Preached on 8 July 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9, Year B, Thematic track.
Jesus is stymied. He’s been on a roll, going from village to village, crisscrossing the lake and attracting crowds everywhere he goes. He has been teaching, healing, casting out demons, even raising the dead. He has decided he might be ready for the toughest crowd so far – Nazareth. Home.
He goes to the synagogue on the sabbath and begins teaching. At first, it sounds like the people are impressed by his wisdom and knowledge and insight. “Where does he get it,” they wonder. It soon becomes apparent, though, that this is just too much. “Wait a minute,” they protest, “we know who you are. We know your family. We watched you grow up. You’re just the carpenter! Why should we listen to you? You’re no different than us.” He doesn’t have the right credentials. They don’t recognize his authority.
Jesus is stymied. He is powerless to do anything more than cure a few people. What to do?
So, he partners with the disciples and sends them out in pairs. He grants them his authority (the authority the crowds in Nazareth dismissed). He grants them authority to cast out demons and to go to the villages to continue the work. He sends them out to be a blessing.
He sends them out purposely unprepared – no provisions, no money, not even a change of clothes or a bag to carry so much as a snack. No, they are to go out into he world as guests, reliant on the hospitality of others, of strangers. They go in pairs so they’re not alone, but they are very vulnerable.
There is one thing they are prepared for, though: that they may be rejected. People may not want the blessing they have to offer. They, too, may be stymied, unable to help. Then what? Then move on. Let it go, leave it all behind so it doesn’t get in our way at the next village. Shake the dust from your feet.
Let’s think about that a little more from the perspective of our own context.
I often think that the goal, the purpose of the church is not to figure out ways to get people to spend more of their lives at church. Rather, the purpose of the church is to inspire and equip people to spend more of their lives being church, wherever they are.
I see this story about Jesus sending the disciples as an example of that. They have seen him do works of power – power over illness, power over demons, power over the weather, even power over death. They have seen the crowds, the gratitude, and the changed lives. They have also seen the rejection, the hostility, and the threats. And here they see him virtually powerless. It’s a whole package. They can’t take just the bits they like.
And now, he sends them out to be church, so to speak, to offer this particular work in this particular way – as guests; vulnerable, reliant on the kindness and hospitality of strangers.
Let’s talk a bit about the spiritual practice of being a guest. At its heart is a spirit of openness. Openness to the other’s experience and ideas and culture. It’s graciously accepting what they offer. Remember, Jesus said to stay in one place; don’t go looking for better digs or go social climbing.
At the same time, it’s openness to sharing of ourselves; our stories, our experience and ideas and culture. It is to graciously offer of ourselves with open hands. Being a guest is reliance on the kindness and hospitality of others without being entitled to it.
It’s a position of vulnerability.
This sounds so foreign to American culture, doesn’t it? Even when we’re a guest, we often think in terms of reciprocity. We offer something in return: a bottle of wine or chocolates or flowers or something, and almost an implied promise of a future invitation in return. We go in knowing that if we weren’t there, we would be able to do for ourselves. We go in with a sense of self-reliance, rather than vulnerability.
But, you know what? Self-reliance is a delusion. Whether we like it or not, whether we recognize and acknowledge it or not, we are dependent on one another and we have a responsibility for one another. When we enter into that position of vulnerability; when we engage in a spiritual practice of being a guest, we develop and nurture our capacity for compassion and empathy and kindness; all necessary for discipleship; for being a decent human being, for that matter.
Jesus sends the disciples out to cast out demons and heal the sick. That is one way of being church but there are many ways. Throughout Scripture, we hear, “The Lords says, ‘I will bless you that you might be a blessing.’”
Perhaps that, in a nutshell, is what it means to be church. We are blessed by God in order that we may be a blessing to the world.
Which brings us to the topic of blessing. So often, when we count our blessings or say, “I’m blessed” what we’re really referring to is good fortune. But blessing is not about good luck; it’s not about receiving or experiencing what we like or desire. Blessing is more than that.
In the Great Thanksgiving we pray, “You blessed us with memory, reason, and skill.” Not the usual blessings we name when we count our blessings – until we lose them. Maybe our blessings are those gifts we receive that enable us to do good in the world. Blessing is not so much a large paycheck as it is meaningful work, for example.
You may be blessed with the ability to teach or care or heal; to design or build or to create beauty. You may have blessings like friendship, compassion, hospitality, courage, wisdom, or the ability to see reality and to Speak Truth.
We are blessed not only to help those who suffer or are in need, but also to resist the cause of the suffering – whether a person or a system; oppressive or abusive people or systems or even the one person with just enough power to enrich themselves at the expense of others, or just enough to make someone else miserable.
What we do matters. Being church is not about self-confidence or certainty in a message. It is about certainty of God’s love for the folks right in front of us. Acts of kindness and compassion are holy; and the ground we stand on is holy ground. That’s what being church in the world does; it makes all ground holy.
At the same time, indifference or apathy, unkind acts or dismissive words or attitudes are tragic.
God blesses us; blesses you, equips you, to be an agent of grace. God invites you to a life of holiness rooted in everyday acts of kindness and courage; ordinary actions, yet extraordinary in the difference they make to those around you.
You are the church when you leave this place. The ground you tread is holy ground. Always remember that. You are blessed by God and you are a blessing.
And I thank God for you.