Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Table Talk

Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
for St John United Lutheran Church

Prayer of the Day:
Eternal God, you draw near to us in Christ, and you make yourself our guest. Amid the cares of our lives, make us attentive to your presence, that we may treasure your word above all else, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

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From the Wikipedia entry for “faux pas:”

A “faux pas” is a violation of accepted social norms (for example, standard customs or etiquette rules). Faux pas vary widely from culture to culture, and what is considered good manners in one culture can be considered a faux pas in another. The term originally comes from French, and literally means “false step.”

The plural of faux pas is, in fact, faux pas, and yes, I had to look that up because we have before us today two such violations of accepted social etiquette. (I will leave up to you whether using an extensive quote from Wikipedia in a sermon counts as a third faux pas.)

In our first story, taken from the book of Genesis, we find our forebear Abraham, sitting under a tree in the heat of the day. It was an oak tree. If you have ever spent a morning working outside – heck, just being outside – when the mercury is high and the there are no clouds to shield you from the blazing sun, then you have some idea of how nice it was for Abraham to be able to sit down under a little shade after a morning of work.

You might also know how easy it is for your mind to wander as you sit there, and how easy it is for someone to approach you without you really noticing until they are right there next to you. It is so easy to lose yourself in a restful moment and not realize that the Creator of the Cosmos has sidled up next to you.

Abraham looked up and saw three men standing near him. He didn’t call them Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but he treated them like royalty all the same. Did he know they were of divine origin? Or was it simply common practice that taught him to offer strangers hospitality?

There is a flurry of activity in the Abraham and Sarah house, and before you know it Abraham is back out under the tree, standing while his guests sit and eat the best food he and Sarah knew how to make. Abraham waits. He wants to see them enjoy the food. And he wants to hear the stories they are sure to carry with them.

But instead of simply telling their own stories, the strangers make themselves a part of Abraham’s. They step over the line, really, setting aside standard custom and speaking directly to Abraham’s deepest fears and hopes. They recall the promise God had made long ago, a dream God had promised to make a reality, a dream Abraham and Sarah seem quite reasonably to have given up on. It was rather odd, really, for the strangers to bring it up in polite company. And then to suggest that the dream could still come true after all these years, realities being what they are, well… it was scandalous, really. Maybe they didn’t know. Maybe they were just putting their foot in it.

I wonder if Luke has the story of Abraham and his three strange guests in mind when he tells the stories of Jesus and his companions on the road, on foot, as they nearly always are. They walk everywhere. I can’t imagine the blisters on Jesus’ feet from all that walking. At least they try to walk in the cool of the day whenever they can. No sense walking from town to town when it’s hot as blazes out there.

It’s times like this when they praise Adonai for people like Martha, who would welcome them into their homes for a cool drink and a hot meal. The host expected stories, of course, always they expected to hear stories. Martha’s sister, Mary, especially loved them. And this man seemed to tell the strangest ones. Like that story about a Samaritan – a Samaritan! – who helped a man on the side of the road when a priest and a Levite passed him by… so bizarre! Such stories! And so there Mary sat, riveted. She sat there for so long, listening to Jesus’ stories, that she didn’t even notice when her sister got up to clear the table.

I’d rather not repeat what happens next. It is one of those ugly arguments that ends a perfectly good meal. Do we really need to tease out who is in the wrong? Mary fails to do her duty, Martha reacts inappropriately, and then Jesus tells off his hardworking host in an act of shocking rudeness. There is enough blame to pass around, even, yes, to Jesus, whose words clearly break with any reasonable standard of good manners.

And perhaps that is because Jesus is no angel. He is, in fact… human. I don’t mean simply that he makes mistakes, I mean that he is really, truly, fundamentally human. As Paul writes in today’s excerpt from Colossians, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in flesh and blood, that through this incarnation God was pleased to reconcile all things.

But incarnation is messy. It means that Jesus enters into our messy lives, gets involved with the push and pull of our messy relationships, gets in the middle of messy arguments that good etiquette advises we stay out of. But Jesus doesn’t stay out of them. He gets right into the middle of everything. He says rude things. He commits the occasional – ok, the frequent – faux pas. Through this incarnation God was pleased to reconcile all things.

Abraham knew as much. What the three strangers said was ludicrous, borderline offensive in its outright disregard for common sense. And yet contained within the craziness was a promise of new life, a promise God was making a reality through the very presence of these people in Abraham’s midst.

In the story of Abraham and Sarah, in the story of Mary and Martha, in the mystical words of Paul, we catch a glimpse of a God who drew near to us by becoming as human as we are, that through Christ we might meet God at the table here, and at every table of our lives.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Sermon for the Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
for St John United Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington

Since arriving in the Northwest – and especially since the weather has been a little nicer – my wife and I have been doing a little camping. Just last week we camped our way down to Crater Lake and up the Oregon Coast, and I think after several nights of sleeping under the stars we’re finally starting to get the hang of it.

It wasn’t always this way.

The first time we tried camping this year was on the Olympic Peninsula, at the Kalaloch Campground in Olympic National Park. We found a glorious campsite, perched on a bluff overlooking the endless horizon of the Pacific Ocean. If you were to try and nab that campsite on a weekend in July or August, good luck. But we were camping on the first weekend in May. April showers were not just lingering, they were throwing an after-party and they had invited high winds and crashing waves to join them. There were a few other brave souls who had decided to crash the joint, but they were huddled in their cars and RVs, gaping at the storm through fogged up windows. This was no place for first-time tent campers.

But adventure was out there, and so we soldiered on. We stretched out the rainfly over our little tent and tried to stake it into the ground. Except that, despite the torrential rain, the ground was still hard as cement. And I had forgotten a hammer. So I tried lashing it to a tree, to a watercooler, to a picnic table… nothing really seemed to work. All the while the wind and rain and gray sea worked up a frenzy around us.

Suddenly a man stepped out of the RV parked next to us. Under the pouring rain he walked over and stuck out his hand in a friendly greeting. He introduced himself and said he and his family would be staying in the camper next to us all night, that we’d be neighbors for the evening. Then he looked over at our tent, and back at us. And then he asked us a very important question.

“Do ya’ll need any help?”

Nope, I said, we’re good. Got it all under control. Thanks for the offer, really, but we’re doing fine.

It can be hard to accept help when we need it.

Many of us were raised to be good helpers, to serve our neighbor in need. Our gospel story for today is often cited as a prime example of how to serve our neighbor in need; in fact, the idea of being a “Good Samaritan” to a person in trouble has made this parable part of the common lexicon. Sometimes we even put laws into place to make sure this sort of helping happens; Washington State has had a “Good Samaritan” law” for a few years now.

Of course, as a church community we’ve been hearing the story of the Good Samaritan for years. The idea of helping those around us has become so ingrained in us that we’ve come up with all sorts of ways to serve our neighbors in need. We have a soup kitchen, and a garden that feeds our soup kitchen; we have a fellowship hall that we turn over to folks who need a place to sleep for the night; we have rooms that we rent out to recovery groups; we even support a public policy office to advocate for structural changes that might help heal society’s systemic sickness, and not just its symptoms. We are not the only community of faith that does so; in fact, so many churches do things like this that I wonder why there aren’t more congregations in the ELCA with the name of Good Samaritan Lutheran Church.

But here’s the thing: Service is only one side of the parable we hear today.

The story Luke tells begins with someone standing up and asking Jesus a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The question itself is a bit comical in its incoherence. The person speaks of an eternal life – in other words, the full life that God intends for us – inherited, received as a free gift, salvation through grace alone. He’s practically a Lutheran, what with his theological training and understanding of God’s grace as freely given to all, inherited, not earned. And yet, like so many of us Lutherans, he still finds himself asking what more he must do to receive it.

And so Jesus tells him a story. It is the story of a man going down the road, making his way through life. For a while things are going okay but soon life takes its toll. Best-laid plans end abruptly; the road map is stripped away. He might as well be dead, for all he has left.

Ah, Jesus’ listener is thinking, this is where I come in. A person in need of help, surely that is my neighbor! And, sure enough, along come a couple of religious folks, a couple of helpers.

Except that they just pass on through the story. Before the listener can raise an objection, another character has arrived on the scene. It is a Samaritan, an outcast, a person living on the margins of society, a homeless person, an undocumented immigrant, a name on the no-fly list, a convicted felon, a drug addict. At worst, the Samaritan is outside the bounds of who we are supposed to help. At best, the Samaritan is a helpee, one to be helped, not a helper.

But the Samaritan is shown to bear the image of a loving God just as surely as any the priest and the churchgoer, maybe even so more, as Jesus tells it. The Samaritan comes near the man in the ditch, perhaps because he knows the ditch himself. The Samaritan is moved with pity. He is moved like the father of the prodigal son is moved when he sees his lost boy. He is moved like Jesus is moved when he sees the widow whose only son is carried out in a funeral procession. Luke uses the same word three times in his gospel, a verb describing a heart broken in compassion, once to describe the prodigal father, once to describe Jesus, once to describe the Good Samaritan.

And then this Samaritan who bears the likeness of his Creator, who shares the compassionate heart of Christ, bandages the wounded man, puts a salve on his cuts and bruises, like aloe on a sunburn. He nurses the man in the ditch back to health.

Jesus concludes the story with a question, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” But here again is a question that reveals even more than its answer. We thought Jesus was going to tell us about a neighbor in need, but instead Jesus shows us the neighbor as one who gives. The one in need in the story, the one in the ditch, the one with wounds in need of healing, is not the neighbor, but us.

It is no accident that Jesus tells this story right after he has sent seventy disciples out into the world to heal the sick and preach the gospel, using words if necessary, and relying on the people they meet for shelter and sustenance. As Pastor Carol preached last week, Jesus sends his disciples out to be interdependent. As they carry out the mission of God in the world, Jesus instructs his disciples to receive even as they give.

Because this inhaling and exhaling of receiving and giving is what it means to live into eternal life, into the life God intends for us. This is what it means to be fully reconciled with God and with one another. Receive the peace of Christ. Then share the peace of Christ you have received.

Perhaps that is why God promises to meet us in the water and in the wine. They are not things we can accomplish, but only gifts we can receive.

In baptism and communion, we become like the man in the ditch. In the water and the wine, salve is put on our wounds, and we are anointed, and given a new life to live. It is a way of life that we inherit from God through a cloud of witnesses, Samaritans and Seattleites alike.

And so we come again, like the one in the ditch, broken and wounded, run down and ready for Sabbath, in need, once again, of a fresh start. In water and word, in bread and wine, in a community gathered, we come to receive the grace, the mercy, and the love of God.

It is only then that we hear Jesus saying, Go. Go and do likewise. Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the earth, advocate for justice. Share the grace, the mercy, the love you have received. For these are the gifts of God, and they are given for you and for all the people of God.