Lectionary 16C (July 17, 2016)

Abraham and Sarah are hopeless. Long ago God promised them a baby; now they are approaching a hundred years old. While the first couple of books of the Bible claim that people lived sometimes hundreds of years, they remain a little more realistic about the age range during which people can have children. If the baby has not happened yet, it’s not going to happen. Hope has turned to hopelessness. Hopelessness has become normal. It’s been a long time since Sarah was able to have a baby, and she and Abraham have had a long time to get used to being childless. Abraham is so hopeless that while he is sitting in the entrance to his tent, noticing suddenly these three men approaching, he doesn’t even think of himself as hopeless. He thinks of his situation as normal. Hopelessness becomes normal so easily. We accept that our present situation is normal, and that there is no escape. Furthermore, we impose no escape. Anyone trying to escape from hopelessness is informed that they cannot, ridiculed if they try, harmed if they get too close to escaping. We defend normal, and hopelessness is normal.

I wager that normal hopelessness is the problem in today’s Gospel story. There are many ways to read Luke 10:38-42. We read it today in tension with Genesis 18. Both Martha and Abraham host God. Martha somehow misses something that Abraham gets. Mary gets it, and Jesus notices that. He tells Martha that she is worried and distracted, and therefore missing something. Martha’s worries and distractions have become everything to her. In a sense, she cannot escape the role of hostess imposed upon her by the world. Now, yes, being a hostess isn’t somehow “wrong,” but Martha clearly cannot see hope even when the image of the invisible God is in her living room and apparently fielding questions. Not only does she see no hope; she wants to take him away from her sister! If she can’t have any hope, it must be because there is none, so Mary can’t have any, either! She has accepted hopelessness as normal, and wants Jesus to enforce it.

Our present situation strikes us as hopelessness from which there is no escape. We could pick many hopeless issues, and they’re all interconnected which adds to the hopelessness. We’ve got drug possession criminalized so we can jam prisons and ruin offenders’ job prospects, and now can’t close the prison because we’d lose those jobs, too. We’ve got a local housing market that forces a huge chunk of the city’s population to spend the bulk of their income just trying to keep a roof over their heads and utilities running—and the solution always seems to be some variation on “there isn’t really a problem, and in fact everything is as good as it could be.”

And, oh, we’ve got racial tension. We’ve got people in our country murdered for being black. We’ve got people in Dallas trying to have a nice rally where #BlackLivesMatter folks and Dallas police are taking selfies together and it’s everything you could have hoped for until someone not associated with the rally decides to murder police. Closer to home, we have the reality that Valparaiso was once a Sundown Town, that black residents face hiring discrimination, housing discrimination, discrimination trying to go to the store, and that racial bias motivated incidents happen all the time, are logged and tracked, and the data ignored in favor the opinion that bad ever happens. Hopelessness is normal, and we will ridicule or harm those who attempt to escape from hopelessness.

Even sorting out Mary and Martha can seem hopeless. I mean, we just heard last week, the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells us, “The Samaritan served; go and do likewise.” All right! Let’s go serve! Now, Martha is serving and he tells her no? Well, not really. You know how sometimes (okay, a lot of times) you say something and someone responds and you feel like their response belongs in a different conversation? You want to say, “What are you talking about? Did you even hear what I said?” Our interpretations of this scene are like this. We are sure that Jesus favors Mary over Martha: we’re so sure of it that we translate Luke’s Greek to say it. I read to you, “Mary has chosen the better part.” But what Luke wrote was, “Mary has chosen the good portion.” Mary has chosen to listen and we’re not going to take that away from her. Jesus does not condemn Martha, but leaves open the possibility of her dropping her worries and distractions and joining her sister. And they are distractions. Martha’s got God in the living room. It is time to see what God wants to say. You can serve and listen to God. In fact, that is the only way it works: you serve and listen to God, or do neither.

Abraham embodies this. He welcomes the three men. We learn in the course of subsequent verses that the three men are God. Abraham may or may not have realized this at first, but when they talk he listens. What they say makes no sense in Abraham’s hopeless world: “A year from now, your wife Sarah will have your baby.” Sorry, the time for that has passed. It’s hopeless, and that hopelessness is normal. Our reading today stops with the birth announcement. The very next thing after it? Sarah, standing at the entrance to the tent, laughs at the idea. Hope is a joke. And yet, here it is.

That entrance to the tent seems to be really important. Abraham is at the entrance and meets God outside; Sarah is at the entrance and hears God inside the tent. The doorway is a holy place. It isn’t because what happens in here is only secondary to “real” ministry that happens “out there.” Nor is it because out there is forsaken and we have to be sure of who we let in to “real” ministry in here. The doorway is where inside and outside meet. Through this door we enter a world marked with a bath and table, where we take turns speaking and listening, where we sing and pray to God and receive Christ in a holy meal. It is a triune dance, even if our dance moves are limited to sitting and standing and briefly walking forward. The doorway is our portal to this world. And it is our portal on the rest of the world. Through this door we enter the rest of creation to dance the same triune dance we dance here, to feed a hungry world with God’s word and God’s food. The doorway—the entrance of the tent—is where we both serve and listen to God.

What happens when we are at the entrance to our tent? We listen and we serve. We listen to God on each side of the entrance. We listen to the cries of a hopeless world—God’s people. And we listen to ancient words, like those of Colossians, singing that Christ “is the image of the invisible God,” that, “in him all things…were created,” and, “in him all things hold together,” and that he personally reconciled us to God. And we realize, “Hey! That hurting, hopeless world? We know the guy who made it! We’ve got an ‘in’ with the guy who is still working on it!” And we serve according to what we hear.

From the doorway, we hear our brothers and sisters say they feel like captives in overpriced inadequate housing, and we hear our Lord and Savior announce liberty to the captives. And from the doorway, we can serve, advocating in God’s name for access to adequate housing. From the doorway, we hear our brothers and sisters cry out that Porter County does not have adequate drug rehab services, and we hear our Lord and Savior promising recovery. And from the doorway, we can serve, advocating in God’s name for those who struggle with addiction, committing our community to serving the afflicted. From the doorway, we hear our brothers and sisters of color say that their efforts at economic self-sufficiency are undermined at every turn, and we hear our Lord and Savior declaring, “I am here to bring good news to the poor and oppressed.” And from the doorway, we can serve, advocating in God’s name for quality education, opportunities for business ownership and good jobs. From the doorway, we hear our brothers and sisters of color lament the stigma and lack of self-esteem, the exhausting reality of being non-white in this country, and we hear our Lord and Savior declare to his own race God’s love for every other race. And from the doorway, we can serve, in God’s name lifting up the stories of people of color and creating vibrant centers for celebrating them. If it sounds far-fetched, these are the cries of our neighbors, these are the words Jesus speaks in his first sermon, and these are actions in line with what the ELCA agreed to undertake in its statement on Race in August of 1993. We can hear it all from the doorway.

We can hear: hopelessness is normal, but Hope is stronger. Hopelessness claims it always has been this way, but Hope created the world. Hopelessness infects the world, but Hope still holds it all together. Hopelessness ridicules, flogs, crucifies, and buries those who try to escape, but Hope bursts out of the grave, fills us like a mighty wind, and sometimes is sitting in our living room, calling us to listen to God and to serve.