Yesterday was busy. Up at 3:30 (see yesterday’s post), cooked, shopped, finished my sermon, practiced my sermon, ran some errands, did some planning, picked my “little” Katie up from her bus stop and took her to her house…and then, Jason and I decorated the house inside and outside. Jason, Jonas and I went to the town tree lighting, drove around to find the folks who had decorated their houses already, baked cookies, trimmed the tree, watched “Elf,” finished decorating inside and out…and then it was dishes, laundry, and before bed chores. The night ended with me finally writing yesterday’s blog post and Jason and I watching an episode of “Frasier” by the light of the tree.
Yesterday was busy. Today will be busy. This month will be busy. It’s important to stop. To rest. To reflect. To breathe.
This morning, I turned on the Christmas tree lights. And I laid down on the floor with my head underneath its branches. And I looked up into the lights and I listened to my breath.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. ‘Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.’ The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. (Psalm 46)
I woke up this morning at 3:30 am with our cat Simon lying on top of me with her tail flicking back and forth and tickling my ear. Once I convinced her to move a little so I could get my balance and get out of bed, I walked with her to the kitchen, got us both some water, and realized I was wide awake.
So…I started the coffee. And I started the soup for tonight’s supper in the crock pot. And I started to make a grocery list and plan meals for the coming week.
And once I had some coffee in me, was certain the soup was starting to warm up, and had a complete grocery list, I got dressed in the dark of our bedroom, used the light on my phone to find my keys, and drove to the grocery store at 5:45 am.
It was dark. I didn’t have to fight any sort of traffic. None of the close spaces at the superstore were taken.
Inside, I was surprised to find that the place was full of people. Not shoppers–employees. Everyone on task, stocking shelves, moving carts of boxes around, sweeping and buffing the floors. And get this–everyone was friendly! Every aisle I ventured down, I was met by a kind greeting. Employees moved out of the way of my cart as they worked in their aisles. If I looked puzzled for even a second, someone asked if they could help me find something.
One register was open. Oh, great, I thought as I made my way toward its light. Yet, no waiting–a small miracle in December.
When I was leaving the store, the sky was starting to lighten. I noticed that the fields had a thick layer of frost. The sky had some patchy, frosty fog. I contemplated snapping my #rejoice photo as a particularly gorgeous shot appeared through my windshield, but the traffic was a bit heavier than it had been 45 minutes earlier and I decided against it.
At home, though, I entered the house through the garage door, and with my phone in hand walked to and out the back door, headed to capture the photo above from our yard overlooking Wathen Lane (in Henderson, KY).
I stood in the yard, with the same cat who had awakened me three hours earlier sitting at my feet. And I rejoiced in the goodness of God that is new every morning.
This week, I made a decision that will impact several people.
I decided that the tall children’s Christmas tree will no longer reside on bare tile in the alcove of our gymnasium, but that I would move it to one of the classrooms–the one with the purple walls, because Advent. Doing this meant that I had to move a table and some other small furniture and items. It means that the elementary class that meets in that room will have a little less floor space. It means that the candy canes and ornaments will distract from any lessons to be done in that room–whether at after school club, in Sunday School, or during Children’s Church.
It also means that I can put the church’s expansive collection of children’s Christmas books under the tree for kids to read. I had the idea for that the other day and yesterday afternoon I was surprised and thrilled when I walked into the room to find three of our after school ministry kids gathered near the tree and quietly reading “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “The Night Before Christmas.”
I think over all, we are all going to be glad we made room for the tall tree in the children’s classroom.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. John 1:10-18
Advent invites us to make room. Traditions and trappings of the season demand our attention. Retail and decorations, baking and parties seek our time. We are easily distracted, easily swept up into the commercial reasons for the season, and we easily forget to make room and wait for the one whose birth started all of this.
The Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. He takes up space, he disrupts our plans, he causes us to rearrange the furniture. But if we are willing to make the room, we’ll be surprised and thrilled by the goodness he brings.
And, hey, if you happen to be in or around the Presbyterian Church in downtown Henderson, feel free to drop in and read a book by the children’s tree. It’s a good way to stop and make some room in your busy Advent schedule for rest and reflection.
Whether you are waiting for a parent to pick you up from our after school ministry, waiting for a dream to become a reality, or waiting through Advent for a promise to be fulfilled, patience can be tricky.
If you’re waiting for something–anything–hang in there and wait with hope. This is a season made for waiting. The reason for our hope always arrives, right on time.
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ Isaiah 40:1-5
I’m thankful that I have so many things for which to be thankful. I could start a list and never find an end, probably.
Since it is Tuesday, however, I am especially thankful for a specific group of people. Every Tuesday for nearly 16 years, I have met regularly with a group of youth ministers, serving various Henderson churches.
We’ve had a variety of meeting spots and meeting times. Back in the day, when the Henderson McDonalds were trying out their McDiner concept, we met there for breakfast after most of us went to the local middle and high schools to meet with students. We met for 11 a.m. prayer at our various churches for a good span of time. We transitioned to lunch a few years back, and then made the switch back to breakfast/coffee. Today we met at Donut Bank, but next week, we’ll be at Eastgate Restaurant, and then at Planters downtown the following week.
When we meet, we share stories from our lives, seek advice or prayer for various life or ministry circumstances, and we pray together. We don’t meet for official business or planning, although occasionally we do attempt to tackle a project together. We meet because we love each other and we understand some common struggles and we have committed to praying for each other, ministry and personal lives alike. These people have prayed with me on my hardest, darkest days, and they have celebrated with me on my best ones. When times have been hard or when times have been good, at work or with family, I know I can tell them like it is and they will mourn or laugh with me appropriately and I know that they will always care about either thing and pray with me through it. We love to meet students who belong to each other’s churches so we can tell them how we know their youth minister.
Our callings are unique, our church doctrines differ in small ways or big ways, our gifts are varied, and we are all at different points in our lives or our ministries. I wouldn’t know how to do any of this without them, and I’m so thankful for them.
The cups today belonged to Charlie, Steve, and Doug, but there were some cups missing. And there are some friends I miss because they have moved on, either to another type of work or another location.
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. –Philippians 1:3-11
It is human nature to long for things that have not yet come to pass, but that we hope will come to pass. Preferably soon. Or at least on our timetable. And easily.
But we long for things to happen or to be true in our lives. “You can be or do anything you want,” we tell children, but we know that in truth, it’s not so easy. Some dreams are a long way off. Some hopes seem like they won’t ever be fulfilled.
Maybe you long for a better job, but every road you take puts you at a dead end. Maybe you long to parent a child, and the room in your house where you wanted to put the crib is still empty. Maybe you long for peace–in your home, in a relationship, in your town, or in our nation or world, but it seems so far-fetched at this point you don’t even know how to hope for that anymore. Sometimes the things we long to do or to be are not easily or quickly realized.
This week, I’m writing a sermon. Actually, at this point, it’s more like I’m re-writing a sermon. Part of the Scripture I’m using says this:
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. ( Isaiah 11:6-9)
This is a picture of a Kingdom where there is a peace that so passes understanding, it includes predators lying peacefully with prey and parents who have no reason to fear for the safety of their children, because the places they play are no longer filled with danger. Maybe it’s even a kingdom where a lion, a frog, a sock monkey and a shepherd child will pose for photographs together.
For centuries…for millennia, people have longed for this Kingdom to come. Despite the longing, it has yet to be realized. Every generation walks a road that seems fear-filled and peace-void.
And yet, in the midst of our longing, still we hope.
Jason and I gathered with my family in Cedar Lake, Indiana this weekend to celebrate ChristThanksmas, an annual tradition. My sister, Carly, works for Eden Brothers in Asheville and she brought me a variety of tulip, crocus, and daffodil bulbs. This week, I’ll plant them along the front of our house.
Planting bulbs is a symbol of hope. Into the cold ground they go in the fall. They are lifeless, kind of crumbly, and a bit ugly. But come spring (or more likely, late winter around here), tender stems will break through the ground and (Lord willing) beautiful, colorful flowers will adorn the beds in our front yard.
Advent starts today. May you be filled with the hope of things to come.
Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
[My sermon disclaimer: The trouble with posting the text of a sermon is two-fold. First, sermons are intended to be heard rather than read and second, the Holy Spirit is at work in all aspects of the sermon–preparation, practice, and delivery and sometimes the text is changed or mystically transformed in the speaking of it with the gathered congregation. All that said, I suppose I can trust the Holy Spirit to work in the reading of the manuscript as well. Here’s my manuscript from this week’s sermon.]
“Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love, show us how to serve, the neighbors we have from you.” The school year before this last one, we did a series of monthly intergenerational Sunday School lessons that used this song as a theme song. Monthly, we asked the question, “who is my neighbor?” The kids soon learned that the answer to this question is “everyone.” That’s the nice simple answer, but as we know, a more challenging answer is…well, more challenging.
“Jesu, Jesu fill us with your love, show us how to serve, the neighbors we have from you.” This is the chorus of a folk song from Ghana and a hymn in our hymnal that invites a similar question invited by our Scripture today. Who is my neighbor? Who are our neighbors? It was a question of great importance to the Jewish folks living in Israel/Palestine in the First Century and it is an important question for us living in the United States in 2016–maybe it’s more crucial than ever after a week like this one. Listen now for God’s word:
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’
Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”
Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’
He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
Here is a parable that is so familiar, it is likely that for some of you, I could have even skipped the reading of it this morning. It is so familiar that it is a parable that has a place in our modern culture–we have “Good Samaritan Laws” and we understand “Good Samaritan” as a description of someone who stops to help someone in need. It is tempting for us to read this as a nice story about how Christians are supposed to be nice to others–but a nice story, it is not. This is a nervy parable about the radical compassion extended by someone who was perceived to be practically inhuman by his literal neighbors.
Jesus is approached by a Scribe” — an expert in the Law of Moses. The scribe’s aim is to “test” Jesus. It’s a common question, a question I’ve heard some of you in this room ask, a question I’ve asked: What must i do to gain eternal life?” Jesus puts the question back to the man–this expert in the law. “What does the law say?” Jesus asks.
Love the Lord your God with your heart and soul and mind and strength…and love your neighbor as yourself–the whole law is summed up in this, the man claims and Jesus affirms. Jesus had become, by this point, an expert in leaving well enough alone. He wasn’t looking for an argument with this scribe.
But the scribe cannot leave it alone. The scripture says he had to justify himself and so he pushes Jesus further by wanting to know who qualifies as his neighbor? Who is the one he is supposed to love as well as he loves himself?
Jesus replies with this too familiar parable. Jesus is a good storyteller. He starts with something familiar: a dangerous road and a Jewish man travelling alone. The road from Jerusalem, City of peace, to Jericho, 20 mile away on the banks of the Dead Sea, was full of wilderness and trouble and most Jews would have learned to avoid such a troubling journey by going the long way and few would have traveled it alone. A predictable result–this man is attacked, beaten, and left for dead. Inexplicably, almost, a Jewish priest also happens to be travelling that road alone…but when he sees the man’s lifeless body, he crosses to the other side and moves along. The same thing happens with a Levite–another highly esteemed religious figure. Why don’t they help? Well, we don’t know, but it should seem shocking to us and to Jesus’ listeners that they do not. It’s possible the implication is that both religious leaders were reluctant to touch the man’s body, not knowing if he were dead or alive–touching a dead body would have made both ritually unclean, but truthfully, there is not actually anything that outrightly implies this, and even in Jesus’ day, it would have been a worse offense to not help a fellow Jewish person who was in need. Jesus may have made this a bit ambiguous on purpose because of what is coming next–something even more unexpected.
A Samaritan. To the Jews, there was no such thing as a “good samaritan!” They despised their neighbors, would never have considered there to be anything worthy or redeeming about the Samaritans. But this fellow traveller on the road probably didn’t take much time to reflect on who he was helping or why he was helping–this particular Samaritan Jesus brings to life for the sake of his story would have likely stopped for anyone. This was not a political act–it was a moral one. A wounded man needed care. “Who wouldn’t stop to help?” the Samaritan might have replied to a reporter at a modern day press conference asking him why he had. Jesus’ point is clear: a Samaritan has compassion and mercy. A Samaritan cares for the wounded traveller extravagantly–wine and oil are prizes in the ancient world, and yet the Samaritan applies them generously. A Samaritan carries the wounded Jew to an inn and pays his fees and offers to come back later and settle any debt that the man might incur. A Samaritan is the one who is truly a neighbor and acted with mercy that mirrors God’s mercy.
A common misconception about Jesus is that he was nice–we may be tempted to envision him as a benign, charismatic speaker. The pastor that everyone likes. The kind-hearted healer improving lives one person at a time.
But here’s the truth we cannot ignore as we read the Scriptures: Jesus was not nice. He was challenging, confrontational, and counter-cultural…and he had a lot of nerve, really.
Jesus often used his words prophetically, not prophetically in sense of telling the future, but prophetically in the sense of speaking God’s truth. If we truly understand his words, we understand that he here and many other places was quick to speak God’s truth to power and truth about the brokenness of the religious structure of his day. This familiar parable we’ve heard over and over would have shocked the first hearers of it and angered the religious leaders of his day.
Shocking for us, I suppose, would be for us to consider Jesus’ words and find the place to put them into practice in our own contexts. There are two things that are important for Jesus’ crowd and for us today to reflect on as we consider this parable.
First, I want to lift from the text the failure on the part of the esteemed religious leaders to act justly. Whatever we or scholars of this text might determine to be the reason the Priest or the Levite acted in the manner they did, it was still a failure to seek justice and care for God’s creation–a fellow human being was in need and both went out of their way to pass him by. Who do we pass by? Who do we go out of our way to avoid? Where are we not acting justly? Whose voices are we excluding altogether? Where have we turned away?
The second thing that reaches to us from this text is the idea of this unexpected person being the vehicle of God’s mercy. If Jesus were to tell this parable today, I wonder what he might have said rather than “Samaritan?” Would he have said “Muslim?” or “Sikh?” or “Jew?” Would he have said, “Gay man” or “Transgender person?” Would Jesus have used “Immigrant?” or “person of color?” Would Jesus have said “liberal?” or “conservative?” or “Donald Trump Supporter?” or “Hillary Clinton Supporter?” Who would Jesus name into this moment as the least expected neighbor for his particular crowd of listeners? I don’t know, but I know that some of those words would challenge me and my understanding of mercy and the Kingdom of God.
There is a theme common in Scripture as a whole, and in Jesus’ ministry specifically: the one who is acting as an agent of God is rarely the person you expect, and the one who seems to be an outsider is almost always actually an insider in God’s Kingdom. It is the Upside Down Kingdom of God, ruled by the King no one was expecting and home to the broken, the weak, and the lowly.
We cannot read this parable without asking the question “who *is* my neighbor?
It’s been a hard week. Honestly, I could probably stand up here any week and say, “It’s been a hard week.” We live among such brokenness always. But this week has been a hard week. People created in the image of God have been killed so violently and publicly–Specifically I’m thinking of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa. Each one created in the image of God. The temptation is to choose a side. Pick a hashtag to support and look for ways to further your viewpoints and denigrate the other side’s viewpoints.
Don’t give into that temptation. Lament not just for some, but for all. Lament and weep for all of God’s children who die in violence and leave parents and children and spouses and friends behind. Yes, it is exhausting and messy and difficult to lament for each one, but may our hearts alway be broken for the things that break God’s heart.
Let that sadness, the horror, the anger, the lament have voice in your prayers. Pray for the whole human family mourning loss and the particular families who are mourning loss, for a tiny child who was buckled into her booster seat while her daddy was shot dead just inches away, for police officers who protect and serve us bravely but cannot predict every danger, and for their wives, children, and loved ones who are afraid every time they leave for work, for mamas of children with brown skin who are scared for their safety, for mamas of children with pink skin who are scared for their children, too. Pray the prayer you know by heart–pray for God’s Kingdom to come and for God’s will to be done.
For that is the source of our hope. Our hope is not in the temporary, messy, broken things of this world–Our hope is in the name of our Lord Jesus and in the coming Kingdom of God. One day, God will set all of this right, one day we won’t have to lament anymore. Have hope in that day.
After you remember your source of hope, clothe yourself in love–love for your neighbor, even *that* neighbor or *those* neighbors. Teach your children and grandchildren to love, and remember they learn from your examples and your words. Practice hospitality and care for the greatest and the least. Guard your words and choose them carefully, making sure they are true and kind and necessary–and that goes for your words on social media, too. Remember that you, as recipients of God’s reconciliation, grace, and love, are the agents of that reconciliation, grace, and love. Share it extravagantly as you have received it extravagantly.
Who is my neighbor? Lord, have mercy. Amen.
(We ended the sermon by singing “Live in charity and steadfast love. Live in charity, God will dwell in you.”)
[My sermon disclaimer: The trouble with posting the text of a sermon is two-fold. First, sermons are intended to be heard rather than read and second, the Holy Spirit is at work in all aspects of the sermon–preparation, practice, and delivery and sometimes the text is changed or mystically transformed in the speaking of it with the gathered congregation. But I suppose I can trust the Holy Spirit to work in the reading of the manuscript as well. Here’s my manuscript from this week’s sermon.]
This summer I planned and participated in my 11th Summer of High School Mission Trips with our Presbytery, to the Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. The plans began as usual—once the students in our Presbytery had voted on the location, I secured 40 spots with the host company, Youthworks, and made fliers and registration forms so students and leaders could sign up by early January, a week ahead of the deadline to drop spots without any financial penalty. It is understood that deposits are non-refundable, and each church that takes spaces is responsible for paying for the spaces they claim. By the drop deadline, we had almost 40 spaces claimed by churches in our Presbytery and there was no turning back—we had to pay for all of our spaces.
Sometime in the middle of February, my phone rang. It was an elder at one of the churches in our Presbytery, a church that had claimed a number of spots for the trip. She told me about how she and the youth leader at their church had been doing some research on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and she wondered if I had realized what a dangerous place it was? She told me about the high incidence of poverty, and the high incidence of alcoholism on the reservation. I assured her I had done my research on that. “And did you know,” she further questioned me, “that they have the highest crime rate in South Dakota?” I had not stumbled upon that research, but it was not incredibly surprising to me, as high poverty and high crime are unfortunately often cousins in many communities…also, there is the factor of the size of South Dakota relative to its population. It is a big space with few concentrated areas of population to figure into her “highest crime rate” research. She grilled me about how many men were going and could I insure that their teenage girls would be safe. She wanted to know specific plans for travel and how secure the building that would house the students would be. She wondered why, if Youthworks has been serving on the reservation for almost 20 years, there hasn’t been enough improvement that they are no longer needed—a fair question, I suppose, but one that revealed that perhaps she wasn’t very familiar with the tumultuous history of the Native American and our nation’s reservations.
I answered her questions as best I could and put her in touch with our organizer at Youthworks, who also answered her questions about safety and tried to assure her as much as she could about safety concerns. Ultimately, she was not satisfied that her church’s team would be safe and they backed out of the trip, which cost the Presbytery a good chunk of money for spots that could not be refunded to us, even as this particular church demanded a full refund and threatened litigation otherwise. Another youth minister and I decided that we would just offer the refund and that it was probably good not to take adults and students who through research had learned to be afraid of the very people we were going to serve.
But the point of me telling you that story is not to point out what I consider to be less than ideal circumstances for planning the mission trip. My point in sharing is to tell you what happened next and to admit here for the first time publicly that her questions and concerns ate away at me for the rest of February. What if I was taking our high school students and our Presbytery’s high school students to an unsafe place? What if her concerns about the crime rate were wise and I was being foolish? What if this trip was that trip—the trip on which something went horribly wrong and would turn out to be the worst decision I ever made as a leader?
As usual, Jesus has something to say to me about this. It is something he teaches to his disciples as he sent them out, two by two, to serve and preach. It is something he made clear through the ministry he himself was committed to doing. Listen now for God’s word in Luke:
Luke 10:1-11; 16-20
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.”
‘Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.’
The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’
Here we have a glimpse into the logistics of Jesus’ mission work. Seventy disciples were sent in pairs to go ahead of him into the towns and villages—a scouting mission of sorts. Perhaps Jesus was making decisions about where he went next based on this scouting…or perhaps he was counting on his missionaries to make a clear path for the Word of God to be preached and witnessed…or perhaps this was a way for him to prepare leadership for when he was gone. Any which way, 35 pairs of disciples carrying the good news could cover much more area than one Messiah and his closest students making their way around to the cities and towns.
In his instructions, Jesus acknowledges a few things:
That he was sending them out like lambs into the midst of wolves.
That this mission was best carried out with few possessions to keep track of and limited small talk along the way.
That they were to carry a message of peace, and if it was received in a particular household, they were to reside there and bless the house with peace.
That they would be dependent on the hospitality of the residents of the homes they would visit.
And that some towns would welcome them and some towns would not, and in the welcoming places they would do ministry and in the unwelcoming places, they would shake the dust from their feet and move along.
Nowhere, does Jesus promise any sort of safety. Nowhere does Jesus guarantee that they will experience welcome and joy and have a great time. In fact, Jesus seems to imply that this could be dangerous or trouble-filled—sending lambs to wolves hardly ever ends without bloodshed, after all. We may look back with romantic blinders on and think that perhaps the first century world was safer, but a study of church history in Jesus’ day and in the first three centuries of the Christian Church will tell another story—the disciples were taking their lives into their hands by following Jesus. Jesus was always in danger and eventually, as we know, that caught up with him. Jesus and his disciples knew that their mission was a dangerous one.
Nowhere in Scripture are we promised that following Jesus or submitting to God or living a life filled with the Holy Spirit will be safe or even comfortable. But we are told 360 some odd times in Scripture that we need not be afraid.
But sisters and brothers, that is not easy is it? We live in a world full of fear and terror and terrorism. Our current presidential election cycle is overflowing with rhetoric from either side of the aisle intended to make you feel scared and register your vote from that fear. Your 24-hour news coverage will inform you about every single frightening thing that has happened, seems to have happened, or could happen one day. People prep for Doomsday, churches host active shooter drills in their SANCTUARIES of all places, our tiniest children learn lockdown procedures, and we have learned that there is nowhere safe enough or sacred enough to keep evil away.
It’s easy to see why people give into the fear. It is natural to want our families to be secure—bodily, financially, emotionally. It was easy for me to begin to succumb to fear once it was presented to me in February regarding our mission trip. I would never want anything to happen to our mission team. I work very hard in everything I plan and do to ensure safety for the kids we love.
But here is what I realized: In the Kingdom of God there is no room for fear.
Once I got my head on straight and had a long talk with the Youthworks organizer, I realized that I could look the prospect of fear in the eye and banish it with regards to our mission trip. And we had a great trip—and never once did Ginny or I sense that our team was in danger. The poverty on the Pine Ridge Reservation is the worst I’ve ever seen. The children of the reservation carry such heavy burdens on their small shoulders, and our students did meaningful work loving them and encouraging them and listening to their stories and spending time teaching and playing with them. It would have been a tragic thing for us or for me to bow to the fear that might have stopped us from going. We were called to carry peace and hope, and for the six days we were there, it was received by the residents of Wanblee, SD.
This morning, we will share the words of the Confession of Belhar in the place where we normally recite the Apostle’s Creed. The reason we are using the Belhar confession today is because ten days ago, the GA of our church adopted this confession into our book of Confessions, after a four year process that involved two voting bodies at GA and a vote in each presbytery, all requiring a 2/3 majority. Belhar will be the 12th document in our book, and it will share space with the Apostle’s Creed, the Westminster Catechism, and the Barmen Declaration, which is a more recent document which came out of Germany in the 1930s as a group of Christ’s faithful refused to give into fear and participate in persecution of Jewish neighbors. Like the Barmen Declaration, Belhar comes out of a particular place and time, namely South Africa in 1982, during the days of Apartheid. The Christians who wrote this confession took a stand against what they saw as racial injustice and division in the Body of Christ and instead stood for unity, community, and reconciliation, and that Christ does not exclude Christians from the Table based on dividing factors that humanity has created. According to Belhar, God is the God of the destitute, the poor, and the wronged, and for this reason the church should stand by people in any form of suffering or oppression. It invites the Church to renounce injustice and separation in the Body of Christ. And the adoption of this confession by the Dutch Reformed Missionary Church in South Africa was not an easy or safe adoption. In the confession, they state this clearly: “We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things, even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence.” Rather than fear, they trusted in God and they knew that God’s Kingdom is not one of fear.
Back in Luke, for the 70 disciples, it appears to have been a victorious mission. We are told they returned with joy and were amazed at how even the demons had submitted to them. Jesus celebrates with them, we read, but reminds them that it is not in these daily victories or struggles that they are to find their means of rejoicing, but in their status as God’s own children, beloved with their names written into eternal life.
St. Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on the world, yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless his people. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.”
Sisters and Brothers in Christ, we too have a mission—a mission to seek and offer God’s peace to those who are lost; a mission to feed and clothe and care for those who go without; a mission to be the Body of Christ here today. And some days, we’ll find a willing and ready field to joyfully harvest. At all times, however, we have the sweet peace of Christ as our constant companion. May you know this peace today and may you speak this peace and live this peace and share this peace everywhere you are called. Amen.