Sermon on John 4:5-42

(At Presbyterian Church of Henderson, we have started using fill-in-the-blank outlines in the bulletin to accompany each Sunday’s sermon. This has added a new dimension to preaching for me, but the hearers of the word seem to appreciate having an outline to follow. One thing I’ve learned is that it makes the sharing of a manuscript a bit clunky in this format. The following sermon has 3 “bullet points” and I have identified those by putting them in bold print and using blue text to indicate the words that fit in the blanks.

And my usual disclaimer: sermons are meant to be heard, not read, but this is the manuscript I used to preach this morning. This one began with a dramatic reading of the scripture by three members of the congregation.)

Scripture: John 4:5-42

We come this morning to a story that I have always loved. No doubt, I’ve read this passage of scripture more than just about any other. I’ve written papers about it. It’s regularly taught in youth group or Sunday School classes around here. I’ve preached about it from this pulpit at least one other time, but I think maybe twice.  

This passage contains the longest recorded conversation in any of the gospels and it happens between Jesus and a woman of Samaria. I love the rhythm of the conversation, the flow of topics from actual thirst and actual water to spiritual thirst and spiritual water. I love the way God changed this woman’s life in the course of an afternoon.

And I love the way that we once again bump into The Kingdom of God. Even when Jesus wasn’t explicitly talking about the Kingdom of God, Jesus was always talking about the Kingdom of God. And once again, we are reminded that when the Kingdom of God is set against the kingdom of this world, they could not be more different.

And right away we see that in the Kingdom of God,

outsiders become insiders.

Jesus and his disciples, walking the distance between Jerusalem in the south and Galilee in the north, make a stop mid-way between in Sychar, which is well within Samaria. It is noon and Jesus is tired, so while the disciples go to try to buy lunch, Jesus sits down by a well.

“A Samaritan woman came to draw water” is how the interaction begins. Two descriptions about her that make her an outsider to Jesus and his disciples. First, she’s a woman. The societal norms were clear on this one–a man, and especially a man who is a Rabbi, should not speak to a woman that is not his wife or family member. Further, she’s a Samaritan woman, which also makes her a religious and political outsider, since the Jews considered the Samaritans to be unclean.

Jesus obviously knows all of this. He knows she is a woman, he knows she’s a samaritan, he knows the expectations and he willingly reaches out to her with a simple request for a drink of water. Time and again, we see Jesus do this with folks he encountered, whether it’s touching a leper to heal him from disease to engaging a sychophonencian woman in a theological debate.

But there’s something else. It is noon and this woman is coming to the well. In the middle eastern desert during the hottest part of the day. Other women would have already been to the well, choosing instead to go in the cooler part of the day when the sun was just rising. A village well was, and still is in communities that have a common well for water, a gathering place. A place where women gather in the cool of the day before the chores at home need attention. For some reason, this woman goes when she knows she would be there alone. I imagine it’s more than the possibility that she was an introvert who wanted some time to herself.

If we jump ahead for just a second, we realize that this woman has been married multiple times and she’s currently residing with a man who is not her husband. Jesus will tell her this and she will confirm its truth.

Often we read scripture through modern eyes. In this instance, we might assume this woman is somehow to blame for this, that she was rightfully ashamed of how she had been living and that’s why she came to the well in the middle of the day and that’s what Jesus is going to talk to her about.  But we have to read this passage in the ancient context. In the ancient Middle Eastern world, this woman had little or no agency. We don’t know the circumstances of her five previous marriages, whether her husbands had died or abandoned her, how she even came to enter into those unions or even if she had wanted to be married. In the ancient world, no one really cared if a woman was willing to say “I do,” and marriage was more of a transaction, usually arranged by the father of the would-be-bride. Further, it was not advisable or even possible for a woman in the ancient world to live without a man. Women couldn’t provide for themselves. It’s possible that just about everything that was true about her situation were things she could not have changed.

But the actual circumstances do not always matter when it comes to shame, do they? Often, people with little ability to change their circumstances are blamed for the circumstances and are shamed by their communities, whether it’s deserved or not. I think about groups of people in our society in this day and age who are often blamed or shamed, maybe those who are dealing with disabilities or living in poverty. Or people who contract lung cancer–because lung cancer is the cancer that people assume must be the sufferer’s fault. Or I think about circumstances that cause individuals to feel private shame for things they could not have ever controlled, perhaps couples struggling with infertility or who have experienced reproductive loss and struggle in very personal ways, often quietly and alone. People can experience this isolation and separation from their neighbors for lots of reasons, many beyond their control, and I think this is where the woman here now at the well has been living.

This woman is an outsider to Jesus’ Jewish disciples, and she is also an outsider in her city or village, possibly all for reasons beyond her control. It is here where Jesus meets her and invites her into a different, wonderful story. And I think it is a beautiful thing that Jesus met this woman right where she was, and that it was Jesus who crossed those boundaries to reach out to her.  She had no idea when she walked to the well, her head bowed, her eyes to the ground, that she was going to meet the one who created her and that he was about to change her life forever.

In the Kingdom of God, outsiders become insiders because in the Kingdom of God, there are no more outsiders. The King of the Kingdom welcomes all to himself. This is good news not just for the woman standing with Jesus at the well, but for all of us who have found ourselves on the outside, separated from God or from each other.

And so now we come to the rest of the story. Our second point on the outline is that in the Kingdom of God,

dry wells are abandoned and living water flows.

Jesus has crossed lines to engage this woman in conversation and then he does something interesting. Out of the blue, he instructs the woman to go and get her husband and come back. And then, of course, she tells the truth, but in an ambiguous way–like we all do sometimes. “I have no husband.” And then Jesus speaks truth to her about her situation.

Considering the context and all of the things about shame and her outsider status, I do not actually think Jesus is talking about a sin problem, here. This is an assumption that is often held about this text. But I don’t think Jesus is addressing unfaithfulness in marriage…I think what may be happening here is that Jesus is acknowledging a deep emptiness and longing that has not yet been satisfied for her. The love she had experienced had not lasted, for whatever reason. Each relationship had led to a brokenness of some sort. She kept hoping for security or love with each dip of her bucket into the metaphorical relationship well, and that thirst was never permanently quenched.

Jesus offers her living water–a love that will never abandon her, a God who will always meet her needs. This is truly an opportunity for this woman to experience a permanent change in her life.

So I started thinking…what would Jesus have said to me if we had met at that well? He wouldn’t have asked about my husband, I don’t think. I thought and I thought and then it hit me.

Jesus would have looked at me from across the well and said, “Go get your perfect seminary transcript and bring it back here.” And I would have said, “Sir, I don’t have a copy printed.” And he would have said, “You’re right, because you don’t have a perfect seminary transcript because in Dr. Colyer’s doctrine class last semester you ended the term with a B.”

Because for me? That metaphorical well I keep revisiting hoping for permanent satisfaction is the well of approval. I want you, any of you, all of you, all of the people out there, all of my professors to approve of me and like me. It’s in my nature to go to whatever ridiculous length necessary to gain approval. But guess what? That’s a well that dries up fast. Because sometimes I make mistakes. Or I have to say something people don’t want to hear. Or someone just doesn’t like me. And even when I am well-liked, or my professors think I’m smart, that relief only lasts for a little bit…and then I need more praise and agreement and affirmation. But I was created and called to seek living water–the approval of ONE, the approval of God. That’s the water that will last.

What else might there be? What are the other wells that people go back to over and over again hoping for permanent satisfaction only to end up empty again?

On Sunday nights in the Fellowship Hall, a group of about 12 have been meeting to discuss Jen Hatmaker’s book “7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess.” As we read the book, we are thinking about the things that we have in our lives that we have a hard time using in moderation, and how sometimes those things become replacements for God. We’ve talked about food. We’ve talked about clothing. Tonight, Jesus be with me, we are talking about media.

One of the things we are really talking about, though, is that fact that in general, us humans have an emptiness inside of us, and that emptiness can be relentless. And sometimes, we try to fill that emptiness with…well, stuff. We buy bigger houses and seek promotions and we earn more money and we buy more stuff…and then we’re still empty, because those are not things that are eternal, and what we are really longing for, us humans, is something eternal.

So we go back to the same wells. For this woman, it was hope that the next relationship would last and bring security. For me, it’s approval and assurance that I’m good enough.

For someone else, Jesus might have talked about love of money or worldly success. Or the purchasing of new things–retail therapy. Or maybe about an addiction to drugs or alcohol or pornography or facebook. All wells that might fill someone up for a little bit, might quench a particular thirst for an amount of time…but not forever.

But Jesus offers another way, and a water that will truly quench those longings inside of us. If we would come to his well and drink deeply of the living water that comes to us through scripture, through prayer, through worship in spirit and truth, through trusting in God’s grace and listening for God’s call to us, seeking the Kingdom of God rather than the Kingdom of this world…we will never be thirsty again and our lives will be changed forever. And through our changed lives, God will change the lives of others. Because point number 3 is…

changed lives change lives.

In this one afternoon, this one woman’s life is changed forever. Jesus offers her living water and in it she finds a new identity as a child of God, loved and accepted, and a call to worship in spirit and truth.

And then God uses her newly changed life to change the lives of others in her community. This unnamed woman is often regarded as the first evangelist. She’s the first one who calls others to faith in Christ as the Messiah. Look–(read the come and see part of the passage).

All of a sudden the woman who went to the well at noon to avoid her neighbors is calling for them to come. In that interaction, Jesus changed her life, her identity, her understanding about who she was so dramatically that now she is inviting others to come and see.

And they did come, they left the city and came to the well and they heard this woman’s testimony and they believed in Jesus as the messiah. And they invited him to stay and even more Samaritans came to follow Jesus because of this one interaction at the well between Jesus and this woman whose name we never even learn.

She was living her ordinary life and Jesus broke in, reaching across many barriers, called her to him and offered her the thing she had been truly longing for, changing her life in such a way that God used her life and story to change the lives of so many of her neighbors.

Maybe you’ve been someone like this woman. Maybe God has changed your life in such a way that you’ve been able to offer this witness to others and maybe God has used your changed life to change the lives of your neighbors near and far. Maybe you’ve been unable to contain the gratitude you feel for a God who would call you in from the outside and claim you as God’s own, and you’ve shouted it from the roads and rooftops.

Or maybe you’ve known someone like this woman, and someone else’s story of how God has been visible and at work in his or her life has been the vehicle for change in your own life.

Did you know that this is God’s plan for evangelism? Did you know that God uses people–often ordinary, broken, flawed people at that–to bring the gospel to light for others? That the plan for the movement of the gospel involves one neighbor at a time, experiencing the love and grace of God and then sharing that same love and grace with others.

Where does Jesus find you this morning? Are you feeling like you’re on the outside, looking in? Is Jesus calling you to stop going to the same dried up well for joy or relief, and instead drink deeply of the living water that will bring joy and relief eternal? Are there people around you who are thirsty and in need of the hope that comes from the good news of a God who cares and loves and changes lives?

May we know Jesus’ calling, allow God to continue to change and challenge us, and be willing to bear witness to the goodness of God for the sake of our neighbors. Praise be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Neighbors, Niceties, and a Nervy Messiah

The Good Samaritan - Luke 10:25-37; Jesus Mafa, Camaroon, 1973; Held at Vanderbilt Divinity Library
The Good Samaritan – Luke 10:25-37; Jesus Mafa, Camaroon, 1973; Held at Vanderbilt Divinity Library

[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:

Luke 10:25-37

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.”)

No Room For Fear

south dakota[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:

  1. That he was sending them out like lambs into the midst of wolves.
  2. That this mission was best carried out with few possessions to keep track of and limited small talk along the way.
  3. 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.
  4. That they would be dependent on the hospitality of the residents of the homes they would visit.
  5. 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.