Commentary and Reflection 2020
SCCAC Racial Justice Sunday June 14, 2020
Commentary and Reflection
Genesis 18: 1-15; Matthew 9:35-10:8
by Dr. Adrian Bird
Affiliate Professor of Christian History
Union Presbyterian Seminary, Charlotte
President, Interfaith Partners of South Carolina
The divine-human encounter by the Oaks of Mamre presents us with a decisive challenge of faith. The Lord appears to Abraham who is sitting outside his tent during the heat of the day. There is no time to rest in the heat, however, for Abraham must welcome his three guests with customary hospitality. There is a sense of urgency to Abraham’s response, requiring the preparation of freshly baked cakes and the finest calf in the herd. As the guests enjoy the offerings of hospitality, Abraham and Sarah look on from their different vantage points, surely unprepared for the surprise that awaits them.
The guests ask, “Where is your wife Sarah?” Abraham responds that Sarah is in the tent, and one guest proclaims that Sarah will bear a son (v. 9). Advanced in age, Sarah laughs to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” We read that the Lord replies to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 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.” (v. 13-14) Sarah denies laughing, to which the Lord replies, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” The decisive question remains with us: “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”
If we read this text as part of an ongoing birthing narrative, we capture a glimpse of both the groaning pains of labor, mixed with an ongoing hope in the promise of new life, anchored in the covenant promises of God.
The groans of labor come in many forms. Though Sarah is not yet pregnant, she and Abraham are resigned to the realism of their context. The promises of God are met not with ‘receptive hopefulness but in resistant hopelessness’, caught in the assumption of a closed future rather than a future pregnant with possibility. How often are we shackled by our realism, bound within a narrative of impossibility – perhaps one constructed for us and all too easily internalized to become a normalizing narrative?
The divine guests at Mamre shatter this narrative, calling us to anchor ourselves not in our own reality, but in the reality of God’s faithful promises established though God’s covenant. Initially, Abraham and Sarah offer exemplary hospitality to their guests, unaware of the radical nature and implications of this encounter. When we are resigned to normative narratives, we can still go through the motions of hospitality, without realizing the enormous potential for transformation that exists within the heart of those encounters. The theme we embrace this week, ‘welcoming justice in the encounter with others,’ highlights the radical potential that exists when we encounter one another. There are surprises in the midst of these encounters; opportunities to vision the present and the future through the lens of possibility rather than impossibility.
We must caution against overly romanticizing the story of divine-human encounter, which may cause us to miss the groans that accompany new birth. Sarah and Abraham have already witnessed the pains of childbirth, albeit indirectly. Womanist scholar Delores Williams critically reminds us that the broader narrative of Abraham and Sarah is also the narrative of Abraham’s concubine Hagar, mother of Ishmael. Prior to the encounter at Mamre, Sarah’s ‘slave-girl’ Hagar has born Abraham a son (Ch. 16). Williams challenges us to consider the reality of racial, cultural and gender hierarchy present within the context of the narrative. New birth has the potential to divide, born from the birthing pain of protecting fixed narratives that benefit oneself, yet are blinkered to the consequences of another. Sarah and Abraham are culpable in the exile of Hagar, who runs to the wilderness. Yet God does not forsake Hagar in her exile; the exchange between Hagar and God provides another poignant example of assurance experienced in the midst of the divine-human encounter.
Being bound by, and internalizing a narrative of realism causes us to lash out, become protective over what we feel we can control. The consequences to human relationships and community growth are paralyzing and toxic.
God does not encounter Hagar, Abraham and Sarah in a way that is oblivious to their context, but encounters them in the very heart of their context. God is present, radically challenging each of them to boldly envision new possibilities, grounded in God’s covenant and God’s promises for the world. ‘Is there anything too wonderful for the Lord?’ becomes a decisive question, and our response has consequences more radical than we dare to imagine.
The Gospel of Matthew is also set in the context of new birth, rooted in the God’s eternal covenant and expressed in the midst of intimate divine-human encounter. Jesus has been traveling through cities and villages, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, and curing every disease and every sickness. He has compassion on the crowds who appear helpless in the midst of their reality. The birthing of new community involves great labor. Jesus calls his disciples in order to send them out into the world. The seemingly insurmountable groans of the world ring loud. There is sickness within the community; the demons lurk nearby; people are dead! Midwives are needed to labor in the field, birthing something new in the midst of the chaos. They have a message to proclaim, for the Kingdom of God has come near. Jesus sends the disciples to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” (Mat. 10.8)
It may seem puzzling that Jesus tells the disciples to go ‘nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans.’ (Matt. 10:5) In the context of Jesus’ ministry, the disciples are to go to the synagogues; to the covenant people – the House of Israel. This makes sense when we appreciate the Jewish identity of Jesus. Disciples are to be sent first to their own faith communities, for it is here that healing must first begin. And so, the disciples are sent, with nothing but a reconciling message of a Kingdom come near.
Racial injustice is a sickness. Many are dead. The demons lurk nearby, telling us that the problems are too complex, too overwhelming to cure. We are not left alone. The scripture passages for today root us in the context of divine-human encounter, providing us with great comfort and great challenge. There is work to be done, for the Kingdom of God has come near. It begins within our own community. Isaac is born within the family of Abraham and Sarah. Jesus sends out the disciples to the house of Israel, for new community is born here. Yet God’s covenant promises are not restricted to one community, but have relevance for the entire world. As such, disciples today are called to participate in the process of new birth, deconstructing normative toxic narratives, and working intentionally towards constructing a community of new life, pregnant with possibility. Laborers are needed. The work is radical, and it is a difficult road to travel.
We may be tempted to ask if Jesus’ instruction to go with ‘nothing’ is simply utopian naivety? How can we embrace justice without being equipped with the tools to dismantle injustice? Here we are once again confronted with God’s radical challenge to trust in the vision and promises of God’s covenant of reconciliation. We may, along with Sarah, want to laugh, recognizing the impossibility of change. But once the laughter is over, the work begins, we journey into the heart of human-human encounters. In the midst of local encounters, relationships are forged; voices are heard and stories are shared. Injustice is named and the practice of justice embraced. Solutions are found, resources shared, and plans are envisioned and implemented.
The process of reorientation, reform and reconcile offers a model for our progress towards racial justice. First, we reorient back to God, to the covenant promises made clear in the midst of God’s intimate encounter with us. Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? This reorientation re-grounds us, allowing us to glimpse the vision of a community transformed. Based on our reorientation, we work for reform, engaging as midwives in the process of community rebirth. The litmus test of this work becomes clear when we ask how effectively we are reconciled to one another through our collaborative labor. Ultimately, if we fail to reconcile, our reorientation to God was likely a disorientation, grounded not in the radical covenant promises of God, but elsewhere.
Consider Rev. Francis Lejau’s 18th century vow for slaves seeking baptism: “You declare in the presence of God and before this congregation that you do not ask for the holy baptism out of any design to free yourself from the Duty and Obedience you owe to your Master while you live, but merely for the good of Your soul”. Any notion of reconciliation taking place within the matrix of racial inequality and injustice is to be rebuked as false reconciliation. While it may be tempting to relegate this particular example to the annals of history, we are surely challenged by the many examples in which our ‘blind spots’ are manifest, both visibly and invisibly, today.
True reconciliation takes place when we are grounded in the promises of God’s covenant, recognizing God’s intimate presence with us as we journey into the heart of human-human encounters. We journey together, confident in the radical proclamation that the kingdom of God is near. We are emboldened to labor, bringing God’s message of hope into the heart of the church and to the world around us. Trusting in God’s promises, we deny false constructs of human hierarchy which continue to divide us, leaving us unreconciled and disoriented.
May we laugh at the audacity of the suggestion that we can overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacles before us. And then, let’s get to work, trusting in the intimate presence of God in our midst, let’s participate in the process of birthing something new.