"A Father's Blessing"
A Message By Dr. Bruce Havens
BASED ON THE THEME: "Reading the Bible again, for the FIRST time"
ARLINGTON CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH, U.C.C.
JUNE 16, 2019
Genesis 18: 1-14 (NRSV)
1 The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3 He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6 And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” 7 Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
9 They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10 Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.”
Father’s Day is an excellent time to go back to the book of Genesis and learn more about the “Father of a Nation.” No not George Washington, but Abram, otherwise known as Abraham. As we think about his story – and it is an extensive story, let us remember that Abraham was not only the Father of a Nation but a Father of Blessing. Let’s look at his story.
To understand the deepest meaning of this story we need to understand that the story of Abraham was written after the Exodus, when the Hebrew slaves came out of Egypt and took the land by occupation and by war. The story of Abraham describes their claim on this land based on the belief that their God, Yahweh had given it to them. This is the heart of the current day battle between the people of the nation Israel and the Palestinian people whose ancestors had also dwelt in this land, so this narrative is at the heart of the claim that the Jewish people have on the land called Israel. Abraham’s story is the great narrative of the origins of the people known first as Hebrews and then called by the name of their ancestor Israel. Like all great narrative stories it is filled with tales of great conflicts and intrigues.
So we first meet Abram in Genesis 11. Abram was renamed Abraham’s in an encounter with Yahweh as part of the promise of blessing Yahweh made with Abram. Abram is the son of Terah, oldest of 3 brothers, and he is married to Sarai whom we are told is barren. In chapter 12 Yahweh comes to Abram and says he is sending him to a distant land and that he will be blessed and that Yahweh will “Make a great nation of you,” and YHWH says to Abram, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” [ v.3]. So from the start we learn that God intended to bless all the nations through his blessing on Abram. But Abram’s journey begins with YAHWEH’s command to leave home and family and go to a land that YAHWEH will give him. The intrigue of it is whether Abram will receive this blessing and be the blessing that YHWH has promised.
Abram gets to what is called Canaan and YHWH tells him he will give Abe’s offspring this land – key to Israel’s claim to Palestine. Some time later Abram goes down into Egypt because of a famine. The conflict and intrigue of this story comes when we learn that Abram seeks to protect himself and his wife Sarai by telling the Egyptian Pharoah she is his sister. Pharaoh takes Sarai into his court harem. Evidently displeased with this YHWH begins to strike Egypt with plagues. When Pharaoh discovers she is actually Abram’s wife he runs both of them out of Egypt but not before rewarding him with great material blessings of gold, livestock and such. Abram and his family, including his nephew Lot, come back into Canaan and split the land between them. Interestingly enough, demonstrating Abram’s character as one of compassion and generosity Abram gives Lot first choice of the land and allows Lot to take the best parts of the land.
Next we come to the great conflict and intrigue of Sodom, a story still used today, but mostly wrongly. Let me unpack it for you. In c.14 we meet Melchizedek King of Sodom, and priest of God Most High. And although we have already been told that YHWH is angry with Sodom for its “evil” we don’t know what that evil is. King Mel blesses Abe and Abe gives Mel a tithe of everything. Mel tries to get Abe to take back some of the goods, yet Abe says no, he is told by his God YHWH not to take anything of value from Mel. There is a sense that this is because YHWH doesn’t want anyone taking credit for all of Abe’s blessings.
At this point Abe still hasn’t had a son of his own, and in c. 15 God reiterates the promise – “your descendants shall be as many as the stars.” We are told Abe believed and “the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” By the way the “promise” that YHWH makes is described as a covenant. This is the source of the use of the terms “Old Testament,” to describe the Jewish Scriptures, because God’s original covenant was made with Abraham whose offspring became the nation Israel. A covenant was a legal term of that time meaning an agreement between two parties – the restated covenant of the Jewish people was that YHWH would be their God and they would be YHWH’s people and if they obeyed YHWH he would bless them. But the original covenant with Abraham was to make him a nation of many people and they would be a blessing to all the nations of the world.
The next two chapters include a dream or vision that Abram has of the people going down into slavery in Egypt but ultimately liberated by God. And then God gives another sign of the promise, the covenant, in the act of circumcision. With that sign YHWH proclaims that Abram will be known as Abraham from then on and Sarai will be known as Sarah. These names have meanings that express their character and essence. And the covenant is confirmed when Abraham circumcises all the males in his household.
Now, back to the conflict and intrigue of Sodom and Gomorrah. In c. 18 visitors come to Abraham’s place. These visitors are variously described as strangers, aliens, angels, and even apparently YHWH himself. The story we read this morning stands in contrast to the behavior of the people of Sodom. These strangers are meant to be protected, fed, taken care of and treated as royalty. Instead the people of Sodom come and practically “beat the door” down to rape and abuse these strangers. There is no mention of anyone being homosexual or that this is anyone’s sexual orientation. This is rape, an act of violence and degradation. Only the most uneducated people today – and unfortunately there are quite a few, even some who serve on the bench in courts of law – believe that rape has anything to do with sex other than the act itself. It is a violation of a person meant to abuse them and demonstrate power over them, power not granted but taken violently. This is Sodom’s wickedness. It has been mistranslated as a condemnation of homosexuality in the same way rape is mistranslated as a sexual act. For Abraham, for the people of a nomadic culture where the literal survival of a person who is traveling and comes to visit another nomad’s tent, the mutual, sacred, holy demand to show hospitality to a stranger is not just a matter of kindness and choice. It is literally potentially life and death, as the traveler may not have water, food, or other supplies to sustain life until they get to the nearest oasis, or village to get these things. Sodom’s sin is it’s violation of this sacred obligation.
If you don’t believe me then let me share what the Bible itself says is the sin of Sodom. The prophets in every mention of the sin of Sodom describe it as “injustice” as in the same injustice of doing what is right for the widow, the orphan, the stranger from a foreign land, or the powerless being dragged into court by the powerful.
Isaiah 1:16b – 17 in condemning the actions of the King of Israel and the kings of other lands refers to Sodom and says unless they, “cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow,” YHWH will treat them as he treated Sodom. In Jeremiah 22: 1-3 we read, “Thus says the Lord: Go down to the house of the king of Judah, and speak there this word, 2 and say: Hear the word of the Lord, O King of Judah sitting on the throne of David—you, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates. 3 Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place,” or the consequences will be the same as those suffered by Sodom.
In Amos 4:1 the prophet says that those who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, will suffer the same fate as Sodom. Even Jesus, in reference to Sodom and Gomorrah makes mention of “the welcome” the disciples receive as the reason for God’s judgment upon them: “14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 15 Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.” So it is the issue of sacred hospitality, of welcoming the stranger with open arms, with food and drink, with an offer to stay and be guests that is the central concern in the issue of Sodom and Gomorrah and its blessing or curse. The proper way to treat strangers is to bless them, as Abraham blesses the strangers in the story we read as our Scripture lesson today.
As we reflect on the importance of Father’s Day and the story of a Father of a Nation, Abraham, we reflect on the wider meaning of hospitality. It isn’t just tea and cookies. It is the desire to bless rather than curse, to welcome rather than to violently abuse. That ethic, that value, that sacred and holy demand is from God and when we remember that we will be blessed. When we fail to honor that – at any level of human interaction – in a family, with neighbors, in a community, in a city, in a nation, then we stand at risk of not only losing the blessing of God, we face the consequences of God’s judgment.
Certainly all of us want to know the blessing of God. The question is are we following Abraham’s example and seeking to be a blessing to anyone we meet? Strangers, friends, family are all deserving of our hospitality. For most of us that word is something we associate with serving tea and cookies to guests. For God it is something far bigger. It is indeed the example of the Father of a Nation, who was blessed by God to be a blessing to all nations and people. We must choose to show that Biblical value in our personal lives, in our community relations and in our national and international relations. Naïve, you say? You can’t just treat everyone nicely? Well, the Bible demands that we treat everyone justly, equally, and with dignity and hospitality. Each of us must choose whether we will or we won’t. I pray each of us chooses to and in so doing have a blessed Father’s Day and hopefully a life blessed by God, and even more hopefully a nation blessed by God for doing what is right and just and showing hospitality to all. AMEN.