Saturday, July 14, 2007

Pentecost 6

One of my many good ideas that never quite work out in practice is reading the newspaper.  I guess the original idea was to stay informed, keep up with current events and be able to have an intelligent opinion about the big issues – the reality for me, at any rate, is that I hardly ever actually manage to read very much of it.  I generally do a quick flip through, looking at the headlines and maybe reading the first few sentences of each article, though the one page I always read word for word is the Letters to the Editor which are generally pithy and to-the-point enough for me to get through in one sitting – is it just me, or does anyone else find that reading the daily crises and conflicts of the world – far from making you actually feel on top of things can actually make you feel helpless to do anything that makes any sort of difference?  That it’s all too much, the problems that just keep going round and round, the world leaders that seem to move in different orbits to the rest of us, the clash of ideologies that seems at the same time remote from our daily lives but close enough to feed our anxiety?

In our church life we call it mission – that catch-all word that sums up Christ’s commandment to us to actually make a difference in the world we live in - not a very ambitious agenda, is it?  Just renewing the planet, bringing hatred and injustice to an end, establishing God’s reign of love and peace.  Do you ever feel like it’s all too much?  Like you haven’t got a clue where you’re supposed to start?  That nothing you could do would really make any difference anyway?  That you’re not even sure whether it’s your job?

Today’s gospel reading is for anyone who has ever looked at the magnitude of the task and thought to themselves, ‘who, me?’

The first thing that jumps out at me from this reading, is the very specific number of disciples that get sent.  Seventy according to our translation of the Bible, though some old manuscripts say seventy two.  Which might just be a coincidence, but it happens to be the same number as the number of nations in the known world, according to the Book of Genesis.  Seventy in the Hebrew manuscripts, in the Greek manuscripts, seventy two.  So for the gospel writer to say that Jesus was sending seventy preachers, the hearers of that time would recognise the image of sending out to every nation.  In other words, the harvest Jesus is sending us into is a worldwide job.

Another reason the number is important is because it isn’t twelve.  In other words, it’s not just the important disciples who get sent, the ones that get named in the gospels, in fact, the twelve had their first taste of being sent out by themselves in chapter nine.  In today’s story it’s maybe the whole crowd of followers, at any rate, it’s a big number – coincidentally, seventy happens to be about the number we get here, at St Michael’s, on a really, really good Sunday.  So, if the scope of the mission is everywhere, the ones who are sent are all of us. 

This might be a bit scary.  In the old days, when we talked about mission I guess the mental image was of somewhere in deepest, darkest Africa, and missionaries would be people trained to speak the local language and pumped full of malaria pills, and everybody else’s job would be to raise some money to keep them over there.  Mission, in that way of thinking, was a job for specialists – and if we did think about mission in our own suburb then we might suppose that was the priest’s job, after all, he was the one with the theology training.  Except, the way Jesus tells it, it isn’t about training and it isn’t a job for specialists.  It’s too important and too big a job to be left to priests.  So, here’s the secret – it isn’t my job, it’s yours.  You’re the ones who are called by Jesus to be the labourers in the harvest field, you’re the ones, not me, who are called to gossip the message of God's love and goodness among those who need to hear it. You don't need special training to be able to love people and show to others the welcome and acceptance and mercy that God has shown you. 

Maybe the next most important thing to notice are the things Jesus says not to bring.  No purse, no bag, no sandals.  And I think the point about this is that Jesus expects missionaries not to be self-sufficient but to depend on the hospitality of the people they encounter along the way.  And no chatting on the way!  Clearly that isn’t meant to stop them proclaiming the gospel but it does mean, I think, that they’re not to get around in little groups, depending on each other for company.  One of the most practical instructions for doing Christian mission I ever heard about was – just make sure you spend more of your time with non-Christians than with Christians.  Then there are the instructions for how to enter a house and accept the hospitality of whoever is prepared to welcome you.  You might be forgiven for thinking Jesus’ instructions for missionaries don’t have much in the way of job security – the whole point, however, is that in the ancient Near East the unwritten rules of hospitality were very powerful – travellers literally could walk into a village and into the front part of larger houses at least, which were more or less public space.  The hospitality of a shared meal and a place to sleep would be repaid with news and gossip – in fact travellers filled a vital niche in the villages of Palestine as people who could link the locals to the world outside, and Jesus’ mission strategy relied on that.  Jesus’ ministry made hospitality central, especially the shared meal – responding in faith was about willingness to share a meal with those who you would previously have thought of as outsiders.  This was a powerful symbol of hope in the here and now.  Arriving in a new village, disciples would receive the hospitality of strangers and in turn offer the hospitality of good news, the radical new gospel of forgiveness, of inclusion and healing.

Well, you might be thinking, that’s not very helpful in the 21st century where you can’t knock on a stranger’s front door and expect a free meal.  But actually it is, because what it tells us is that the principle of mission is the same principle as the Incarnation itself.  When God wants human beings to know what God is like, then the only way for God to do that is to become human.  After a while, we begin to get the point, because Jesus lives the same life that we do, suffers and laughs, maybe eats and drinks too much, and lives a life of over-the-top compassion, refusing to stop loving indiscriminately - and after a while we begin to get the point that whatever else God is like, God first and foremost is like Jesus.  So that’s the first principle about the mission that Jesus sends us on – if we want people to know what God is like, then we have to show them in ourselves.  We have to eat with them, gossip with them, go where they are rather than expecting them to come where we are.  Jesus sends his disciples into the world that they know, and he does it by being flexible and adapting to the local culture.  Mission, in other words, isn’t something you do instead of getting a life, it is something that’s woven into the fabric of everyday life.

When you think about it, mission isn’t even about getting more people to come to church.  That would be nice, of course, but mission really is about sending the people we’ve got out of the church.  What happens in here is about being refreshed and energised, about recognising who we are and what we’re about, about encountering Christ in one another and in the meal we share.  And then, in the words of the liturgy, we’re told to leave because it’s out there, not in here, that we’re called to love and serve the Lord.  There is nothing in today’s gospel story to suggest that people from all the towns and villages of Galilee followed the disciples back to Jesus, but when they report back Jesus tells them that just by wandering around, offering and receiving hospitality, swapping travellers tales and telling everyone they met that in this encounter, this shared meal, God’s kingdom had touched them – that this is the stuff that knocks Satan off his perch.

It’s not rocket science, it’s nothing fancy, and don’t for goodness sake, take this stuff about treading on snakes and scorpions literally because it’s just a figure of speech.  But I know you get the point.  Live in the world as travellers, don’t carry a bagful of Bibles to beat people over the head with but wherever our journey takes you, whether it’s down to the local shops or across the world, offer and accept the hospitality of strangers,