Glynn Cardy 18th June 2023
St Luke’s is a creed-free church. Which is not to say that we don’t have beliefs. But is to say that faith (venturing into the unknown) is more important than belief (fixing on the known).
Creeds were developed to determine who is in and who is out, what is truth and what is heresy. So creeds in a worship service, even modern creeds with progressive language, still act as markers of who is in and out.
By not reciting a creed each Sunday St Luke’s is saying that everyone is on a faith journey and our beliefs are evolving and changing. Some language and metaphors at this time we might find helpful and meaningful, but tomorrow they might change. And our words do not determine whether we are in or out. For in God we are all in.
So today if I’m asked ‘Do you believe in God?’ I would answer, ‘Yes like a fish believes in the ocean.’
If I’m asked ‘Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus? I would answer, ‘Jesus is a friend who has gone before, a lamp I carry on my path, a prod to my conscience.’
If I’m asked, ‘Do you believe in the Trinity?’ my answer might be more nuanced. For though I’m repelled by an image of male anthropomorphic deities, I’m attracted by an image of divinity as interactive and moving. Sort of like a ballet, where grace and beauty are celebrated.
And if I’m asked, ‘Do you believe the Bible is the Word of God?’ I would answer that everything – every scene, every song, every being can be a Word of God, a spark of hope that ignites our spirit.
For these answers of mine today about belief are temporary, transitory, metaphors and stories that will not endure forever. For faith takes us on a journey. And at different points on that journey we set up our tent and stay a while. Today my campsite likes the metaphors of ocean, lamp, ballet, and sparks. But tomorrow faith might lead me on. I will pack up my tent and journey on another route, to another place, where the campsite and its language might be quite different.
The story that inspires me when I think about such journeying, leaving what we know for what we don’t, is the Abrahamic saga (chapters 12-25 of the Book of Genesis)
Abraham is a significant figure in three world religions: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. His story is that he risked letting go of what was in order to open himself to what might be. Abraham felt a divine call to pack and leave, while not sure where he was going. He chose insecurity over security. He packed up his family, along with slaves and cattle, and headed out from his home in Ur, Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). Importantly, in a culture where land was life Abraham gave up his.
That call, which Abraham came to believe was divine, was an insistence. A haunting disturbance. A whisper.
Abraham’s is the first significant journey story in the Bible. And it tells us what faith is – moving from certainty to uncertainty, leaving the known for the unknown, leaving without the surety of knowing where one is going, giving up with no return in sight. Following that whisper.
Abraham also gave up his gods. The divine insistence, the tug on his heart, did not come from any local Mesopotamian deity. Indeed Abraham did not know its source. It did not come from the existence of one of the gods he knew. All that he knew was that he was compelled to leave.
When Abraham arrived in Canaan (modern day Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Southern Lebanon and Syria), this land where he felt divinely called to, he did not try to impose his Mesopotamian beliefs on his new Canaanite neighbours. Rather he engaged with the land, culture, and gods of the place. He seemed to worship the local high God, El. Continually on the move Abraham encountered El at the traditional sacred sites of Canaan. The land had to reveal its own peculiar sacredness to Abraham, and he came to respect this alien piety.
It is of note that two of the names of the Jewish God in the Torah are Elohim and El Shaddai. It is as if the spirituality of the land shaped the evolution of Abraham’s spirituality, his understanding of God, and then the spirituality of his descendants. Syncretism, much maligned by those of a fundamentalist persuasion, has been in our faith history from the very beginning.
In the mystic tradition, using a quote from Eckhart, “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.” This is pointing to radical immanence. Instead of understanding God as a being or force separate from us, a transcendent deity, radical immanence understands us to be in God. So, again Eckhart, “every creature is a Word of God.” Every place is holy ground. Every person is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Everything is connected, woven. As St Paul would later say, “in God we live and move and have our being.”
Faith for Abraham was not easy or comforting. His fears are ever-present and from time to time would lead him to make bad decisions. There was much loss for Abraham. He never for example regained land like he’d had in Mesopotamia. When he died, all he owned was a burial plot. Faith was a radical break with the past. And faith was not then rewarded with surety. Rather faith continued to be a process of facing fears, trying to find courage, and then acting with that courage. Or failing to.
So when Abraham, as per our story of the Oaks of Mamre (chapter 18), was sitting in the shade of his tent in the middle of the day, he was a stranger in a strange land. When the visitors came, he did not know who they were, but they certainly weren’t friends, family, or neighbours from his childhood in Iraq. And it was likely they were not of the same religion or race as he.
The text also gives us no indication that Abraham quickly had them pegged as divine messengers, or holy, or special. They were simply strangers. Later he would think of them as angels. Much later Christian theologians anxious to find evidence of a trinitarian understanding of God in the scriptures imposed a theology on this text that it can’t sustain.
These strangers were human beings. In the scriptures being an angel doesn’t preclude you from being a human being. The word ‘angel’ simply means ‘messenger.’ Anyone can be a messenger. And sometimes a messenger can be a messenger without knowing they’re a messenger. A casual word from a stranger has the possibility of being a Word of God, of hope, for us.
It was to these strangers that Abraham and Sarah (who seems to have done a fair bit of the work) extended significant hospitality. Treating them gracefully and respectfully, without any idea of who they were or where they were from.
Sarah and their servants made a lot of bread. Three measures of flour worth. That is the equivalent of 27 kilos of flour. The inference is that this is hyperbole. Deliberate hyperbole to underscore the extent of the hospitable welcome. And slaughtering a precious animal likewise.
And although the text has Abraham giving orders and telling his wife and servants to make haste to feed the visitors, it is plain that this wasn’t achieved in 10 minutes or 60. I suspect the visitors sat under that tree, out of the heat, for most of the day.
The strangers gave to Abraham and Sarah a blessing. Was this blessing a result of Abraham’s faith, journeying into the unknown? Was this blessing a result of the generous hospitality offered to strangers in this strange land? Or was blessing not the result of anything, but one of those things that happens no matter what we’ve done? Not everything has a reason.
And was this a blessing at the time just a joke, a throwaway line, that later came to be seen as a word of God?
The blessing was that one of the strangers predicted that Sarah, though past child-bearing age would have a son. In a patriarchal culture having an heir, a male heir, was all important. It meant your life would live on. Your name, your mantle, would be passed on. Having heirs and producing heirs was all-important. And yet Sarah had not been able to conceive.
Although Abraham had given up much to follow the leaning of his heart and to journey into the unknown, the absence of an heir was one fear – a destructive fear – that he would not overcome. So a large part of the Abrahamic saga is about Abraham trying to rectify this situation, making a mess of it, and a mess of his family relationships. Sarah conceiving did not help rectify the mess. Abraham’s first two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, were seriously at odds with each other, both seriously damaged by their father, and both destined to pass on serious animosity and familial dysfunction. Later, ironically, Abraham would have another six sons by another wife, Keturah.
So the story this morning is about being a stranger in a strange land, acting generously and hospitably towards visitors, hearing – despite the impossibility of it – the joy of a child-to-be, and thinking that this child would be the bearer of his immortality (when Abraham already had a son and heir, Ishmael). Abraham had great faith and a great fear. Some beliefs, like Abraham with immortality, are hard to let go of. Yet letting go is the path we must walk.