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Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It's Off to Work We Go

A Homily from Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

July 8, 2001 (14th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Biblical passages are, in some ways, like a fleet of rental cars. Some get driven a lot, some are less popular. Some are easy to handle, others take more skill and experience to manage. Almost all of them get abused by their drivers.

If today’s gospel text were a rental car, it would be a great big SUV with a lot of miles on it. One look at it, and you would know that this one has hauled a lot of people’s baggage over the years. Big and unwieldy, it tends to go off in other directions regardless of where you are steering it.

That’s why you folks almost got a generic sermon on Naaman today. The Kings passage is a wonderful story, a sleek sports car of a text. Everyone likes it, and it’s hard to go wrong with it. On the other hand, I’m not sure that I can count the number of bad sermons that have ridden on the back of Luke 10. If you grew up Baptist, this was one of the trusty old missions texts that was rolled out and driven around the block to make sure you were forking over enough cash to evangelize the heathen.

Remembering those messages still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Only one problem with jumping ship for the Hebrew Bible today: the Luke passage is in the Bible. Even if it wouldn’t make the Liberal Top 100 of fun texts to preach, we have an obligation to hear and study every scrap of information we have about the ministry of Christ. And so, instead of going to the river Jordan we gather with a small crowd outside of some anonymous small village on the road to Jerusalem.

Jesus is on his way to die, and he has been diligently trying to get a few things through the thick skulls of his followers. Apparently, the whole bit about casting out demons and healing the sick had been starting to go to their heads, and a few paragraphs earlier Jesus had been forced to shut them up as they argued about who was the “greatest” in the kingdom of heaven. They had missed the whole “blessed are the meek” part, and they certainly weren’t paying attention to that bit about “suffering and death.”

Immediately before our text for today, three would-be disciples – presumably lured by the great benefits and excellent 401k – have offered to join Jesus’ group. Jesus turns each of them away when it becomes clear that they do not realize just how important, or different, his task is. Transforming the world is serious business, and if we aren’t willing to be transformed ourselves then it’s more than we can handle.

Yet somehow Jesus finds a large crowd who is willing. My guess is that they had to be pretty young. Jesus wasn’t just asking them to go pass out tracts to their neighbors, or even hand out balloons in Piedmont Park. This was a time of extreme paranoia on the part of the government; and extreme unrest among the common citizens. Whoever else he might have been, Jesus’ enemies (which happened to include anyone with any secular or religious authority) saw him as a revolutionary – and a revolutionary was not a good thing to be in a time and place when executions were almost as frequent as they are in Texas today.

Jesus says, “I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” What a lovely turn of phrase, so poetic. But what an image! Lamb: small, fuzzy, not too bright; tendency to bleat. Pack of wolves: ferocious, hungry, merciless, deadly; tendency to howl when they smell blood. If you’re a fan of the nature shows on TV you can particularly appreciate the contrast. The camera zooms in on this one, lone, small sheep. Some bland, Midwestern announcer comes on. “Here we see a lamb, a baby sheep. It has wandered away from its flock and doesn’t know what kind of danger it’s in.” The camera pans away. Loping toward the tiny, white creature is a pack of fifteen or so wolves. Their tongues are hanging from their mouths, and as soon as they catch the scent of the lamb their lips curl back into snarls. As they sprint towards the baby sheep, its obvious that not only are they going to kill the pathetically defenseless animal, they hunger for it. They want its blood.

And yes, it was really that dangerous, if not more so. If you ask some Christians it still is. I’ve actually met people who say that they put those little fishes on their car as a way of “standing up for Christ in a world that hates Him.” I hate to break it to them, but I don’t see people throwing rocks through their minivan windows because of that little fish. Heck, the President of the United States feels free to insist on Christian prayer at public events, even though he supposedly represents a pluralistic populace in a secular nation. Saying you follow Jesus is no longer like throwing yourself to the wolves.

Actually following Jesus, on the other hand, might be a different story. I don’t mean being a good person or obeying the Ten Commandments. No society is so licentious that it is going to persecute you for not being a murderer or a liar or an adulterer. Folks may call you a prude, but they’re not going to kill you for it.

The thing about following Jesus, though, is that if it looks easy, we’re not taking it far enough. If it makes sense, it’s probably not extreme enough. If everyone will support you for doing it, then it’s probably not what Jesus would have done. Jesus made people so uncomfortable and angry that they killed him, and he tells the people that want to follow him that he’s sending them out among people who will want to kill them too.

Now, what kind of resumes do you get with a job description like that? Remember, Jesus not only said that he was sending them out among people who would hunger to destroy them; he said they had to go totally unprepared. Who would be dumb enough to take him up on it, to march merrily into the woods, unarmed, like the seventy dwarves, singing cheerfully to themselves (no, I’m not going to sing it for you, although you are welcome to hum softly to yourselves if you like) while the forces of evil gather all around them? Who would be naïve enough, arrogant enough, clueless enough?

Not someone with a family. Even if they supported Jesus, they’d have their spouse and/or their kids to think of. You don’t take risks like that when you have other people depending on you. Not someone with a good job either. Each rung in the ladder of success would give them more power to fight the good fight for Jesus. Why should they give that up to do something crazy? Same also for someone with a lot of education, or money, or family connection, or even common sense.

Who does that leave? The dreamers, the unemployed, the artists, and the adolescents. People with nothing to lose and people naïve enough to believe they can change the world. Funny how the longer we’re alive, the more we learn and the more responsibility and, presumably, ability we have; the less we believe in our ability to really make a difference. It’s not so much that we sell out, we just wise up. At least, that’s what we tell ourselves.

So Jesus gathers around him a small herd of starry-eyed teenagers, and tells them that a fertile harvest is waiting for them. There are more people waiting to hear the good news than there could ever be who are willing to speak it.

That sounds kind of silly these days. If push comes to shove, there are probably close to a billion people who would tell you that Jesus is just all right with them. That sounds like a lot of workers to me.

One problem, there’s more to the work than just believing. When Jesus sends out his ragtag group of idealists, he tells them to follow a very specific script. They are to come offering peace to whomever they come to first. Period. Try that sometime. I know that we mimic it every morning before our prayer of confession, but that’s not a good road test. We’re kind of a self-selecting group and pretty nice. Make it a little harder on yourself.

Pick a time and day this week, and then tell yourself that whomever you meet around that time you are going to genuinely wish peace for. You don’t have to say it out loud, just wish it for them. Think about them in the most positive light, and hope that wherever they are they will be truly happy, that whatever their dreams are they will come true, and that however they have wronged you, you will find a way to forgive them. It’s not as easy as it seems when we don’t get to pick the person.

That’s just the beginning though. Jesus next tells his little band of missionaries that they have to eat whatever they are provided. This is a huge deal in a culture which for thousands of years has preserved its identity by what its members did not eat. The Bible makes it very clear that God’s people only eat certain things; but Jesus says equally clearly that his followers are to eat anything put in front of them. On the one hand, this is one of many glimpses Jesus gives us that right and wrong aren’t merely a matter of following the rules.

More specifically, though, here Jesus tells us that carrying his peace to others means meeting them where they are. That means if they are reading the Left Behind books, we pick one up and read as much as we can stand. They’re listening to James Dobson? We take a couple of Tums and turn on the radio. They want to go to a spirit dance in a sweat lodge? Break out the loincloths. If we are to carry the message of Christ - and make no mistake about it these instructions are meant as surely for us as they are for these seventy – it is not about telling people to be like us. It’s about knowing them, genuinely knowing them.

Jesus also says that it’s about bringing healing into their lives. I’m not Jesus. I can’t tell you that when you leave this place you will be able to lay hands on your cousin with the flu and they will find themselves well. That doesn’t mean you can’t, God has done more amazing things. I just don’t know how that part works. I can tell you though that every one of us is a healer, because every one of us is here because we’ve been healed. Some part of the gospel has touched us and filled, even if just a little bit, the darkness in our souls. The immeasurable love and limitless mercy of God has healed us all, at one time or another. Simply giving that back - love and mercy - to another, that makes us healers.

If that’s not enough, there’s one last thing: let them know that the kingdom of God has come near to them. Let them know that, in meeting us, they have glimpsed a whole different way of looking at the world. A world where the supreme leader is not pampered but is instead sacrificed. A world where rudeness is repaid with kindness. A world where someone is willing to break the laws of their religion just to share a meal with a stranger in the hopes they’ll become a friend. An unjust world, where mercy, not fairness, determines the punishment for a crime.

The kingdom of God. Where the hungry are fed and the wounded are healed. Where humanity chooses to become the image of a creative God rather than a selfish force for greed and destruction. A crazy, naïve, dreamer’s paradise. The kingdom of God.

In other worlds, tell them that there’s an alternative to common sense and security, and that God in the flesh wants them to choose it. Sadly, most of us would still prefer the all-brick ranch in the suburbs.

Now the word “kingdom” has gotten a bum rap. Many people feel that it conjures up images of a patriarchal, authoritarian structure that does not really jive with Christ’s egalitarian teachings. There is some merit to that, but in this case kingdom fits. I’m not going to walk around unarmed among people who want to rip me to shreds while trying to understand them and share in their stories, then trying to make their lives better and change the world while I’m at it. I’m not going to do that unless someone tells me to, someone in authority over me, a king or queen for instance.

Well guess what, God our Mother and Father, our Big Boss, Head Honcho, Big Kahuna, King, Queen, Patriarch, Matriarch, Person Who Must Be Obeyed is telling us just that. Go! Change the world! Not the easy way! The hard!

And the most amazing thing? Christ sends them before the crucifixion and resurrection. These people don’t even know what they are talking about. Personally, in one sense this makes me feel a lot better. It’s two thousand years later and I’ve got the whole Bible, generations of commentary, and several years of graduate work and I’m certain that I don’t understand a tenth of who Jesus was or what he wanted. These people probably didn’t understand any more than that, yet he sent them anyway.

That’s the other side of the coin. Jesus still sent them. Jesus still sends us. In a passage that was omitted from the lectionary reading, Jesus makes it very clear that those who choose not to receive the messengers of God will ache and suffer for what they have missed.

How many ache right now because they can’t hear about the love of Christ because all they’ve heard are shouts of judgment? How many sit in Christian churches this Sunday, listening to self-righteous rhetoric of sin and damnation, and have yet to feel the gentle hand resting on their shoulder – the hand of a messenger of Christ coming simply to offer them the peace of Christ – and maybe a cold beer on a hot July day.

The report back from the field is that, two thousand years ago it worked. The messengers of God were triumphant. All the evil in the world couldn’t stand up to their unarmed, penniless, ignorant naiveté.

I don’t know how likely we are to prove that they’re still right. The easy thing to do would be to pack our bags and go somewhere where we’re strangers, and try all this stuff out. How much more we risk if we try it on the people we know. If we trade in our logic for love, and our righteous indignation for mercy. No one ever got rich doing that. No one ever made a name for themselves. No one ever paid the bills that way. Then again, no one who was completely right in the head ever changed the world.

Every Sunday the holy body of our sacrificed God becomes a part of us. We take it in as bread and wine, and it leaves with us, nourishing us and becoming a little piece of our hands, of our eyes, of our mouths. Like a magnet, God’s presence within us draws us to the needs and wounds of others, to the scary places and the crazy dreams of do-gooders and idealists. Usually our good sense and responsibilities weigh enough that we can resist the pull. Just be warned though, sometimes God doesn’t just tug; sometimes She shoves.