Sunday, March 11, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "The Beatnik"

Isaiah 56:6-8

6 The immigrants who have joined me,[a]
serving me and loving my name,[b] becoming my servants,[c]
everyone who keeps the Sabbath without making it impure,
and those who hold fast
to my covenant:
7 I will bring them
to my holy mountain,
and bring them joy
in my house of prayer.
I will accept their entirely burned offerings and sacrifices on my altar.
My house will be known as a house
of prayer for all peoples,
8 says the LORD God,
who gathers Israel’s outcasts.
I will gather still others
to those I have already gathered. (CEB)

“Tales of the Five People You Meet in (the) Heaven(s): Stories of Fellow Travelers,” Week Three

(Author’s note: To protect the confidential nature of many of these conversations, I’ve refrained from using personal names, and names of some airlines and destinations were changed. –E.A.)

An Alaska Airlines flight from Oakland, California, to Portland Oregon, on Saturday, August 6, 2011. Unlike in my previous two sermons, I have not changed any of these details for the sake of preserving the anonymity of my co-stars, because this flight was different—this was the flight I was taking in order to be interviewed for the position I currently have—your pastor—and to preach my call sermon here the following day. And seated next to me on the short hopper from Oakland to Portland was a fellow who was traveling for a family reunion in nearby Eugene, Oregon—a short drive south on I-5. He also looked the crunchy, granola Eugene stereotype: though middle-aged, he had a ponytail snaking all the way down his back, and both of his arms were covered in tattoos. A not uncommon fashion statement in, say, my former home turf of Berkeley, but, as I am realizing, a little more uncommon in a small town such as Longview. And while everything about this man, from his destination to his appearance may scream to you, “NOT a churchgoer,” after repeating my favorite four-word phrase (“I am a pastor”), he asked me where at. I told him I was flying up to interview here, at this church, and that, truth be told, I was quite frankly rather nervous. Then, a remarkable thing happened: the rest of the flight was spent with him pastoring me—encouraging me, reassuring me that I would in fact do great—in short, everything that I would want to do in ministering to a complete stranger, he did for me, and he has since become my gold standard for how I approach each encounter with a brand-new person in my life.

This Sunday marks the third week of this sermon series that we are exploring together during the church season of Lent, which is traditionally meant to be a time of repentance, prayer, and confession for Christians the world over. It is, then, a journey of inner discovery, and of understanding anew the amazing power of God’s grace. But unlike Christ in the wilderness, it is not a journey of discovery that we are required to make alone. Indeed, many of us thrive on journeys only when we have a companion to travel with—and so I’ve created this sermon series, “Tales of the Five People You Meet in (the) Heaven(s),” a play on the title of Mitch Albom’s 2003 book “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.” Based on my own experiences of travel when the person sitting next to me suddenly learns that I am a Christian cleric, the first week’s story, of the mothers who prevented their college-bound daughters from sitting in the same row as the shady, sketchy fellow (that’s me!), was a story where my vocation was not revealed. And last week’s story revolved around a high school teacher and how he described his own work to me after learning that I am a minister. This week’s sermon, then, is a paean to the traveling Good Samaritan, the stranger performing random acts of kindness, even at 30,000 feet.

There is another reason why this anonymous counselor came into my life at exactly the right time—at that moment, as the flight was taking off—I was absolutely convinced, beyond a doubt, that this weekend was going to go HORRIBLY for me. You see, at the airport, I had purchased a bottle of Arizona tea, and the bottom of that glass bottle literally fell clean off only a minute after I bought it. There was zero rational explanation as to why or how—all I knew is that I now had twenty ounces of sweet tea all over the slacks I was going to wear to my interview in just a few hours’ time. Fortunately, because I know that I am that clumsy when it comes to food and drink, I had packed an extra pair of slacks—but nevertheless, I had convinced myself in the interim that this was a truly terrible omen, and I was going to absolutely crash and burn here, and it was going to be all my fault! (Or the fault of a renegade bottle of tea.)

And it is that cyclical, self-destructive mentality that this passage from Isaiah 56 is responding to. Isaiah is one of the longest books in the Bible, weighing in at a massive 66 chapters, but those 66 chapters were written in three different sections before being put into the canonical blender and producing the book we know today. The first section, chapters 1-39, is attributed to the prophet Isaiah himself, who prophesied during the 8th century BCE. The second section, chapters 40-55, are dated to around 540 BCE, which is during the time that Israel and Judah were under Babylonian rule, some 200 years after the historical Isaiah. The Babylonian exile lasted for about 50 years—from 586 BCE when the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II sacked Jersualem to 537 BCE, when Israel was liberated by the Persian king Cyrus the Great, and it is one of the most defining events of the entire Old Testament—the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Obadiah all prophesied during this 50-year exile, and many of them argued that it was the fault of Israel itself for falling into the hands of its foreign overlords--if only Israel had been more faithful to God, if only Israel had been more dutiful, more obedient, if only, if only, if only!

Chapter 56, this passage, is the very beginning of Third Isaiah, the last part of this book that comes right as the Israelite people are returning home, having been freed by Cyrus to worship God as they wished. Now, before this, God had been a deity exclusively for the Israelites—the fundamental basis of the covenant with Moses upon Sinai was that we would be God’s people, just as Yahweh would be our god. And after 50 years of brutal Babylonian rule, an anonymous prophet’s very first instinct is not what would likely be your’s—to condemn the people who did this to you and your family, friends, and neighbors. But here, in Scripture, it isn’t. That same covenant between Moses and God is being extended to all people who elect to obey God’s command. This is grace in its purest, most unadulterated form. Read out of context, this passage simply sounds nice and feel-goody: “Oh, Israel is allowing anyone who wants to worship God to be able to do so, how nice of them!” That isn’t it at all; or, at the very least, that is a very small part of the picture. This is a people beaten and broken down by foreign empire after foreign empire, starting with Egypt in the Exodus story, and then Assyria, and then Babylon, and to those empires, they are saying, “Welcome. Please, join us.” This is not simply religious universalism—this is religious universalism coated with profound faith in other people.

Almost every time throughout history when God’s people have tried to determine for ourselves who is worthy to worship God and who is not, we have done so with disastrous results. Churches to this day use Scripture to justify separatism on the basis of sex, gender, sexual orientation, and even, for a fringe few, race and ethnicity. But whenever we have tried to pull something like that in Scripture—judging people based on those factors, rather than on right judgment—we always get burned. The prophet Samuel thought that Eliab, the tallest and oldest of Jesse’s sons, would be the next king of Israel, but it was instead the youngest, most humble son—David. The disciples sent away the young children from Jesus, only to have Jesus tell them that only by making themselves like children can they enter Heaven. There is a reason why the expression “Don’t judge a book by its cover” has become a cliché—it’s because we do it all the time!

And by the stereotype of the proverbial book cover, my travel companion on that day may not, in any of our eyes, been what you think of in a minister. And we would be so very, very wrong for thinking that. I can only venture a guess, but I would think that when God next sends to you a vessel of His grace, a messenger of His love, it will not be through your identical faith twin. It will be through the person you least expect. So, my challenge to you is this—to then ask yourself why that person would be the one you least expected to bless you, to answer honestly, and to approach each person you meet thereafter with the expectation and the hope that they may be the next one to deliver to you, in their own way, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 11, 2012

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