"Amid the 'Bombs Bursting in Air’"

July 2, 1995 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Luke 9:51-62

["O say can you see by the dawn's early light..."]

Amid our festive national celebrations, it's easy to forget that "the rocket's red glare" and "bombs bursting in air," when experienced first hand, is terrifying. There are few veterans out there, ones who actually have been in combat, that are willing to describe the harsh reality of war. They'd rather forget it. My father never talked about it with me. Karen's grandfather was the same. Both were in the army in W.W. II.

Holidays such as July 4th are somewhat awkward in a church which professes a peace position. This morning I don't want to glory in war, but I do wish to remember what happened 50 years ago, and in so doing to honor those who went through that difficult time in our nation's and our world's history. On this date in 1945, war in Europe was officially over. On May 7th, Germany had surrendered to allied forces. The next day was proclaimed "Victory in Europe" or "VE Day." It was not until August, though, that events drew to a close in the Pacific. On July 2nd, they were still burying the dead on the island of Okinawa. Ahead lay a possible invasion of Japan, and a decision over whether or not to drop the atomic bomb. In many ways, our nation still has not made peace with that decision. The Japanese, even more so, have yet to make peace with their own wartime atrocities. Nevertheless, on August 14, 1945, following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered.

For those of you living then, what was it like 50 years ago? When I asked Chas. Barringer where he was on this date, he said he was in Europe waiting to come home. My father was in Dachau, Germany helping Jewish prisoners at a concentration camp return to life outside the barbed wire. That's one thing Dad did talk about. We still have pictures he took of that terrible place, and the people who survived. It's one thing we should never stop talking about, for there are those who, today, deny that Hitler's final solution ever happened. My children will know the truth. They will also know that our Lord and Savior was himself a Jew.

This morning's gospel lesson begins what some call "Luke's Travel Narrative." For the next nine chapters, Jesus does not wandering aimlessly around the countryside of Israel, preaching and teaching about the Kingdom of God. Rather, he purposely aims toward Jerusalem. As Luke puts it, Jesus "set his face to go" there. For, it is in Jerusalem that he was "to be taken up," a phrase that simply describes his arrest and trial, his crucifixion and death, his resurrection from the grave, and his ascension into heaven. Reading this gospel now, we know this "after the fact," just like we know today what was going to happen 50 years ago on this date. Those living through it in the present tense, though, were not blessed with such knowledge.

On the way to Jerusalem the disciples of Jesus encountered resistance in a Samaritan town. Those villagers did not receive our Lord. Their refusal balances our "Good Samaritan" image of people. Here are Samaritans who are no better than the scribes and pharisees Jesus spoke of later in his parable, the ones who walked by a man in trouble on the other side of the road. These Samaritans were not open to good news. Perhaps they only saw Jesus as a Jew, a member of a race (not that far distant from their own) which they hated. Remember, the feelings were mutual between these peoples.

Lest we miss the implication, though, notice that Jesus sent his disciples to that village in the first place. He was not intending to limit his message to his own people. Again, with hindsight knowledge we know that this gospel of his was intended for everyone. But this village, like many people we know, was not open to receive it. Good News does not force its way into anyone's heart. The door only opens from within.

Reacting to those Samaritans slamming the door in their faces, James and John wanted revenge. "Lord," they asked, "do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" I recognize that impulse, do you? When someone cuts me off on the freeway, I reach for my badge - wishing I could pull them over and give them a ticket. That's a mild example. We all could probably touch that inner rage pretty easily, couldn't we? My Dad described the difficulty of preventing allied soldiers from shooting captured German prison guards once they saw the horror of what happened to the Jews at Dachau. If there was a reason to command hell fire from heaven, wouldn't that be it? However, such is not Jesus' way.

To his disciples outside the Samaritan village, it says "he turned and rebuked them." Later, he would instruct them simply to wipe the dust off their feet when not welcomed. There's an interesting addition that some old manuscripts have at this point, an amendment that, though it isn't in our present Bibles, captures what Jesus may have said when rebuking his disciples. You'll find these words in a footnote at the bottom of the page: "You do not know what spirit you are of," Jesus told them, "for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them."

What follows in Luke's gospel are a series of statements about what it means to follow Jesus, whether it be on his journey to Jerusalem so long ago, or on his present journey toward the Jerusalems of our world, those places in the human community and in the human heart where he must "be taken up."

"I will follow you wherever you go," we might say in words that echo his disciples'. Jesus replies, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head." In other words, "I am totally dependent on the hospitality of others; are you willing to be?" Even when doors are slammed shut in your face? Even when there are no "Good Samaritans?" Even when their welcome is spelled "hate," "violence," "persecution?" Are you really willing to follow?

"Lord, I want to follow you, but first let me go and bury my father," we might say along with those first disciples. "Let the dead bury their own dead," Jesus says; "but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." In other words, "Loyalty to me takes precedence over your most primary family obligations." Are you still willing to follow? I have to think of Karen's grandfather, who left three young children behind when he went to war. Before going, he drove the family car into the garage (Grammy never has driven) and put it up on blocks. Karen's Dad became the "father" for the duration of the war, which could've been a permanent assignment had Pappy not returned like many others. You better believe there was much joy in taking that car down off the blocks 50 years ago. There was also much pain as a "stranger" (in many ways) came home after being gone so long. Should our allegiance to Jesus be any less, if not more so, than such allegiance to our nation?

"I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home," we might say just like those disciples way back when. And Jesus says to us like he said to them, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." His words take us back to the prophet Elijah when he called Elisha to become his disciple, and eventually take his place. Elisha was out in the field plowing with 12 oxen. When Elijah said "come," Elisha replied "Let me first kiss my father and mother, and then I will follow you." And that's just what he did (1 Kings 19:19-21). With that in mind, Jesus is telling us, "I expect more from you than Elijah asked of Elisha." Are you still willing to follow?

Perhaps walking with our face looking in one direction and our hands moving in another also speaks about clarity of vision. When I talk with my elders about the big war, I sense folks found it easier then to know what direction they were going. One benefit of war is a sense of purpose. Of course, one casualty of war's end is a loss of this vision... There's something else I want to recall this morning, a memory that does directly relate to this peace church. 50 years ago, the war and its end was the fertile ground out of which grew some of our church's boldest steps in following Jesus. With the example of conscientious objectors who served in non-combatant work during the war, the young people in our church 50 years ago heard the call to help rebuild lives torn down by war. The Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, the Heifer Project, and Brethren Volunteer Service all came into being at this time. This was one of our denomination's most creative periods, a time of great vision, built on the ashes of W.W.II.

Our nation, as well as our church, has been floundering lately without a clear sense of purpose and direction. Now, in addressing this problem, it's important to remember the events of 50 years ago, when the way seemed more apparent. But, you know, we can't go back to that time of clarity. We can honor the dead but, in many ways, the dead must now bury their own. Instead, we need to face "today" as we follow Jesus. He still calls us, you know, over and above the "rockets red glare" and "bombs bursting in air."ou see, there are many places, today, where those words elicit fear, be they cities like Sarajevo or (even) Baltimore. Likewise, there are many families (sometimes our own) where "the dawn's early light" reveals a tattered flag from a night of conflict. Jesus calls us to these Jerusalems, and many others, to share some good news: "God's kingdom is right on your doorstep!" (Lk. 10:9).

What Jerusalem is Jesus beckoning you toward today? My friends, lift up your chin and face forward. Are you willing to follow? As you step out, always remember this: you're not traveling

1995Peter L. Haynes

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