Friday, June 23, 2017

Laughing at Strangers, a Proper 6A sermon

Proper 6A, 2017
Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7)
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:8(9-23)
The Rev. Kathy Kelly Dunagan
All Saints, Norton

I was quite taken by the story yesterday (6-17-17) of 35-year-old Patrick Hale of Murfreesboro, Tennessee who was called a hero for helping police arrest two Georgia fugitives on Friday evening. Did you see this story? The fugitives escaped from prison in Georgia on Tuesday and killed two law enforcement officers before leading police on an intrastate man hunt all week and at least one high speed chase which included shooting at police. The convicts had invaded another home in the area and stolen that couple’s car after tying them up and stealing food and a car from them. They threatened the couple as they left telling them they had nothing to lose and that they expected to be dead within 24 hours. I guess that meant they were planning suicide by cop if they got cornered. They took that couple’s car and police caught up with them ensuing the high speed chase. The fugitives wrecked that car on the interstate and ran onto Mr. Hale’s property. Mr. Hale said that he was home alone with his young daughter and saw the men approaching his house on foot.  He said he loaded every gun he owned in order to be prepared to defend his home and daughter but that he then decided to flee the house in a car.
Mr. Hale’s car apparently looked like a patrol car. So, when he backed out of his garage, he came face to face with the two fugitives. After a touch and go moment, the fugitives decided to surrender. Mr. Hale apparently had been listening to all of this unfold on TV or radio. He said later of that moment this: “I realized I had two ex-cons wanted for murder who had just shot at law enforcement who had nothing to lose, and for some reason they surrendered and laid down on the concrete in my driveway. If that doesn’t make you believe in Jesus Christ, I don’t know what does.”
Now, when I read that over my tea and newspaper yesterday morning I laughed out loud.  I’m not sure why, except that it seemed silly to me to equate faith in our Lord to luck - in this case the luck that these fugitives had left their weapons behind in the wrecked car, luck that they apparently mistook Mr. Hale’s car for a patrol car, luck that 45 other officers showed up 3 minutes later, a corner the fugitives knew they were in and luck that they decided to lay down and surrender, a last minute change of plan from suicide by cop. That’s all just luck, right?
I’ve been working on practicing reconciliation intently over the past year or so. In our national situation of great division, I have been working on listening to the other, listening to that opposite opinion or both sides and trying to understand. I believe this is what we are called to do by Jesus - to seek peace, to seek unity, to seek the love of God in, among and for ALL people. I’m a pacifist.  I don’t like guns. I don’t understand why some folks want to own arsenals. I also hold a personal faith that emphasizes Grace and mystery.  I am usually suspicious of Christians who practice a faith that emphasizes personal salvation and prosperity. But in this practice I have come to understand that these other perspectives are not necessarily bad theology nor are they necessarily bad practice. 
So I decided to listen to more of Mr. Hale’s story and to discern why his statement made me laugh. As I learned more about his story I came to think a bit differently about Mr. Hale’s statement in the long run.
The initial news story from the Associated Press said that Mr. Hale held the men at gun point during that 3 minutes of waiting for police and that made him a hero. That story went out fast and was all over the television news.  Mr. Hale held a press conference a few hours later in order to clarify some things. Primarily, Mr. Hale wanted it to be known that he did not see himself as a hero, that the press had put an untrue spin on his story because he did not hold those men at gun point. He had loaded all of his own guns, he had prepared, he had one weapon with him in the car. But he decided to take his daughter away from harms way instead of getting into a shooting match.  He was in that car backing slowly away from the men on foot hoping to keep his distance and flee to safety while keeping an eye on their next move. He answered some questions at that press conference and said that he had not thought of reward money only the need to protect his home and family. He talked about how he had prayed for safety as he made his get away and he repeated his sentiment verbatim that the way things turned out left him more certain of his belief in Jesus Christ.
His wife beside him, his little girl was apparently behind the podium as he made this statement. You could hear her inquisitive little voice and her parents gently hushing her as he set the record straight but you couldn’t see her. At his last answer, to the question of what he was thinking during his ordeal and why he made the decisions he made he lift up the toddler in his arms and said, “This is why.” 
This is a wonderful story. It is a wonderful story for Fathers Day. A wonderful story of a man driven to protect his family who prayed for God to intervene and keep them safe. In the end he was grateful that no violence came to his home or his family. There is nothing wrong with that.  This is also a story that goes well with today’s lessons which are at root about Father Abraham, the father of the Abrahamic religions, the prototype of all believers. These are stories of the beginnings of the multitude of God’s people, the blessings that come from being hospitable to strangers. But the theme here that I want to lift up is our identity as Christians. What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? What does it mean to believe?
As we begin ordinary time this year, I think it is important to stop and check out where we are in our story telling, and in our story living.  At this point in the season of the church we have come from waiting on God in Advent through the joy of the Incarnation at Christmas, through the solemnity of Lent through the joy of the Resurrection of Easter and also through the mystery of the Ascension. At the beginning of Lent I challenged you to contemplate what it means to be this community rather than focusing only on our individual sins, to focus on our collective repentance, our collective discernment of God’s call for us to mission.  Remember that?
Well, today I want to challenge you to consider what it means to be Christian in the first place and to begin new ways of discerning what to do about that.
I laughed at this stranger’s story because he seemed to have an understanding of Christianity that seemed silly to me. One focused more on the prosperity of the individual than the mission of the community. But as Joe and I discussed Mr. Hale’s statement over lunch yesterday, we were able to name multiple times in our lives when we were frightened and feared even for our lives. At such times one is apt to pray for safety and when the crisis has passed one is also moved to pray prayers of thanksgiving.  Why not indeed praise God at such moments with clarity of belief in Jesus and belief in salvation?
I once counseled a man who told me that he was “raised in a very conservative Christian home and church.”  I’m not sure what that meant exactly, but it was something he went on to tell me that he wanted to leave in the past, something harmful in some way, something he wanted to “recover from,” as if his faith practice had been like an addiction.
He told me that the fathers of this past church experience told him that the key to faith is to be able to claim, on a personal level of faith the phrase “I know, that I know, that I know.”  Then he told me that he had come to believe, in his nearly thirty years, that he more values the mystery of Grace than a theology of certainty and that he was struggling to learn how not to “know” so much.
Well, I figured I knew all about what he meant by living into a faith built on God’s Grace and mystery. But I was left pondering what it would be like to personally claim the phrase, “I know that I know, that I know.”
I imagine for those first followers, who actually witnessed the Resurrected Lord and the Ascension of our Lord, those men and women who were so blessed, who didn’t have televisions, iPads, laptops, or Google. I imagine for them it was merely a memory.  They knew that they knew that they knew because they stood there and heard Him in person ask God in prayer “That they may know you, the only true God.”
At the beginning of his earthly life, when he was first conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ humbled himself by becoming fully human, without losing his divinity.  In the Ascension, when his life on earth came to an end (not in death, which was not the end, but in exaltation) Jesus Christ was glorified, without losing his humanity.  This has profound implications for the rest of us, for what it means to be a Christian but even more so for what it means to be human. (previous paragraph quoted from here)
But my question is not what to do in order to feel closer to a God who seems to drift away, but how it is that we experience the God who knows us – God, the God, who is and always was right there at home in our hearts.
Whenever I preach myself into this particular corner, I tend to pull out my favorite Christmas movie.  I know.  It’s hokey and there’s 190 days left until Christmas, but I love the story of George Bailey who get’s to live out for us the fantasy of the quintessential second chance of his Wonderful Life.  
George Bailey prayed, in a moment of desperation, that he wished he’d never been born.  He is awarded this wish.  He then spends the next few hours in the Scrooge-like hell of encountering all of his family and friends to whom he is now a stranger.  No one knows him.  No one loves him.  No one accounts for him and he ends up in trouble.  It is in the penultimate scene in which his second prayer – to live again – lifts this curse and he encounters his friend Bert the police officer, when George finally knows the gift of being known. Bert the cop finds the lost George on a bridge staring at the icy water below.
Bert: [shouts] Hey, George! George! You all right? Hey, what's the matter?
George Bailey: Now get outta here, Bert, or I'll hit you again! Get outta here! 
Bert: What the sam hill you yellin' for, George? 
George Bailey: You... [suddenly stunned]  George ? . . . Bert? Do you know me?
Bert: Know you? Huh. You kiddin'? I've been looking all over town trying to find you. I saw your car plowed into that tree down there and I thought maybe you - hey, your mouth's bleeding. Are you sure you're all right? 
If you’ve seen the movie, you know the rest.  If you haven’t seen the movie, you probably have at least seen the famous last clip of a joyful family gathered for their prodigal celebration.  You know the part where George holds his youngest little girl in his arms as she plays with the bells on the tree.
It gets me every time.  I watch this 60 year old movie every Christmas and cry every time!  But it’s not watching George Bailey run through the snowy streets of his beloved home town, nor the Christmas carols, not even the rejoining of all those relationships you’ve just spent ninety minutes watching break apart.  No, what I love about this movie is just this scene, when this lost soul hears a friend call him by name.  He is known, he is found, and so he knows, that he knows, that he knows.
In my retelling of this story today, I am thinking of fugitives running from past sins and wrecked cars and lost people desperate for some grace. And of Sarah laughing at the gifts of strangers. And of being sent out out “like sheep into the midst of wolves,” maybe taking on the risk of getting lost too. Maybe Mr. Hale was not the only one saved on Friday night. Maybe salvation and protection and mystery and Grace and even certainty are ours for the receiving.
On the other hand -  it’s not just through sentiment that we know and are known.  Faith in God comes out in action as discipleship, not sentimentality.  Staying home watching exciting news stories or sappy movies is not a celebration of the incarnation, resurrection and ascension any more than sitting here now without considering what to do when we leave here.  The reason I am so deeply moved by lost George Bailey shouting out the line, “You know me, Bert?” is because it is my connection, my hermeneutic, to the larger story and joy that God knows me.  What’s your connection to the story? Who are we as Christians? How are we best known?
We gather in this place to practice our faith in these sacraments and traditions. We long for others, for so many others to join us. We look for ways to join them. And in the end we find that we are all the same, all afraid of violence and all seeking safety and salvation. We are already one.
And we know, that we know, that we know.

Amen.

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