Here is the sermon I preached yesterday, 7 July 2013.
Isaiah 66.10-14; Psalm 66.1-9; Galatians 1-16; Luke 10.1-11,16-20
+ In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.
As my ordination to the priesthood rapidly approaches, it’s probably natural that I’ve been contemplating my sense of vocation. And as part of that, I have been revisiting some of the great call stories in the bible.
There’s Abram, called by God to leave his country, his kindred and his father’s house for a country which God will show him. Or Moses with his stutter, called to free God’s people from slavery. Jeremiah, who says, ‘Oh, but I am only a boy, I do not know how to speak’. Isaiah, who cries out ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips’. Mary, who asks: ‘But I am a virgin, how can I bear the Son of God?’ The disciples, Simon, James and John called away from their nets. Paul and his Damascene moment.
Over and over and over throughout our holy scriptures are stories of ordinary people being called to participate in God’s saving work. They are called to leave behind the people, the livelihoods, the countries they know, to set out on strange journeys, proclaiming messages they don’t fully understand. They are people who often don’t feel up to the task but whose feeble excuses are not accepted by the God who has other greater plans.
It’s not fair. It doesn’t make sense. Why are you asking me? I’m too weak. I won’t know what to say. I don’t have a husband. I need to bury my father. Don’t you know my past? They all protest.
‘Go’, God says. ‘Now.’
Our gospel reading today is strange, and – for me at least – has acted as an acute reminder that the gospel that we give thanks and praise for every Sunday is very much from a different historical and geographical context. It is difficult to know how to translate it into our setting, to know how to respond to its demands.
It has an eschatological, apocalyptic urgency to it. More than a hint of final judgment. A sense of danger if the message goes unheeded. The kingdom of God is near, the seventy are to proclaim. To me, the intensity of the mission conjures up images of street preachers shouting down a megaphone, their assistants handing out tracts. Woe to you if you do not believe!
When we talk about mission, or evangelism, or the Kingdom it is easy to get swept up in grandiose plans for dramatic change: church growth, mass conversions, systems of injustice being overthrown, power brought to its knees. And when that becomes our focus, we can get overwhelmed by the task ahead, feel small in the face of what is required, quickly lose energy and hope.
But when Jesus talks about the Kingdom, he uses familiar images, but ones which are all the more profound for their simplicity: The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, like leaven, like a man who sowed good seed in his field, the kingdom of heaven is like a net, cast into the sea and gathering fish of every kind…
And likewise, our gospel offers a simpler, more intimate version of mission. As Moses called 70 elders to share in the wilderness wandering, so Jesus calls 70 to go before him and to share in his mission. The 70 whom he calls are nameless. They are unknown individuals. A bit like us. Yet they are the ones who are sent to announce that the kingdom of God is near.
And set within the history of peculiar call stories, today’s gospel reading is no different really.
Because, typical of God, it is radical vulnerability, trust and faith to which they – and subsequently we – are called. ‘Go on your way’, Jesus says. ‘See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves’. Go beyond the boundaries of what is familiar to you. Take nothing that brings you comfort. ‘Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals’.
Take with you only my peace. Ask for hospitality, and where you find it, offer a blessing, healing and wholeness in return.
The Kingdom of God is found in that very act of vulnerability, of laying ourselves at the mercy of another. Asking for help, accepting hospitality, depending on others does not come easily for many of us. And it is made more difficult because, though the church has a tendency to talk of us and them, church and world, it is outside the walls of the church we must go. It is the world’s hospitality which we are to seek as we spread the peace of Jesus. That is a crucial part of the mission of the 70.
And I think it is significant as well that though Jesus sends his followers out incredibly vulnerable, he sends them in pairs. So that when one stumbles, the other can help. When one is lost, the other can seek the way. When one is discouraged, the other can hold faith for both.
That is why we gather here. Because although Jesus’ instructions are clear, like the 70, like all those men and women who have gone before us, we do not know what lies ahead. We gather here to hold on to each other, comfort each other, encourage each other, and even believe for each other.*
We gather here to tell ourselves the great stories, to see God in all of them, and to remind ourselves that as we leave this place, stepping out in faith, the kingdom of God has indeed come close, and therefore we are sent forth into the world in peace to love and serve the Lord.
* David Lose, ‘The Greater Gift’, Working Preacher.