Saturday, June 21, 2008

Sermon: 6 Pentecost (22 June 2008)

6 Pentecost (Proper 7): 22 June 2008
(Genesis 21:8-21/Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17/Romans 6:1b-11/Matthew 10:24-39)
We Few, We Happy Few, We Band of Brothers

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Some sermons are straightforward, and by this I mean simply that Point A leads to Point B, and so on, in a linear and clear fashion, with every point following logically and inevitably from the previous one. This sermon is not like that at all; it is much more nearly a connect-the-dots puzzle, and I think you may need a map to help you keep to the path. I will first place the dots on the paper – two of them labeled What A Man Wants and Israel – Election and Eschatology – and then show how to connect them through the Gospel text. Having done that I will point the way toward yet another dot and invite you to find and trace your own connecting path.

Point A: What A Man Wants
Where are all the men? This question vexes many evangelical protestant churches and leaders; it has received much press over the past few years and has spawned para-church organizations and has made the career of at least one Christian author, John Eldridge. A glance around many Sunday-morning sanctuaries reveals women a-plenty and children of all ages, but a noticeable lack of husbands and fathers. Where are all the men?

It seems that the Gospel fails to engage men, that church doesn’t energize them. But why? Eldridge, and others, answer that it is packaging – that the church presents the Gospel in a female-friendly form that alienates males: if the Gospel were a film, the church presents it as a chick-flick.

First, they say, the heart of the Gospel is a personal, love relationship with Jesus Christ. Men often aren’t very good with touch-feely love relationships with anybody, much less with another guy. And it doesn’t help that Jesus is called the bridegroom and the rest of us in the church the bride; that feminine imagery is a bit hard to swallow. Then there’s the whole issue of repentance: men don’t admit mistakes very readily and the words, I’m sorry, don’t trip lightly off men’s lips. And the forgiveness and mercy thing – you know, forgiving seventy times seventy, blessing those who persecute you, praying for those who despitefully use you, turning the other cheek – well, men are far more into grudges and revenge and retribution. Men may believe that vengeance belongs to the Lord, but, as Rich Mullins said, they just want to be about the Lord’s business. For men the Gospel seems passive: accept this, receive that, forego this, don’t do that. Fine, but what are men supposed to do, for Christ’s sake? Where’s the action? This really gets at the heart of who men are and what men want. In their heart of hearts most men want a sense of purpose, meaning, adventure, challenge, risk, sacrifice. By nature or nurture – or perhaps by fall – men long to hear the call to battle, the charge to rescue the damsel in distress or to defend the honor of family or clan. There’s a stirring in the breast at the hopeless yet righteous cause.

Shakespeare captures this in Henry V. King Henry of England is engaged in battle with the French at Agincourt. His troops are hopelessly outnumbered as he and his cousin Westmoreland meet before the final, decisive battle – a presumptive French victory. And then comes the speech, the address to his troops that stirs the blood of anyone who calls himself a man.


O that we now had here

But one ten thousand of those men in England

That do no work to-day!


What's he that wishes so?

My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;

If we are mark'd to die, we are enow

To do our country loss; and if to live, T

he fewer men, the greater share of honour.

God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.

By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,

Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;

It yearns me not if men my garments wear;

Such outward things dwell not in my desires.

But if it be a sin to covet honour,

I am the most offending soul alive.

No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.

God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour

As one man more methinks would share from me

For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!

Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,

That he which hath no stomach to this fight,

Let him depart; his passport shall be made,

And crowns for convoy put into his purse;

We would not die in that man's company

That fears his fellowship to die with us.

This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,

Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,

And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

He that shall live this day, and see old age,

Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,

And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'

Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,

And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'

Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,

But he'll remember, with advantages,

What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,

Familiar in his mouth as household words-

Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,

Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-

Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.

This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered-

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Men want their own Saint Crispin’s day, their own call to arms, their own challenge to lay down their lives for great purpose. Do they find this in the church and in the church’s presentation of the Gospel?

Well, frankly I don’t know how seriously to take all this gender-based critique of church. It smacks of the whole Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus caricature of a few years back. Yes, men and women are different in some very fundamental ways, but I think both genders may well be searching for purpose, meaning, adventure, and challenge – for a reason to get up in each morning and expend one’s life during each day. Don’t we all want to really live before we lay ourselves down to die, to know that we have given ourselves to something larger than ourselves – even larger than our families or tribes or clans or nations – to know that we have played our part in the Plan, whatever that Plan may be? In this, I don’t think we are all that different.

Point B: Israel – Election and Eschatology
The history and theology of Israel revolve about the twin themes of election and eschatology. In simple terms, Israel has been chosen by God (election) for God’s purpose – a purpose which will be fulfilled in the last days (eschatology). The grand purpose of God is the restoration of creation – in biblical terminology, the coming of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom ruled by God through David’s ancestor. Isaiah describes the Kingdom as the lifting of sin’s curse and the vindication of the righteous.

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid,the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Is 11:1-9, NRSV).

During and after the Babylonia exile, the Jews developed the idea that God’s Kingdom would come at the very climax of history – in the last days – and that the climax would be preceded by a time of unprecedented tribulation. Israel would be hard-pressed on all sides by pagan nations, as sheep in the midst of wolves. There would be no peace, but a sword instead. Social institutions would falter and crumble; families would disintegrate and their members would be pitted one against the other. Corrupt and ruthless governors would persecute the righteous and the weak. Then suddenly, just in the nick of time, God’s Chosen One would appear to wage war against all the powers of evil, to cast down and cast out the pagan oppressors, to rescue and vindicate Israel, and to usher in the Kingdom of God. These were the hopes and expectations of Jesus’ contemporaries.

Connection: The Invitation
Now comes the Gospel text which connects our first two points.

The Mission of the Twelve
5 These 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 labourers 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 judgement than for that town.
16 ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. 19When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; 20for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
24 ‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!
26 ‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
* 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
32 ‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
34 ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to set a man against his father,and a daughter against her mother,and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it (Mt 10:5-39, NRSV).

How does this connecting text work? Jesus calls twelve disciples and commissions them as apostles – as ones sent on mission for the Master. And what is unmistakable from Jesus’ language is the shocking implication that their mission – which is, of course, a function of Jesus’ own mission – it to bring Israel’s history to its climax, to usher in the last days, and to inaugurate the Kingdom of God. Take Israel’s understanding of Election and Eschatology and replace Israel with Jesus and his followers and the pagan nations with unfaithful Israel and it’s all right there.

God’s Kingdom is present and coming in the person and work of Jesus who has come to announce the very climax of Israel’s history – the last days. This climax will be preceded by a time of unprecedented tribulation. Jesus and his followers – especially the apostles now sent to announce the Kingdom – will be hard-pressed on all sides by unfaithful Israel, as sheep in the midst of wolves. There will be no peace for them, but a sword instead. (And, in fact, the sword will come to Israel, too, in forty years with Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem). Social institutions will falter and crumble; families will disintegrate and their members will be pitted one against the other over the issue of loyalty to Jesus. Corrupt and ruthless authorities—Jewish and Roman – will persecute Jesus and his righteous disciples. Then suddenly, just in the nick of time, God’s Chosen One, Jesus, will appear to wage war against all the powers of evil, to cast down and cast out the all oppressors, to rescue and vindicate his followers, and to usher in the Kingdom of God – and all this through his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Israel’s election and eschatology are now being fulfilled in and through Jesus and his disciples.

That means that the apostles – these twelve men – are being called to the ultimate life of purpose, meaning, adventure, challenge, risk, sacrifice – exactly what a man wants. Your task, Jesus says to them, is to bring Israel’s history to its climax, to usher in the last days, and to inaugurate God’s kingdom. It will be dangerous and your lives will be expended in this battle against all the forces of evil. Your families will not understand and may well disown you. Your own countrymen will not understand and will revile you and beat you and imprison you and drive you to far places. All will seem to be lost. And yet, in the end, you will be victorious, you will be vindicated, and you will reign with me.

From this day to the ending of the world,

You in it shall be remembered-

You few, you happy few, you band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in the world yet to be

Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That answered the call with us amidst these last days.

Point C: Into the Future
Israel’s history – Creation’s history – reached its climax, its turning point, in the vocation of Jesus. The Kingdom of God has come and we are even now living in the last days. But the Kingdom agenda is a work in progress, already here but not yet complete; the mustard seed has been sown, but the plant has not yet fully spread its branches to provide a home for all the birds of the air. And that means the mission continues. That means the call of discipleship still goes forth to those longing for lives of purpose, meaning, adventure, challenge, risk, sacrifice – a call not for men only, but for men and women, for old and young, for rich and poor; for in Christ there are no distinctions. We all long for a reason to get up each morning and expend our lives during each day. We all want to really live before we lay ourselves down to die, to know that we have given ourselves to something larger than ourselves – even larger than our families or tribes or clans or nations – to know that we have played our part in the Plan. In this, I don’t think we are different.

No less than the Twelve we have been called to the mission: the role we play may be different but the mission is the same – building for the Kingdom of God – and the adventure, challenge, purpose and meaning are the same. Know this: the adventure we have been called to is a struggle; it is beyond our power.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph 6:10-17, NRSV).

Every prayer uttered in faith or desperation, every kind word spoken or hate-filled word restrained, every act of love and mercy and forgiveness offered – all these are part of the adventure, part of the challenge and risk and sacrifice of mission in the Kingdom of God; they are part and parcel of the struggle. This is a lifetime of adventure and the adventure of a lifetime.


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