July 3, 2016, Being the Sent – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: 121110_001
Carroll and I are teaching a class on the Old Testament this summer. There’s a lot there, in the Old Testament: a lot of history, a lot of different and strange people and cultures – it’s a pretty huge book. In fact, it has about 60,000 more words than War and Peace, which is the book most people think of when they think Big Book.
The Old Testament – 622,771 words
War and Peace – 587,287 words
But there are two fundamental truths to understand about the Old Testament – especially if you are a Christian. The first truth is this: that there isn’t a “Old Testament God” that is different than, or separate from, or other than, the God of the New Testament, whether you mean Jesus or the Father that Jesus reveals in the gospels. As Christians, we proclaim that there’s only one God, one God in the Bible, one God in the world, one God in all of history. One God, the same yesterday, today, and forever. That is true, and it makes reading the Old Testament challenging sometimes. But if you don’t understand that, then you won’t be able to really understand the Old Testament or the New Testament.
The second truth is this: that God’s relationship with his people was different in the Old Testament than it has been ever since Jesus came. The coming of Jesus was the watershed event in history. And so, God’s presence in the Church is not the same as God’s presence was in the nation of Israel. And we can see how that difference plays out in the story of Naaman. When Naaman found out he had leprosy, he had no hope for a cure. Lepers became outcasts, living alone and dying alone, slowly but surely. He had no hope until this little slave girl that he had carried off from a raid on Israel told him that there was a prophet, who served the God of Israel, and that he had the power to heal even such a terrible disease as leprosy.
In those days people believed that each region had its own god. Every nation had its own local gods and goddesses, who were thought to belong to that particular land; and the people carved wood and stone images of their deities and worshiped them and made sacrifices to them in hopes of keeping them happy so they would have good crops and good health and safety from their enemies. And so, in those days, the infinite, eternal God set his presence in the region of the people he had chosen for his own. But unlike the gods of the neighboring countries, Israel’s God actually did stuff. He spoke to his people. And he gave them a set of laws to live by. And he healed diseases that were beyond the skill of human medicines. And people noticed that the God of Israel was not like the gods of the nations, people like the little slave girl who told her master, “In my country there is a prophet who could heal your leprosy.” People like Naaman, whose leprosy was completely healed.
And Naaman was so convinced that Israel’s God was the real deal that when he went back to Syria, completely healed of his leprosy, he took with him two mule loads of earth so that he could stand on Israeli soil even in his own homeland, and worship the true God, the God of Israel, for the rest of his life.
The God who healed Naaman is the very same God we worship, the God who is real, the God who acts, the God who heals. As far as who God is, nothing has changed. But as far as who the people of God are, everything has changed. Because the Presence of God isn’t contained within a nation or a building anymore. And the power of God isn’t limited to one special prophet like Elisha. The power and presence of God are in his people, every one of his people, as they go out into a world in need of healing. And that’s what the gospel reading is about today.
In chapter 9 of Luke, the chapter before the one we read today, Jesus sent out the 12, the men we call the Apostles. But now, we read today in chapter 10, Jesus sends out 70 more disciples. 70 men, or men and women maybe, who had heard Jesus or been healed by Jesus or been touched by him in some way so that they had decided to follow him. These guys are people like us; in many ways these 70 people are the prototype for the church. Because, before the first Christians began meeting for worship and Holy Eucharist in the very earliest days after the Resurrection; before the disciples were even called Christians, while Jesus was still living and teaching among us, – first, and most importantly – he sent his disciples out into the world, into the villages, into people’s homes, to heal the sick and to bring hope. And that’s still the church’s most important business. Being the people of Jesus, being the church, means to bring the love and healing of God into the world.
I think what is hard for us sometimes is to figure out what that looks like in Norwood, New York, in the year 2016. We’re not rugged peasants in sandals walking the dusty roads of Palestine from village to village, and we don’t meet blind beggars in the marketplace or lepers on the outskirts of town. And most of us haven’t been called to be missionaries to remote peoples and places. The sick around here go to Urgent Care or the emergency room, and the poor are referred to the appropriate social services.
Sometimes it seems like it’s a lot harder in the modern world to go out and do Christianity the way the disciples of the New Testament did it. The specialists have the care-giving thing covered, and we have so much other stuff to take care of, for one thing – jobs and family responsibilities and houses and cars, so many things that require a lot of care and feeding. And other people, our neighbors, people on the street – their lives are mostly full of stuff and busy-ness, too. I find, in our pleasant little neighborhood on Prospect Street, that I can sometimes go several days without ever seeing, let alone talking to, our next-door neighbors. If we didn’t have to walk our dogs, we might go weeks with little or no neighborly contact. We are a society of self-contained units, and we are programmed from childhood to take care of our own and to earn our way and to not ask for help.
And then, on the other hand, we find ourselves overwhelmed at times with the needs of the world. We see war and famine and all manner of cruelty and violence on the news, until we have to turn it off just to avoid being crushed by it all. We get phone calls and emails and letters in the mailbox asking for donations for medical research and famine relief and goodness knows how many other things until we find ourselves automatically filing it all in the trash bin and screening our phone calls so we won’t be bothered. That’s real life in the Now, but it doesn’t accomplish the bringing of God’s love into the world, and it doesn’t do much healing of hurts or shining light in the darkness, even if we write out a check now and then for some worthy charity or other.
We’re not in first-century Palestine any more, but the truth is that the world needs the love and healing of God more than ever, and we are still being sent out, by the same Jesus that sent the 70 out. Notice that he didn’t send them out alone. That’s important. He sent the 70 out two by two, and he gives us one another as companions to keep each other going, to remind each other what we are here for, and to protect each other – because Jesus said it himself, he sends his people out like sheep among wolves. (Though I think sometimes the people of God need to remind one another not to BE the wolves, too.) We need the community of the church – we aren’t called to be Lone Ranger Christians.
And even more, Luke says that Jesus sent them where he was going himself. The church doesn’t work on the corporate model, with Jesus as CEO and disciples going off carrying out his orders. We are his co-workers always. The 70 worked alongside Jesus in the flesh. And us, too – Jesus told us that he is with us always, to the end of the age. The Holy Spirit is his real presence with us, at all times, in all places – at home, at the grocery store, in the waiting room of the doctor’s office, on our own street, in the Thrift Shop or at a Community Dinner.
And in all the places he sends us, there are people in need of healing – healing of so many different kinds – people who need a little friendship, a little kindness, a little light, a little hope, a little compassion.
And not everyone will appreciate what we offer; some people have been so badly wounded, some people have closed themselves in so tightly that they are too afraid or too angry to open up and let the light in. “Don’t take it personally,” Jesus told the disciples. “When they turn you away, they’re really turning me away.” But notice, his message is the same for all. “When people welcome you,” he said, “heal all the sick who are there, and tell them: the kingdom of God has come near.” “ If people reject you,” Jesus said, “then wipe the dust off your feet and go on your way. And tell them: the kingdom of God has come near.” Sometimes bringing the love of God close is the best we can do. The rest of the cure is God’s work. And he is very good at what he does.
The key is to keep our eyes and our hearts open to the people God is sending us to. We might ask him each morning to guide us to that one person who needs us today. We can ask him to give us the courage to say anything at all, or the wisdom to know the right thing to say or do. We can ask to grow in generosity, because the more we have the harder it is for us to hold it lightly and to be willing to let it go for the sake of others, whether that is our time or our money or our energy or even our dignity. For myself, I know that I need over and over again to ask for a greater measure of compassion, because it is so easy to grow a kind of hard shell of protection around our hearts when we really begin to see the loneliness and fear and sadness around us. But know this: to be the people of Jesus is to be on a mission every day, in the midst of a suffering world. He is sending us out, and the harvest is greater than we can imagine: there are so many people who live without hope, so much poverty and sickness and loneliness and fear. We are just a few laborers here. But our Lord Jesus goes with us. And the kingdom of God is truly coming near.