July 3, 2016
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
I just spent two weeks living out of a carry-on bag, so maybe I’m just a little overly sensitive, but I find Jesus’ demands in today’s Gospel that his disciples not pack an extra pair of shoes–or even carry a bag!–a bit unreasonable. But—and maybe I’m just being defensive about my shoe collection here—I’m guessing he’s being extreme to make a point. Maybe he wants to raise this question among his friends: what is it that we really, truly need in order to follow Jesus? What is required for us to live authentic, joyful lives as followers of Jesus? What is necessary for us to serve the world? It’s like that old priority-clarifying question of “If your house were on fire and you could save two things, what would they be?”
Except this time, it seems Jesus indicates the answer to that question is not WHAT we need, but WHO. The most important part of this text to me is that Jesus sends his disciples out to do their work two by two. And what’s more, he doesn’t just send out the usual twelve—he sends out SEVENTY! Jesus is well aware that the work of ministry can get scary and lonely and sometimes even dangerous. He tells them right up front that they will be like lambs among wolves—vulnerable and defenseless. But he gives them all that they need for the job—he gives them each other.
I’m guessing that’s why many of you come to Trinity. I imagine that being connected to the people here sustains you on your faith journey. Sure the music is great and the building is beautiful, but what keeps most of us anchored here (myself included) is that here are people who will hold us up when we falter. Here we are surrounded by other flawed, beautiful children of God who sometimes get lost and sometimes help us find our way. The gift Jesus institutes in this reading from Luke is The Church—not a system of rules and practices to get right in order to attain heaven—but The Church: a group of people who will console, encourage, and challenge each other in the light of Christ. It’s true that we may be perfectly able to worship God when walking alone in the woods, but when our faith is floundering and we’ve come to the end of our proverbial ropes, what we need are people who will hold onto to us until we can regain our balance.
And Jesus, ever and always the God of abundance,doesn’t stop with 70 helpers. He also gives this critical instruction to everyone who loves and follows him: pray for MORE workers. The world is like a field that’s ripe for harvest. There are people everywhere longing for fellowship, READY to connect with a faith community, the body and blood of Jesus alive and at work in the world. People everywhere are craving a word of hope, of forgiveness, of grace. But if there aren’t enough workers to attend to 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, if you ever think you are too old or too young or too uneducated or too unprepared to do any meaningful discipleship, remember this passage: pray for more workers in the fields. You can do that. And it’s vital work.
But just what are these shoeless teams of workers to do, while they are out and about, two by two, amid ripe grain? These are basically advance parties, sent to places Jesus himself intends to visit. They are to prepare the way, to share with the people they encounter all that they have seen and heard about Jesus. They are to 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. If they are doing their jobs right, they will not be able to function independently. They will rely on their hosts to feed, house, and even pay them.
That’s a strange thing to preach on the day before the 4th of July, when the word of the day is the word independence. Here in the United States, we celebrate this day not only as a tribute to our independence from Great Britain, but also as a symbol of American individualism in general. What’s funny is that the individualism we revere never really existed.
The original Americans belonged to tribes, communal groups. The pilgrims and pioneers who settled this land after them depended on each other for survival. The colonies they eventually established were called commonwealths —meaning places where the good of any individual was inextricably linked to the good of the whole.
It reminds me of what Paul writes in the letter to the Galatians: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ…Whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” An American spin on that idea might be what Ben Franklin said as he signed the Declaration of Independence: “We must hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately.”
Of course, some people we encounter will not surrender the idea that independence is the highest ideal. And I’m not just talking about the English folks who voted for the Brexit last week. I’m talking about people who don’t perceive a vacuum in their lives that could benefit from a community, least of all 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. They do not want to be vulnerable and open, to be laid bare to the danger of being hurt (which is the price of love), nor do they desire to share pain and pleasure with folks they consider “other.”
Jesus tells us that when we meet those folks, we are not to get mired down by their resistance. Speak your piece, and then let it be. If they reject the Gospel message, shake it off. Don’t argue and fight with them. Don’t say mean things to them or about them. Instead, 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.
As we 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 journey for justice, peace, and joy, the kingdom expands. Every time we trust that God is bigger than whatever we 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. It’s critical to remember that when the wolves start howling around us.
And don’t forget that there are some people who need both a welcoming community and the news that God’s love cannot be killed, cannot die. We all know people who are aching to hear the Good News! The harvest is ripe! Fellow laborers, let’s get out there and get busy! If we can’t do it right, let’s at least make a glorious mess in the attempt! 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 over-stuffed with a bountiful, beautiful harvest of everyone and everything God loves. Free at last! Spread that Good News!