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Monday, June 19, 2017

The War Is Over (But Nobody Knows)

Pentecost 3A
June 18, 2017

Genesis 18:1-15
18The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” 7Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it.8Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

9They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’14Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

Romans 5:1-11
5Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.9Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.11But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Matthew 9:35 - 10:15
35Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

10 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. 9Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. 11Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. 12As you enter the house, greet it. 13If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 15Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

* * * * * *

I would be remiss if I didn’t thank our pastor, Matt Bates, for inviting me to fill his pulpit this morning. Vicki and I have appreciated Matt’s pastoral care, his preaching and leadership, and your welcoming spirit since we first visited Centenary two and a half years ago. When I was the pastor of a congregation, I was very particular about whom I invited to substitute for me on Sunday morning. I wanted my people to hear good, solid preaching, but not so good that they wouldn’t miss me while I was gone. I have no doubt that I can fulfill the second part of that expectation this morning.

Speaking of hospitality, that is one bookend of our scripture lessons this morning. The first reading is a story from Genesis, about the ninety-plus year old Abraham, who has taken his wife, Sarah, on a long journey from their home in modern-day Iraq to, literally, God knows where, at God’s bidding. In today’s lesson, Abraham is resting in the shade of his tent on a hot Middle Eastern day when he notices three strangers nearby. Obedient to the traditions of Middle-Eastern desert hospitality, he rushes to greet them and offers them shelter, food, and drink. Sarah prepares three meal cakes, a servant slaughters and roasts a calf, and the men sit down to eat under the trees.

They ask Abraham about his wife and call her by name. And then one of them says that he will return at the right time, and the ninety-ish Sarah will have had a baby boy by then. Sarah laughs inside the tent, and the mysterious stranger calls her out. Sarah denies it. Later in the story, Sarah indeed conceives and gives birth to a son they name Issac: laughter.

In the ancient world, you were expected to take care of strangers. On the frontier, everyone took care of everyone, because one’s life might literally depend on it. You participated in a culture of hospitality. There are places even in our world where such an expectation survives today. One of the laws of the sea is that if you see or hear a boat in distress, you are obligated to stop whatever you are doing or wherever you are going and come to the assistance of the stricken vessel. Failure to do so is punishable by law – much like the final episode of Seinfeld, in which Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer are sentenced to jail for failing to help a man being robbed. I used to be a sailor; now I am a cyclist, and the same informal law of the sea applies to stranded cyclists. You slow down and ask if the cyclist by the side of the road needs help. This last week I literally shredded a tire on Old Washington Highway five miles from home. I always carry a spare tube and air cartridges, but one of my cartridges was empty. I couldn’t get Vicki on the phone, so I started walking – in my bike cleats, back home. A cyclist came down the road and I thought, oh, good, maybe she’ll have a pump or a cartridge. She wizzed by without a word. The cycling gods will get you for that, I thought, all in the love of Jesus. Blessedly, a few minutes later another cyclist came by in a pickup truck, asked me if I needed help, and gave me a ride home.

I can say, from personal experience, that Centenary is a very hospitable church. You welcome strangers well. Rex and Maryanne Dazey welcomed us warmly our first Sunday, even though we were sitting in their pew. Stan Baker welcomed us to sing with the choir for Lessons and Carols last December, and didn’t eye roll too much at all our wrong notes. I have been welcomed in the kitchen on Fridays as we prepare lunch for the homeless. We love the rich assortment of people kneeling at the communion rail on first Sundays. You have even invited Vicki to serve on the Staff-Parish Relations Committee, something her pastor for the last forty years never asked her to do. Like Abraham, you have welcomed us to your home and to the feast, even though we are not angels. Nevertheless, we might have something to say about new birth in your tent.

That’s one bookend of the lessons. The other bookend is this story in Matthew about Jesus sending the twelve to the towns of Galilee with instructions to heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the good news. One bookend this morning is receiving in hospitality. The other bookend is about going out.

So, what’s between the bookends?

Jesus tells the disciples to proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of heaven has come near. In Hebrew – I know the New Testament is in Greek, but Jesus, despite what you may have heard, was a Jew -- the word that gets translated as near actually means where something is. In some other places, this announcement is translated the kingdom is at hand: Osage Indian Christian theologian George Tinker used to say that Indians know that hands are attached to bodies. In other words, the kingdom isn’t off there in the distance somewhere – it is, here and now. That, I have come to believe, is a fundamental (pun intended) misunderstanding in much of Christian practice. Jesus doesn’t come to tell us that someday God will reign over the world: he comes to say it is happening, now. Right in front of us. Or as Luther said about God’s presence in the bread and wine, in, with, under, around, and through.

Just as the reading from Romans lay this morning between the other two lessons, it seems to me that Paul’s message about justification and peace with God is the good news that lies between the bookends of hospitality and mission. Paul writes – just like Jesus’ present-tense understanding of the kingdom – about justification, peace with God, and access to grace not as some future hope, but as an accomplished fact: Therefore, since we are justified . . . we have peace . . . we have obtained access. Grammar makes a difference. Paul’s language is unconditional, emphatic, and declarative because all these things do not depend on us: they are accomplished facts because of what God has already done for us in Jesus Christ. God has come to occupy the fullness of human life – including unjust suffering, pain, and death – forever aligning humanity and divinity. That’s what justification means, you know – just as you justify – align – text on your word processor to the right or the left or to the center, now we are in line with God. To change the metaphor, we all come from the factory with our steering out of alignment, so that, left to our own, we always run off the road. But God has aligned God’s self with us in Jesus’ life. Or – another metaphor – like the plumbing I worked on two weeks ago at my daughter’s house, the cold water pipe coming out of the wall had to be lined up with the faucet for the cleansing, life-giving water to flow freely.

We couldn’t do that for ourselves, because we’re so congenitally crooked. We spend our lives trying to straighten ourselves out. But God does something amazing – God has lined up with us, instead of the other way around. That’s the source of peace: God is no longer at war with the world. Truth be told, God never was – it’s the other way around. That’s the good news the world needs to hear from us.

Ironically, the good news that the war is over isn’t good news for everybody. There are principalities and powers in the world with a vested interest in maintaining unrelenting conflict. There is profit in conflict:

  • with others. We live in an economy based largely on war. Entities who profit from war do not want peace. There are others who can only lift themselves up by putting others down, because of race, religion, origin, appearance, sexuality, education, bank account, and a hundred other criteria. For these, life is a zero-sum game: there cannot be winners unless there are at least as many losers. Even our chief executive casts as his ultimate disparagement upon terrorists and opponents that they are losers. 
  • with the Creation. The earth, say the profiteers, is here to be exploited. We cannot live as a part of nature; we are in an unrelenting war with it. The commandment in Genesis to till the earth and keep it means to impose our will upon it. Ask the energy companies if there is great profit in maintaining a war with Creation. 
  • with one’s self. We are too fat, too thin, too old, too young, too slow, too stupid, too ugly, too poor, too sick, too damned. Have no fear: there is a book, a diet, a gym, a school, a surgeon, a guru, a magic prayer or diet supplement or article of clothing or vacation place or car or beer that will solve all your problems. We are like sheep without a shepherd, harassed and helpless. 
  • with God. Much so-called Christian theology depicts a God who hates humanity, and must be appeased only through the sacrifice of God’s Son, except that even that sacrifice doesn’t appease God unless we hate ourselves as well. If we laugh too much, play too much, love too much, forgive too much, this angry old man (it’s always a man, please note) in the sky will sentence us to eternal fire and torment. There is great profit in keeping people anxious, angry, and terrified all the time. It works in churches and it works in politics and in jobs and in families. Nothing quite focuses one’s attention as the prospect of imminent death, someone once said. There is great profit in maintaining the war.
Hiroo Onoda was a 22 year old lieutenant in the Japanese Army when he was sent as an intelligence officer in 1944 to Lubang Island in the Philippines. Two months after his arrival, United States forces landed on and captured the island. Onoda and three other soldiers fled to the hills of the island when the rest of the Japanese command was killed or captured. For 29 years Onoda and his companions hid in the hills of Lubang, subsisting on food stolen from local farmers, occasionally fighting local police in guerilla skirmishes. Planes dropped leaflets announcing the surrender of Japan and the end of the war, but Onoda and his companions did not believe them.

In 1974, his three companions having died, Onoda was finally coaxed out of hiding. Despite years of attempts to get him to surrender, nothing worked until Onoda’s wartime commander came to the island, called out to him, and freed him from his obligation to resist peace. Finally, Lieutenant Onoda’s war was over.

Between the bookends of hospitality – which Centenary does brilliantly – and evangelism, which it seems to me we do considerably less well, lies the gospel proclaiming that the warfare between God and the world is over. The kingdom is right here, because God has come live with us in all our gloriously broken humanity.

Who are the Hiroo Onodas in your life? Who are the people, the situations, the places you need to release from their wars? Where have you been a commander in that war, aiding and abetting conflict? Who, in the words of Mother Theresa, are the strangers around us who may be Jesus in distressing disquise, who need not just to be fed on Fridays, but to whom we also need to proclaim peace and a place in our community? Who are the people moving in all around us who need to know there is war-ending grace flowing like a great waterfall right here, all for free? Or, perhaps, it’s you.

The book of the gospel of peace stands between two bookends – one of hospitality, and the other of mission.

We do one well here. Let’s work on the other.

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