Pentcost 8 July 18, 2010

Genesis 18:1-10                                                                  

Luke 10:38-42                                                                     

We’re standing in the sacristy there at St. Michael’s, Barrington, Illinois – me, the curate just out of seminary, the rector, and the visiting bishop – just about to go in to begin the liturgy. “Bill,” says the bishop to the rector, “what did I preach about last time I was here?” (This would have been four years earlier.) I watch a look of panic cross the rector’s face. Sermons have a short shelf life in memory; four years could be four centuries. “I remember you told a story about a dog,” the rector replied, color returning to his face. “Ah,” said the bishop, returning to his brief case the sermon he had taken out and pulling forth another. It turned out he had three sermons that he preached, rotating them as he went his rounds.

So, a story about stories. Fr. McLean remembered nothing about the bishop’s sermon except the dog story he’d told. You may well remember nothing about this story except my story about the bishop’s sermon. Stories are what are most memorable because we humans are constructed by stories. It is through stories that we find the most fundamental meaning of who we are and what life and reality are all about. The Bible endures as a source of truth because it is above all a collection of stories.

This morning we have two of the great stories in the Bible. In the reading from Genesis, three strangers appear at the tent of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham greets them and extends hospitality – a place to rest in the shade from the noonday desert sun, drink for themselves and their animals, a sumptuous feast. The visitors announce that a year hence, when they return that way, Sarah will have borne the heir promised by God to Abraham. Abraham and Sarah, mind you, are by this time ancient, well past their childbearing years.

If you read a little bit further in the story, you learn that Sarah, peeking out from the tent, laughs in disbelief at this foolish prediction of childbirth. But it comes to pass, and the child she bears she names Isaac, meaning “he laughs.” The story is about faith in God’s promises, in our covenant relationship with God, faith against all odds, all reason, even all nature. In Christian tradition, the three visitors come to represent angels, and then the Holy Trinity. A famous Russian icon depicting the scene is displayed on the oblations table by the Font this morning.

The story in the gospel reading, of Mary and Martha welcoming their friend Jesus to their home, is another story of hospitality. Martha has gone down in history as the active sister; Mary the contemplative one. But really this is a story about much deeper things than active and contemplative. Martha is the sister “distracted by many things,” weighed down with worry that she has to “do” something to welcome the Lord. Mary is the sister who chooses “the better part,” the “one thing necessary,” sitting at her Lord’s feet to receive his word of life.

So, in both cases, stories about God coming to people, being welcomed in the case of Abraham and Mary with open hearts, open minds, open hospitality, readiness to accept and believe; but in the case of Sarah and Martha, things standing in the way of this reception – Sarah’s disbelief that such a wondrous thing as her pregnancy could happen, Martha’s anxious assumption that hospitality requires busyness, achievement, merit on her part, not simply openness to what her visitor wants to bring her.

Let’s go back for a minute to the subject of story as the thing which constructs us, gives us meaning. I think about the world of my grandfather, whom I used to visit as a boy each summer. My grandfather was a man of stories. He told them at meal tables, breakfast, lunch and dinner. (In those days, families ate meals together.) He told them and listened to them with his friends, who came by each evening to sit on the porch, smoke cigars, play cards and . . . tell stories. Funny stories, amazing stories, sometimes sad stories. Stories about growing up, about ancestors and old ways; stories about dreams and hopes, successes and failures. As grandfather grew older, the stories would get repeated more often, but it didn’t really matter. The stories were what gave life.

What are our stories today? Well, I think most of them we get from the media. They are stories about celebrities, people of impossible wealth, impossible accomplishments, impossible physical beauty, impossible power. The people in my grandfather’s stories were accessible; the people in media stories are mostly inaccessible. That is part of the difference. There is also the fact that media stories are largely one-dimensional. We learn about a movie star’s latest multi-cultural adoption, but we do not know that movie star personally so we do not know about her own childhood, what her marriage (if she has one) is really like, what she fears or hopes or dreams. The people in my grandfather’s stories were multi-dimensional, because he knew them and often his listeners knew them. So the stories about them were full of nuance, of irony, of alternative possibilities; the characters in my grandfather’s life had pasts and futures. They were what I would call “open” – their stories were therefore “thick” and could be told in various ways. The characters in media stories are “closed” – their stories are correspondingly “thin” and we are told only one narrow version of them.

Biblical stories like the ones this morning are like beads on a necklace. None of them stands alone. Strung together through the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, they tell one long story – a story that is still being told in our own lives, in the telling of our own stories. In the great story of the Bible, the central character is always God. Every other character, every story, revolves in some way around God. God enriches our stories, opens them to possibilities beyond ourselves. God connects our stories, one to another. In this Holy Eucharist each week, in the readings and our reflections, in the sharing of Bread and Wine, God’s story becomes our story and our stories become God’s story. We are Abraham. We are Mary. Nothing is impossible to those whose story is the story of God.

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