, economic justice.    Amos, the biblical text and the biblical prophet, transforms lives today.

We hear this beautiful music throughout the Bible.  Often it is muffled by other sounds in the Bible that reinforce the domination system, patriarchy, exceptionalism, superstition, and so forth.   That means we have the difficult and joyful task to discern what is lasting, and true, and transformative.     

We need to read Abraham and Sarah in the light of Amos.   

Let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.  5:24

We need to read Christian texts that are exclusionary and self-serving in the light of texts that call us to the highest ethic of peacebuilding and humility.   None of us has any exceptionalist privilege and all human beings are recipients of grace.   Rabbi Brant Rosen told me in an interview that as a Jew the most Jewish thing he can do is to stand in solidarity with Palestinians who are oppressed.   

I read the story of Abraham and Sarah and the divine visitation as a story of promise for all who are without a place.  Abraham and Sarah are aliens without a home.   The Lord visits them and eats the meal they provide and gives them an absurd promise, At the ages of 90 and 99, respectively, they will have another child.

Yesterday, I was speaking on the phone with my parents.   My mother is 90 and my father is 96.  They are seriously biblical.   I am pretty certain there will be no more children in their future.    I don’t think I am going to get a little sister or brother for Christmas.

That is why this story is so funny. 

Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”

Yes, laugh, Sarah, it is crazy.   That promise is a parable of course.   This story is a parable.  Because the parable is about something that is even more absurd, more unlikely, in fact, more impossible.  The promise of this story is that the alien will have a home. 

The promise and hope is that one day all people will live with peace and justice on this sacred Earth, this Divine Canaan.   As another prophet, Micah, is recorded to have said:

Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken. Micah 4:4

We will learn to share the land, Jew, Christian, Muslim, and all nations, all creeds, all humankind.   We will live sustainably on this beautiful blue ball, give back as we take, and learn from the heart and teach to our children, the ways of peace.  

Like Sarah, we might laugh to ourselves.   That is just nuts.    Then we hear the Lord offended that we aren’t taking the promise seriously.  Why do you laugh, God asks?

“Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

Albert Einstein said:

“If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” 

Can you imagine running every energy system we need for housing, food, transportation, on renewable energy sources such as solar and wind?   Never throwing anything away, but reusing and recycling everything?

If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.

Can you imagine making a collective global decision to end war and violence and to channel the resources and money we spend on militaristic adventures to education, healthcare, and an end to poverty?

Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

What can you imagine?   

How absurd can you go?   

Can you laugh at the impossibility? 

Can your laughter be transformed from a laughter of cynicism to the laughter giddy with joy?  

Yes, we owe to ourselves and to our children to articulate with laughter that very absurdity.

Never, never, never give up hope. 


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