Sunday 21 July 2019
God’s Plan or Ours?
Genesis 18:1-10a; Luke 10:38-42
By Mary Cotes
Writer and Baptist minister. Chair of the Milton Keynes Christian Foundation, a family of social enterprises.
Context: a diverse congregation in Milton Keynes
Aim: to reflect on what distracts us from being faithful to God’s calling
The deeply mysterious story in which Abraham welcomes three travellers at the oaks of Mamre marks a significant turning point in Abraham’s life.
Until this moment, the nomad Abraham has been a man of fast-paced, not to say frenzied, activity, always on the move. He has been faithful in his religious observances, certainly: in response to the great promises from God, Abraham has sacrificed animals, built altars in different places and had males of his household circumcised. Yet, in spite of such proper religious acts expressing his faithfulness, Abraham remains unsettled and unwilling to trust fully in God’s purposes for him. When God promises to give Abraham the land, Abraham responds by rushing off to Egypt to escape famine and makes a fortune there by passing his wife off as his sister and giving her as a concubine to the Pharaoh. When again God promises a great number of descendants, Abraham takes the step of sleeping with his slave-girl Hagar. It’s as if Abraham feels the need to have a plan ‘B’ just in case God doesn’t deliver: he has to ensure he stays alive as long as possible and builds his wealth; he even needs to have a child outside marriage.
Living in an increasingly secular society in Western Europe at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we too, as churches, can feel uncertain as to the number of descendants in the faith we shall have. Often considered as a form of madness, faith frequently gets a poor press. Attendance at church services is declining, and knowledge of the Christian story is waning in society as a whole. Meanwhile, our church institutions are stretched structurally and financially as perhaps never before. So it is wholly understandable that as churches we can be tempted to go into an Abraham-like overdrive. We fear what the future may hold. We panic and lose our true sense of purpose. We remain faithful to our religious practices, but meanwhile we want first and foremost to salvage our dwindling finances and save ourselves from the spiritual famine which is all around, threatening the future. Just in case God can’t be trusted, we can feel we have to make something happen by hatching a plan ‘B’ of our very own.
Yet Abraham changes. God makes a covenant with Abraham, and today’s story, which follows that covenant episode, presents Abraham to us in a different light. Here for once the nomad is going nowhere. He is where he is. He is simply being, simply resting, waiting outside the tent. Like this, he is open to what God might send. So that when he encounters three strangers whose identity is mysterious and unknown, Abraham is able to offer them a place to rest and take refreshment. Suddenly Abraham is no longer worrying about his own wealth or his own survival. Instead, he is present in the moment: he ministers generously to the needs of the travellers who have come and offers them shelter. Perhaps we should not be surprised to learn that as soon as Abraham is open to these others, he becomes open again to the promises of God, and open to trusting them. When the travellers assure him that his wife will bear a child, he is ready to listen attentively. Plan ‘A’ is reaffirmed and reasserted – and Sarah laughs for joy. God is faithful in the face of human faithlessness!
Abraham’s story reminds us that although our plan ‘B’s may offer us important lessons and experiences, more often than not, they can shut us down or make us self-centred. They can prevent us from listening and trusting. They can keep us running, and distract us from the real possibilities that God promises us. The Gospel story we read today also warns us of the dangers of getting side-tracked from fulfilling our most important calling. When Jesus is offered hospitality with Mary and Martha, we are told that Martha allows herself to be ‘distracted’ by her many tasks. Meanwhile, Mary does the one thing that is necessary: she sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to his words.
Both these stories challenge us to identify the preoccupations that so often distract us, as churches and as individuals, from fulfilling our true calling as God’s people. We pray for the humility to see our plan ‘Bs’ for the expressions of fear that they truly are. We ask for the faith and courage to look beyond and beneath them to the true purposes that God has in store.
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