Wisdom for the Journey

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 and Galatians 6:7-16
© Stacey Steck

The sermon this morning is directed to the Mission Team. The rest of you may eavesdrop if you like.

So, I was all set to have you commissioned this morning for your trip to Jamaica. It was going to be a beautiful ceremony with a wonderful liturgy. And what great Bible passages, right from the Lectionary, to send you off with! Jesus himself commissioning missionaries. Paul talking about doing good for the family of faith. How great is that? But then I started really studying these passages and I began to feel more and more troubled. And now, now I see that there’s something very wrong here. This is a missionary mess waiting to happen! I mean, just as one example, you’ve got an odd number of people going, and it clearly says that Jesus sent them out in pairs. That’s a serious rules’ violation, my friends. So one of you will have to stay behind. Who will it be? Who? You have to decide soon!

And the list of things you asked the congregation to bring? And the luggage you are packing? No, no, no. All wrong. Jesus says, “no staff, no purse, no bag, no sandals.” And in basically the same story in Matthew, he says, “no gold, silver, or copper in your belts.” And I know you people are going with some serious cash because there are souvenirs to bring home and local delights to enjoy. When Jesus sends out the Twelve, earlier in Luke, he even tells them to leave their food behind. And y’all are taking birthday cakes? I just don't know about this. You could be setting yourselves up for some serious divine judgment. I don’t know if we can be responsible for that.

But then I decided that since your airline tickets are already purchased, we’ll just have to see how we can salvage this situation. I suppose the context of missionary journeys is a “little” different these days and so we could make some exceptions. So, perhaps we’ll focus on the things both Jesus and the Apostle Paul said in the passages we read this morning that are even more important than what you are allowed to carry with you. After all, even though Jesus is pretty specific here as he commissions these followers, he was always willing to overlook a few details in order to focus on the bigger picture. And of course, the Apostle Paul always tends to take the side of grace over law, so I think he too would let you slide.

So you are on your way, laborers off to the harvest, and the shape of that harvest will take many forms. You will meet people, and talk with them, and worship with them, and build with them and sweat with them, and hug with them, and maybe even get frustrated with them. I have always found that Mondays are the tensest of days of a mission trip, when foreign expectations are high and local logistical follow-through is low. You’re all revved up and ready to build something and then there no one there to meet you, or the materials aren’t there yet, or the electricity is out, or some other problem that will seem like a really big obstacle that suggests that this trip is a total failure, that this town is one of those that Jesus warned you about, the kind that doesn’t welcome missionaries, the kind you are to leave, shaking off their dust of your feet. And that is when you must remember, when it is hardest to remember, that indeed, “the Kingdom of God has come near.” Yes, it is easy to proclaim that the Kingdom of God has come near when everyone is all smiles, and the worship is inspiring, and the food is amazing. But the kingdom of God is also near, maybe even nearer, when things don’t go as planned, or you feel stressed like you’ve never felt stressed before, or you have to confront your prejudices and your cherished beliefs. Yes, the Kingdom of God is near because you are growing and changing and seeing the world in a new way and realizing that the way we do things isn’t the only way that God does things. You see, the moments you will ultimately remember are the ones that happen when you’re waiting endlessly for a truckload full of cement to arrive and you end up having an amazing conversation with someone you never would have met otherwise. That’s when the Kingdom of God has come near. And so when Jesus tells his disciples to announce, in the towns that won’t welcome the disciples he has sent, that the Kingdom of God is near, he means that the Kingdom of God is found in every circumstance of life, not just the ones that seem divine on their surface. God’s grace breaks out everywhere, not just where the sun shines the brightest or when we’ve done our best work. And we can’t ever forget that.

We also can’t forget what’s really important about what you are doing there, namely being faithful disciples whose reward does not depend on how successful you are at putting up a concrete block wall, or teaching the group of children you worked with all the books of the Bible in order, backwards, but on the very fact that you answered a call that God extended to you. Those seventy disciples who came back all joyful with so many great stories to tell of how they healed people by driving the demons out of them, well, they must have felt a little deflated when Jesus one-ups them by saying: “O, some demons submitted to you? Well, I saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. Who do you think you are?” But he wasn’t trying to minimize their experience, just to put it in context. You see, even if they had come back without any success at all, came back dejected, defeated, despised, he could have, and he would have, concluded the same way: “Don’t worry about that stuff; rejoice that your names are written in the book of heaven.” There are local people in Jamaica who can work circles around you laying block or wiring a house, or whatever else you may be asked to do. They don’t need you for manual labor. They have thousands of well qualified, unemployed people standing around wishing they could get paid for the work you are doing. But what they do need is your presence, and your solidarity, and your good cheer, and your witness of how to work together as brothers and sisters in Christ. They just need you to be there working side by side with them. That’s what Jesus sent those seventy disciples out to do. That is what you are going to do.

I actually have no doubt that you will be successful doing the work they give you to do. You wouldn’t be Thyatirans if you didn’t. And though boasting isn’t generally one of Thyatira’s faults, you may want to pat yourselves on the back for a job well done and you should feel free to do so. But as you do, just make sure you are giving credit where credit is due. That’s the Apostle Paul’s advice, not mine: “May I never boast of anything except the cross of Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision or uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything.” Paul’s words were meant for those trapped in controversy over rules and regulations, people who had lost sight of the bigger picture of the freedom God brought in Jesus Christ, the freedom from the kind of divisions that would keep white North Carolinians separate from black Jamaicans, or that would allow either side to think more highly of themselves than the other. The new creation is everything, and it’s that possibility of learning from one another rather than one side teaching the other, that opportunity to leave behind our prejudice, or superiority, or ignorance just as easily as the tangible things we bring to donate. It’s God who brings that new creation through Jesus Christ, and that’s not stuff we can do on our own, and it’s worth boasting about.

So, I guess we’ll send you after all, but we’ll have to do it with some more of Paul’s words, ones which apply to us as Christ’s church not only when we send out a group of missionaries, but as each of us greets each new morning: “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” Let us now commission those of our number who will be doing just that. Amen.