The Rev. Joseph P. Peters-Mathews
Proper 9, C
Lk. 10.1-11, 16-20
7 July 2013
St. Paul’s, Oakland
In the name of God in whose name we are baptized: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I have a secret for you, church, but it really shouldn’t be a secret, and it’s about who these passages are about. Yes, the lesson from the Hebrew scriptures is about Naaman and the lesson from Luke is about the 70. But with every passage of scripture proclaimed on a Sunday morning I like to use one of my step-dad’s tests when people come knocking on his door to try to recruit him: the so what test.
We’re hearing these texts on a Sunday — so what? Why? This season after Pentecost is used to strengthen disciples in ministries we learned about during Eastertide. So these passages are about…us. Every biblical text is about the story itself, and if there weren’t some timeless truth in it for us today the Church wouldn’t have made it a part of our timeless canon centuries ago.
Or Gospel lesson picks up where last week’s left off. Last week Jesus says that if you want to follow him, you have to leave your family, the dead have to bury the dead, you have to set your face to Jerusalem with him — prepared to die to yourself — and put your hand to the plow and not look back.
Today Jesus appoints 70 and gives him a simple message. These are the people who have left their families, have promised to try to die, and who are working to be like him. These 70 are us, the us who have waded in the troubled waters, been healed, and been gifted with the Spirit to do this simple, simple task — go to towns, say “the kingdom of God has come near!”, show that it is, and come back to report what happened.
Do you notice what Jesus doesn’t do? He doesn’t just take whoever shows up and expect them to be able to follow him, and he doesn’t send them out on their own willy-nilly. Jesus here knows what he’s doing — treating these new disciples like the youngsters, in following him, that they are. Jesus gives very clear directions: take this, not that; enter here, not there; when things don’t go well, move on — not in anger, but because it’s time to.
Jesus is sending out evangelists to tell the Good News, but he’s been teaching them what the Kingdom of God looks like for a while now. He’s made the difficulty of the journey clear by saying that it’s hard to follow him and forewarning them that it means dying to yourself. Even in the midst of admonition and direction about what they are to do, Jesus reassures them: “Know this! The kingdom of God has come near.”
The 70 go away for some period of time and come back among a changed and changing world. “Jesus! Even the demons submit to us!”
Jesus says, “Yeah, they do, but don’t get too excited about it. I’ve given you authority to do that, but be happier not that you can work wonders, but that you have done the work I have given you to do.”
All of that is exciting and wonderful…but so what? What does that have to do with us? Well, I told you that we’re the seventy, right? So…we’re supposed to be going out, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near, showing that it has, and then coming back to report it. How well do we do that, both as a congregation and as individuals? Have you seen that the kingdom of God has come near in the last few weeks? Have you told any of your friends about it? Any of your church people about it?
Maybe you have, but our American Mainline Protestant institutions don’t really prepare us to be evangelists. For so long we’ve assumed that everyone around us is Christian, that they’ve heard the Good News so we don’t need to be telling it.
That’s just not true anymore.
We may not be trained to be evangelists, but we have been trained to be witty and make signs. I saw a flyer on the Episcopal Church Memes Facebook page on Friday that made me cringe. Let me paint you a mental picture. The background is grey, but it’s got a white boarder. It opens with, “Think you already know enough about a Christian to not want to be one? THNK AGAIN!” Below this opener is a picture of Rodin’s Thinker. Below that the flier says, “Think about a church…where God’s inclusive love is available to all; where the focus is on justice, not judgment; where the family values we preach value ALL families. Think about The Episcopal Church!”
There is then an Episcopal shield and our tag, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you,” with tiny copy, “Whoever you are, and wherever your find yourself on the journey of faith there is a place for you in The Episcopal Church. Come and see, and join us as we work together to make God’s love tangible to absolutely everybody.”
Those are a lot of good words, but yes, it made me cringe. For one, I’m a communicator and it had way too much text on it. No one has time to read this much on a bulletin board. The graphics weren’t the best arranged, and the shield and welcome didn’t follow style or font guides established by The Episcopal Church for use of the logo. Those are pedantic critiques, though and barely what made me cringe.
There is no mention of the Kingdom of God drawing near. There’s no mention of Jesus. The focus of what we’re doing today deals with justice, but we’re here to worship and be sent to work. Lots of words for people who already aren’t here — and probably aren’t going to be persuaded to reject their atheism, their agnosticism, or their suspicion of religious institutions because of a flier an anonymous person put up in a coffee shop.
With not just a Church, The Episcopal Church, but a whole faith tradition, Christianity on decline, commentator Taylor Burton-Edwards says, “The institutional solutions all presume we are primarily those who COME to worship and other activities, and that those activities (worship, education programs, and outreach or mission projects we create) are what makes for faithful Christian disciples. Jesus’s approach is to SEND disciples in ministry in his name, with no programs, no ‘big show worship,’ and little more than an unwavering faith that the gospel is true: God’s kingdom has drawn near, and we can see that happening and participate in it everywhere.”
Here at St. Paul’s you are a people who are working to make the Kingdom of God’s nearness clearer through your participation in SAVE Oakland stand-ins and your advocacy for LGBT people. I’ve seen the kingdom of God come a little closer in the last two weeks with the overturning of Prop 8 and DOMA — and I’ve seen it going a little farther away with the overturning of the Voting Rights Act and a possible end to affirmative action in educational admission. I saw it at the press conference about religious affirmation of marriage equality when women and people of color were shown supporting marriage equality and calling the church to keep working to eradicate the sins of racism and gender discrimination.
You might say, “But Fr. Joseph, those are all just bureaucracy, what does that have to do with the Kingdom of God?” If we let “bureaucracy” mean “working through systems” then the Jesus who we follow engaged it completely from the process of maturing in the womb and being birthed to working his way through a fallen, failing “justice” system before his crucifixion. Jesus the incarnate God lived in our bureaucracy and told us to know that the kingdom of God has come near.
Jesus didn’t send out the 70 to post fliers hoping new people would come back to him. He sent them, like our deacon will do in a few minutes, to proclaim good news to real, live, people they encountered. To share their testimony of how God was changing the world, and to come back to strengthen others with what they saw. This season after Pentecost is about strengthening disciples to proclaim the Good News of the Resurrection, and I’m with you for six more weeks or so of them.
I was just coming into The Episcopal Church when Gerald Ford died; this prompted my Southern Baptist mother to ask me in a joking form, “What’s the one thing an Episcopalian won’t share with you?” I said I didn’t know. Her punch line was “His faith.” I was incensed then but now wonder if this might not be too true.
The kingdom of God has drawn near! Where have you seen it? Who are you telling? Are you sharing everything you have with others except your faith?