We often have a somewhat dualistic take away of the experiences of our lives. We are accepted or rejected, successful or failures, good or bad, right or wrong, you get the gist. That dualism is not only how we define our own experiences, but is the lens we use to find meaning in life. Since most of us are outcome-oriented people, that lens is often a judgment on our own lives and the lives of others. It reflects how well we think we did or how well we think someone else did. It may or may not give some credit to the process, because its primary focus is the end result.
As church people, we can get bogged down in this dualistic thinking when we start looking at the numbers as a means to measure growth—is attendance up or down, is giving on par with last year, do we have more or less people showing up for programs? That sort of people-in-the-pew, dollars-in-the-plate thinking might give the church some sense of what is appealing in terms of program and liturgy, but it is hardly a determination of spiritual growth. This thinking is a results-oriented approach to determining the effectiveness of ministry which often reflects that we put more value on outcome than we do the process of growth and transformation, much less how we “do” ministry.
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus takes a lot of care in teaching his followers how to evangelize. He begins by describing the work of evangelism as a harvest—but with this harvest it is not how much produce is gathered in that is important, but the actual process of gathering. To do the work of harvesting, the laborer must be innocent and vulnerable—carrying nothing with them and not getting distracted on their way. Their focus is their purpose, which is the work of evangelism, not how many people they “get”. When they arrive at the destination Jesus intended, they are to release any sense of expectation in whatever house they enter to stay. Instead, they are to offer their peace and if it is returned, then they know they have chosen a peaceful place to abide. However, if it is not returned, then they are to be the peaceful presence in that place. And, because ministry is about relationships not outcomes or numbers, they are to stay in that place—creating and developing relationships through the breaking of bread.
If a town welcomes them, they are to eat with them, cure the sick, and proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near. And if a town does not welcome them, they are to shake the dust from their feet so that not even a speck of that which has rejected them burdens them as they go forth even as they to proclaim that the kingdom of God had come near. And this is the crux of Jesus’s teaching to those who he sends out like lambs in the midst of wolves: Their mission is not defined by the outcome—by the measure of success or failure, rejection or acceptance from those they witness too. The sending out of the seventy is not about winning souls for Jesus. The sending out of the seventy is simply about the sending itself.
Jesus knows his time is near. He has set his face to Jerusalem. He is on the road to his death. Time has speed up—the hours pass more quickly. He could easily relate to Gandalf, “Three hundred lives of men I have walked this earth and now I have no time.” There were places he had intended to go but could no longer afford too, so he sends out the seventy, two-by-two, to do the work of bringing the Kingdom of God near to all those who have yet to know its presence. And that is what defines Jesus’s ministry from the start—not outcomes, but presence.
Jesus has never burdened himself with a results-oriented, dualistic stance on whether or not he is winning or losing at life. Jesus has simply shown up—again and again, in place after place—offering the message of a kingdom life grounded in developing and nourishing relationships instead of following rules. Rules tend to be dualistic—making a judgment on right and wrong. Relationships are complicated and messy—they often don’t fit the box of right or wrong. Relationships require empathy and compassion for the other and also for us. When Jesus instructs the seventy to shake off the dust from their feet, he does not mean it as judgment against the town that has not welcomed them, but as a means for which his followers can continue on in their work; unburdened by rejection or outcome-oriented thinking and grounded instead in kingdom living. You cannot force someone to accept the kingdom of God, you can only bring its presence near and allow people to choose for themselves.
As baptized Christians, we are now the “seventy” sent out by Jesus to bring the Kingdom of God near to all those we encounter. We are to be vulnerable, unassuming, peaceful, focusing on our own labor and the experience of it, not the outcome. We get to do some of that labor this morning as we worship and pray together and bring another into the kingdom. Hazel Worthington will be baptized later this morning/in a few minutes. We will bear witness to her new identity as one of Christ’s own forever and declare our promise to support her in discovering and living into her life in Christ. We will renew our own baptismal vows and be reminded of our sacred story and the mystery of how water and salvation cling together in that story—not only in the sense of washing away the bondage of our sins but also in terms of how we are sustained in our walk with Christ through our reception and membership into his body. Baptism is not simply a release from the power of sin; it is about creating and nourishing relationships—the foundation of the kingdom of God.
When the seventy return from their work, they are excited about all that they have accomplished in Jesus’s name. Jesus hears their joy and rejoicing and instead of congratulating them, reminds them that it is not about the outcome of their labor or what they have accomplished. He, himself, witnessed the fall of Satan. Their rejoicing is not dependent on how many souls they have won for God—instead it is in their own willingness to labor for the kingdom, to partner with God and one another to do God’s work in this world. And it is in that labor and partnership, that we, too, discover our own claim to eternal life and can rejoice that our names are written in heaven.
4 Pentecost Proper 9: Isaiah 66:10-14; Psalm 66:1-8; Galatians 6:(1-6)7-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, July 7, 2019
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer