Following Instructions – June 18, 2017
In the Name of God for whom nothing is too wonderful and who sends us into a plentiful harvest. Amen.
What is your first inclination after purchasing or receiving something new? Imagine a new car, some electronic gadget, a toy needing to be assembled for your child or grandchild, an appliance. Each comes with a manual; some with two or three manuals. Are you someone who immediately opens the booklet and reads through the instructions before taking a first step? Or are you more likely to proceed blindly on your own, only to glance at the directions if and when you come upon a stumbling block? Perhaps the answer to that depends on what the object is and how much experience you’ve had with something similar to it in the past. Or perhaps your inclination stems for a growing realization that, sometimes, instructions can take us only so far.
Think about being in a new relationship or entering a new school or starting a new job or becoming a new parent. Sage advice from books and mentors is incredibly valuable in all of these situations and those instructions and pearls of wisdom only take us so far. In some cases, we are called to step out in faith and wait. In other cases, we are sent out with some initial instruction and then must figure the rest out as we proceed.
Think about being in Abraham or Sarah’s shoes or in those of Jesus’ first followers and ask yourself again “what’s my inclination?”. Are you one to follow the instructions … or adapt to your own ways of accomplishing whatever it is God is promising or asking of you? There are plenty of examples of both approaches throughout scripture and I don’t mean to suggest that one is necessarily good while the other is bad. What seems to differentiate the approaches is the degree from which they are implemented on account of faith and trust; or the lack thereof..
In order to more fully understand Abraham’s encounter with the three strangers, i to go bat is necessary to go back a bit. We come into the encounter today that Abraham has with the three travelers mid-promise out of a variety of encounters Abraham and God have had together. At first, God called Abram with rather vague instructions to leave his homeland and set off to a foreign land that God would show to him. God’s promise was three-fold and his very identity would change from Abram to Abraham. He would be given a land to possess, he would be granted many descendants to form a great nation despite the fact that he and Sarah were, at that time, well beyond their child-bearing years and God would set up his covenant with that nation in order that their blessings might become a blessing to others. At first Abram sets off in a remarkable response of faith to follow God’s instructions. But, as famine comes to the land and his route is diverted, Abraham & Sarah begin a pattern likely familiar to most of us: that of both stepping out in faith at times to follow the direction of a call we’ve heard and then growing weary or impatient or uncertain over time with the result that we discard the instructions and take matters into our own hands.
We pick up the story some twenty-five years after God’s first call to leave his homeland and over the ensuing years, Abraham and Sarah have found themselves at various times following faithfully or, as this three-fold promise was delayed, taking matters into their own hands. (Consider some light summer reading beginning at Genesis, Chapter 12 for the full version).
At this particular juncture, Abraham has set up his tents near the Oaks of Mamre. They are in a strange land, Sarah is still unable to bear a child, there are no additional instructions and there seems to be no timetable for when those promises are to be fulfilled. Abraham and Sarah are only getting older. Yet, rather than take matters into their own hands this time as they’ve done in the past, Abraham is back on the side of following the instructions, stepping out faithfully and waiting on God. In so doing, part of what we get to witness and are some are some core values and key characteristics of God and of the kingdom God invites those ancient ones and us to help build.
The first of these characteristics is the ancient practice of extending hospitality to the stranger in one’s midst. And around its edges is the invitation to practice some post-conventional thought.
We hear first that three strangers approach “in the heat of the day” – a time when conventional thought would find Abraham himself resting, even sleeping, from his own labor and would dictate that travelers had already taken cover from the biting heat and dust of mid-day. Conventional thinking in this unexpected encounter could just as easily have sparked suspicion and caution as a pretty reasonable response to seeing three strangers approach.
Instead, Abraham extends an approach to hospitality far beyond what the cultural norms would reasonably dictate. Conventional thinking and practice meant a drink of water and some small morsel to eat; a brief respite for animals and humans alike. It did not mean the kind of lavish, abandonment we hear Abraham offering: the rush to meet them, the slaughter of a prize calf producing pounds of meat, the call to bake fresh bread from three measures of flour that would translate into many more loaves than three people could consume, a shaded spot to rest, and the taking up of a position to the side more as slave than host, ready to attend to any possible need. Abraham seizes this situation in one of his more faithful responses by reaching out as a blessing to those arriving at his tent – even before the promises of God’s blessing upon him and his household have been fully realized.
Conventional thinking is that “inside-the-box” approach that tends to close up space rather than flinging wide the doors – or in this case, the tent flaps. Conventional thinking is often quite popular both in communities of faith and in larger institutions of society’s making. Conventional thinking creates life within a box that is well-defined, even rigid at time, and most importantly safe where those on the inside tend to peer out at the world around them and either don’t like what they see or choose the uniformity of staying among those who think, and act, and dress, and do most everything else just as they do. Offering hospitality to anything or anyone foreign is not an option lest they bring upon themselves diversity of thought or practice that might bring growth or change – personal or otherwise. Better to stay within the familiarity of even the most rigid walls of thought.
Luckily for God’s story and our future, Abraham and Sarah as the parents of this faith we’ve inherited, were at this particular moment willing to step out in faith; to practice an unconventional wisdom of trust by not driving away three odd strangers and instead emulating God’s characteristic generosity by offering blessing to them even as they still waited for God to come through on with a most unlikely blessing for themselves.
Fast forward a few thousand years to Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus proclaims to his followers that God’s bounty is plentiful, that a wonderful harvest awaits and that there are more laborers to be had. And so they are to go to all the lost tribes of Israel, proclaiming that God’s Kingdom is near, showering them with God’s compassion and doing all the things Jesus himself has been doing.
Conventional thought would likely have a difficult time wrapping its head around an idea that the students might be as the master. Even if they could get beyond that first stumbling block, conventional thinking might suggest that the easier place to begin is among those most like themselves. There are many faith communities and institutions both in the ancient world and in our contemporary one who have done just that. Their exercise in conventional thinking is to peer out ever so slightly and allow in only those who look and think and act like themselves or who are willing to undergo stringent initiations in order to comply.
The instruction manual Jesus has given us is quite the opposite. We are told to go out, both extending our own hospitality and, in truth, seeking out the hospitality of others. We are called to open doors wide and bring in laborers from among those most marginalized who may, quite reasonably be suspicious of our motives, and who, in fact, are most need of that message. We are told to travel lightly in order that we might recognize when our messages of compassion and liberation and healing are being received; and to decide when they are not in order to move on. In short, we are instructed to emulate Jesus by assuring — especially those most marginalized and unlike us — that God’s realm is near to them, too: by healing their disease, by exorcising demons that keep them from reaching their full potential, cleansing the ailments that keep them isolated and without community, by restoring life to those who are otherwise lifeless and without hope. In short, like Jesus’s followers of days long past, we are to proclaim liberation and provide healing – two more characteristics by which we recognize God’s kingdom at hand.
These core values of compassion, of hospitality, of liberation and of healing are touchstones to embrace and notice and share. They point the way and assure that the path we are following is the right one even when the instructions are vague or obscure or can only take us so far.
It is no accident nor mere-coincidence that St. Paul’s for many years now has proclaimed and offered these same characteristics as its core values: a welcome to all rooted in the ancient understanding and practice of hospitality; a welcome that extends from outside of our doors all the way to God’s table; an outpouring of healing prayer, no questions asked; a compassion and willingness to go out among refugee minors in our high schools in order to strengthen and support their language acquisition and education; to stretch outward as allies in a growing LGBTQ community; to intentionally build ourselves into a group of people who neither look the same, have the same economic statuses, dress the same, talk the same, nor vote the same. The core values and characteristics of God that we adopt when at our best is to embrace the diversity of creation that stretches our thought and helps us most to grow.
Like Abraham and Sarah in this moment of their journey and like the disciples in that moment of theirs, St. Paul’s has become a trusting and faithful and expansive community that aims to practice God’s unconventional ways. But make no mistake: it is easy to slip back into the safe, conventional thinking and action of institutions rather than becoming ever-stronger disciples; to forget the instructions given so long ago and to instead rely only on our own desires and self-interests.
Abraham could have acted differently … and at another point in his journey of faithfulness and lack of trust, he may well have done so. We who would follow in the footsteps of Abraham and Jesus, blessed by God and in turn called to be a blessing to others do well to remember the lessons today’s scripture offers. We might do well to recall a somewhat more contemporary story also.
This may only be legend, but it has been said that following World War II some German students volunteered to help rebuild the bombed out structures in Great Britain inflicted by their country. One project in London was the restoration of a large statue of Jesus, arms outstretched and bearing a familiar inscription from Matthew’s Gospel to “Come unto me … [all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will refresh you]” The students were successful in restoring everything except for Jesus’ hands which had been utterly destroyed. What to do? Finally, a decision was made to leave the hands off and to change the inscription to read: “Christ has no hands but ours.”
That phrase is found in a prayer attributed to St. Teresa of Avila, a 16th C. Spanish mystic. May it continue to inform our prayers and practices:
You have no body on earth but ours,
No hands but ours,
No feet but ours.
Ours are the eyes through which your compassion
Must look out on the world.
Ours are the feet by which you may still
Go about doing good.
Ours are the hands with which
You bless people now.
Bless our minds and bodies,
That we may be a blessing to others.