'Sarah', Selwyn College, Cambridge, 25 Oct 2020
by Graham Kings
Date added: 16/11/2020
The YouTube recording of the whole service may be viewed here.
Many thanks for this invitation to preach in the college where I was a postgraduate, 41 years ago. It a joy to be here and to hear the choir sing the world premiere of Tristan Latchford’s extraordinary anthem, Sarah.
Here is the painting, Sarah, by the Bulgarian artist Silvia Dimitrova, which my wife and I commissioned and on which my poem and the anthem are based. One of seven, in our project of Women in the Bible.
The painting is luminous in its profundity and scope.
Isaiah 51.1 is a key verse which encourages the exiles in Babylon - and us today, who may also feel in exile in our present crisis - to
Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you.
In the angst of this pandemic, when many feel not only in exile but also rootless, like flotsam and jetsam floating on the sea, let us look back 4,000 years to our roots: 2,000 years to Jesus Christ and another 2,000 years to our mother Sarah and our father Abraham.
Our identity as Christians, Jews and Muslims, is rooted in these stories of Genesis.
So, let’s look and ponder.
The face of Sarah, aged 90, reflects the face of my mother and the face of Abraham, aged 99, the face of my father, who both died full of years and full of faith.
She included the calf, with Abraham’s hand upon it, to look forward to the ram caught in the thicket, a substitute for the promised son, Isaac, who was about to be sacrificed - there is a mosaic of that story too in San Vitale. It also looks forward to the fatted calf in the parable of the prodigal son.
Who was upset the prodigal son returned? Most say, the elder son. But I reckon it was the fatted calf.
The three strange strangers remind us of the strangeness of the Holy Trinity and of how we are called to respond to strangers in our midst.
Hospitality is key to this passage. In a week in which free school meals have become the focus, the gift of food is crucial.
On Radio 4 this morning we heard a woman in Coventry describing how she taught Syrian refugee women to bake bread. They loved it. They set up a business to serve people and suggested they added to their order some extra bread to be given to the local food banks.
Hospitality, generosity and promise are the heart of this story of Sarah.
She hears that in her old age, she is promised a child. Unbelievable. She laughs and tries to cover it up. The stranger asks, ‘Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?’, which foreshadows Gabriel’s words to Mary, ‘Nothing is impossible with God’.
The Lord is hidden, like Strider, in the Lord of the Rings book one, who turns out at the end to be the rightful King Aragorn. Or like Henry V on the eve of Agincourt, incognito, amongst his soldiers.
A son is promised. He is called Isaac, which means in Hebrew, ‘He who laughs’.
We have three daughters and our first grandchild was born in February this year and his name is Isaac. We had two more grandsons this year, in March and October, Elijah and Samuel, so we’ve had three in one, with great joy and laughter.
Here is the poem, which begins, as all good theology does, in the interrogative mode:
Who is this woman,
Right hand responsive,
Left hand supportive,
Who is this man,
Left hand cupped
Near to heart,
Reckoned as righteous,
Right hand blessing,
Who are these visitors,
Arrayed in radiance,
Mysterious in difference,
Framed by bowing
Oaks of Mamre and
Tent of Meeting,
Together as three,
Emerging out of
Merging as One?
Mother of Promise
Of people and nations,
Who ceased to be
After manner of women,
Laughs to herself,
Then covers it up,
Bears and believes
‘He who laughs.’
Father of Promise
Of people and nations,
As good as dead,
Who previously laughed,
Suggesting a son of
Slave girl instead,
Hope against hope,
Lord of Promise
Of people and nations,
For incoherent jest,
From mature oaks,
An acorn grows.
This very passage on Genesis 18 inspired George Augustus Selwyn, after whom our college in named. He preached a sermon entitled, ‘The Church is a Missionary Church’, 179 years ago, on 17 July 1841, at the Church of St John the Baptist, New Windsor.
Selwyn appealed to others to follow Abraham’s faith in ‘leaving behind his country and kindred in obedience to the call of God and to the promise that in his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed.’
There was a debate at the time whether the Church of England should concentrate on England and ignore the rest of the world or not.
The sermon is quoted in the 2014 biography of Selwyn by Robert Wilson who studied for his PhD here.
Selwyn preached: ‘To look upon Christ’s kingdom upon earth as one universal empire, is the sure way to promote the interests of its several parts. To seek the interest of the part, without regarding the whole, is to delay, rather than advance the growth of Christianity.’
Selwyn was a Fellow in maths and classics of St John’s College, Cambridge, and gave his academic career to serve as the pioneer Bishop of New Zealand, at the age of 32, 1841. He was the leader of a Church which did not exist, in a colony only one year old, to quote Mike Good in his book Selwyn Celebrated.
Captain Hobson, Governor of New Zealand, asked:
‘What the dickens can a bishop do when there aren’t any roads for his coach?
Selwyn however was an athlete and had rowed at 7 for the Cambridge boat in 1829 - Oxford won by a hundred yards. In New Zealand and the South Pacific, he travelled by boat, horse, and on foot, often swimming across rivers.
The marriage between Sarah and Abraham, though tough at times and stressed, bore surprising fruit in the end, with Isaac, and in the fullness of time, with Christ and now with us, together with fellow heirs throughout the ages and throughout the world today.
We are rooted in Sarah, our mother, and in Abraham our father.
I conclude with my favourite sonnet of Shakespeare’s, celebrating such longstanding love, which I believe also echoes the love of God for his people.
I’m reading from Paul Edmundson and Stanley Wells magnificent recent Cambridge edition, All the Sonnets of Shakespeare. Sonnet 116, whose first line is:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.