Sunday, December 24, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "Angels," Genesis 18:1-10

Genesis 18:1-10

The Lord appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre while he sat at the entrance of his tent in the day’s heat. 2 He looked up and suddenly saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from his tent entrance to greet them and bowed deeply. 3 He said, “Sirs, if you would be so kind, don’t just pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought so you may wash your feet and refresh yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me offer you a little bread so you will feel stronger, and after that you may leave your servant and go on your way—since you have visited your servant.” They responded, “Fine. Do just as you have said.”

6 So Abraham hurried to Sarah at his tent and said, “Hurry! Knead three seahs of the finest flour and make some baked goods!” 7 Abraham ran to the cattle, took a healthy young calf, and gave it to a young servant, who prepared it quickly. 8 Then Abraham took butter, milk, and the calf that had been prepared, put the food in front of them, and stood under the tree near them as they ate. 9 They said to him, “Where’s your wife Sarah?” And he said, “Right here in the tent.” 10 Then one of the men said, “I will definitely return to you about this time next year. Then your wife Sarah will have a son!” (Common English Bible)

“Escape Routes: How the Christmas Story Points Us Forward,” Week Four

I am sure many, if not most or all, of you remember the terrorist attack on the Portland MAX train earlier this year, when a white supremacist harassed a pair of young women of color, one of them Muslim, and a group of men intervened, and the white supremacist stabbed two of them to death and severely wounded the third.

The outpouring of support—not just emotional or spiritual, but also financial—to the families of the two murdered men, Taliesin Myrrdin Namkai-Meche and Rick Best, for funeral expenses and family obligations was heartening and faith-inspiring to behold. Literally over one million dollars was raised in their names. But that fundraising lagged far behind aid for the two teenaged women whose harassment had sparked the entire episode of violence.

That is, until the surviving man, Micah Fletcher, made a very public plea to those following his story and giving to him to instead give to the two young women, making it clear that they, too, were victims of an attack and that our collective white savior complex that played out after the attack (to use his words, conveyed via NPR) largely neglected what *they* might need as victims of hate.

After Micah’s plea, donations for the young women more than quadrupled, from a rate of 15 per hour to 70 per hour, more than one per minute, and the total amount raised nearly quadrupled, from $30,000 to $118,000. More angels emerged from the woodwork to make that miracle happen.

We unknowingly entertain angels when we choose to let people in instead of turn them away, Hebrews says. And as we have arrived at Christmas Eve, how we entertain those angels—with real, tangible acts of support—is as important a lesson as any for this year’s Christmas Eve in particular.

This has been a new sermon series for a new church year—while the calendar year doesn’t turn over for another couple of weeks, the church year begins with the season of Advent, a preparatory time set aside for us to live out the exhortation of John the Baptist, who, quoting Isaiah, encourages us to prepare the way of the Lord and to make straight His path.

We look at our own path to Jesus and typically want it to be as straight and as easy as possible as well—a simple beaming up to the mother ship when the time comes would do for us, never mind the fact that the journey is what defines the destination.

So how can we prepare a way when we are trying to escape the world upon which that path rests? Can we instead escape the hell we create in this world and this life, confident that our doing so veers us away from hell in the next?

That is the premise of a book by Johann Christoph Arnold, a pastor in the Christian communitarian church, the Bruderhof, who sadly passed away this past spring. Just before he passed, I had settled upon his book, Escape Routes, as the template for this year’s Advent sermon series, and I hope to do that justice.

We began this series three weeks ago with a passage from Pastor Arnold’s chapter entitled, “Success,” and moved on two weeks to another passage from his chapter entitled, “Suffering.” Last week, we arrived at a passage from his chapter called, “Rebirth, and finally, we cap off this series with a passage from the last chapter of his book, “Angels:”

Surely hell and heaven are more than subjective states of mind—more than handy metaphors for anger and love, discord and harmony, pleasure and pain…

For most of us, however, it is the hells and heavens of the human heart that we must contend with, because that is where we experience their force. Few people are granted more than an inkling of the vast worlds that exist beyond our own, and in my experience, they tend to be reticent, reverent, and filled with awe.

That is one reason I have not focused on these things in this book. Another is my discomfort with the curiosity that leads to the sensationalization of demons and angels and the like. Besides, I believe that since God set us into a material world, we ought to live in it fully—in the here and now. Even if our present life is meant to be a preparation for a better life to come, there is no point in frittering away out days worrying about the future, or our chances for eternal blessedness. Jesus taught us, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and that simple command holds more than a life’s work.

It may seem a trifle odd to hear this—and to be preaching from, of all things, Genesis, on Christmas Eve, but I promise you that this all a part of the story that God has written. Angels appear to foretell not only the birth of Jesus—to Joseph in Matthew’s Gospel and to Mary in Luke’s—but also to foretell the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah here in Genesis 18. And, the birth of Isaac comes about because Abraham and Sarah have found favor with God, as Mary had in being impregnated with Jesus.

Here, though, the details are a bit more fleshed out. In the Christmas narratives, Gabriel simply appears to Joseph (in Matthew) and Mary (in Luke). Here in Genesis, angels appear as strangers to Abraham and Sarah, who unhesitatingly lavish the divine ciphers with a feast fit for the wealthiest of kings: veal (in the form of a fatted calf), Sarah’s finest baked goods, butter, and milk.

It is the sort of meal you serve to a close family friend or relative for a special occasion, not to a group of strangers simply because they happened to show up at your doorstep.

We might call that Christmas charity today, but there of course was no such thing back then—and so it would be wrong for us to read that into it. Rather, this was in keeping with the high premium ancient Israelite values placed upon hospitality toward strangers at the time. It was an interaction with the divine that, to use Arnold’s words, filled Abraham and Sarah with reverence and awe.

Which, ultimately, is what today and tomorrow are meant to do for us as well. Open our hearts to the vulnerable stranger that is the newborn Christ and His parents, just as Abraham and Sarah opened theirs to a trio of men who, too, were the Lord.

Angels appear in unexpected places, in unexpected ways, and in unexpected people. The paradox, then, is that we should expect such angels, but I promise you that they, and the God who sent them, will always find ways to confound our limitedness. The best ways we can respond to them are the ways of Abraham and Sarah, of the shepherds in the field, of the Magi sent by Herod: with not only care, but with sacrificial gifts for the God who sent them, and sends us, forth to proclaim the Good News.

Shepherds. Not pastors or priests or clergy. Shepherds. You. All of you.

You are to proclaim that Good News.

The Good News that we are, at long last, arriving in Bethlehem.

The Good News that born unto us, all of us, is a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

It’s time, y’all. It’s finally time. Let’s welcome for us a Messiah.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 24, 2017

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