Prof. Dale B. Martin
Christ Church, New Haven
Pentecost 9, Year C (Proper 11C)
July 17, 2016
Entertaining Angels’ Underwears
As some of you will know from my often talking about it, even in previous sermons here, I grew up in a fundamentalist church in small-town Texas. To make sure to save our souls, we were in church whenever the doors were open. My father was the song leader. We went to church at least three times a week: for Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening prayer service. Sermons were generally 40 minutes long (don’t worry, I won’t go that long today). There was always an invitation call, what in some churches is known as the “altar call,” at which we would stand and sing countless verses of “Just As I Am” while the preacher encouraged anyone to come forward who needed baptism, confession of sins, or just prayers in general. And we sang lots of songs with phrases and words little kids have a bit of trouble really understanding.
Years later we would laugh at what we thought we were saying or singing. Like the song “When the rolls are called up yonder,” or “Up from the gravy the rolls,” (for a five or six year old boy ready to get home for Sunday dinner, you can understand why so many of my misunderstandings had to do with food), or “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear.” Or my father’s favorite quotation from the Apostle Paul, as we heard it from the King James Version: “I would not have you, ignorant brethren.”
Our story from Genesis today, in which Abraham and Sarah are visited by three mysterious men, provided one of those opportunities for misunderstanding. You see, we’re not told immediately who these men are. They are introduced simply as three strangers, as men. Once we get to Genesis chapter 19, we find out that at least two of them are angels, the angels in fact who rescue Lot and his two daughters from the destruction of Sodom. And in the last half of chapter 18, the text stops referring to the third person as a “man” at all, and just calls him “the Lord.” But for the verses read this morning, all we know is that they are three male strangers who suddenly appear near Abraham’s tent at midday.
This is at least one of those biblical events I think the author of the Letter to the Hebrews had in mind when he spoke of people who had, again as the King James Version puts it, “entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2). And thus my childhood confusion, because I thought the preacher was saying such people had entertained “angels’ underwears,” whatever that would mean. I wondered what angels’ underwears would look like. Where they angelic “tidy whities” like I and my brothers wore? Or where they boxers like Dad wore? Or were angels’ underwears made of some totally different celestial stuff? I contemplated quite a bit about what it would be like to “entertain angels’ underwears.”
As I grew older and realized my mistake—oh! they were hosting angels in disguise, they were providing supper for angels disguised as normal men—there were still other aspects of the story that confused me. Are these three “men” or three “angels”? Why are they called “men” in Genesis 18, only to become “angels” in Genesis 19? Is one of these “men” actually God? You can tell by your English translation that the editors are reading the personal name of the God of Israel, probably pronounced “Yahweh,” in the Hebrew, and indicating that by printing, in small capital letters, “Lord.” So the last half of Genesis 18, which we did not read this morning, has Abraham standing face to face with God and arguing with him as if with another human being. But is that possible? Aren’t there other biblical texts that teach that no human being can see God? or that if they see God, they will certainly die? Aren’t there other scriptures that teach that God is invisible and cannot be seen by anyone? How is Abraham able to see God, and even to argue with him, and still live? Isn’t this a contradiction in scripture?
Note that our reading from Colossians today assumes that God the father is invisible, so any visible expression of the divine must be in the form of the incarnated Jesus Christ (Col 1:15). So I wondered whether I was supposed to imagine Abraham negotiating not with God the father, but with Jesus the incarnate God even before his birth in history. You can see, though, that even after I grew up and realized that none of these passages were talking about angelic underwear I nonetheless puzzled over these texts. Did the Bible contradict itself by insisting that human beings cannot see God, or if they do they will die. But in other contexts the same Bible portrays Abraham, or Moses, or the prophet Isaiah, or even John, the author of Revelation, as seeing God? Revelation definitely says that John saw the body, at least the hand, of God the father on his throne in heaven. What is the truth about the body of a visible god?
A lot of my confusions about the Bible and its seeming contradictions were cleared up when I got to Princeton Theological Seminary and learned how to read the Bible using the methods of modern historical criticism. We were taught how the different parts of the Bible, especially some of the oldest portions such as much of Genesis, came together. The different stories started out as oral traditions, stories told and retold, perhaps around the hearth or campfire. Only later were they written down, and by different people at different times, stretching in some cases across several centuries. So we learned that Genesis came from at least three different historical sources, and so naturally their various authors and editors had different ideas about God. Some seemed to have no problem imagining a god who could appear to people in human form. Others believed that, those stories aside, the true god, the highest God, was invisible, incorporeal, and could never be seen by human beings. Some of the stories had Abraham’s three visitors as simply three strange men, others that they were angels disguised as men, and others that even God was one of the three. What we have as our text of Genesis is a community of ideas, not a single voice. After struggling with my childhood confusions, stemming to a great extent from my church’s fundamentalism, the new knowledge about the historical composition and meaning of scriptural texts came as a relief to me.
So our Psalm for today says that the righteous person may dwell in God’s tent. God has a tent? Well, according to this Psalm yes, even though some others insist that God house is the entire universe and he does not live in specific dwellings. Psalm 15, though, teaches that only those people who practice justice, who don’t take advantage of their fellow human beings by financial means, can live in God’s tent or on God’s “holy hill.” And our Colossians passage insists that God the father is invisible, but that we, by grace through faith, are joined to God the invisible by our incorporation into the fleshly body of Jesus (Col 1:22).
Now, our Gospel passage, about Martha and her sister Mary hosting Jesus in their home, has always seemed like something of a problem to me, maybe because I am my mother’s son. My mother always hated this passage. She knew that the author of the story had to be a man, because any woman would know that someone was going to have to be in the kitchen fixing dinner for all the men in the house. Sure, the men would be in the living room or the den talking politics or religion after Sunday church. But the women, or at least one woman, would have to be getting dinner ready. Unless, that is, Jesus was going to pull one of his stunts and put the roast beef and mashed potatoes on the table miraculously himself. No, my mother knew that Martha was doing necessary work, if they all were going to eat. She would quote the saying, in her Alabama accent, “Mahtha, Mahtha, you are worried and distracted by many things…” I figured my mother would have replied to Jesus, “Well, at least I’m trying to put something on the table for the rest of you. I’d think a little gratitude would be in order!” You see, to get back to our beginning, Martha was doing a better job than Mary, one could argue, in “entertaining angels unawares.” Who knew if there might be hungry angels in her living room expecting dinner?
I’ve had a bit of fun with our scripture readings this morning, and that is all fine. But there is a serious lesson here. We must be on the look-out for disguised angels, or even a disguised Lord Jesus among us. Our world is too often a terrible, horrible place, where scores of men, women, and children can be mowed down with a truck driven by a hate-filled fanatic. Here in the U.S., we are surrounded by a society flooded with guns and weapons of mass destruction, and thus constant news of killings and maimings. As Christians, we must reject the temptation to give explanations for suffering and evil. That is not was we are called to do. Christianity does not offer philosophical answers for the problems of evil or suffering. It offers a story of hope teaching that love and justice will prevail in the end.
We must certainly work for love and justice. But in the meantime, we also must practice and learn to look for the good in our world. We must train ourselves to see wonder. We must strain to pick out the angels hiding all around us behind trees, or meeting us on the street, or in a bar, or on the Green. We must teach ourselves and one another to live in hope and expectation of the wonder and grace that must be present somewhere in our world, in fact all around us if we can learn to see it. We must be in constant expectation and anticipation of entertaining angels unawares.