Sermon – July 7, 2019 – Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

I don’t how many of you read my newsletter article that came out this week, but if you have not, I would urge you to do so.  What I shared in that article were some observations by a wise bishop from Iowa, Bishop Michael Burk, who has identified what he sees as key marks, key characteristics, key practices of a healthy and vibrant church.

The first mark he says of such a church is that it is a place where the gospel is proclaimed. That seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? But the implication is that there is sometimes a lot of talk in the community that has nothing at all to do with a message of hope and healing and welcome that is ours in Christ. It was and is my contention that this is such a place, a place where you can hear and learn and come to articulate the gospel.

Jesus’ mission to the 70, in their commissioning and sending, that is the only thing they were equipped with. They were equipped with the gospel. That’s it.

I’m a guy who always over packs. Ask my wife. There’s always extra pants, extra socks, extra underwear, that coat just in case. Believe me we just got back from a few weeks on the road and we couldn’t gotten one more thing to our car. I want to be prepared for every contingency. Same when I hike. My pack has the knife and the headlamp, the extra socks, the rain gear, the water purifier.   I carry the first aid kit and the emergency blanket. There’s toilet paper and sunblock and insect repellent, some snacks, compass and plenty of water. If I were one of the 70 headed out on that journey, Jesus would’ve emptied my pack, put in what I needed and sent me on my way.

That’s essentially what he did with the 70. Travel lightly  Forget all the stuff that you think you need. All you really need is this word of grace and hope. More specifically, it was the word of peace, the work of healing, and the assurance that that which God had promised has come to pass in this Jesus Christ. As we spoke of not long ago, that word from Jesus was proclaimed in his first sermon in the synagogue. “I come to bring good news to the poor and sight to the blind freedom for imprisoned and to declare this time of God’s favor.   And this word was to go to all people… Every city and town he says, because it is intended not for the few, but for the many.

This sounds like the worst kind of cold call salesmanship… Show up and do your thing and maybe some will accept and but many may not.  But the fact is that these 70 are being sent to the very places that this word of hope is needed. To communities burdened by fear, individuals suffering, families undermined and torn apart by the whims of the Roman occupiers, those whose own failure and sin had left them in fear and uncertainty. This is the harvest that Jesus describes. It is simply the need of the world that this gospel attempts to address.

And that need is no less urgent today that it was 2000 years ago.  And, again, Christ’s word of grace is all we need.

A second one of these marks that I’d written about was that a vital and healthy church engages with the broader church and ministry. This is not lone ranger ministry.  Please note that Jesus sent this team out into various parts of the kingdom, and they went to by two. They went together. They cooperated. They presumably watched out for each other and partnered with each other in this work. The message is the church that only sees beyond the end of its own nose  loses the opportunity for the cooperative impact of the church as it works together.  Whether it is support for our social service agencies like L SSI, or our community ministry to feed the hungry like the farm and Meals on Wheels, or the storybook program which joins local churches together to bring good news to the children of incarcerated, all of these ministries are multiplied when they are done cooperatively.  So we do this gospel work together.

Jesus makes it clear to the 70 that this won’t necessarily be easy. In fact, his language is downright scary. Sent among wolves, snakes and scorpions, etc. The message is that not all will embrace or engage or approve. Some, maybe many, especially those who leverage fear and division and hatred to their own ends, will find the proclamation of Christ’s shalom a threat to their prerogatives and purposes.  Sometimes your best laid plans simply just won’t work. That’s just a fact. Implied in the warning that not all will be welcoming is the assurance that Christ proclaimed time and again in his ministry with and among the disciples and among the people. “Do not be afraid. I’m with you.”     Bishop Burk , in his reflections on vital congregations, accepts that inevitability, but asserts that healthy and faithful congregations nevertheless are willing to take risks. Risk-taking for the sake of the gospel is, first, to understand that it’s not all about us, that is, the whole of the execution of Christ’s kingdom is not necessarily depend upon our individual skills or charm, but has its own force for change. To be a risk-taking community is secondly to act and then to believe that Christ and is in the midst of these things – our proclamation, our community and those whom we seek to serve – and he would attend to the ends.

As mentioned before, the why of this mission is clear. The world has great need. The fourth of Bishop Burk’s earmarks is that the community exists to serve the neighbor, that what we do matters for the sake of the well-being, health, the peace of the community beyond our walls. These 70, the 12 and everybody he was proclaimed the good news of Jesus bears real gifts into the world. Hope, healing, peace, a more authentic narrative for who we are to God and to one another. Real gifts. Real change.

In our story, as the messengers returned emboldened and excited by the power of Christ’s word on those they encountered. In response, Jesus then says a sort of strange thing. He says goes “I saw Satan fall from the sky” well, did he really see Satan fall from the sky crash and burn then on the soil of ancient Israel? No, I think what he meant was that these are the very things that turn evil, that challenges the predatory powers, of greed in self-interest and violence. This is a promise that their work has begun turning darkness to light and hope and life in the face of fear and death. Your work matters, Jesus says.

I think it is important to say that those 70 who were so equipped in their story of their encounter with Jesus,  and those of us now in this place and time living out this Gospel and sharing with the world  find that the authenticity of our message is often deepened and broadened when we share our own experiences. Jesus says to his disciples these gifts are yours, you proclaim what you know, your relationship with me is unambiguous now and forever. You are my brothers and sisters and that will never change. When we realize that, when we are living out that identity, that this is our story and  our story is woven to the story of Christ’s life death and resurrection, it deepens and  enriches in it’s telling and sharing.

Because, you see, someone showed up at your place and mine to share this story.  The 70 were and are afoot to give us this good news, to speak to our fear and hope, our need for a new start, a second chance.  They are still on the road.  The final implication of this is story is that even as we have heard the good news of the 70, we are then are to called to join them, to bear into this world the only thing that matters. . . . to live in this world on account of the only thing we need . . . the good news of Christ’s peace and healing, forgiveness and hope.  With that, then, anything is possible.