Sermon - Fourth Sunday After Pentecost (7/7/2019)
Is. 66:10-14, Ps. 66:1-9; Gal. 6:7-16; Lk. 10:1-11, 16-20
Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “Who you are speaks so loudly, I cannot hear what you say.” In today’s gospel, Jesus sends out seventy disciples with the mission to announce the good news that the Kingdom of God is near. But he gives them instructions that are so different from our own experience of church, that it is difficult for us to hear what he is saying.
For example, to take the history of our own congregation as an example, in 1957 when the American Lutheran Church decided to send out disciples to announce the good news of the Kingdom of God in the part of Mount Vernon near Fort Belvoir, these were their instructions: First, buy four acres of land in a nice neighborhood before it gets too expensive, then construct a building and a house for the pastor (not in that order, as a matter of fact), then let people in the neighborhood know what you’re doing, and they will come to the building that you have constructed. There, in your building, they will hear the good news that the Kingdom of God is near, they will worship God, they will be taught to be disciples of Jesus, they will be of service to their neighbors and to the world. This is our model of spreading the good news of the Kingdom of God: build a church, our church, and then invite people to come to our church and join us.
The mission Jesus gave the seventy disciples in today’s gospel reading is quite different. And perhaps the key difference is this: We tend to think of church as a place that is ours, like this building, where we invite people to come. Or even a community that is ours, where we belong, and where we are welcoming to visitors and potential new members. But Jesus is sending the seventy disciples to go to other people’s homes. Not to welcome visitors, but to be visitors. Not to practice hospitality, but to receive hospitality – or not, because Jesus gives no guarantee that his disciples will be welcomed.
And Jesus seems to be quite insisitent about these instructions. To ensure that the disciples will be dependent on the hospitality of their hosts, Jesus instructs them to bring no money and to carry no baggage. To go into whatever house they come to and to stay there, not to move from one house to another in search of better accomodations. To eat whatever strange food is set before them, whether it’s kosher or not, and to have no fallback plan whatsoever.
Well, that is impractical, one might say. That’s like going out like lambs in the midst of wolves. Yes, Jesus said, now you’re getting the point. It’s like last week’s gospel, where someone said to Jesus, I will follow you wherever you go, and Jesus responded, The fox has its lair, and the birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to call home. And now, neither will you. You will not have control over whom you will welcome and whom you will invite, you will be at the mercy of those who will choose to welcome and invite you, or not. That is exactly what I want you to do. I want you to be as vulnerable as lambs in the midst of wolves. Precisely.
This is really different from our experience of the mission of the church. To have a church that feels like home, in our experience, is a good thing. To worship in our own way, to pray in a way that is comfortable, is important and we all need that in our lives of faith. And we know that there are so many people who have been hurt by churches that – no matter how much they long for God and for the gospel and for faith and for community – they are terrified of walking through the door of a church because they don’t know what kind of welcome they are going to receive – and I understand that, I was there for a long time myself. It is so important to proclaim loudly and clearly that we welcome everybody, we receive especially those who have been wrongly excluded and wounded in the name of Christ. We deeply want to be a safe place for visitors and new believers to find the word of Jesus for them. And that is good, and important, and beautiful, and we should keep doing it and do it even more. Amen.
But – Jesus seems very insistent in his instructions to the seventy disciples today that there was something different about he wanted them to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near. Because, even when we talk of how we are a community that welcomes everybody, no exceptions, who is this “we” who is so welcoming? By “we,” do we mean the ones who are already here, aren’t “we” the insiders who want to give warmth and comfort and hospitality to “them,” the outsiders, the ones who aren’t “we” just yet? Showing hospitality and welcome is incredibly important, and there is a place for it in our life together. But still, Jesus seems to be saying at least to the seventy disciples that he wants them to do something different, to be the ones who ask for hospitality, to be the ones who eat what others choose to give us, to be the ones who take the risk of rejection. It’s as if Jesus was saying, if you are going to announce that the Kingdom of God has come near, you first must become the outsider.
That is really different and counter-intuitive, yet Jesus seems to think it is important. But why? Why is it so important for us to become vulnerable, to become the outsider seeking hospitality? What is it about the announcement that the Kingdom of God has come near that Jesus wants this announcement to be made by outsiders, by those who are not offering hospitality but seeking it?
Part of the answer, I think, is how Jesus himself brings about the arrival of the Kingdom of God. In Jesus the God who created the heavens and the earth takes flesh and dwells among us, makes himself our guest, comes to dwell in a human family, in a particular people and time and place. He brought no celestial bag of tricks, but made himself an outsider to divinity, fully human like us, eating what we eat, living where we live. Jesus told the seventy disciples: When you enter a town and the people welcome you, eat what is set before you, cure the sick who are there, and say to them: The kingdom of God has come near you. But isn’t that exactly what Jesus did in his own life – to find those who would welcome him, even if they were the ones the world rejects, and eat with them, and cure their sick, and tell them about the nearness of the Kingdom of God?
And Jesus told the seventy disciples: If they do not welcome you, take no revenge, display no anger. Just shake the dust from your feet and move on – but tell them anyway that the Kingdom of God has come near. And don’t worry about whether the demons are subject to you or not, just rejoice that your name is written in heaven, that you are remembered by the living God no matter what happens. And is that not what Jesus did when people rejected him, and crucified him? So Jesus is only asking his disciples to announce the coming of the kingdom the way Jesus did it – not in power and majesty, but in vulnerability; not in glory but in the cross; not as the host but as a guest.
On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus sends the seventy disciples to announce that the Kingdom of God has come near, and he sends them as disciples – students of his way. He sends them as he himself was sent, as outsiders, relying on each other and on God, believing in faith that the Kingdom of God is indeed near, that the new creation has already begun. He gives them the mission of walking the way of the cross – of serving God as he does, without ego, without fear, without anxiety about results. He knows that the seventy disciples will want to cling to their status as insiders; he knows they are human beings in this fallen world. So he insists to them that, if they want to truly follow in his way, they must become outsiders.
We often turn the church into an insider’s club – welcoming, to be sure, but a place where we think of ourselves as being in control. We build institutions and construct buldings and take comfort in them, and we are always tempted to forget that we have here no lasting city, that we are all just travelers here, in need of hospitality, dependent on others. Luther said the church in his day needed to be reformed, and that the church would always be in need of reformation. And so it is.
But as we come this morning to this table, while this place may be a familiar home for many of us, let’s remember this is not our table, but Christ’s. He is now the host, and we are all guests, every one of us, those who have been members of this congregation for fifty years and those who are here this morning for the first time. Here we eat and drink what Christ has set before us, here we receive the promise that our names are written in heaven. And as we are sent forth into the harvest that is plentiful, even if the laborers are few, let’s try to remember that it’s not about us, it’s not about this church, it’s not about our worries or what we have to offer. It’s about the peace of the kingdom of God, which in Christ we have come to know is near at hand.