Sunday, July 7, 2019

Going Joyfully into the Fields- Sermon for Proper 9, 4th Sunday after Pentecost

As I wrote in my priest’s reflection for July 4, the lectionary of the Episcopal Church treats Independence Day as a Holy Day in the Church’s calendar, and the gospel appointed for July 4 is Matthew 5:43-48, which implores those who follow Christ to emulate him, even to the point of loving our enemies and praying for them as much as we do for our neighbors. I spoke about how this dream for our country reflects back upon our baptismal covenant.

In our gospel today, we don’t hear about enemies and neighbors, but about wolves and lambs. We learn that it’s easy to be loving among lambs. To bear God’s love among wolves may be harder, but it is also what we are called to do to show that the kingdom of God is drawing near.

One common thread that ties the reading we heard tonight together is healing, and overcoming divisions and boundaries, just as that reading from Matthew implored us. Naaman may be a great general, but he is also afflicted by a stigmatizing disease. It is through a nobody—a captured servant girl from Israel—that he learns of a possible cure. No matter what, though, at the time we are talking about, however, the disease will progress, for it was incurable in those days—barring, of course, a miracle.

In those times, illness was isolating—and among certain people, such as Jews, touching someone or something unclean could make yourself outcast and unclean. Naaman is a man of power and influence, and he has probably tried everything he can think of already. How else to explain his listening to the advice of someone who normally would not attract his attention—as well as someone who is herself war spoils, and thus perhaps not be of the most kindly disposition toward Naaman. But for whatever reason, the unknown Israelite woman offers her master the possibility of help.

Even though we just met Elisha last week, here he is already a prophet of great renown. The King of Israel, when he receives Naaman, thinks he is being set up, and apparently has no knowledge of Elisha’s abilities in healing. Elisha, however, being a prophet, knows of the letter and reassures the king of Israel that this can be done. Elisha himself does not even meet Naaman, but sends a messenger to tell him what to do. This is seen by Naaman as a snub—he has travelled all this way, and this petty holy man won’t even meet him face to face? Naaman is also told to wash in some ridiculous little stream? He is outraged, but his servants with him point out that the cure before him is easy, so why not try it? Naaman is persuaded, and indeed, he is cured so that there is no sign he was ever a leper, if his skin becomes that of a “young boy.”

So, in a subtle way, Israel’s superiority—at least when it comes to her God and God’s prophets, is being asserted. Naaman may be able to conquer the Israelites, but they have something that he can never capture—a God who heals. All Naaman has to do is exhibit enough faith to complete the task set before him. Symbolically washing in Israel’s largest river is being willing to submit to Israel’s God. God’s gift to Naaman helps show that Israel’s God is great indeed, and, once again, a Gentile receives healing from the Israelite God, just as we have seen for the last several weeks.

It is also interesting to note that this foreigner is healed by immersing himself in the waters that traditionally are understood to divide Israel from her neighbors. What marks a boundary also mark the rupturing of the social boundaries between Gentile and Jew and between unclean leper and the rest of society. This story also emphasizes the barrier and boundary-defying power of God. God constantly calls us to break through artificial divisions and boundaries—physical, political, social, economic, religious. Far from being a tribal or national god, God’s message and salvific plan is universal.

This is a theme also emphasized in our gospel passage. Last week, Jesus warned his followers that they needed to be ready to sacrifice their old lives if they wanted to follow him. Jesus had just been rejected by a Samaritan village, and then he had told his followers they needed to be willing to lay down their lives for the sake of the gospel, as we talked about last week. Today we see Jesus commissioning the seventy (or seventy-two, depending upon the translation) followers to go out and help proclaim the Good News ahead of him as he has his “face set toward Jerusalem.” The number seventy is meant to portray the universality of the Good News referring back to the 70 nations descended from Noah’s sons after the Flood, listed in Genesis 10 as encompassing all of humanity. 

Just like in the story of Naaman’s healing, it is the nameless people who point the way to what God is doing in the world. The seventy are nameless just as the servants who advise Naaman are nameless. The implication of this is empowering: we don’t have to be spiritual gurus or haloed saints to do the work Jesus calls us to as disciples. Verse 1 makes it clear that Jesus is sending the 70 ahead of him “to places where he himself intended to go.” They are, to use the agricultural metaphor, preparing the field and planting the seed for when Jesus then comes later as “Lord of the harvest.” Because he has set his face toward Jerusalem, there is a sense of urgency—the time to plant the Good News is NOW. Yet just as the seventy returned with joy, so we too must begin and end not in fear, but in joy.

That same sense of urgency should drive us as Christians and as disciples and witnesses today. We live in a time today when church attendance is shrinking. Again and again, we talk about how we want the Church to grow—but gone are the days when we can sit back and wait for people to walk in our doors. 

Too many people see church doors themselves as barriers, not as entrances. We have to understand this-- we live in a time when people have been hurt by churches and self-professed Christians, hurt by being vilified for who they are or what they look like or who they love. We live in a time when clergy sexual abuse all across the spectrum has made people distrust the institutional Church, Catholic, Reformed, or Protestant—and rightly so. There are far too many people who call themselves Christians only as an act of exclusivity, as a justification for their putting down others and for building up those very barriers and boundaries that the power of God calls us to tear down in the name of the Gospel of Love and Peace.

That number 70 is a significant number for today, too. As of 2017, 72% of Episcopal congregations had an average Sunday attendance of 100 or less. This certainly sounds like bad news.

However, that also means we have an opportunity to reset the narrative, to see that the mission field begins right outside the doors of this parish, and out into our families, our neighborhoods, and our communities and our nation and beyond. It means also, however, that just like those seventy, we are called to go to where the people are who haven’t heard the good news.

There seems to be a church on every corner—if you are looking for them. Yet how many times have we heard that people don’t know where churches are—even if they drive by them every day? We have to learn that simply having a sign out front and a cross on the top of the roof isn’t enough. The seekers of today do not come looking for a church based on its marvelous signage. They look for a church that is engaged with the world, that seeks to make a difference in the community around it, that engages in mission that makes life meaningful and purposeful. 

They also need to be shown where the churches are-- that we are not a closed group with arcane rituals shut behind doors, but we are being the visible, living, loving Christ out in the world, meeting people and their needs where they are as Jesus did and does. They need to be specifically invited into our work in the world, and then welcomed and connected to the important visible work we do in the world, as well as our worship. To do that, we need to understand welcoming people differently-- as active, not passively waiting for people to come to us. As Bishop Mary Gray Reeves has noted, “Welcome precedes a sense of either believing or belonging.”

In what ways do we intentionally meet those who do not belong to the church, intentionally meet, get to know them and their stories, and not just invite them into community with us but declare our community with them? How do we attempt to emerge from behind our red doors and walls and become the Church in public spaces, open to encounter all comers?

It can seem daunting. Yet Jesus sent those seventy out not alone, but in pairs. He reminds them to be resilient: if you meet with rejection, shake the dust from your feet and move on—but never give up. As we talked about last week, we are not asked to engage in our life as disciples alone, but as a community. As a team.

Those seventy were accomplishing two main tasks on their journeys: to speak peace (shalom), and to demonstrate the kingdom of God coming near, turning everything upside down as it always does. They were called to demonstrate the kingdom through three activities in particular: they were teaching, they were preaching, and they were healing. And likewise we are called to the same tasks:

First, to speak peace. And not just speak peace, but embody peace and strive for peace and pursue peace, knowing all the while that the foundations of peace are justice and mercy intertwined. 

And then to make visible the coming near of God's kingdom. Our gospel lists three ways the 70 did that. Today, we teach and preach about Jesus to those who do not know him through how we live our lives, through testifying about the wondrous things God has done and is doing in our lives. Some saint famously said: “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” We too can testify with our lives, and then use words as well.

We also must seek to heal the wounds that have been inflicted in people’s lives through a lack of care, empathy, and compassion. To seek to heal those wounds especially that have been inflicted by those who claim to be acting in the name of God. That can be done by something as simple as being present—being fully engaged and willing to listen to those who have been wounded.

God has empowered us—through our love in action, through our spirits and our bodies—to be healing forces in the world today, overcoming all that seeks to divide, to oppress, to wound. The way Jesus embodied God’s love in the world was by how he lived his life teaching, preaching, and healing, sometimes using words.

And how do we as the Church embody God’s love in the world? How do we shine a light on what God is doing in this neighborhood? How do we engage with the people around us so that they want to be a part of not just what we are, but what we are doing?

At our Anglican core, one of the most beautiful things we have going for us is our worship, and worship also is imbued throughout with hospitality and openness—God’s hospitality to us around the altar; our hospitality for each other in the Liturgy of the Word and Table. The point of hospitality is to break down barriers, not enforce them—and theologian Alan Roxburgh makes this point clearly when he says, “The primary way to know what God is up to in our world when the boundary markers seem to have been erased is by entering into the ordinary, everyday life of the neighborhoods and communities where we live.”

Once we do that, then we can invite the world to the table of God, where all boundaries fall, where all are welcome. It is at the table that we share the goodness of creation—bread and wine, offered and taken, blessed broken, and shared. Without any agenda but fellowship, and seeing the divine spark inside of everyone, even if it takes awhile.

The greatest gift Jesus gives us for this holy work, one that pushes back against the constant drumbeat of isolation and loneliness that pervades our society is the calling of us into community; in promising us companions and helpers along the way, in offering healing as much as empowering us to be healers as well.

May we go forth from here ready to live a life of love not just among lambs, but among the wolves, loving each and every person as God loves us, and inviting all to labor alongside us in the vineyard, where the harvest of hope and love is plentiful. This is our Gospel. May we go forth and proclaim it, in the healing name of God.


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