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God the Stranger

Rev. Kate Layzer
Sun, Jul 17

Texts: Genesis 18:1–10a, Luke 12:32–40

 

I can’t remember now what age I was when God decided to pay me a little visit. 10? 11? It was a surprising thing, because my parents had always maintained that there was no God. I was sitting in a grove of redwood trees, enjoying a little quiet time with nature, and suddenly the air, the earth, the world itself was, to borrow from Gerard Manley Hopkins, charged with the grandeur of God. I don’t know a better way to describe it. One moment I was alone, the next, I wasn’t. God was there, heart-stoppingly real. Realer than the rock I was sitting on, realer than the soft bark of the redwood trees, or the hum of summer insects, realer than real. “I AM,” God said, or rather didn’t say. I felt no fear at all—just overpowering awe.

For the first time in my life, I bowed my head in prayer. I said a heartfelt “I’m sorry” for ignoring God’s existence. I sat silent. And then I was alone again.

And for a long time, nothing changed. Then I went away to college, and started to get a persistent feeling that God was following me, waiting for my attention.

Do you get that? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. God has so many ways of showing up. Sometimes it’s an unbidden emotion—joy or love or gratitude or hope or even remorse, that wells up from some mysterious place within. We recognize it, but we can’t command it. We can’t summon joy. We can’t will ourselves to feel gratitude or make ourselves fall in love. Such experiences are pure gift, connecting us with our truest, most deep-down selves. They remind us that life itself, and everything that makes life worth living, is a blessing from God, impossible to own or to hoard; they are, by their nature, gifts to be received and shared with open hands.

Vocation is like that, too. When we find work to do that we genuinely care about, paying work or volunteer work—something that makes us come alive, so that when we do it, it’s almost like praying—doesn’t it feel as if God has something to do with it?

When you receive forgiveness, or offer it, and something stony inside you softens and crumbles a little… Doesn’t that feel holy, somehow?

Sometimes God shows up and we know it’s God. Sometimes we’re not sure. Sometimes, for reasons of God’s own, God keeps well hidden.

The one thing God doesn’t do is leave us alone. Recognized or unrecognized, God shows up, no permission asked.

Did you ask for God to come into your life? Maybe you did. I didn’t. I honestly had no idea what to do when God started showing up. I had to figure out how to respond. It was super-awkward.

God comes with intentions for our lives, no apology, no please, no “Now, take this for what it’s worth…” It’s a little hard for us, raised in such an individualistic society, to grasp that God has a prior claim on us and isn’t afraid to act on it. God is utterly free that way. Our forebears in faith had a favorite word for that: sovereignty. It refers to God’s right to mess with us, no permission needed.

That might sound a little harsh, and it would be, if God was anything else but God. But God is God, and God is good.

God is good, and so God can’t leave us alone, can’t leave us to our own devices, can’t simply abandon us to our choices, can’t stand by and watch things take their natural course. God loves us far too much.

But neither is God a control freak—not in the way religion has often asserted.

Maybe this is claiming to know more about God than can really be grasped, and so, asterisk: Who am I to say what God is like? Just the preacher of the moment. But does it really seem to you that everything in this world happens for a reason? Does that match your experience?

Is that God’s way of being powerful in the world?

Because make no mistake, God is powerful. The world is charged with the grandeur of it. I’ve felt that power.

But the power of the God I’ve come to know over many years isn’t expressed through force or by controlling events, but by the power of presence. By God’s gift of God’s self to our most intimate selves, and in community. Within us and between us.

At least, that’s my best sense of who God is and how God is in the world.

I guess I’m recalling these moments in my life when God has broken in, not just as a way of trying to connect with our readings today—Abraham welcoming God by the oaks of Mamre, Mary of Bethany welcoming the words of Jesus into her heart—

but because I badly need reminding of the reality of God this week—

—a week when the whole world seems hell-bent on driving God out and exterminating God from the face of the earth. I need reminding that God is greater than my sadness, greater than my fears, greater than my view of history… that God is in the world, present and active, bringing new life from the wreckage of what humans have made by putting greed and fear, exploitation and violence at the center of our lives, instead of justice and mercy and love. I need to remind myself that there is no driving God out.

And so let’s confess that we’re heartsick and horrified and scared. Let’s be honest that these are deeply troubling times, for our country, for the world, and for the planet. But let’s not let the heaviness of these times overwhelm the central fact of our lives; that God is God, and God is powerful, and God is good—even when we aren’t.

The story of Abraham is the story of a human history dwindling to a natural end. When we meet them, Sarai and Abram are childless, not by choice. Left to the laws of nature, they will soon fade from history and be forgotten. It seems as if they have been chosen for that very reason.

Into this situation of seeming hopelessness, God speaks.

Out of a clear blue sky, a call, a command, a promise. No apology needed, no permission required. “Go. Leave your old life behind. I will bless you, God says, and through you all humankind will be blessed.”

And the Bible says: “So Abram went.”

So Abram went. God called, and Abram said yes.

What was it Mary said to the angel? “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.”

Abram went. And suddenly there’s a future unfolding that wasn’t unfolding yesterday. Suddenly there’s a chance for something to happen. Abram and Sarai and Lot and their families pack up and go, and it’s God who’s on the move, God who is working in history, God who is getting ready to stir things up, even though to the world it looks as if a bunch of dusty migrants just turned up in Canaan uninvited. And unlikely as it seems, they have come not as a threat, but as a blessing.

God speaks again, the story goes on, promising Abraham land, and offspring. Again God speaks, and makes a covenant with him and his descendants. But there are no descendants. Nothing happens. Years pass. Sarah and Abraham grow anxious, and try to take matters into their own hands, and it brings heartache. And still they wait until it seems there’s no point in waiting any longer.

Read this story from start to finish, and the bleakness of it, the sheer futility becomes painful. Sarah is old. She’s been through menopause. There aren’t going to be any children for her. The promise has come to nothing. What’s going on here?

Is God powerful? Is God good? Has God uprooted them only to abandon them?

And then one day God shows up at their tents by the oaks of Mamre. And the impossible becomes, with God, the possible. Life. A future.

What’s beautiful about the story we heard today is that Abraham welcomes the strangers without having any idea who they are. WE know, because the narrator just told us. But Abraham looks up, and he sees three men. Three strangers.

And yet immediately he’s on his feet, begging them to sit down and rest, to wash off the dust and have a little something to eat—the very best that he and Sarah have to offer. He’s never seen them before, he has no idea who they are. But where he comes from, this is what you do. You treat strangers like royalty.

You’d think perhaps, approached by three men he’d never met, in the middle of a cloudless day, that he might reasonably have reacted with anxiety and suspicion. Who are these people? What do they want? Are they trouble? What’s going on?

Are they, as a presidential candidate would have it, “problem” people from a neighboring country—criminals, drug dealers, and rapists? Are they Islamic extremists plotting murder?

Maybe they’re citizens, but their skin is dark. Probably thugs. One can’t be too careful.

When in doubt, build a wall. Drive them out. Lock the doors. Shoot to kill; don't ask questions.

But for some reason, where Abraham comes from, that’s not how it’s done. Don’t they have strangers there? Aren’t they aware of the danger?

Perhaps, where Abraham comes from, this is how you ward off danger. You preemptively make peace. You treat your guest with honor and share what you have, no questions asked.

We’ll see his nephew Lot do the same thing in the next chapter, when the visitors move on to pay a visit to Lot’s city.

Abraham and Sarah welcome the strangers in. They too were strangers once in the land of Canaan. They too were immigrants. Like my grandparents, and perhaps yours too, or maybe you yourself. Or maybe your people came by force, in shackles, and have been treated like strangers ever since—with suspicion and hatred—

in stone-hearted defiance of the word of God, which tells us again and again and again that God always shows up in our lives as a stranger—a stranger bearing blessing. New life from outside our vision and expectations, perhaps the very thing that will save us. That strangers are always to be treated with honor, for we ourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt. Paul writes,

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited, 
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.

The prologue to John takes up the theme:

He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.

God comes. Into our situation of bleakness and hopelessness, God comes. Will we receive her, and the power she brings us? Will we say yes to new life and a different way of being in the world? Or will we treat her otherness like a deadly threat, and try to keep it out, with violence, if necessary?

I’ll leave you with a poem by Rilke, from his Book of Hours. The “enemy” referred to in this poem is God.

You many unassaulted cities:

Have you never yearned for the enemy?

Yearned that he might besiege you

for long irresolute years, until

 

in hopelessness and hunger you receive him?

He extends like the land beyond your walls,

and he knows he can hold out longer.

 

Look from your balconies:

there he camps. He does not tire

or diminish in size or strength.

He sends no messengers to threaten

or to promise or persuade.

 

He who will overcome you

is working in silence.

 

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