Lectionary 14, Year C, July 7, 2019
Isaiah 66:10-14, Psalm 66:1-9, Galatians 6:7-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“After this the Lord appointed sevent 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 laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the Harvest to send laborers out into his harvest.” Believe it or not, this is one of the ways in which our world is similar to Jesus’ day. There is a great harvest—a lot of people who are hungry for God, for some deeper meaning to their lives—but not that many laborers to bring in the harvest, to give the Good News of Jesus Christ to the people who are most hungry for it.
One in every five Americans today calls themselves “spiritual but not religious.” They believe there is something greater than the material world; they believe that they are better off if they pay attention to their spiritual life; they are curious about God; but they don’t go to church or read the Bible or look to Christianity for guidance or community. Some of them grew up Christian but have left the faith; some of them were never Christian to begin with. Many are wary or skeptical of institutional religion and churches, because they have seen too many abuses, too many hypocrites, too many people using the Bible as a club to beat people over the head with, too much use of the Bible simply as a trump card in political arguments. Or they can’t imagine that someone like them could ever be welcome in church: they just don’t fit the standard mold of the churchgoer, and think they will only be welcome if they pretend to be someone they’re not. Or, like a cousin of mine, they long for some deeper spiritual experience, but found the church more interested in maintaining the status quo and the traditions than in exploring discipleship and spirituality.
Whatever the reason, whatever their experiences, these people will never walk in a church’s doors on their own. They will never seek to be baptized or to come to Bible study without being invited. And they will probably be suspicious, at least at first, of invitations, because so many of them have been burned by Christians and Christian churches before. And yet, despite all of this they are deeply hungry for a closer connection with God, and this is something we can help them find through our Lord Jesus Christ. They are ripe for the harvest; but there aren’t many of us to go out and do it, and most of us are afraid of being sent out, because it’s hard to talk about important things with people who disagree with us.
So let’s talk about the seventy who were sent out, and how they were sent out, and what they were sent to do, because it’s not what we think of when we think of mission work. In some ways, it’s a lot easier than what we think of; in others, it is so much harder. We think of missionaries as people who know their Bibles cover to cover and who know all the right arguments to make to “prove” they are right and the people they are trying to convert are wrong. But you can’t argue someone into faith; it just doesn’t work that way. Faith can’t be taught, it has to be caught. You absorb it from the people around you, from the way they interpret their experience of God. Learning doctrines and theology, that comes later; if you have faith, it adds great richness and depth. If you don’t have faith, the doctrines are useless. And so often in the last few centuries, missionaries have brought as much cultural imperialism as they did religion. When they entered a community, instead of seeing what the Christian life might look like in that culture, they tried to change the culture to be more like mainstream White middle-class culture, as if Jesus could only love you if you wore the right clothes and spoke the right way and sang the right songs.
But if you notice, when Jesus gave the seventy their marching orders, they were nothing like our stereotypes of what missionaries should be. First, he doesn’t give them a list of doctrines or beliefs that people have to be taught and convinced to believe. The seventy were people who had followed Jesus for months, who had heard him preach and talked with him and knew his message, but the teachings were not part of this first missionary journey. The first thing they’re supposed to do—the beginning of their ministry—is not to preach, but to spread peace.
Now, in Jewish thought, peace is a lot deeper than what we think of today. Peace was not merely the absence of conflict, although that was part of it; peace was part of shalom, which means peace but which also means wholeness, healing, harmony, completeness, prosperity, welfare. This is the first thing they are to do: they are to bring shalom with them and bless those they meet with it. This is for two reasons. First, it is God’s desire that everyone experience that healing, that wholeness, that harmony within themselves and within their community, whether or not they believe in God. And second, once you have experienced that shalom, even if only in part, it becomes so much easier for the Good News of Jesus Christ to take root. Where fears, anxieties, angers, resentment, jealousy, and other things like them hold sway, the Word of God finds rocky soil in our hearts. Shalom is the basis for every good thing.
And the seventy don’t get to take the easy way out. They don’t get to discriminate and only go to places where there is already shalom, because God’s peace is beyond understanding and it is. Everyone needs peace and wholeness; so the seventy are sent to be agents of shalom everywhere they go. Not everyone will accept shalom; not everyone is willing to open themselves up to the possibility of healing and harmony. And not everyone who experiences shalom will then be willing to hear God’s Word. But the ones Jesus sends are to proclaim it anyway, and if that shalom is rejected, the laborers are not to retaliate or judge, but simply shake the dust from their feet and move on.
There are people today, in our own community, who are in desperate need of healing, wholeness, harmony, prosperity, and peace. Sometimes that need is personal; sometimes, it is families who need it; sometimes, it is whole large groups. Some of them will welcome that when it comes; others will not. But as Jesus’ followers we are called and commanded by God to be instruments of that peace, and just as the seventy were sent out to bring that shalom to the communities along Jesus’ path, we are called to bring it to those in our own community. We are called to do this both for the sake of God’s shalom, and because people who have experienced that shalom are far more likely to listen to the Good News of Jesus. So here’s a question: where are the places in need of shalom among us, and what can we do to bring it? How can we, as individuals and as a congregation, be instruments of God’s peace, healing, and wholeness?
But spreading shalom is only the first step for the seventy. Once they have begun to spread that shalom, they have to stay with the people they are evangelizing. They don’t get to retreat back into the familiar culture and surroundings of what they’re used to. No, they stay with the people they are evangelizing, they keep promoting shalom through word and deed. This is hard; it means they are not in control. They are guests. They don’t get to impose their cultural expectations as part of evangelism; they have to listen and adapt to the culture of their hosts. They are to bring the Gospel, not their culture. How can we, as we interact with others in our community, bring that same grace and openness to other ways of living?
And then, once they have brought peace and healing and wholeness, then they are to proclaim that the kingdom of God is near. But it’s still not about doctrine or Biblical knowledge or the right argument. It’s about pointing out where God is in their midst. It’s about pointing out God moments, places where God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness and shalom break into the world. It’s about seeing God in action. And once you have that—once you have God’s shalom, and can see where God is around you, that is when faith comes. That is when spirituality deepens from something vague into something concrete. That is when people start to become disciples, start to become part of the community of faith and learn its stories and its beliefs. And that is when we see, as the seventy did, the work of the Holy Spirit. May we learn to spread shalom as they did. May we learn to be good guests, as they did. And may we always point out the kingdom of God in our midst.