Saturday, July 03, 2010

Pentecost +6

In some magazine or other that I came across years ago there used to be a regular cartoon puzzle that featured an intricately drawn scene - maybe a domestic scene or a shopping mall or work-place - with the caption, “What’s wrong with this picture?”.   At first glance it looked perfectly normal, in fact quite mundane and unexciting - people going about their ordinary business, doing ordinary things - but the small print would assure you that there were at least 40 impossible things happening, and the challenge was for you to try and find them.  Eventually you might discover that the curtains in the window were hanging upside down or that the dog had three ears.  The picture subverted your expectations in subtle ways, so subtle, in fact, that when you finally found the things that were wrong with it you realised you had been seeing what you were conditioned to see, not what was actually there.

The Bible’s like that, sometimes.  Stories that we think we know, that we’ve read over and over, and we keep just seeing what we’ve been conditioned to see until one day it strikes us - “what’s wrong with this picture?”

A man condemned to live with leprosy - that catch-all label that the ancient world gave to anyone suffering from a disfiguring skin disease, it could have been eczema or psoriasis or any one of the debilitating skin infections caused by parasites or poor hygiene - but the point is that it couldn’t easily be hidden, in the ancient world it was so feared that the sufferer was simply cut loose, expelled from human society and destined to wander and fend for themselves in the company of other lepers until they met an early death.  But in this story - a man living with leprosy who not only has not been cut loose from human society but is a great and powerful military commander and a friend of the king of Aram.  A leper with a name, in fact, the only one in the Bible that I can think of. 

A pagan general who has been given a great victory by God over God’s own people, Israel.  A small girl captured as a prize of war and brought home by the general to be a slave - a child who notices and cares about the suffering of the one who has taken her captive.  A powerful warlord who listens to what an insignificant child slave is saying, and acts on it.  Enemy kings who ask and expect favours of one another, and servants who know what their masters don’t.  A bald man of God who refuses to meet the great but possibly dandruff-ridden general, instead giving him advice by messenger.  Wash yourself seven times - the number of completeness - in the Jordan.  The river that signifies the entry of God’s people into Canaan and the bloody dispossession of its inhabitants now becomes the means by which a pagan enemy commander is made clean and whole and vulnerable as a small child.

What’s wrong with this story?  The powerful become powerless, suffering and exclusion are reversed, the humble and insignificant become bearers of God’s good news and agents of healing, and rivers run backwards.  God is made known through simple acts of compassion that cut across boundaries of ethnicity and religion and class.  The priorities of God are given voice not by generals or kings or prophets but by nameless and insignificant servants.

God’s purposes are revealed as subversive, which is to say, God’s agenda works beneath the surface of the story, percolating away in the choices and the actions of men and women and children, too rich and too powerful to be confined to any official version of events or any authorised religion.

So what’s wrong with this story?

Jesus, who as everybody knows, has twelve disciples, selects 70 of them for a special mission.    So, not just the big, official ones, even though there’s a bit of uncertainty about who they were in any case, Luke and Matthew giving different lists of names.  Jesus was accompanied in his travels by many more than that, men and women, think Joanna and Martha and all the Marys, Bartholomew and Cleopas and Matthias for example.  Actually, we shouldn’t get too hung up about the number, other than to notice that when ancient writers quote numbers they are more interested in their symbolic meaning than their mathematical meaning.  Twelve stands for Israel, like the twelve sons of Jacob, the twelve tribes of Israel, like the twelve baskets of food left over from Jesus’ miraculous provision of food in the desert that reminds us of the gift of manna in the desert for God’s people on the run from Pharaoh.  Seventy stands for the whole world, the number of nations in the whole world according to ancient writers, according to Jewish mythology the number of tongues of fire that descended on Mt Zion when God offered the Law to all the nations but only Israel accepted, and also the number of completeness and wholeness, like the number of times seven that Jesus’ followers are supposed to forgive.  In chapter nine - the chapter before today’s reading, Jesus sends out 12 disciples with specific instructions - no bag, no staff, no money or change of clothes.  Today he sends out seventy - no bag, no sandals - and in the verses that the lectionary leaves out we hear the names of some of the places they go to like Tyre and Sidon - coastal regions beyond Israel.  In other words today he sends his disciples, great and small, off to tell the whole wide world that the kingdom of God has come near them.  If 12 stands for showing signs of God’s kingdom at home, among family and friends, then 70 stands for showing signs of God’s inclusiveness and compassion where it most counts - among people who haven’t heard about it it yet.

So, what’s wrong with this picture?  Well, lots of things, you might think.  The mission of telling about the kingdom isn’t just for big, professional disciples but for all disciples.  Armchair disciples who have got used to the idea that their job is to follow, to listen and to be reassured, today get pushed out of their nests and out of their comfort zones, forced to learn the wisdom of insecurity.  Don’t take anything that might make you feel too safe, too independent, that might give you an excuse not to depend on the people you meet along the way.  The ancient world had an expectation and a culture of hospitality.  Also the houses in the towns and villages they entered were built in a special way, with what we might call the front verandah being public space where strangers could shelter and hospitality would be offered.  Disciples need to know about the culture of the world around them and make use of it.

But - who is offering hospitality to whom?  Go into villages and towns, enter the courtyards of the houses, take what is offered and then show signs of the reality that God’s kingdom is here.  Proclaim the good news and heal the sick.  Disciples who have got used to the idea that we are the ones being ministered to, we are the ones hearing the message of healing and love and experiencing the reality of love and forgiveness - today get a rude shock.  We are the ones sent out, we are the ones bearing the message of God’s love and bringing comfort to people in our community burdened not just by physical illness but by the modern sicknesses of despair and greed and guilt.  God’s priorities made real in the words and actions - not of archbishops and prime ministers but of ordinary folk like you and me.

But there are three surprising things about this picture that might help on the journey.  The first is this - you’re not meant to travel alone.  Travel in pairs, when you’re setting out to show the world a sign that God’s kingdom is happening right here, right now, you need to take a friend.  Why?  Because what we’re about is modelling the reality of a community structured by Jesus’ way of forgiveness and love.  Because the way the disciples are instructed to go about being missionaries is - to talk to people, to eat with people, to offer and to accept hospitality.  The way to be a missionary is just take the risk of being with people and laughing and loving and eating with them.  But you need a friend - in fact the church is the community of friends who travel together, who have accepted Jesus’ hospitality and Jesus’ offer of himself as food for the road.

The second thing is this.  Jesus doesn’t instruct his disciples to drag people back to church, just to tell them that God has come near them, and to make a difference in their lives.  The wisdom of insecurity means learning to take a risk in offering and accepting the hospitality of strangers, but we don’t have to catch them and collect them.  We just have to make a difference to them, to notice the person who is depressed or fearful or lonely and to make a difference.  You’ll know when it’s right to tell somebody that God loves them, you’ll know when it’s right to suggest to somebody that they might like to come to church with you on Sunday morning - and you’ll know when the best thing is just to say nothing and listen.  The ministry of healing - which is both yours and mine - is the gift of faith that by just being present to somebody in Jesus’ name you make a difference.

And the third thing is best of all.  You’ll know when to stop.  The wisdom of insecurity means the wisdom of knowing that even though your gift will not always be accepted it is still precious.  You’ll know when to move on, without recrimination, without self-blame, without carrying the baggage of those who aren’t ready to receive what you have to give.

What’s wrong with this picture?  God has no Plan B.  The kingdom of God has been placed in your hands.  Squander it, give of it wastefully and without asking whether the one receiving deserves it.  Live joyfully, as a sign of God’s love, and the gift of God that is in you will grow.

What’s wrong with this picture?  Nothing, it’s perfect.  Let’s do it.