Sunday, June 26, 2011

Offering Hospitality to God

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
June 26, 2011

Year A, Proper 8: The Second Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 22:1-14
Psalm 13
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

Offering Hospitality to God

If you were in church last week you know that we heard a very long passage right from the start of the Book of Genesis. It was the creation story – or, actually, the first creation story - found in the first book of the Bible.

For the authors of Genesis, creation reached its crescendo when God created human beings – made in God’s image and likeness, and declared by God to be very good.

We didn’t hear what happened next, but we know the story. In the beginning, God and human beings were this close. And then because of our sin and selfishness and disobedience the close relationship between God and humanity got broken.

Human beings hid in shame from God – God who comes looking for us, asking, “Where are you?”

In some ways we’ve never stopped hiding. But, the best news of all time is that God never stops looking for us - God never stops reaching out to us - and God never stops wanting to be in relationship with us.

The entire sweep of the Scriptures is a restoration story. It’s the story of God reaching out to us – wanting to restore the very good bond between us – the bond that had been broken so long ago.

Jesus is at the center of that restoration story, of course.

But, others have played their part. One of the towering figures of God’s restoration story is Abraham.

In our first lesson today we heard one of the best-known and most disturbing Bible stories: the sacrifice – or rather, the almost sacrifice – of Isaac.

It’s a troubling story because taken out of context it makes God seem sadistic – testing Abraham by challenging him to offer his beloved son Isaac as a burnt offering. In telling the story, the authors of Genesis brilliantly build excruciating tension - until finally we’re told, “Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son” and was stopped only by a last second intervention from an angel of the Lord.

Now, let’s be honest - if this story were all we knew about God I doubt any of us would be here today.

But, of course, Abraham already knew a lot about God before he received this bewildering request – and thanks in large part to Jesus, you and I know a lot more about God than what we heard in this story.

So, what is this odd and disturbing story all about? Where’s the Good News in this tale of testing, trust and sacrifice?

To answer these questions we have to look at the life of Abraham as a whole. In the Book of Genesis, Abraham is presented as a model of faith and as a friend of God. One biblical scholar describes Abraham as living “a life that stands open to God’s direction.”

And God’s close relationship with Abraham is a glimpse of the kind of relationship God wants to have with all of us.

Abraham is a model for us because even under difficult and bewildering circumstances, Abraham usually remains open to God - Abraham usually welcomes God into his life - Abraham is usually hospitable to God.

For us, Abraham’s story began at age 75 when God told him to leave his home and with his wife and his nephew travel into the unknown new land of Canaan.

Abraham could have said no - I’m old, I’m tired, I don’t want to leave home. But, instead Abraham welcomed God into his life – Abraham was hospitable to a sometimes bewildering and challenging God.

Abraham is a great role model for us in part because like us he’s imperfect. There’s the story of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt when he passes off his wife as his sister in an effort to save his life – not exactly his best moment! For a time she became one of the Pharoah’s wives until God blows their cover and Abraham and Sarah are expelled from Egypt. To make matters worse, we’re told Abraham pulled the same stunt a second time in a place called Gerar where the king took Sarah until God told him the truth in a dream.

Like us, Abraham sometimes gave into fear and stumbled, damaging his relationship with God and the people closest to him.

Mostly, though, Abraham lived a life open to God’s direction – he had come to know that God cared for him and that God kept God’s promises.

At the same time, Abraham lived in a time and place when and where it was not unheard of in times of great distress for people to sacrifice their children to appease the gods. And the greatest sacrifice of all would be to give up an only son.

So God’s request to sacrifice Isaac would have been very difficult, but not unprecedented.

Let’s look at today’s passage more closely.

First we’re told, “God tested Abraham.”

For me, this is the hardest part of this passage. I could be wrong and you don’t have to agree with me, but I don’t think God tests us like this. After all, God already knows us better than we know ourselves. So, if this is a test it may be not so much a test for Abraham but rather a test for God – a way for God to make a little more progress restoring the broken relationship with humanity.

As this story unfolds we learn more about God than we do about Abraham.

We already know that Abraham is a friend of God.

We already know that Abraham was willing to give up his past – he did just that when God called him to leave home. Now, God was asking Abraham to give up his future by sacrificing his son. Although it’s an excruciatingly difficult request, we can be pretty sure how Abraham would respond to the God he had welcomed into his life – the God he come to know so well and trust so much.

In fact, Abraham doesn’t seem to think he’s being tested. He hears God’s call and he doesn’t hide in fear. Instead Abraham answers God, “Here I am.”

He could be faking it, but throughout the story it seems like Abraham has at least some confidence that God isn’t really going to make him go through with this.

Abraham tells the other young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.”

Abraham tells a confused Isaac, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

But, if God does make him go through with this, Abraham seems to be confident that God must plan to bring out some good that he can’t foresee.

At the last moment Isaac is spared and given the chance to play his own role in the restoration of the broken relationship between God and humanity.

In this test we learn that God doesn’t want us to sacrifice our children. And although a ram is sacrificed in the story, the truth is God doesn’t need or want us to sacrifice animals either.

Instead, because God loves us what God wants – what God has wanted all along – is for us to be like Abraham – to let God into our lives, to offer hospitality to God - to live a life that stands open to God.

What would offering hospitality to God look like for us today? What would standing open to God look like for us today?

Although you never know, it’s unlikely that God will speak to us quite as directly as God did to Abraham thousands of years ago. But, like Abraham we need to be prepared to let go of our past and be ready to radically change our future in service to God.

Most of the time, though, living a life that stands open to God is much simpler, less dramatic but no less challenging, than what Abraham faced.

In today’s gospel lesson, we heard Jesus describing what the church – the Christian community – should look like. Jesus said to his disciples,

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

It’s when we practice hospitality to everyone – to the rich and poor, people of every race and color, gay and straight, the smelly and the well-scrubbed, people we really like and people who drive us up the wall – it’s when we practice hospitality to everyone that we offer hospitality to God.

When, like God’s friend Abraham, we offer hospitality to God, then through us God continues repairing the bond that was broken long ago.

When, like God’s friend Abraham, we offer hospitality to God, then through us, God continues the great restoration story.