The Oaks of Mamre

Yesterday afternoon as I walked beneath the leafy canopy of trees in Rittenhouse Square, I noticed at least five people with fat, brand-new books all opened to the early chapters.  What a lovely day it was to sit beneath the trees of the Square with the latest Harry Potter book and dream about Hogwarts.

If we were students at Hogwarts, just imagine all the things we’d learn.  In addition to our spells, we’d lean a lot, as Harry’s classmates, about the reality of good and evil in the world; we’d learn about the importance of standing up to fight for the good, of knowing who we are; about the importance of working together in community and not always trying to go it alone.  And we’d learn about death; about the inescapable truth that death is a part of life; we’d learn about loss and grief and the power of memory.   We’d learn a lot just by entering for a while the fantastic world of Harry Potter, just by sitting under the trees with a children’s book to read.  

To many ears the stories of the Bible sound just as fantastic and fictitious as the stories about Harry Potter and his friends.  And this morning we encounter what amounts to an early chapter in the quite fantastic stories about Abraham, who, we are told with great specificity, is sitting at the door of his tent in the heat of the day by the oaks at Mamre.

There is something delightfully reassuring about knowing Abraham’s address: he lives in the tent by the oaks at Mamre.  The three men who are walking by surely know who lives there.  The Scriptures here employ the code to indicate that it is God himself - the LORD – who has come.  And yet it is not at all clear if or when Abraham himself, or his wife Sarah, realize who these visitors are.  Still, Abraham follows an elaborate set of customs to receive his guests with dignity and honor: washing their feet, having Sarah bake bread, and sending a servant to prepare a calf for a meal.  Scholars tell us that the 18th chapter of Genesis provides a remarkable description of ancient, Eastern hospitality.

It would be easy to focus on Abraham and Sarah as we hear this story.  Their reactions to the divine visitor are described in great detail: how much meal Sarah uses to bake the bread, the curds and milk that Abraham serves with the meat.  We’re even told where Sarah is standing as she eavesdrops on the conversation her husband is having with his unusual visitors.  There are sermons here to be preached about hospitality and about Sarah’s laughter at the ludicrous suggestion that she will be having a son.  No one knows better than she does that her child-bearing days are over.

But this story is not really a story about Abraham or Sarah.  It is most revealing as a story about God: the God who has bothered to know where Abraham lives, the God who hears Sarah’s laughter.  This is a story about God.  The moral of the story is told in a question that is posed by the three men after hearing Sarah laugh.  “Why,” the LORD asks Abraham, “did Sarah laugh” at the promise that she would bear a son in her old age?  “Is anything too hard for the LORD?”

But a better translation of the question puts it this way: Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?

Sarah had stood there behind the door listening in to the conversation and, quite understandably laughed at the promise of a child in the onset of her old age.   And isn’t it easy for us to laugh at the absurdity of the promises of God?  Peace?  Love?  Forgiveness?  Mercy? Healing?  Everlasting life? In this world?  It is enough to make you laugh!  Our reading this morning actually omits the final verse of this story – verse 15 – in which Sarah denies her skepticism: “I did not laugh,” she protests to the men (because, the writer tells us, she was afraid).  And the LORD looks at her with what I imagine is a sideways glance and a wry, reassuring smile and says to her, “No, but you did laugh.”

Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

We are living in an age when nothing is too wonderful for Harry Potter but almost anything is too wonderful for the Lord – or so it seems.  In the Episcopal church there are many small parishes that are wondering if their little communities of faith can even survive, let alone thrive.  Will anyone come to church anymore?  Who will pay the bills?  I could name four parishes in walking distance of here that are facing these questions right now.  For them this is not a rhetorical question: Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

In churches like our own just the task of cleaning out our basement can feel like a challenge.  Is anything too hard for the Lord?

I won’t even get into the great controversies that our church is embroiled in at the moment.  You know what they are.  They are enough to make us wonder too: maybe some things are just too hard, too wonderful, for the Lord.

And should we open the pages of a newspaper or turn on the evening news, does this sound like a rhetorical question to us anymore: Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?  As we count the mounting murder rate in our own city there is nothing to laugh about.  As the war we started in Iraq escalates and more and more of our own troops are being killed, is there anything the Lord will do?  As we continue to face both the fear and the possibility of the threat of terrorism in our own country, is the Lord even involved?

Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?  Talk about your wry smiles and sideways glances – to many, many people this rhetorical question and its presumptive answer are an exercise in collective neurosis; a question asked only by the doggedly stubborn or pathetically deluded.  Is there any difference between the wonderful fantasies we read about in Harry Potter books and the fantastic presumption behind that question; Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?  Or are we living in the fantasy-land of another best–selling book that, so-far, has outsold the Harry Potter series?

Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

Remember that the promise that this question grows from is the promise that Abraham would be the father of a great nation numbering more than the stars of heaven.  It is a ludicrous promise considering that Abraham is childless, except for a bastard son.  And to my ears, Sarah’s laugh was no girlish giggle.  It was derisive and dismissive – a child, indeed!  No one knows better than Sarah how foolish are the hopes, how apparently misguided is the faith Abraham.  Is anything to wonderful for the Lord?

The truth is that Abraham and Sarah had no good way of answering that question.  They had not a lot to go on.  What did they know of the Lord?  Except that at some point it dawned on them who they were dealing with.  For Sarah, I think it is the moment that she realizes she is afraid.  Because she has discerned that these three unusual men are not men at all.  They are the very presence of the living God – sitting right there, under the oaks of Mamre, next to her mailbox.

Here is the Lord of creation, and of the flood; here is the God of gods eating her bread and the curds and milk from her cows, the meat of her calf.  Here is the Lord whose name is inexpressible chatting with her husband.  Here is God Almighty walking through her neighborhood and stopping at her house.

Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?  How should Sarah know?  How could she know?  Except that now the Lord has visited her home, her husband, and even included her in the conversation – not something the woman of the house might have expected.  And what’s more, the Lord promises that at the appointed time, in the spring, he will return to her.  

In the spring he will return.  What a lovely way to express what Saint Paul calls “the hope of glory,” that in the spring, the God who has visited us, who knows our address right down the trees planted outside, in the spring he will return with rainfall and his flowers and the greening lawn and its warming, lengthening days.

Very near the center of our Christian faith is this certainty: that the God of all creation knows our address, with great specificity, and that God comes to us, visits us, challenges us, makes promises to us, and leaves us with the question of faith ringing in our ears: Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

We heard today about Jesus who visited Martha and Mary.  He wasn’t looking for a contribution to his cause, he wasn’t trying to sell them anything, he enjoyed but didn’t depend on their hospitality.  Jesus stopped and visited and talked and ate with Martha and Mary and their friends and relatives because that’s what the Lord does.  

And what if we had asked that same question of Martha and Mary after their visit with him: Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?  What do they know?  Except that he has been in their home, broken bread at their table, talked with them and their friends and family.  When did they realize who he was?  When did it dawn on them that it was the living God right there at the table with them?

We live in a world and in a church that is beset by troubles, where the arguments against faith seem to gather steam at every turn.  Death is now so much our constant companion that even the heroes of our children’s books must encounter it in the first chapter.  And what do we know of the mysterious ways of the God who stirs the wind and the seas to wreak havoc in the world, who has allowed his children to kill one another, almost from the first chapter of time?  What do we know?

In this place, we claim to know with great certainty one thing: that the God of all creation, king of kings and lord of lords, the God who set the stars in their courses and who filled the vast seas with water, the God whose breath gives life to every creature in the universe, that this God comes to us to visit us.  That the Lord of all seeks out our home and waits to be asked in.  That the Lord knows our address.  That he has visited us before, he visits us even now, and that in the spring he will return.

Is anything too wonderful for this Lord?  Sometimes it is tempting to think so.  Sometimes it is hard to believe that this God of ours has a grip on the world he made.  Sometimes is seems that it must all just be too hard for God.

He knows how easy it is for us to dismiss him with a derisive laugh, just as Sarah did.  Which is why he visits with us – just as he visited with Sarah.  The Lord of life comes to us again and again: most reliably when two or three of us gather in his name and break bread together and drink wine together, just as he showed us when he promised that he would be with us always.  The Lord knows with great specificity the location of the magnolia outside those doors and the names of the people to be found here week by week, or just once if this is the only time you will ever sit under the shadow of that tree in the heat of the day.

The Lord knocks at the door of our hearts, knowing that the question lurks deep in our minds – is there anything too wonderful for him?  Anything too hard?  Because it sure looks that way sometimes.  It sure feels that way sometimes.  It sure makes me want to laugh for fear of crying.

And he knocks again, seeking entrance to our homes and our hearts, knowing that it seems hard to believe.  Except when he visits with us and talks with us, and takes our bread and blesses it and gives it back to us.  And something like hope of glory lingers in the air like incense as the question hangs between us in the air:  Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

Come, sit under this magnolia with him for a while.  God knows this address.  And if these promises of hope make you want to laugh – maybe for fear of crying, in the face of all the fear and pain and suffering of this world – then remember his promise, take hold of the hope of glory, for in the springtime he will return.  

Is there anything too wonderful for the Lord?

Preached by Fr. Sean E. Mullen
22 July 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 23, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.