Image: Posted on Facebook June 7, 2023 by Ana Patricia Altamirano-Miller, ‘Roots. What does it look like to you?’ McLane Creek, Olympia, Washington State, USA.
‘Mission – cosmic and domestic’
Ordinary Sunday 11, Year A
Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7; Matthew 9:35 – 10:23
It’s common for me to find, as I prepare to lead worship or preach, that a particular image will strike me and add grist to the mill of my thinking.
These two images are from Facebook this week. I follow a group called Unique Trees, and I’m often delighted by what people notice and post.
Have a look at these. Spend a moment noticing yourself, and noticing what occurs to you.
We might see a glorious vision; a hospitality to something new or different; an unexpected humour in what is emerging … a drop bear perhaps! Or a tree kangaroo! Perhaps a difficult or obstructed birth; a tension between host and guest; creator and creaturely; a creature taking matters into its own hands in an impatience to get on with it; something a little sinister, slouching towards Bethlehem.
Let these things, and the things you have noticed, have space in you, as we move to consider our texts today.
The story in Genesis is a familiar one. Do you remember this?
Only a couple of weeks ago we encountered it through the icon created by Andrei Rublev in the 15th century. You might remember that Rublev’s image depicts the three angels who visited Abraham and Sarah at the Oak of Mamre. Rublev’s icon has been interpreted as a representation of the presence of God, as Holy Trinity. Each of the figures are in relation to each other in a posture of complete hospitality, indicating the essential unity and mutuality in their nature. As viewers we are drawn into this hospitality ourselves.
The text itself suggests the immediacy of God’s presence with Abraham and Sarah.
There is a shift in the narration from a conversation between the angelic travellers and Abraham, and then, before the travellers move on, and in relation to the same conversation, God directly addresses each of them separately. I think it is open to us to regard this as both a significant encounter between God and Abraham in terms of the promise God has made to him, but strikingly here, it is also about Sarah, who hitherto has had no direct word from God.
And I think it also shows us how the cosmic mission of God is worked out in the domestic relationships between us.
The hope, hospitality and healing of God is cosmic in scope but is so often worked out or realised in everyday, domestic gestures where we find ourselves vulnerable as both host and guest.
This story centres around God’s promises to Abram (not yet Abraham) that he will give him many descendants, and to those descendants’ land. This is a blessing linked to Abram’s trust in God, and unfolds through chapters 12-18, becoming more and more particular. It is truly cosmic in scope, no less than the stars in the sky and the grains of sand that cover the earth.
Notably, along the way, Abram questions God, reminding him that he has no flesh and blood heir. Abram is wondering how this promise will work itself out. You might also remember that Sarai (not yet Sarah) laments that God has given her no children, and decides to take matters into her own hands, giving her slave Hagar to Abram to be his wife, resulting in all sorts of domestic chaos and bitterness, and in a son, Ishmael.
Problem solved? Well no. In chapter 17, God makes a covenant with Abram, this time promising him that he will be the father of many nations. This is to be marked by circumcision, and Abram and Sarai get new names, Abraham and Sarah, and God makes it very clear that Sarah will have a son herself.
This is where it gets interesting and particularly pertinent to our text today. Abraham laughs and says to himself: “Will a son be born to a man 100 years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of 90? As listeners, we’re let into his private thoughts and doubts here.
And Abraham says to God: If only Ishmael could be under your blessing. Abraham is trying to work it out on his own terms. The immensity of the hope God is offering seems beyond him, and he is trying to work it out in domestic terms, understandable to a man of his age, time and culture.
God makes no rebuke of Abraham, reassuring him about Ishmael, but reiterates that it is Sarah who will bear him a son within the year. It seems Abraham is having trouble getting his head around this. There’s a humour in it. A humour of the bedroom. You get the feeling that Abraham isn’t having a good time with anyone at 100 years of age, let alone with his wife Sarah, who the text is at pains to tell us is 90. Perhaps the days of hospitality in the bedroom between Abraham and Sarah are long past. The domestic details. All tangled up with the promises of God.
When the three travellers arrive, Abraham is the model host. His hospitality is exemplary. He is wealthy and he spares no honour in relation to these guests. And then the narrative reveals the purpose of their visit. It is again to reiterate God’s promise of a child who will be born to Sarah. And Sarah laughs.
I’m indebted to Jewish scholar Esther Shkop for her study of the midrash and rabbis in terms of the significance of Sarah’s laughter. Her argument is that this laughter is not what it at first seems, nor as it has been commonly interpreted in English translations. She makes the point that many have interpreted Sarah’s laughter as being about the joy of finally being able to have a son of her own. However, she believes this is neither faithful to the narrative, nor to the conjugation of the verb used for this laughter in Hebrew.
Narratively, it makes no sense, if Sarah’s laughter is joyous, for her to be questioned about it; nor for her fear and shame in response to this question. If this is God’s intention for her, then presumably God understands her joy.
In terms of the form of the verb used here, Shkop highlights that it is little used in the Hebrew Bible and where it is, it has a connotation of laughter with a twist; a mocking, bitter, sorrowful twist. Also, the particular conjugation of the verb here appears only in chapters 17, 18 and 21 of Genesis, and in relation to the birth of Sarah and Abrahm’s son Isaac.
As Sarah laughs in this way we may understand that she feels herself to be an object of derision, a laughing stock perhaps, and perhaps also her laugh carries a sense of the sexual bind Sarah is in. Sarah has been barren in a society where women’s worth was tied up with having sons. And she tells us, she is long past her fertile years. And, after all, there is a lot of bitterness around Hagar and Ishmael, not to mention that Abraham has passed Sarah off as his sister, effectively pimping her out on their journeys in order to keep himself safe. And all of this in public. Although the narrative only features a few characters here, Abraham is a wealthy man with a very large household. There are many others who have borne witness to Sarah’s shame, and perhaps joined Hagar in deriding her.
And I think Sarah’s comment, as she laughs, “Am I indeed to enjoy pleasure in my old age?” may be seen to refer to more than the pleasure of a child to a barren woman. Again, the choice of the particular verb for laughter can carry sexual intent or innuendo. It’s open to us to guess that there may be an estrangement between them, and that the pleasure of enjoying each other in this way is a thing of the past.
And this could also explain Sarah’s fear when questioned about her laughter. If she has been overheard, perhaps she could be accused of shaming her husband, suggesting, and excuse my candour, that he can no longer get it up. In a shame/honour society that values virility and fertility, this is no small thing. It’s one thing for Abraham to laugh at himself, and entirely another for him to be laughed at.
This interpretation also makes sense of God’s lack of reproach to Sarah. It is Abraham to whom God speaks privately. You know, your wife Sarah thinks … I like to think this might be a reproach to Abraham; a reminder that the having of a child requires some hospitality to your wife. Like God is saying, I’ll do my part, now get on and do yours!
And I think the text bears out that God’s direct words to Sarah, as she attempts to deny her laughter, are not reproachful, but maybe a way of validating her, and saying, so to speak … own it!
For Sarah, too, will have to acknowledge and put her shame behind her, if she is to embrace God’s purpose here, and indeed to host and receive Abraham again! Not to take away from the miracle, and the mission and faithfulness of God here, but it seems that this miracle may in fact hinge on a little domestic hospitality.
Isaac, too, whose name means laughter, in this particular conjugation, only found here in Genesis, is named for this bittersweet kind of calling. As omniscient readers and leaders, we might recall that Israel’s story will not be all about joy.
The gospel reading from Matthew today is another text that holds the tension between the cosmic scope of God’s mission and the domestic sphere in which it is worked out. Again, I’m indebted to the scholarship of others, to John Squires and Elizabeth Raine, for their insights here.
Unlike the other gospels, with their emphasis on the missionary activity of Jesus to the Gentiles, John and Elizabeth contend that Matthew’s gospel is intended for a domestic, or intra-Jewish audience, who are traumatised, divided and lost in the shifts that are taking place after the fall of the Jewish temple, and in the time where Jewish and Christian sects still met together in the synagogues.
This was a time of great dissent and political wrangling about the place of the Law, now rising to a new pre-eminence after temple rites are no longer possible. Historical records suggest this played out in tensions and even violence between the Pharisees, other Jewish groups and the claims of the Jesus followers. This is how we may hear the words: “Siblings will betray siblings to death, and parents their children, children will rise up against their parents and have them executed. Everyone will hate you because of me.” Conflict is rife within the Jewish household of God.
And on this God looks with compassion. With the context of the time all in the background of his narrative, Matthew has Jesus send out the disciples, specifically and exclusively here to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. We hear: “Don’t go to the Gentiles or to the Samaritans.”
God’s mission here is particular and to a particular people. The disciples are to announce that the reign of heaven has drawn near. Another one of those cosmic-in-scope moments! The reign of heaven will look and feel like healing the sick, raising the dead, curing leprosy, expelling demons. Particular things of particular concern to the lost and vulnerable. Particular things characterised by enormous generosity and hospitality. For the disciples are also told to take nothing for the journey, and to give freely as they themselves have received freely.
This journey is a bittersweet journey, a risky one. As lambs among wolves … so much political peril, so much domestic enmity … they are to seek the people of peace, the places and people where God’s peace and generosity is welcomed. They are to be both hosts or bearers of this peace, hope and healing, and guests, utterly dependent on the hospitality and peace of others. To be a bearer of God’s mission, to approach the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God is to be vulnerable and to depend on mutual and reciprocal relationships with others. Others who, like us, are broken, lost and in need of healing. Others who, like us, may act as wolves, out of fear.
The hope, hospitality and healing of God is cosmic in scope but is so often worked out or realised in everyday, domestic gestures where we find ourselves vulnerable and as both host and guest.
This intra-household domestic text may invite us to consider how we are positioned in the story. Do we see ourselves as host or guest? Lost and in need of healing? Or as people bringing healing to others? As vulnerable travellers in need of hospitality, or as those more certain of our security and place?
Here today, at SSUC, we may find ourselves thinking of political conflicts within our own Christian faith, and of the ways we have been wounded or wounded others through acts of inhospitality. We might think of our determination to learn about the hospitality of the Gadigal people and the land on which we gather, and to wonder what that might require of us.
We might wonder what we have to give, and also about what we need to receive. We might think about the upcoming referendum and how we open ourselves again to new ways of relating. We might think of personal relationships that have hurt us, or where we have hurt others, and wonder anew about how the reign of God might be near. We might wonder what it means to turn again and again to acts of hospitality and love. We might remember that God sends us, the real us, with our fears and our shame, and our self-deprecating laughter … and also that God sends others to us to be agents of our healing.
The hope, hospitality and healing of God is cosmic in scope but is so often worked out or realised in everyday, domestic gestures where we find ourselves vulnerable as both host and guest. Amen.