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Travelling Light

July 5, 2016

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 3, 2016

Luke 10: 1-11

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its 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 to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.”

This is a rich passage. In it we learn that disciples are not just called, but sent. Following Jesus means not just admiring him, but doing what he did. In an earlier passage, Jesus had sent “the twelve” to try and do everything they had seen him do. That they often failed, and that Jesus nevertheless loved and encouraged them, is one of the reasons we love him.

But in our scripture passage today, Jesus sends not only the core twelve, but seventy. Who were these people? Since Jesus just commissioned the twelve in chapter 9, we could take this as evidence that the kingdom movement was growing. Now there are seventy. But in the verses just before our reading today, (the one’s we read last week) Luke lists several excuses people were making for not following. So it may be that in the present chapter Jesus is sending not just the chosen leaders, but literally everyone able to take to the road. “All hands on deck.”  This is it. This is the whole community of followers.  Everyone is called, everyone is needed, everyone is sent.  As Luke reminds us “the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.”  So Jesus pulls out all the stops and sends everybody out.  And he establishes a buddy system, offers some simple instructions, and sends them ahead of him to every town and place where he intended to go.

Now we should keep in mind that most ordinary people did not travel far from their homes in ancient times.  Aside from merchants, traveling philosophers, and very wealthy individuals, most folks stayed home, scratching out an existence in the city or on the land or sea, raised kids, tended animals and were born, lived and died pretty much in the same 10 square miles.  The exception to this would be to journey on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for particular holy days – and here we should not assume even that everyone went.  In our 21st century globalized world of cars, planes, and Skype, it is hard for us to even get our minds around what it would mean to send people out – not into a place that was familiar, but into unfamiliar towns and unfamiliar people with no purse, no bag, and no sandals.

Not only were they headed to unfamiliar territory; these 70 were going there ahead of Jesus.  I know the expression “I’ve got your back” is supposed to be reassuring. But I prefer the idea of Jesus already being there ahead of me, or at least “always with me” to the idea of being part of an advance team preparing the way.

Now when they got to a household in a new place, they were to announce the kingdom’s nearness by speaking “peace.”  They were to greet others with the word shalom, which in Jewish practice is both greeting and farewell. Perhaps Jesus is just instructing his disciples to say “Hi” before launching into tales of the kingdom, or perhaps they were meant to extend a blessing as in “The peace of Christ be with you. (And also with you).”  Or maybe it was a code word. Maybe Jesus was giving his followers a simple way to recognize friends. Think about it. If Jesus were really sending them everywhere he intended to go himself, then this must include Gentile lands. In that case, this simple Hebrew word, shalom, would help the missionaries identify Gentiles friendly to the God of Israel.

But the seventy were to do more than just speak peace.  They were to demonstrate the kingdom’s nearness by practicing peace:  by sharing in life together.  And not life together with people they already knew.  Rather, life together with people who were strangers, foreigners to them and to whom they would be strangers and foreigners as well.  Jesus sent his followers out to speak and live shalom in unfamiliar territory. And their only guidance (besides these marching orders) was Jesus’ own words and practices.

Now when we read passages in the bible we should try to refrain from reading them as if they are newspaper accounts of “what happened.”  First of all, nobody knows if there were 70 people; some ancient versions of Luke have 72; commentators point out that 70 is a “perfect” number.  For all we know there might have been 19, but the author of Luke wanted to pump up the numbers a bit to encourage the church!  Second, we should remember that the gospel of Luke (and the book of Acts which is the sequel to Luke) is addressed to followers of Jesus were trying to survive as a small, mostly Jewish movement under Roman occupation.  This passage is less an account of what took place between Jesus and 70 followers, than it is a reminder to the church to keep looking beyond their comfort zone; to speak and live shalom in unfamiliar and often unfriendly territory.  The writer assumed that the Christian assemblies would already have known central stories about Jesus; who he was and how he lived. This gospel was for the church – to help these small, early communities figure out how to live as Jesus lived.  So today’s passage presumes that you and I and our ancestors in the faith already know some basic things about Jesus and the practices of shalom (or just-peace) around which his ministry centered.

(So) I want to quickly highlight four basic practices that are alluded to in this passage, practices that defined Jesus’ ministry and that his disciples were to emulate.  Again we don’t see these practices in full within this passage – rather they are alluded to.  They are recounted and developed more fully in other gospel stories that we will read this summer.  But listen and see if you can hear the echoes of these practices in today’s passage.

all_nations_heritage

First, Jesus ate with others at tables that were open.  In his day, who one ate with said an awful lot about who one cared about.  At Jesus’ table, everyone was not only welcomed, but sought out. Rich, poor, young, old, sinner, saint, religious or not, everyone was welcome.  But no one was to leave the table unchanged.  The welcome-table became Jesus favorite image of the kind of life God intends for us — his favorite image of the covenant, which he called the Kingdom of God.  Did you hear the echo in today’s passage?  Take a look at verses 7 and 8.  What are people supposed to do?  Eat with each other.  Remember also from past sermons and study that who you ate with, what you ate and how you ate in the ancient world was determined by social and religious rules.  So when the 70 eat with strangers in a place they don’t know, eating “whatever is set before them” they were likely transgressing religious or social laws. And that’s OK with Jesus. This is what it means to be dependent on the hospitality of others.

crowd feeding

Second, Jesus shared all he had and expected us to share everything.  I believe the ‘primitive communism’ of the community in the second chapter of Acts is typical of how Jesus was shaping communities all around Palestine.  It is rooted in the sharing of manna in the wilderness: everyone gives according to their resources and everyone has according to their needs.  This is the basis for community life. Did you hear the echo in this passage?  What are the 70 sent out with?  (Absolutely nothing but a healing message and a willingness to work for their keep with the families where they are temporarily residing.

Third, Jesus practiced active nonviolence and expected the same from us. His nonviolence was rooted in the dignity belonging to all people, friend and foe alike, because we all bear the image of God .  This image is most fully seen when we are all included in the welcoming-sharing community whose boundaries are shaped not by punishment or revenge but by forgiveness and reconciliation.  Did you hear the echo in this passage?  The first word Jesus’ followers are to speak is “peace.”  And as they are being sent into unknown territory, possibly into hostile situations, that first word “peace” starts to sound a lot more like a prayer than a greeting!  Jesus’ followers, who of course in this passage become his heralds, his forbearers, speak peace and live peace.  They heal and support the communities to which they have been sent. And when they are rejected, they leave peacefully. (Again, this is more fully developed elsewhere, right down to Jesus’ final words on the cross, “Father, forgive them.” But we should hear the echoes of non-violent practice in this passage and in the early church).

hands-with-dirt-ww

Fourth, Jesus described these three practices together as faithfulness; as promise-keeping or covenanting with God and one another.  We can only live non-violently, with an open table, sharing all we have if we make a commitment to one another and to our common life before God.  Jesus compared this to the commitments we make in marriage and to family and to resisting empire.  But Jesus wanted our commitment to the common good to rival, indeed surpass, our commitment to marriage and family and government.  Do you hear the echo in this passage?  Again, Jesus is sending the seventy into unfamiliar territory.  They may be leaving behind family and friends to travel or they may be bringing their family with them and walking into an uncertain future together as they seek hospitality and live with strangers.  What the seventy are doing, however, is focused first on the quality of life together, and not who they are living with. They are to dare to live covenant even with people who may know nothing about God’s covenant promise.

So the seventy were sent into unfamiliar territory to speak and live shalom.  As the expression goes, they were to “make the path by walking.”  And we too are not only called but sent.  Our very experience of worship gathers us together in order to send us out into a broken and fearful world.  Because if we just listen to the stories about Jesus speaking and living shalom but don’t endeavor to do it ourselves, we have missed the whole gospel.  Jesus trusts us, sends us and expects us to go out and live these practices not only with kin and neighbors but with people we do not know.  So, let me make a few practical points:

First:  Jesus didn’t expect people to come to him, he went to them and he sent the seventy to them.  To where and to whom is God sending us as individuals and a church?  Who do we need to talk to?  Where do we need to go to meet them?

Second:  Jesus makes it clear to the seventy that they will find welcome in many places and disdain in some.  We should abide with those who welcome us, no matter how few or how many.  We do not need to, indeed should not, worry about outcomes.

Finally:  Think about the four practices: eating with others, sharing everything, practicing non-violence, keeping our promises to God and one another.  Which of these four practices which embody shalom do you need to work on right now?  Which of these four do we need to work on as a church?  Sometimes the easiest way to know is to look at our weaknesses (also often our fears) rather than our “gifts.”  When practicing piano it’s helpful to find the hardest part of the piece, slow it down, do one hand at a time, painstakingly put the hands together, do it over and over and over, until that hardest part becomes the easiest part of the entire piece.  What are the hard parts in our life and in our church’s life where we need to start practicing?  The only way to “get” these practices is to start doing them.  The only way the disciples experienced God’s power was to march out there and get started speaking and living shalom.  The same goes for us.  We don’t have to be perfect before we start.  Here that truism “practice makes perfect” applies.

In closing I want to mention the “e” word – evangelism.  This was purposefully not my first word but it is my last word. This passage from Luke reminds us that faith is more about practice and less about belief.  One of the reasons I avoid using the word evangelism is that it is often construed to mean “converting people to a set of particular convictions that they don’t already hold.”  But evangelism in the best sense is daring to live as neighbors with strangers.  Daring to allow ourselves to be the stranger, standing on the doorstep in a precarious position of dependency on anothers welcome.  Evangelism means daring to live as neighbors with strangers.  It asks us to overcome our fear of other people, our fear of rejection, our fear itself, and believe that through eating together, sharing all we have, practicing non-violence, and committing ourselves to one another and God – we can discover God’s kingdom is truly already among us. As our world seems to be tumbling apart, as our nations and would be nations celebrate and exploit our fears of one another, this is a task we, the church, are uniquely given. To speak peace, and live peace, that we may know peace.

At this table, we practice what he preached – a welcome table where lives and goods are shared, without violence, but as an act of faith and trust in one another. Here God meets us. And the kingdom comes near.

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