Sunday, September 28, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "11,541 Red Chairs"

Luke 6:17-19

17 Jesus came down from the mountain with them and stood on a large area of level ground. A great company of his disciples and a huge crowd of people from all around Judea and Jerusalem and the area around Tyre and Sidon joined him there. 18 They came to hear him and to be healed from their diseases, and those bothered by unclean spirits were healed. 19 The whole crowd wanted to touch him, because power was going out from him and he was healing everyone. (Common English Bible)

“The Sermon on the Mount’s Little Sibling: Luke’s Sermon on the Plain,” Week One

I grew up with the Bosnian war.  I grew up with its horrible stories beamed through into my childhood home on the television.  I grew up with the public deliberations by the US, Europe, NATO, on whether or not to intervene in an ethnic cleansing of a whole peoples on the front page of the newspapers that I would walk outside to pick up in my Power Ranger pajamas (yes, I owned pair.  I regret nothing).  Running on the heels of, and almost parallel to, the genocide in Rwanda, it was a quick 1-2 punch in the stomach in learning, at a very young age, just how cruel and terrible humankind is to one another.

In 1994, just after the new year, Serbian shells began to pelt the capital, Sarajevo.  Attacks at the airport shut down all humanitarian aid flights in and out of the capital.  Eventually, food would run out.  This would go on for 44 months—nearly four years—before the siege was finally lifted through NATO intervention in 1997.

After all was said and done, 11,541 Bosnians died in the siege of Sarajevo.  Their memorial stood upon a long avenue that leads up to the eternal flame that commemorates the Bosnians killed in the Second World War…an avenue that upon which rested exactly 11,541 red plastic lawn chairs, one for every person living in the city who was killed.  Every.  Single.  Person.

And for the children whose lives were taken, smaller red chairs were used to mark their places.

There are few things that I think we really can do to make a ground sacred, but remembering the dead in so vivid and heartbreaking a manner is, I have to think, one of the few.  Because it is the final testament to how we treat them—how we are treating a fellow person and child of God.

And where do we ultimately get those instructions on how to treat another person?  Well, from sermons like the one we are about to unpack over the next six weeks.  And just as we can take something as unremarkable as a length of street and turn it into something truly sacred and profound, so too is Jesus about to take a thoroughly unremarkable expanse of land and use it as the stage for the providing of some of His most profound wisdom. 

And it is nothing short of a transformation.

This is another new sermon series for the fall, and this series will take us all the way into November.  And there really is a simple reason behind how this sermon series got cooked up in the first place (beyond, you know, the inspiration and movement of the Holy Spirit, me throwing darts at the wall, the consulting of sheep entrails, that sort of thing).  Luke 6 contains some of the most blunt, point-blank ethical teachings of Jesus in any Gospel, but those teachings, nicknamed the Sermon on the Plain (can you guess why?), tend to be overshadowed by the magnum opus of Matthew’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, which both parallels and dwarfs the Sermon on the Plain.  So, we’re spending these six weeks giving some much-needed attention to a sermon that often gets short shrift, even though it contains some of the most famous one-off ethical pronouncements Jesus offers, including “love your enemies,” “if someone steals your coat, give them your shirt as well,” and “judge not, and you will not be judged.”  My aim is to present all of these teachings to you in their context of an entire series of teachings, but before we even get to that, we must set the scene!

Christ has just called the twelve disciples, and He is taking them along, presumably for their very first instructions.  While this would not be Jesus’s first sermon in Luke (that came two chapters earlier, in Luke 4, wherein Jesus so pushes the buttons of his hometown synagogue by claiming that He is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that they try to kill Him by throwing Him off of a freaking cliff), it would have been the first sermon that the Apostles would have all heard together.  And, in what will turn out to pretty much be par for the course throughout His ministry, Jesus finds His little party being crashed by the people.  Specifically, people in dire, desperate need of His divinity.

And that should be a clue to us right off the bat: that before Jesus even utters another word to His brand-new crew, He first makes sure to take care of literally everybody else first.  It is an expression of Christian hospitality in its most radical form.  It helps to make this land, this plain, this level place upon which Jesus stands, holy.  Because, ultimately, it is the site of transformation for an untold number of people—literally.  Luke does not tell us just how many people are made whole by Christ in such a short passage.  But I can only imagine that it is quite many.

Really, it is because of works and miracles like this that we literally call this place the Holy Land.  Holiness happened here.  Holiness, as John’s Gospel says, pitched its tent here and lived among us.  But what makes the land itself holy?  It is, after all, when you get down to it only sand and dust and dirt, the very same elements from whence God drew Adam, and even then, the dirt did not become alive and set apart until God breathed life into it and made it so.

But over the course of many, many years, we have lost touch with that spark, that source of divine breath.  We became in dire need of it again, and so we were given Jesus, who breathes life, restores life, and redeems life.  Jesus acts, in this passage and in so many others, as the embodiment of a life transformed because He was never just our original human form to begin with.  He was always so, so much more.

And far be for us to elevate such a being, such an incarnation, to something higher than us—up onto a pedestal, a mount, a place above us mere broken mortals.  After all, God is up there and we are down here and that's the way it has to be, right?  But as opposed to Matthew, where Jesus is high up on the mountaintop to preach, here He remains in that level place, right where we are, in order to make us whole.

Jesus is meeting us where we are.  And in so doing, He is making this earthen ground we tread on, that dirties our feet and cakes our clothing, holy.  Because before teaching us how to act towards one another, He first shows us.  He shows us by meeting us where we are, seeing our most dire needs, and remedying them.

I know it sounds simple when I put it like that, but it is anything but.  We’re terrible at meeting people where they are and at meeting their needs.  We’re absolutely horrible at it, both because we want people to be where we are—spiritually, emotionally, mentally—and because we want to meet the needs we want to meet, not the needs that are there.  We look at someone else who votes differently from us or who reads a different translation of the Bible from us as someone who needs to be fixed, and we fail to see that those ‘needs’ aren’t even needs at all.

In other words, we make up needs that we want to meet because we can.  And because that’s oftentimes a heck of a lot easier than actually caring about and helping someone out.

And so we need the church—we need Christ—to show us the way.  To show us the way towards another person’s soul, to another person’s life, and to strengthen it and embrace it in God’s name.  We need one another to hold our own selves accountable for how we act towards the others in our own lives.  We need, in the most basic sense, a community.

And for this community, First Christian Church, almost 85 years ago ground was broken for the building in which we meet to be built.  The land below us was given a new purpose, a sacred and profound purpose, and in so doing, I have to think, was made holy.  Because this entire time, we have tried, with varying degrees of success but still with constant commitment, to meet our neighbors where they are as soon as they walked through those great wooden double doors.

But that is no longer enough, not today.  We must in turn go back out, to build the church outside of our great walls, and in turn make those spaces holy as well.  Your own home can be a holy land, your own kitchen table, your own gym, anywhere that you can meet the need of another person by offering them the love of Christ, you are emulating Christ upon the level place where He met the masses and healed them all.

And that is no small thing, I promise you.  I have people in my own young career in ministry who tell me about things that I was in some way involved in that impacted them positively: things that I had all but forgotten about until they reminded me that I had been there, that I had played some sort of role, and that their own lives, like the lives of the people in this short, almost thrown-away three-verse story of Luke’s, were transformed.

That’s what we’re going for here, people.  I’m under no illusion that y’all can instantly recall every word of every sermon that I’ve given here, or of every sermon that you have heard here, or of every Bible study, every Sunday School class, every Children’s Church session, that we’ve had together.  Our brains simply don’t work that way.

But I’d like to think that I can safely say that for all of you at some point, something that has happened here has transformed you somehow.  Something led you here, to this point.

That’s why, I think, the display of the 11,451 red chairs in Sarajevo so profoundly impacted me when I first read about it and saw the images.  Something got us to this point where, after we had once again slaughtered thousands of our neighbors because of some diabolical need we had convinced ourselves of, we then saw the need to make that besieged land sacred once more.  To make it holy once more.

To restore it once more.

And that is why I imagine we are here today.  To continue seeking that same restoration from profane into sacred, from broken into whole, from dying into living, from beaten down into lifted up.  It is that restoration that Jesus offered so many years ago.  And it is still offered to you today.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 28, 2014

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