Luke 10:1 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. 2 He said to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3 Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4 Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5 Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this house!' 6 And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7 Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9 cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.' 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11 '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.' 16 "Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me." 17 The seventy returned with joy, saying, "Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!" 18 He said to them, "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 19 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. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."
Two by Two
The last of our belongings was being loaded on a moving van. Our household goods were packed neatly into the back of a large semi trailer. I began to understand, after an exhausting 14 hour day of loading why it was that Jesus suggested to his followers that we carry "no purse, no bag, no sandals." We have too much stuff, I thought to myself. After a short three years of "unintentional interim ministry" in Conroe we were moving again.
My tenure was filled with joys and sorrows, as any ministry might be. The congregation and I had grown, sometimes with each other, sometimes in spite of each other. All in all I was leaving with a sense of accomplishment, with a sense that I was leaving behind a faithful group of Christians, poised and ready for new adventures with a new pastor.
In the midst of the loading and the unloading there were many hours of just sitting and waiting. I looked at and reflected on this text, knowing that I would have to write the sermon posting for this week. As I did, I thought about the many places where Kathy and I have been called. Her calling is as all spouses, to support me, and I her. My calling, vocationally was to be pastor. Both of us have been called to live and proclaim the good news that the reign of God had come near, one of us in congregational ministry, the other in lay ministry as a classroom teacher. Had we been faithful to the charge given to the seventy in this passage from Luke? Had we returned with joy to our Lord with amazing tales to tell?
The Ministry of the Seventy
Several things strike me about the seventy and their story from Luke's gospel. First, they are not sent alone where they go. Neither Luke nor Jesus give us the reasons why, but it seems that there could be any number. Perhaps Jesus knows that workers are more diligent and accountable when sent in pairs. Perhaps we are safer, less vulnerable with someone to journey with. Perhaps there is wisdom in sending pairs with diverse gifts. Whatever the reason, we are sent in pairs. Perhaps the mission of the wider church today would be better served by seeing how we can "pair" ourselves in ministry. This is why I have always been grateful for Kathy's presence on my ministry journeys. This is why I have sought dialog partners for the more difficult issues and concerns of my ministry. We are sent in pairs for all of the above reasons, but also because it helps us to see the relationship between us as the place where God's Spirit works and dwells. All people in ministry know that we do nothing without the spirit.
Second, the seventy are likely not trained religious leaders. Today, we are tempted to think of pastors as the people who are sent into ministry. The reality is that everyone is called to proclaim the "nearness of God's reign" no matter what they do to earn money. The seventy earn wages, but what they do is embody how God's reign, with the many signs that they do helping them to reveal its presence. The sharing of God's peace, the curing of the sick, the casting out of demons are all signs of the breaking in of God's future reign into our present world and reality. These things do not, contrary to popular belief, require professional religious leaders so much as they require trust in God's reign. All of us are called to this ministry, and we carry it out in any number of ways.
Barbara and her husband are examples of this. Barbara came to church the first time on a Christmas Eve. Her husband attended to her needs, as she was bound to a wheelchair. She experienced the coming of God in many ways in her life, both in and out of church. She couldn't do much else, but she could knit, and knit she did. She prayed a prayer with every stitch, for the unknown person who would be covered by the "shawl" that she would knit, and as her prayer shawls were shared with the sick, the newly born and baptized, the dying, with almost anyone, really, they were agents of peace and transformation. Barbara proclaimed the reign of God in knit word and yarning prayer. Her husband, Bob, meanwhile, quietly attended to her needs, helped her secure the yarn, and shared calm and love with every quiet step. They had received grace and peace, and were vessels of those things for the world.
Third, the seventy are wildly successful, or so they think. They come back amazed. Jesus is not impressed. He knows that they will do these things and more. If there is any doubt about that, just read the book of Acts. But he also knows that it is not the seventy that do these things. It is the work of the Holy Spirit. The seventy bear the reign of God to people, but it is God, through the Spirit, who accomplishes the "shalom" the wholeness that feeds the body and the soul. Modern ministers would do well to remember it is not about us. It is always about God and what God is up to. In fact that God chooses to use flawed, fallible human beings as witnesses to God's reign is testimony to both God's power and God's vulnerability and risk. We should expect no less from the God of the cross.
God's reign has indeed come near in Jesus Christ and it is still in the process of being revealed, or unfolded, before us in time. Our love grace and peace are reflections of that reign, they are signs that we trust it and participate in it, whenever we live for others and act for their wholeness in the world. Some will receive that grace with grace of their own. Others will reject it by rejecting us (though not all people who disagree are rejecting us, and not all rejection of us is rejection of God). In fact it is tempting to want to turn and run when we feel rejected in ministry, to wipe the dust off our feet in protest to the way we are treated, to assume the self righteous stance when our ministry comes to an end. But our world no longer looks at acts of "shaming" others as significant, except as acts of self pity. And every congregation has people who act wonderfully and who act shamefully. No, this sign for Jesus' day has less place in our world.
Instead, we trust that the God who works through us when we are called to a particular place will continue to work in that place without us, and perhaps even better without us. We leave, as I did from Conroe, Texas last week, with heavy hearts. But then there was a journey and a new destination to which Kathy and I have been called. And so with joy we arrived at our new home, the dust of Texas still on our feet and on our cars. And here, in Indiana again for the first time in 25 years, we will discover the new ways that we are called to share the reign of God in word and deed. But looking back, I can report to my Lord that amazing things have happened wherever I went, though I was responsible for none of them. I am but a witness to the marvelous unfolding of God's love, grace and peace..