a sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9)
Jesus appointed seventy missionaries to go out into the countryside to do three things: eat whatever they were served, heal the people, and proclaim that the kingdom of God was near. But there was one other thing that he wanted them to do.
If you were one of the seventy people Jesus sent out to be missionaries, like the ones we just heard about in the Gospel of Luke, what would be the most challenging for you?
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is commissioning seventy missionaries who are charged with going out to the villages and towns around the countryside. “You have to travel light and move quickly,” he tells them. “You need to go in pairs, and you need to knock on the door of complete strangers. If they open the door and let you in, stay there. If you’re not welcomed, shrug it off and keep moving.”
Jesus was sending them out to do three very specific things. They were to eat whatever was put in front of them, heal any sick people they found, and proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near. Let’s take a look at each of these:
First, Jesus reminded them that there are two sides of hospitality. One side is all about being a gracious host; making your guest feel as comfortable as possible. The other side is all about being a gracious guest. One of the interesting things about hospitality is that it’s often easier to be a gracious host than a gracious guest. The host is working on his “home turf”, while the guest is often a stranger in a strange land. We learn as children that whenever we’re invited to somebody’s house for dinner, we have to eat whatever they serve. Once when I was a boy, I was invited over for supper at my friend’s. “They don’t eat like we do,” my mom told me. “They eat different kinds of food.” Of course, what she meant was that they ate strange food that we weren’t used to – food like fried chicken, green beans, and macaroni and cheese. Of course, I had to be polite and eat whatever they fixed. They couldn’t help it if they didn’t have the foods we ate: foods like grape leaves picked from the side of the road, or kibbeh, which is raw ground meat mixed with wheat, or chicken necks, stuffed with rice.
Of course, there’s something deeper going on here. Jesus knew that many of the missionaries where going to places that didn’t follow Jewish customs about food. They wouldn’t be able to find kosher households to feed them, so they had to be flexible. They couldn’t just decide that they’d pack up and come back home just because folks ate and drank different foods than they were used to. (Think about that the next time those Mormon kids on bicycles come around. Who knows what would happen if instead of pretending that you’re not home, you just offered them a beer?)
But perhaps more importantly, Jesus didn’t just want them to go preach to some group of strangers, he wanted them to become fellow travelers along The Way, to become companions. Companion means one who has “bread with” someone. It was important that they live with the people they served so that they could understand their needs and where they were coming from in their lives. Jesus wanted the missionaries to get to know the people of the village where they were, and to become one of them, so that the village also became part of the missionaries.
Second, Jesus tells them to cure the sick people they find. It’s important for us to remember that these seventy were not Jesus’ disciples. These were a larger group of folks that we really don’t know too much about. Some were probably disciples-in-training. Others were just people in “the crowd.” Whoever they were, they did not have any special healing powers or training. They were just common, everyday folks who believed they could heal by their faith in God and in the name Jesus Christ.
Of course, healing in those days wasn’t the technological marvel it is today. Faith healers could do little more than comfort the sick person and assist them as they suffered through the pain. Still, I wonder what would happen if each of us here offered that kind of comfort to the people around us. What could we accomplish if we simply offered a word of prayer or encouragement to the people we meet every day? How many hearts do we touch every week, that could be brightened with just a few kind words?
Third, Jesus tells them to proclaim that “the kingdom of God is near you.” Our modern understanding of that message is probably very different from what Jesus meant. We tend to think of the kingdom of God as someplace different from where we are now, someplace that is distant in both space and time. We imagine the kingdom of God as a great, shining, far off place, with golden streets and people dressed in white all living someday far into the future.
But Jesus didn’t think it was like that. For Jesus, the kingdom of God was an imminent possibility. It was as physically close and the person standing next to him, and as soon in time as the very next hour. Jesus ministry on earth wasn’t about preparing souls to go the heaven someday far into the future; tt was about creating a heaven on earth, changing lives for the better right here and right now. He meant “the kingdom of God is near” to be a blessing for the people around us. It proclaims that God’s kingdom was as close at hand as the very next person we meet.
These are the three things Jesus sent the missionaries to do: live with the people, heal them, and proclaim that God is with them now and loves them. But I think there’s one other thing that Jesus wanted the missionaries to do:
A few years ago, my daughter went on a mission trip with a bunch of other kids from school. Their mission was to go to Haiti to help build a school. Now Kate attended Heathwood, one of the ritzy private schools here in town where most of the kids come from families with strong bank accounts – perhaps not the top 1%, but certainly in the top 10% of wage earners in the country. And Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, where the average annual income is about $350.
They landed in Port au Prince and took a bus to a small village several hours away. When they got there, they were tired and hungry, and the host had already prepared them a wonderful chicken stew to eat. The kids worked there about 10 days, and on their last night they were once again gathered at the home of their host. That night, they ate stew again, but this time there wasn’t any chicken. There wasn’t any left for the host to give them, the kids had eaten everything they had and so they had a thin soup of vegetables and dried beans. This was when they learned that they lived very different lives from the people in Haiti. They were transformed by that experience. They learned that there was more to be learned by sharing a meal, by walking in the shoes (or bare feet) of their hosts, than by all of the work they did painting and hammering and building at the school.
I think that’s the most important reason for us to be intentional about having a missionary zeal in our lives – we are more likely to be transformed than anyone. When we go out to meet the people who live around us with an eye to having a relationship with them and living with them instead of changing them so that they look more like us, we will be transformed. It will be as if we went on a kind of “reverse mission trip.” God sends us out, so that we might be transformed.
I once went to a church that had a sign over the door that could only be seen as you were leaving the building. It said, “welcome to the mission field.” Our mission field is all that surrounds us. We are hosts for hundreds of people who come though our doors every day looking for a meal, for spiritual healing, and for an encouraging word or a blessing. But there are thousands more who pass by, completely unaware of the work we are doing here. This is why Jesus send us all out to his his mission field to proclaim that the kingdom of God is near.
And who knows? It just might be that we end up being the ones who are transformed the most.
Thanks be to God.