Direct Encounters with God 2: Pedestrian Visions

John McLarty

Audio Recording:

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church
Sabbath, February 18, 2017

Texts: Genesis 18, Hebrews 12:28 – 13:3, Matthew 25

I grew up in Memphis. Winter there is a little like winters here in Seattle. Most of the time it’s above freezing. We get rain not snow. Except for rare occasions which completely shut down the city. Winter is dreary. Unlike Seattle, Memphis does not have the magic of mountains carving the horizon, holding snow, inviting you to come and ski or snowshoe. There are no vast areas of public land where you can hike, camp, wander. Visually winter was a bleak time.

I was not a fan of winter. I was not a fan of gray skies. I did not enjoy cold—even moderate cold. But there was one bit of visual magic in my memories of Memphis in the winter. My cousin lived on the south edge of town. I remember wandering fields with him and his dogs. A sweep of rolling pasture, rich brown grass spreading out under a soft sky, the gray overhead thinning in places to white and even swathes of shy blue. The dogs ranging ahead of us.

There were no strong lines in this picture. None of the drama and majesty of the mountains. Just an enchanting, beckoning play of light and subtle color and a sense of space and room and freedom.

I don’t know if I would have remembered these scenes . . .  Maybe I wouldn’t have even noticed them in the first place . . . except for the magic of art. More specifically, watercolor. Hanging over my bed from as far back as I could remember was a large watercolor of ducks at a winter gathering spot. Ducks on the water. Ducks in the air. Scattered across the marsh were islands of golden brown grass. After grad school we moved to Long Island, New York. There again, I tasted the magic of winter skies above sweeping marshes, and watercolor paintings that distilled irresistible beauty onto paper.

In my mind the magic of days under winter sky and long, rich moments transfixed in front of a painting that brought sky and water and marsh grass and ducks and hunters and dogs or boats got all mixed together until now I cannot tell which memory in my head has come from the human artist and which has come from the Creator artist.

The artists have not created some fictional beauty that is available only on paper. They train my eyes and heart to see. Now when I find myself looking out across some marshy landscape in the gloom of winter, I see colors I would have never noticed if the artists had not educated me to see. I notice beauty in the play of shape and light that would have been completely invisible to me if I had not spent hours contemplating watercolor paintings.

When I’m out in the field, enchanted by the soft beauty of winter sky and winter grass, I thank the artists for teaching me to see. When I’m staring in rapt appreciation at a watercolor painting of such a landscape, I thank God for creating the glory reflected on the paper.

The Bible is a work of art. It is like a masterful watercolor. It evokes the glory of God. It trains our eyes to see.

Our Old Testament reading today is a classic, foundational story.

Abraham was a wealthy Bedouin. He lived in the grass lands of upper Palestine. His animals and herders spread out over several square miles. Cows, camels, donkeys, horses, goats, sheep. On the day of the story he’s sitting at the entrance of his tent surveying the world. Perhaps he was thinking a strategy for improving the ox herd or how to get the best price for camels at the next market gathering in Damascus. Because he’s a rancher, he’s always thinking about markets and breeding. Because he’s a chief, he has all kinds of people challenges to manage. Because he’s rich, he has time to think. Time to ponder questions beyond mere survival. Questions of God and justice, purpose and destiny.

This particular day he’s sitting at the entrance of his tent, thinking. Suddenly, he notices three men out on the track that ran through the region. He jumps to his feet and hurries out to greet them. He invites them to stop awhile.

To state the obvious: There was no Facebook or Instagram. No Twitter. No New York Times. No Washington Post. No KIRO News. No NPR.

People back then craved news just we do. Humans like to talk. To hear the latest. In that world, travelers were valued news carriers. News. Newness. Someone whose story you didn’t already know.

It’s not surprising that Abraham invited them to come sit for awhile. Wash their feet. Rest their legs. Get out of the sun. Have something to eat. And talk.

They accepted. And the four men retired to the shade of the oak tree while Abraham’s wife and servants prepared dinner. When dinner was ready, Abraham stood like a waiter, watching his guests plates. Refilling them every time there was any empty space.

It would have been fun to listen in on that conversation. Maybe we could have hidden in the kitchen with Sarah and listened. The reason I’m so curious about the conversation is that I know these travelers were not what they seemed.

I imagine Abraham asking, “So where are you coming from? Where are you headed?” And what would these visitors have said? “We left heaven this morning, visited Antarctica, then stopped by a place that will some day be called New York, then checked on Jerusalem and Damascus before coming here.” Would the visitors have made up bald lies like we do when we are trying to trick one of our friends into showing up for a surprise party? Would they have practiced careful evasion, diverting questions and giving non-answers. Given Abraham’s hunger for news, I can’t imagine him being satisfied with evasion and non-answers.

Abraham would have wanted to know the latest intrigue in the palace at Damascus, and the current price of camels in the market there.

From the story, as we have it, it appears that the visitors managed a persuasive disguise all the way through dinner. At some point, one of the guests asks about Abraham’s wife and predicts she will have a son. Abraham and Sarah hear this as the sweet flattery of a guest. It is so crazy, given Sarah’s age–like 90 years old—that Sarah starts laughing in the kitchen. No, the guest insists, I’m not joking. You will have a baby next year.

Finally, it’s time to hit the road. The guests get up and Abraham walks with them to see them on their way. It is only there, out on the track that leads off toward the valley cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, that God finally drops his disguise.
By now Abraham has become so comfortable with his guest, that when the guest “comes out” as God and announces a devastating judgment on the cities of the valley, Abraham protests. “You can’t do that! Just imagine the collateral damage. Think of all the innocent civilians! What if there are fifty good people in the city? Would you destroy those fifty just so you can get all the bad guys?

No. God says. I’ll check it out. If there are fifty good people in the city, I will spare the entire city.

Abraham thinks, wow, that was easy.

Listen, what if there are only 45?

God: I will spare the city for 45.

Abraham keeps bargaining. And God keeps dropping the number of good people needed to justify sparing the entire city.

Commentators have fun trying to figure out the precise identities of the three visitors. Was this the pre-incarnate Jesus and two angels? God the Father and a couple of angels? The three members of the Trinity all dressed up as travelers? I’ll leave that debate to others. What is crystal clear is this:  when Abraham invited the three travelers home for lunch, he was welcoming God into his encampment. When he dished food on their plates, Abraham was feeding God. When he washed the feet of his guests, he was handling the feet of God. When he asked about the price of camels in Damascus, he was talking to God.

And for more than two thousand years Bible scholars have reminded us that sometimes God shows up incognito. Sometimes God is not obvious.

Sometimes encounters with God are so powerful and overwhelming, the person is immediately and irrevocably changed. This was the kind of experience Isaiah experienced. We examined that story in last week’s sermon. Isaiah was never the same after that vision.

This kind of overwhelming, immediately transforming experience is something that happens to us. We cannot program it. We cannot practice for it. We can’t put it on our calendar for later this spring. It is at least as unpredictable as an earthquake.

Most encounters with God are more like the visit of God to Abraham. It seems like just ordinary life. If we were watching a movie of God’s visit to Abraham, when the moment comes that Abraham realizes he is talking with God, we would be as astonished as Abraham. What? How? I thought . . .! We would replay the scene in our mind over and over. Were there clues we missed? How could someone enjoy an entire dinner with God without knowing it was God?

Some approaches to spiritual life and religion emphasize the distance between God and humanity. Any hint that someone has diminished the chasm between God and the ordinary is labeled blasphemy.

Islam is haunted by this obsession with “blasphemy.”

In Christianity, scholars have frequently equated “holiness” or the quality of God with “otherness.” Difference. Not us. Not ordinary. In Greek Orthodox theology scholars write about apophaticism—the notion that God is far exalted above every human conception, that every attempt to speak of God is automatically, inescapably false.

There is a place for all this transcendent, exalted stuff, but the story of Abraham tells a different story. God looks like a traveler. God looks like someone who could use a shower and a good lunch. God looks like someone who would enjoy an hour resting in the shade. God looks a lot like us.

The Bible is like a heavenly watercolor distilling for us a vision of heavenly beauty that is so subtle we might miss it without the education of our eyes by the art of the book.

In Adventist circles, it is common for people to make a great fuss about “inspired” and “non-inspired” writings. Supposedly, God is in the inspired writings but not in the “non-inspired” writings. If you had been in Abraham’s kitchen listening to the guests would you have ignored what the guests said until after you found out they were divine? If so, you would have missed nearly all of the heavenly conversation.

Central to the Gospel—that is the stories and teachings of Jesus—is the conviction that God shows up in humanity.

The kingdom of heaven is made up of . . .  not “gods” or angels . . .  the kingdom of heaven is made up of children. Ordinary, diaper-filling, sleep-disrupting, heart-breaking, noise-making glorious children.

We cannot command God to show up in dazzling power. We cannot program a life-transforming, overwhelming experience. But we can practice treating every child as a “god,” god with a lower case perhaps, but still the habitation of divinity, or the camouflage of divinity or the temple of God.

Maybe only one out of a hundred of the children we encounter is actually God in disguise. Still would we treat each child like royalty rather than miss out on one opportunity to entertain God?

In the grand climax of the final sermon cycle in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus echoes the lesson of the story of Abraham and his visitors. In the story of the sheep and goats, Jesus declares that we encounter God in ordinary human need. We engage with God as we respond to the pedestrian needs of real, live human beings. We distance ourselves from God when we turn away from humans in need.

Since this is Black History month, I want to make a specific application of this truth to the issue of race.

In the world I grew up, Memphis, deep south, the 1950s, racism was blatant and universal. My siblings and I rode the city bus across to attend school. I remember my puzzlement about the black women. They got on the bus at the same stop we got on. But they always walked to the back. Even when there were no seats back there. I was naïve. I did not know this was the way it was “supposed” to be.

Our mother was a stay-at-home mom. In addition, we always had a maid at our house, a black woman. I wondered, who takes care of the maid’s boys and girls while she is at our house? As I moved into my teens, I remember debates among my parents’ friends about paying social security taxes for domestic help.

At the heart of this unequal treatment was a failure of vision. The Federal Constitution counted each slave as three fifths of a person. We simply did not see the face of God in the face of our Black neighbors, the people who swept our floors and mowed our lawns and worked in law offices and doctors offices in the parts of town with deficient streets and impoverished housing.

We were blind.

Even in church.

When we painted pictures of God, God had blond hair and blue eyes. Even angels were blonds, so even in church, we failed to see. When we rehearsed the story of Noah, we remembered that Noah’s son Ham was cursed along with his descendants. And we knew that Black folk were the descendants of Ham. If God had cursed them, who were we to argue? We used the Bible to blind ourselves and celebrate our blindness.

But God is calling us to higher ground.

Black folks are not the descendants of Ham. They are descendants of Abraham’s visitors.

We are learning to see. Black children, just like white children, and Asian children, beautiful children and ugly children, and gifted children and disadvantaged children, –all children are those who comprise the kingdom of heaven.

We can prepare for the kind of encounter Abraham had with God. We can practice hospitality. We can practice attending to people. We can give attention to eloquent words that call us higher, beautiful words that help us see.

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman? –Sojourner Truth, Delivered 1851 at the Women’s Convention, Akron, Ohio

We hear Sojourner’s words and we promise ourselves, if we had been there, we would have seen. We would have felt the pathos of her lost children. We would have felt the bite of the slave driver’s whip on her back. We would have felt her hunger and demanded an end to the system of slavery.

My plea is that we will hear her words and promise ourselves, that since we are here, we will do what we can here and now. We will spend time in contemplation of the Bible’s vision of the beauty of God dressed in humanity. We will practice welcoming God, no matter what his disguise.