Weekly Preaching: Father's Day

June 13th, 2017

Father’s Day. Hardly noticed, at least in the churches I’ve served versus the intense sentimentality (and far higher attendance!) of Mother’s Day. The lectionary texts, of course, aren’t geared toward the Hallmark holiday. But they are intriguing and profound on the subject of hope.

Genesis 18:1-15: on Father’s Day we hear the story of the least likely father in history. The issue of barrenness and God declaring Abraham and Sarah would have a child have been introduced in chapter 17 with that lovely and poignant wordplay: hearing this news, Abraham “laughed” (which, as Robert Alter suggests, is “disbelief, edged with bitterness”); the Hebrew verb is yitzhaq, which is identical with the Hebrew name Isaac.

Like a delayed echo, Sarah blurts out the same chuckle in chapter 18 when, lurking at the tent door, she hears this same news. This laughter is so theologically suggestive, and it's well worth probing and pondering for the preacher. The redemption to come is one of great laughter, minus the edge of bitterness and disbelief; the transformation of the laugh from cynical to delight is the fruit of God’s greatest labor.

Almost as if the prior conversation hadn’t happened, though, Genesis 18 begins (as all transformation seems to) with hospitality. Three men (or are they angels? Or God?) wander up to Abraham’s place under the oaks of Mamre (and I believe it’s well worth painting a picture of the locale: the shade of the trees, welcome during a hot day of travel; a compelling image with some history is the astonishing 5th century mosaic from Ravenna). Abraham doesn’t respond to their plea for hospitality; he rushes to offer before they have even spoken. He asks to wash their feet (can you feel John 13 coming on here?) He then asks Sarah to bake some food (although it’s less patriarchal than we expect, as he fetches curds and milk and a calf — a pretty sumptuous feast, causing us to fast-forward, perhaps, to Jesus’ best story about the grand feast prepared for the prodigal son come home).

This trio shocks Abraham with their knowledge, declaring Sarah will have a child. She laughs and is overhead — and then she denied laughing. Politeness  Or a holy sense that it was unfaithful to question God, even in such circumstances?

Verse 14 encapsulates the Gospel — in a question! “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” How much better than “Nothing is too hard!” It’s a question, leaving her space to live into and own the answer she struggled to cling to.

There's so much for the preacher to play with here. Gerhard von Rad noted the suddenness of the men’s appearance: “Abraham did not see them coming; divine events are always so surprising.” He wasn’t paying for help, or expecting anything at all that day. God just showed up and was welcomed in the mundane, in a simple act of hospitality. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2). And as Jesus said, “He who receives you receives me” (Matthew 10:40). "Behold, I stand at the door and knock" (Revelation 3:20).

Claus Westermann wisely suggests that Sarah’s denial of having laughed is really a desire to cancel it, to get a mulligan on it. “But the messenger says, No, the laughter remains — and he means: you are to think further on it.” I love that. Yes, she laughed in bitter ridicule. Stick with that, never forget it; then when the redemption dawns, you will relish it all the more for the bitterness you once knew. Toward the end of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, we find John Ames, discovering the marvel of forgiveness between fathers and sons, saying “I felt grateful for all my old bitterness of heart.” Forgive and forget?  No; forgive, remember, and be awed by the way the woundedness is matched by then exceeded by the healing to come. How much more gleeful and giddy was the laughter when Isaac was born because they remembered their laughter months earlier?

The RCL lists Exodus 19:2-8 as an “alternate.” What a fabulous passage. The moody Israelites finally arrive at Mt. Sinai. Moses ascends to the heights, and Yahweh asks him to tell the people, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians” — expected! — but then God offers up a beautiful, vivid image: “how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” Of course, the lovely “On Eagles’ Wings” suggests itself, as does the marvelous moment in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings where the imperiled and exhausted hobbits see the eagles, who carry them home to safety.

Then Exodus 19 offers a fair, trifold prescription of what the people of God are to be about: “God’s possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.” A three part sermon? And then my favorite moment: Moses calls the people together, and before they even hear it all or ponder the implications, like young lovers or eager but naïve students, they say “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” This is the birth of faith, the willingness, eagerness to do whatever God might speak, what Maggie Ross called “a willingness for whatever.”

I was taught to stick to the pericope assigned and not to veer into other texts... and for fair reason. At the same time, if you read Augustine, Chrysostom, Bernard, Luther, Sojourner Truth, really any of the great preachers from the days when the church thrived, they are all over the Bible in every sermon. So I will pick up a thread here or there from these “alternate texts.” Those eagles will find their way into my sermon.

Back to the non-alternate texts: Romans 5:1-8 plays perhaps the pivotal role in Paul’s plot of redemption. I wonder sometimes if it’s the kind of text we should just read slowly, and repeat it, letting our people savor the words. Trying to explain them is kin to explaining a joke; once you explain you’ve lost the point. And yet, thoughts stir in my head. For Paul, Christianity is hardly about being saved; justification necessarily involves reconciliation — with God and others. We were God’s enemies, but totally by grace we are beyond lucky to discover we are God’s friends.

My favorite story on Romans 5, which I will retell on Sunday, happened when I was working one of my seminary summers at a “helping hands” ministry where a coalition of churches aided people in need. One client was particularly obnoxious, squandering all we had done for him, quitting jobs we’d gotten him, taking groceries back to the store for a refund so he could buy quaaludes. The leadership group met, and the suggestion was made that we cut him off and banish him from the program. But then the suggester mis-stepped. He quoted the Bible — but not really.  “After all, the Bible says ‘God helps those who help themselves!’”  

A little woman well into her eighties, countered: “That’s not in the Bible.  That’s Benjamin Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanack. What the Bible says is in Romans 5:6: ‘For while we were lost and helpless, Christ died for the ungodly.’” She had that kind of moral clout people can’t quite argue with — so he stayed. I wish I could say he got on his feet and became a banker. But we kept working with him for another month of frustration, and then he just disappeared one day. About three years later, somebody saw him by the side of the road. He didn’t satisfy our need for results, but he compelled us to be Christ to him. He didn’t become a banker, but he was alive, at least for a few more years, and that’s God’s great gift to all of us: time.

It is fascinating: what we hope for, or what God liberates us to hope for, according to Romans 5, is “glory.” I would commend to you, enthusiastically, C.S. Lewis’s best sermon: “The Weight of Glory.”  Eloquent, moving, and a substantial invitation to a twofold kind of glory.

The grandest wonder of Romans 5:1-8, though, is the cadenced sequence I don’t know how to comment upon; I think we just read, slowly, and then repeat and marvel, letting the sermon marvel with the people. How revolutionary, how beneficial, how healing are these words?  

“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”  

Don’t preach on this. Just let it linger. Cross-stitch it and hang it over the mantle. Get it tattoed on your forearm. Stick it on the dashboard of your car.

The Gospel reading, Matthew 9:35-10:8, is (to me, somewhat irreverently) the least intriguing and pregnant with possibility among all of the day’s texts. Plus, I like in the summertime to explore other portions of the Bible. Take a run through Genesis, or a walk through Romans. Let Jesus have his own season from Advent through Easter/Ascension…

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.

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