The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (June 14, 2020)

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Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“This here battle ain’t got no rear!”

Pentecost 2 – June 14, 2010

Texts: Genesis 18:1-15 (21:1-7); Matthew 9:35-10:8

“. . .  he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless. . . ” (Matthew 9:36)

If you’ve ever been through Chattanooga, TN, you know that Lookout Mountain looms over the city. On Nov. 24, 1863 one of the most interesting battles of the Civil War took place on that mountain. The Confederates had artillery on top of the mountain, preventing the Union from using the river for supply shipments and troop movements. The Federals were determined to silence those cannons. On the morning of the attack, a deep fog settled over the mountain. The two armies kept out-flanking and circling each other in the mist. The story is told that a general happened upon a severely wounded private and ordered him to “get to the rear,” out of harm’s way. The private saluted and replied, “Yes Sir.” A bit later, the general happened upon the private again, “Son, I told you to get to the rear!” Again, the private said, “Yes sir!”  A third time, the same general came across the same wounded private. “Son, why haven’t you gone to the rear?” The private saluted, and said, “Begging the general’s pardon sir, this here battle ain’t got no rear!”

They were harassed and helpless.     This here battle ain’t got no rear!

These are apt descriptions of our lives in the first half of 2020. The year started with the impeachment trial of the president. This was followed by Covid -19 going from a rumor to a reality in record time.  The weekend of March 8, I was in Florida, attending a spring training baseball game and preaching at a friend’s crowded church. By the following Saturday I was back in North Carolina, the church I attend was closed and we were sheltering in place.  We’ve had three months of fear, anxiety, uncertainty, working at home, political wrangling, etc. etc. In the midst of the pandemic in which over a 100,00 people have died, the economy tanked, a record number of people are out of work, and then . . .George Floyd died at the hands of the police on the streets of Minneapolis. Since then, the United States, and the world, has erupted in protests and violence, and confusion, and arguments, and, and, and . . .

We are feeling harassed and helpless because this here battle ain’t got no rear!

Abraham and Sarah knew a little bit about fighting a battle that had no rear.  Reading through their life story in Genesis, one discovers the reality that life as God’s chosen ones – the Holy One’s “Holy Couple – was not an easy job. I’m pretty sure that when the LORD said to them,

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1), trials and tribulations were not what they expected.

They had famine, life as refugees in Egypt, major conflict with the Pharaoh, they got rich, then they got poor, then a major falling out with their nephew Lot, then they had to go to war to rescue Lot,. All the while no child came, and they had no promised land. Add to this the domestic strife and bad decisions, including having a son by another woman and then the conflict in the home, and, and, and . . .  

Abraham and Sarah were feeling harassed and helpless because they were in a lifetime battle that had no real resting place, no rear!

As our Genesis text opens, a weary Abraham sits in the shade of a tree outside his tent. Sarah is in the tent and his workers are tending the sheep. Three strangers approach. Given his life story, one could understand if Abraham were to be a bit wary of these folks. But he is not.  He reaches out to them with traditional hospitality: rest, shade, water, food.  My house is your house, my food is your food. We, the readers, know that this is a visit from the LORD, but Abraham does not.  He just responds to their need with his help.

Our reading from Matthew begins with a line repeated from Chapter 4: 23 “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.” After this line is said in chapter 4, Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount, and then he personally goes out doing all those things – preaching, and healing and confronting evil.  In todays lesson from Chapter 9, after this line is said, Jesus looks out and sees the crowd “helpless and harassed.” But,instead of going out to help them by himself, this time he gathers his disciples, (10:1) which means “students,” and transforms them into apostles, which means “those who are sent out.” He calls them by name and tells them to go out with the message of the kingdom, with the power and imperative to cure ills and overcome evil.  “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure, the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.'”  (Matthew 10:8)

We are feeling harassed and helpless because this here battle ain’t got no rear!

We – the church, the disciples of Christ, the followers of the Way of the Cross, the apostles of the good news of the kingdom – are feeling a bit harassed, helpless, and battle-worn right now.  The question is “What are we going to do about it?”  How are we to respond to the battle that rages around us, the battle that has no rear? We could “hunker down” in soul as well as in body, we could isolate ourselves not only from the danger of disease but also from the disruption in our society.  Or – we could learn from Abraham and Sarah, and from Jesus and the apostles.

Even though we are feeling harassed and helpless in the midst of this unending battle, we are called to remain open to both the problems of the world around us and to the mission of God given us in our baptism, when the LORD God called us by name and sent us out to proclaim the kingdom.  Like Abraham and Sarah, we must find ways to practice hospitality, even to those we don’t know or don’t understand. We are called to practice open hearts and open minds – keeping open the doors of our spirits even when the actual doors of our church building remain closed for safety’s sake.  We are called to reach out to those in need, going to those who are “helpless and harassed,” doing all we can to bring aid, comfort, and the compassion of our LORD.  And we are called to speak out against evil. To raise our voice with others against cruelty and injustice, wherever we see it raise its ugly head in our world.  In a world that is harassed and helpless, we are called to step up and step out – to bring comfort and confrontation in equal measure, because the love of God in Christ both compels us and carries us as we go.

Amen and amen. 

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