Unavoidable Questions

This is my sermon preached at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea, Narragansett RI on Sunday July 7, 2013.  Proper 9, Year C.
Isaiah 66:10-14; Psalm 66:1-8; Galatians 6:1-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

The art of preaching can be a difficult and challenging thing.  There are some Sundays where the texts seem to be completely unrelated to one another and where we find ourselves in the life of the Church.  There are Sundays where the lections are so incredibly rich, where they fit so perfectly with where we are in our liturgical calendar.  Then there are Sundays that present great challenge to who we are, what we do, and how we go about doing it.  As I was preparing for this morning, I came to realize that this Sunday is a combination of the last two scenarios.  ImageToday is a day the lectionary gives us – particularly in the Epistle and Gospel – readings that fit together wonderfully and speak powerfully to where we are in the life of the Church.  But, listening to Paul’s closing words to the Galatians and Jesus’ call to the seventy leaves us with some difficult and challenging questions that we may wish to ignore.

What we hear of Paul’s letter to the Galatians are his closing words to this community.  As such it seems that he is trying to repeat all of the things he has written about in the previous five chapters of this letter.

First, we are reminded of what it means to be in community.  More specifically how we treat one another in community.  Paul says to the Galatians, “Bear one another’s burdens.”  Despite our very best efforts, we are sinful creators – we fall short of the glory of God.  Part of being in community is the task of helping one another when we fall short.  When this happens the whole community of faith, in a spirit of gentleness and love, is responsible for helping guide the one who has fallen short back to the path of faithfulness.  When we live in this way, foretastes of life eternal are accessible they are within reach; and through this we know that the day is coming when the hope of righteousness will be fulfilled for those who walk by the Spirit, loving their neighbors as themselves.  This way of life is the spirit of the law that is so important to Paul: the Messianic law, the law of the Messiah.

Paul spends a lot of time in his writings talking about law.  In fact, Paul’s whole life has been focused around law.  Before his dramatic conversion experience on the road to Damascus, Saul – as he was then known – used the law to seek out and persecute Christians.  After his conversion, his understanding of law changed.  He no longer focused on the Mosaic law – the law of Moses – but he instead focused on the law of the Messiah.  For Paul, all the laws of the body, of cleanliness, of who belongs and who does not no longer matter.  For everything is a new creation! Now for those who are deeply concerned with the letter of the law, and following it perfectly, Paul reminds them that, “God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.”

Paul spends a bit of time in today’s Epistle talking about reaping and sowing.  “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.” If we live into those gifts of the spirit we heard about last Sunday – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – we will receive that great reward of eternal life.  We will be freed from sin and death, but that freedom we receive comes with a cost.  Unlike what freedom means in our cultural context, in Christ freedom, service, and obedience are inextricably linked.  We know that to serve Christ is perfect freedom, and that service comes from our obedience to God’s call.  That connection between freedom and obedience is the responsibility that comes with the great privilege of hearing and experiencing God’s Word.

Our Gospel for this morning begins with Jesus appointing seventy people to go out ahead of him.  The number seventy is not some random number, but it has important significance for the soteriological theme in Luke’s Gospel.  The number seventy was held to be the number of nations in the world.  As the writer with the universalist view, salvation for Luke is something for the whole world – for all of humanity.  For the circumcised and the uncircumcised, for those who the law says belong and those who do not.

In the sending out of the seventy, Jesus gives a rather demanding command. “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.” In their call the seventy are to go with great haste and are not to be distracted by idol conversation or material goods.  If they are accepted in a town, they are to stay and use the authority given to them by Jesus to have a holistic ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing.  They are to announce that, “the kingdom of God has come near.” But, if they are not accepted they are to wipe off the dust from their feet.  There too they are to say, “the kingdom of God has come near” as a way to let that place know they have missed the opportunity to experience the kingdom in their midst.  For Jesus say, “whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”

These seventy, in their ministry, must rely upon the radical hospitality of strangers.  They are to, in courage and freedom, go forth in vulnerability and intentional poverty, to travel lightly, and to depend on the hospitality of others.  They must rely on others for everything – food, shelter, care.  They know that their ministry – their obedience and service to God – puts them at great risk. They are sent our with no protection, “like lambs in the midst of wolves.” Sure makes modern day preaching, seem like a much easier task!

What these apostles bring in their ministry is a radical form of peace.  This is a type of peace that only comes from the word of God, peace that comes from service and obedience.  But this peace of God is no peace at all.  Everything about this apostolic mission subverts the systems of power and privilege in the world.  In the language of Paul, it breaks down the letter of the law, but it fulfills the spirit of the Messianic law.

This only begins to scratch the surface of these lessons.  Like I said in the beginning of my sermon, these texts are so rich that they provide the preacher with plenty of material to cover. But, even with this brief look at these two lessons, difficult questions emerge.  Questions I have no answers to, but they are questions we must face both individually and collectively.

Are we willing to step away from the letter of the law, from the old way, and accept that everything is a new creation? When we face the Galatian dilemma of belonging, we will realize that our rules for who belongs and who doesn’t do not work under the law of Christ? Or will we continue to have some sort of litmus test of worthiness?

Are we willing, like the seventy, to take the challenge of Christ, to take on the inescapable vulnerability that is implicit in the mission Jesus calls us to? Are we willing to accept that our success will be far greater that we can ever perceive, or be something we may never know?

The apostles were willing to go without food, shelter, or welcome for the sake of the Gospel.  What are we willing to give up for the sake of the Good News? What does this mean for this community gathered, a place with abundant gifts and resources? In what ways do we focus on our material possessions of going house to house looking for the best accommodations, instead of focusing on the task at hand? What would it look like for the church to embrace an ethos of intentional poverty, like the seventy did?

These are hard and challenging questions, that it would be easier if we just avoided.  But, unfortunately – or fortunately depending on how you look at it – we are unable to do that if we truly wish to be disciples of Jesus.  Whether we like it or not, the peace of the Gospel is conflictive, the work of the crucified and risen Christ will always stand opposed to the standards and desires of our consumeristic culture.  Remember the peace of God is no peace at all.

This is hard and scary stuff, but the privilege that comes with this responsibility is more than we can ever ask for or imagine.  Our reward – our inheritance – is far beyond any of these worldly goods or standards.  We are not perfect, we will not always get this right, we will fall short of the glory of God.  No matter how hard it is, we must ask these questions.  We must let our lives be challenged by the Gospel.  But, we cannot let the challenge scare us away.

Our doubts at our ability to live into the lives God has called us to are no excuse.  We have no reason to say no to the invitation of the apostles to experience the kingdom of God in our midst.  We may think, we aren’t good enough, strong enough, smart enough, or whatever enough to accept this call, but the truth is “no arm to weak but may do service here.”  The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.  If we are willing to take the risk, to trust in the knowledge and love of God, in our ability to carry out our call to ministry; Jesus promises an abundant harvest.  This all leaves one last question: will you join me in laboring and inviting others to come along for this incredible journey?

AMEN

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