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.

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