July 7, 2013
This week our nation celebrated Independence Day. Independence is deeply cherished ideal in this country, politically and personally. When people confide in me their deep fears, one that pops up frequently is the fear of losing independence— having to give up their driver’s license or move out of their homes, fear of needing assistance—medically, financially, or emotionally. There is a great trepidation about imposing on others, of not wanting to “be a burden” to friends or family. People want to remain independent as long as possible. It is considered somehow shameful to need anything or anyone.
In the U.S. we tend to assume that once a child reaches late teens or early 20’s he or she will earn his or her own living, and pursue his or her own interests. When grown children or elderly relatives move back to the family home there is often a collective sense of shame–as if the person who has returned home has failed by not living the American dream of independence. In its extreme, our desire for independence threatens public institutions—parks, libraries, the arts, schools.
For most of the world, this holy grail of independence is a mystery. In many nations, extended families of several generations often live with or near each other. Often there is a community well for water, and sometimes community farm animals. There are well-used modes of public transportation, and it is not uncommon to find nieces and nephews supporting elderly aunts and uncles, or brothers and sisters sending one another’s children to college. When I was a teacher, I discovered over and over again that my Asian, African, and Latino students tended to prefer collaborating on group projects over individual tasks. American children tended to prefer succeeding independently.
Of course, both independence and interdependence are important. Let’s not forget St. Paul’s admonition last week: “for freedom Christ has set you free. Don’t let yourselves submit again to the yoke of slavery.” On the other hand, today’s Gospel lesson cannot be understood if we don’t acknowledge that it comes from a culture that valued interdependence highly.
In 1st century Palestine (and to some degree, the present day Middle East too) no one conceived of him or herself as independent. The culture was tribal; it was assumed that no one could exist apart and separate from everyone else. Think of that next time you hear Matthew quote Jesus saying: “Where two or three are gathered, there am I in the midst of them.” Faith was not and is not a private matter–it was and is a public one. Church requires at least two or three. Then God is present. Early followers of Jesus referred to themselves as followers of the Way. The Way was not a private road. It was a public street.
Jesus, the Way, as you know, traveled with a group. He ate and slept and worked with others all the time. In today’s lesson from Luke, when he sends out others to represent him, he sends them out two by two. Why? Because he knows that they will need each other. The work of ministry can get scary and lonely and it’s sometimes even dangerous. It is not easy to follow the Way. Followers of Jesus will be like lambs among wolves. But at least they won’t be alone. And because he knows that what he is asking is hard, Jesus doesn’t send just his usual twelve. He sends 70 others too! If they are going to get the work done, it’s gonna have to be a group project.
Not only that, but Jesus gives this critical instruction to people who love and follow him: pray for MORE workers. The world is like a field that’s ripe for harvest, he says. There are people everywhere READY to connect with a faith community, the body and blood of Jesus. But if there aren’t enough workers to collect the ripe grain, it will rot in the field. If you ever feel like there’s nothing you have to offer God or the church, remember this passage, and pray for more workers in the fields. It’s a vital responsibility.
And what are these workers to do, while they are out and about two by two, amid the ripe grain? These are the advance parties; their job to get people ready for God to come into their midst (notice that all the places where they are sent are places Jesus himself intends to visit!). They are to go where God sends them and share with the people there all that they have seen and heard about Jesus. They are to go and tell their stories about how God-with-us has changed the world—how God has changed them.
But they aren’t to lay it out like a threat and then move on. They are to create reciprocal, interdependent relationships with the people they encounter.
Sometimes Christians come across like know-it-alls. We have the truth and we’re here to impart it. That doesn’t seem to be what Jesus suggests. In a scenario like that one, one party has complete dominance over the encounter. But Jesus makes sure that the disciples are not in total control. If they are doing their job right, they will not be able to function independently. They will rely on their hosts to feed and pay them. They aren’t even allowed to bring an extra pair of shoes along (gasp!).
These messengers of God cannot get too cocky about having all the answers or being self-sufficient. As they minister to others, they will be ministered to. Real relationships require a balance of power. Everyone needs everyone else.
Just like us. I need you and you need me. You need a pastor who will administer the sacraments and provide for the preaching and teaching of God’s word. And in ways none of us really understand, the gifts that I have are specifically needed right here, right now, in this time and place. It’s not a one-sided arrangement. I need you, not only because you pay my salary. My spirit needs you. Your ideas and humor and willingness to be Christ to and for the world give me life. If I were sent out into the world alone with the formidable task of preparing everyone to meet God, I would be overwhelmed and tired all the time. I cannot tell you how much I love Trinity, how inspired I am by your hospitality and your eagerness to care for and learn from each other.
Meanwhile, according to Chamber of Commerce statistics, 42% of our neighbors do not have a church family. That’s a lot of people who aren’t bonded with a community of faith. That’s lots and lots of people who are not regularly reminded they are made in the image of God, that they are forgiven for all the ways they do not live into that image. On my own, I could not minister to all those people in need of wholeness and healing and hope. On your own you could not reach all those hungry people. Jesus knows this. So we have been sent to each other, not just for our mutual enjoyment–though surely that too–but also to be partners in ministering in the ripe field around us.
When the 70 came back from spreading the good news of Jesus’ love throughout the countryside, they were very excited. Never before had anyone trusted them with so much power and authority as Jesus had. Jesus delights with them that life-threatening ideas and teachings—which he calls “snakes and scorpions”—dissolved when the love of God was proclaimed. But he cautions them not to get too cocky. It isn’t your own goodness that brought about this change, you know. It’s God’s power. The kingdom of God grows because the whole community prays and works together. We don’t fulfill God’s dream independently by being good or doing good.
The relationships we build provide us with gifts and shelter we may not even know we need. As we gratefully receive whatever our neighbors give us, as we offer to them our very selves, the kingdom of God comes near. As we share God’s calling to be a movement for justice, peace, and joy, the kingdom expands. Every time someone else comes to trust that God is bigger than whatever they fear, it is as if Satan topples off his chair and crashes down to earth again and again. There is no power stronger than the power of God’s love. Don’t forget that when the wolves start howling around you, OK?
Of course, some people will not want to consider that they belong to God, or that they need a community of faith. There are always some who cannot allow for the possibility that they need anything beyond what they can provide for themselves. Some people cannot imagine that independence has its limitations. They do not want to be vulnerable and open, to share pain and pleasure with folks they consider enemies. Jesus tells us that when we meet those folks, we are not to get mired down by their resistance. Shake it off. Don’t argue and fight with them. Don’t say mean things to them or about them. Come to the table. Drink a little wine, taste a little bread, splash a little water on your face. Say “the kingdom of God has come near” and move on.
There are many other people aching to hear the Good News! The harvest is ripe! Fellow laborers, let’s get busy! If we can’t do it right, let’s at least do it wrong! Whatever we do, we can’t stand by idly and watch the grain rot in the fields. No one cares about a referee’s win-lose record. Martin Luther once said, “Sin boldly, but believe more boldly still.” The kingdom of heaven is not a gated community. It is a granary filled with a bountiful, beautiful harvest of everyone and everything God loves, together at last. Let us spread that Good News!
~Pastor Susan Schneider