Wednesday, June 14, 2017

PENTECOST II 2017 (Proper 6)

James Tissot - Sarah Hears and Laughs

On the Sundays that follow Trinity the Revised Common Lectionary offers alternative Old Testament readings and Psalms. The first is a ‘Continuous’ reading that takes us through major sections of the Hebrew Scriptures week by week and may bear little direct relation to the Epistle and Gospel. The ‘Thematic’ alternative is a passage chosen for its relation to the other two readings (though the connection is not always easy to see). On this Sunday there is even more choice, because the Gospel can be read in a long or short version. 

The continuous reading for the Old Testament begins the story of Abraham and Isaac --from before Isaac's birth in fact. The whole story will unfold as the weeks proceed, but this first episode contains an especially intriguing element. The LORD himself visits Abraham to promise him that, though both he and Sarah are very old, she will nevertheless become pregnant and give birth. Sarah laughs at the very idea. Laughing at what God promises is profoundly mistaken on several levels, and when she realizes that the LORD has heard her laugh at him, Sarah denies it. But neither her laughter nor her lie angers God. She still has the promised baby, and at this point she laughs again. Now, though, it is no longer the laughter of ridicule, but of joy, a laughter in which everyone can be expected to join her.

Augustus John - Two Disciples
We can read this little episode as a compelling illustration of the transformative nature of divine love. The human impulse to laugh is changes from mockery to delight. In the Epistle Paul picks up on something of the same theme when he says "God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us". In the Gospel Jesus urges a similar sort of transformation on his disciples, at a yet deeper level.  "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." Being "as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove" means taking a quite different view of the customary values of a world in which cunning is the opposite of innocence.

The reward for cunning, the world supposes, is success, while the price of innocence is failure. Believing in a providential order in which love ultimately governs all things, means that in our encounters with a fallen world we can use our God-given practical intelligence to good effect, without thereby sacrificing our integrity. When Christian disciples keep the faith on this score, the passage tells us, they are by no means offered an easy ride. That is not the way God works. But they have this profound assurance -- "it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you". Their human weakness and vulnerability have not gone away, but they have been transformed.

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