Sixth Sunday after Pentecost 2008 (Proper 9A)

A Sermon from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, New York
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector on July 6, 2008 (Proper 9A)

The word “mission” means different things to different people. A military man would think of patrols, ambushes, raids, and the like. It evokes danger, fear, adrenaline, and conquest. An infantryman might immediately think of a nine-man squad on a search and destroy mission. A general, looking at things on a more macro level, would probably think of a mission as the entire operation: as in the Iraq mission.

But in the church, “mission” has an entirely different connotation. In the gospels we hear of the “mission of the seventy” – we just had that reading a few weeks ago. Jesus sends out 70 disciples, two by two, to preach the good news of the kingdom, to heal the sick, and give sight to the blind in his name. It’s not so much seek and destroy as it is seek and give life. It’s about the mission field rather than the battlefield. And then there’s the Great Commission, the resurrected Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to spread his teachings to all the nations of the world.

Our president has taken a lot of grief for that photo op on the USS Abraham Lincoln where he prematurely declared “Mission accomplished.” Five years and over 4,000 American war dead later, not to mention tens of thousands of Iraqis killed, the war continues. I’m not going to pile on the president from this pulpit except to say that it highlights the gap between the military concept of mission and the mission of the church. 

The mission of the church is never accomplished, at least not in this world. The mission of the church is ongoing. And it is certainly never accomplished through warfare. The mission of the church, simply stated, is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” And it is accomplished not with heavy artillery and fixed bayonets but through prayer, worship, and the proclamation of peace, love, and justice.

I don’t preach politics from the pulpit very often. This doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions on the issues of the day, quite the contrary. But I feel strongly that my primary responsibility is to preach the gospel and let that stand as a witness over and against the actions of a broken world. So I’m not going to tell you what to think about the war in Iraq. I’m not going to tell you how to vote in November. I don’t feel that it’s my place to do so. But I will tell you that the current climate of carnage is not consistent with the mission of Jesus Christ. Not because I’m a public policy analyst or a military leader but because I’m a priest. And the destruction of human life is never in harmony with the gospel of Christ. It may be a reality of the human condition but it’s decidedly not why Jesus came into the world and died upon a cross.

This morning, on this Fourth of July weekend, we’re in the unique position of celebrating our country’s heritage while being cognizant of national policies that are not congruent with the life of faith. And this in-between position seems to resonate with the in-between world in which we live. We stand between the first coming of Christ and the second. The vision of the kingdom of God on earth has been articulated but has not yet been realized. And thus it remains a dream. We have not achieved the moment when “spears are turned into pruning hooks” and “nation shall not lift up sword against nation.” And in the current climate the contrast between the dream and the reality is striking.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t work for peace and justice in our own day. That doesn’t mean that we can’t open our hearts, and minds, and voices to do our part to realize the vision of the kingdom. Perhaps that’s what we as people of faith are called to do in the midst of the brutal reality that surrounds us.

There’s been a lot of hay being made over Barack Obama’s lack of an American flag lapel pin. If this is the issue upon which this election is decided I think we’re all in trouble. The not-so-subtle undertone is how much of a patriot is Obama? How much of a real American (read white, “family values” Christian) is he? Many churches have had a similar issue concerning flags and their placement. During World War II most churches put American flags in their sanctuaries. During the Vietnam era this became quite the point of contention for many congregations. I don’t know how this played out around here. But I brought out the American flag and an Episcopal Church flag for this morning’s service. They’ve been holed up in the choir room for who knows how many years. And I thought they should see the light of day on this holiday weekend before heading back to the choir room after the service. 

The basic issue here is that symbols are powerful and they help shape our identity. I believe we are Christians first and Americans second. This whole business of metaphorically wrapping the flag around the cross makes me very nervous. And, while he was talking about money and God, Jesus did tell us we can’t serve two masters. Before going on to say in reference to paying taxes, “give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and to God what is God’s.” The conflict between church and state isn’t exactly new. 

But still many of Jesus’ early followers misunderstood his mission. They naturally felt he would come as other great kings of the time, with a vast army to overthrow the ruling authorities and usher in a new kingdom with military might. But Jesus came not wearing armor and riding a great steed. He came riding a donkey, as our reading from the prophet Zechariah foretells, and preaching peace. His was a different kind of mission. A mission of mercy and love and salvation. A mission to make God known to the world.

As long as the cross is the primary symbol to which we pledge allegiance it’s wonderful to enjoy fireworks on the Fourth of July, to sing the national anthem with vigor at baseball games, and to give thanks for the freedoms bestowed upon us as Americans. As Christians we can hold onto hope. The hope of the empty tomb, the hope of resurrection, the hope of Christ’s presence even in the face of despair. And it is the hope of the future kingdom that compels us to continue the mission of the church by preaching peace, most especially in the midst of war.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2008

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