A Sermon for Proper 4: 1 Kings 18:20-21, (22-29), 30-39, Psalm 96, Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10
This is Memorial Day weekend. It is full of opportunities for families and friends to gather and share a meal and good times; to enjoy the plentiful sales merchants have been offering for a week or so. It is time to remember.
My uncle flew B 24s over the south pacific in WWII. My dad served in post-WWII Germany. Larry, customer of mine flew DC 3s over the Himalayas in WWII. The challenge was not just flying over the highest mountains in the world; there were the winds. At times, the throttle would be all back with the nose pointed down, and the plane would be rising. The next minute the throttle would be full on with the nose pointed up, and the plane would be falling. Col. Rogers, one of my acolyte masters was on the first team into Hiroshima. Pat Durkee, Sgt. Major USMC (Retired) was my Field Director when I was working with the Boy Scouts, my first real job after college. Bob Atkins, Sgt. Major US Army (Retired) was a mentor when I was first ordained. David Stout, USMC was my first sales manager. Mark Lemon, a high school classmate, was a swift boat captain in Viet Nam. All these are folks I know, who have in one way or another journeyed with me to this point in my life and made some contribution to who I am.
But on his Memorial Day weekend, there are two others who stand out Mike Michelli, Angie’s father, who was killed in action in Viet Nam. I did not have the honor of asking him for his daughter’s hand in marriage. 1990 his 4-year-old granddaughter cried when we found his name on the Memorial Wall. She cried when she realized she had never known, and would never know her grandfather.
The other, Jimmy Kinsey was wounded in Iraq and lost a leg below the knee. He adjusted well to the prosthetic, often playing pranks with it. Jimmy would carefully place his prosthetic by the door so that you would step on it and go sit across the room. When someone did step on he’d shout “ouch!” Not all adjustment to life went so well. Jimmy struggled and was sent to the Wounded Warriors program. There he fell; he hit his head on and iron bed post and died. His parents, related to a parishioner of mine, were not churched, asked me to preside at his funeral. It is one of the greatest honors ever extended to me. I went to meet his parents, and ended up meeting the Marine honor guard; there were five Marines, I think. I listened as they shared their stories of serving with Jimmy. At some point, one pointed to another of the group said, “He was blown up first, then me, them him and him and him.” All of those marines had been injured by an IED explosion. All of them were the same age as my daughters. I thought to myself “What are we doing for $2 a gallon gas?” Later, as I realized our IRAs and 403b likely had investments in companies that profited from the war in Iraq, or from our armed forces in harm’s way across the world, I thought, “What I am doing?” My thoughts this morning are not about the political legitimacy of war. My thoughts this morning are about choice, our choices as individuals and our choices as a society.
Elijah speaks to all Israel “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” No one spoke a word. Still he insists that they make a choice; believe and follow God or follow Baal; one way or another you have to make a choice. As has been their tendency, most of Israel tried to avoid making a choice. They preferred to hedge their bets; proclaim one god but just in case honor others. Elijah says “Nope – you got to choose.” He does go on to make a rather dramatic argument for God. Nonetheless, the people as individuals and as a society must choose. The effect of divine consuming fire is that Israel chooses to follow God. However, they have made that choice before; at Saini, and crossing into the promised land and here they are choosing again.
Luke’s story of Jesus’ encounter with the Roman Centurion is about choice. Centurion is an outsider and official of the oppressing Roman Empire. It would be a close race between Centurions or tax collectors for the most despised. The story reveals several choices the Centurion makes:
- He chooses to work with the Jews under his watch, in fact, he built a synagogue for them.
- He chooses to help a sick slave / servant; revealing that his choice to see the servant /slave as more than an expendable commodity.
- He knows about Jesus, though we don’t know how, and he chooses to invite Jesus to help (Wong).
- He chooses to recognize the Jewish tradition that coming into a Gentile property would defile Jesus, so he does not demand or even ask him to (Hogan).
- He chooses to believe that physical proximity is not a necessary ingredient for healing.
Finally, as Jesus notes
- he chooses to believe,
- he chooses faith.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians reveals
- his choice,
- the choices of competing teachers, and
- the choices of the members of the church which is where he starts.
Paul’s chooses to launch into a diatribe, there is little of the customary accolades and greetings. The central question is: Do you have to follow Jewish laws and customs to be Christian? We know Paul’s position is “No.” All you have to do is accept Jesus as God’s anointed Christ. In Paul’s absence, some Jews who follow Jesus are teaching “a different gospel.” Note that ‘gospel’ here is not capitalized; it is not the collection of books in scripture we call “The Gospels.” Here ‘gospel’ is the good news about Jesus as our Lord, and provider of salvation. These other teachers are teaching a different gospel, not so much about who Jesus is, but about how you have to behave to be a true believer, which includes following the Jewish traditions and Laws. Like Elijah, Paul is saying you have to make a choice. While not as dramatic as Elijah, he is no less vehement about his beliefs. He is no less ardent in his demand that the church in Galatia choose.
Having to choose is common in the bible. Generally, they can be understood as “Will you choose life or death (Epperly).” One type of choice is simple obedience. The first bad choice was to eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3). A good early choice was Noah’s choice to build the Ark (Genesis 7).
Another type is which god to follow or pledge allegiance to. In scripture, the choice is God or some other deity. Today the choice is what comes first, God or some other political / economic agenda or ideal (Epperly). What will it mean to choose God in this November’s or any election (Epperly)? Who is Baal today? a political party, a sports team, a social cause, pursuit wealth or power; or simply sleeping in (Ellingsen).
Another choice is who belongs and is included. The Galatians and many early Christians struggled with who is in and who is out. We face the same struggle today. Who can be baptized, who can be confirmed, who can receive communion, who can be ordained? Who belongs is at the core of our struggle with sexuality, race, and who can immigrate. One way to see our choice about who belongs is: Will we choose to accept that God has already chosen, through the birth, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, to welcome everyone into God’s presence (West)?
Another choice is how we understand ministry. Abraham’s offers gracious hospitality to three strangers at his camp at the Oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18). There is a Jewish notion that hospitality is the basis of all ministry. What do we choose to be the basis of our ministry?
Jesus heals the slave / servant of the centurion because of his owner’s faith. Are we willing to choose to approach Jesus, for ourselves, for our friends, for our enemies (Hogan)?
In many traditions, the season after Pentecost is known as Ordinary Time. One commentator believes it should be Extraordinary Time. Another would prefer we call it the Season of Pentecost because every day holds potential for an encounter with the Spirit (Lewis).
I am pondering this as a season of choice. We can choose the devices and desire of our own hearts. Or, we can choose the Spirit, who, in revealing the divine truth, will guide all our choices as we are learning how to choose Jesus’ teachings in our ministries and all of our daily lives (Wong).
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Ellingsen, Mark. 29 5 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/>.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 29 5 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Hoezee, Scott. “Proper 4C Center for Excellence in Preaching.” 29 5 2016. Working Preacher.
Hogan, Lucy Lind. Commentary on Luke 7:110. 29 5 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Lewis, Karoline. Back to Reality. 29 5 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.
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West, Audrey. Commentary on Galatians 1:112. 29 5 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.
Wong, Ada. “God is Much Bigger, Proper 4 (C) – 2016.” 29 5 2016. Sermons that Work.