Proper 9, Year C
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
This week, I'm going to build on my entry from three years ago -- Proper 9, Year C in 2004. There's a great deal more that can be said about this passage, but one of the points I emphasized three years ago has struck me afresh in a slightly different way, and it stems from the question of why the number of apostles sent in this Sunday's gospel is significant.
And I'd like to start, as I did in 2004, by noting that this passage is one of many excellent reasons we shouldn't talk about "the twelve disciples," as if there were only twelve of them, or "the twelve apostles," as if the Twelve were the only ones Jesus sent out (which is what "apostle" means -- "one sent" by another as messenger, ambassador, or agent). The group of Jesus' followers and the group of those sent out by Jesus in his ministry prior to his death and resurrection included women as well as men; Luke 8:1, among other texts, goes out of its way to point out that Jesus' followers depended upon women among them as patrons and leaders. Luke and Acts make clear that the Twelve did not serve any function of governance for the church. Indeed, most of the Twelve aren't portrayed as prominent leaders among the disciples or the early church. The gospels don't even agree on their names -- just on there being twelve of them -- much as there are twelve baskets of leftovers from the "feeding of the five thousand," as Luke is careful to show in tandem with Jesus' sending the Twelve out on a mission in chapter 9 of his gospel.
Twelve, as in the twelve tribes of Israel. It's a number representing all of Israel. Jesus' choosing twelve men to represent the twelve patriarchs of Israel shows his authority to reconstitute and restore the people of Israel. Jesus' feeding five (the number of books in the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses that all Israel accepted as scripture) thousand and there being enough fragments of bread to fill twelve baskets brings to mind the sojourn of God's people in the desert as the Hebrews were freed from the "narrow place" (as I blogged three years ago, that's what Mitzrayim, the Hebrew name for Egypt, means) of slavery and formed as a people, God's people. And much as the blessing of God's manna in the wilderness was of such abundance that none had need to hoard and all of God's people were fed, Jesus proclaims God's blessing on Creation such that all are fed with enough leftovers to feed all Israel all over again. Twelve baskets, twelve sent out.
This week, there are seventy sent out. Seventy, like the number of books in the Septuagint -- the translation of the wider collection of books the Pharisees, our spiritual ancestors as Christians, accepted as scripture, including the prophetic books such as Isaiah, into Greek so that the whole known world around the Mediterranean could hear the word of the God of Israel. Seventy, like the number of elders chosen to share Moses' spirit of prophesy and burden of leadership (Numbers 11:16-17). Seventy, like the number of times time seven that Jesus' followers are to forgive. Seventy, a number of completion, of wholeness.
Sisters and brothers, Jesus sends out seventy as workers for the harvest, to proclaim that God's rein has arrived, that the accuser of humanity has fallen. Jesus sends out seventy -- a number of fullness and wholeness -- to exercise authority over every spirit and every condition that oppresses God's children. I wish we included the whole passage through verse 24 in our lectionaries, so we could hear in worship the words that "I tell you, many prophets and kings desired to see the things you are seeing, and they did not see, and to hear the things you are hearing, but did not hear it."
I wish that we read those words because, as folks who were at the U2charist in Michigan a couple of weeks ago know, it has been pressed on my heart that we who are alive now are privileged with a particular opportunity, a particular resonance to Jesus words that "today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." We have an opportunity to see the end of extreme poverty, of people living on less than a dollar of day, of a child dying every three seconds of easily preventable diseases. We have an opportunity by 2015, in our lifetime, to see an end to suffering we're used to thinking of as infinite if we can bear to think of it at all. The Millennium Development Goals (or MDGs), people call it, the campaign to Make Poverty History, the ONE campaign. They don't entirely encompass the scope of God's mission, of the reach of God's limitless love for the world, but they're an excellent milestone on God's way of offering Good News for the poor. God's mission includes even more than the Millennium Development Goals -- so pay attention, anyone who (unlike many of the world's leading economists) thinks those are too ambitious! -- but they're a timely, if modest, expression of Good News for the poor, and Jesus' sending of the Seventy should give heart to those of us who want to hear what prophets and kings have desired to hear, those of us who want to experience firsthand a taste of the banquet on offer when "the scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."
Because as much as we might be tempted to say that it would have been sufficient (I can't help but echo the Passover dayenu when I think of Jesus, Luke's "prophet like Moses," leading exodus from every "narrow place") for Christ to empower the Twelve, the tribes of Israel, to do what God is doing in the world, Christ empowers the Seventy. Those who read to the end of Luke's gospel and through part II of it, also known as the Acts of the Apostles, know that even more is to come, because God is granting Moses' wish, "would it were that all God's people were prophets," Joel's vision of the Spirit poured out upon all flesh.
And all God's people should pay attention, because this concerns us all. Those sent out aren't a tiny group of guys in bathrobes. It's all God's people. It's you and me, sisters and brothers, and everyone who will hear the call, as the workers are few indeed compared to the abundance of the harvest. Luke begins the story of Jesus' public ministry with Jesus' version of a 'mission statement,' delivered to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
An ambitious mission statement, Christ's mission on earth. And we are the Body of Christ. Christ's mission is the mission we are called to engage in, as we are in Christ. So I'd like to say to y'all what I said to folks in Michigan a couple of weeks ago, one of the things I say to anyone who will listen whenever I have opportunity to say it when I'm awake in a context in which I think it could bear fruit:
Put this on your bathroom mirror to see when you brush your teeth at night and in the morning. Stick it on a post-it on your car's dashboard. Put it in your wallet to see whenever you pull out a credit card or some cash. Because you are a member of the Body of Christ, and Christ's mission statement is for you.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because God has anointed you to bring Good News to the poor.
Impossible? Under ordinary reckonings of human capacity, I guess so. But for the Body of Christ, the mission for which Christ was anointed cannot be impossible. In Baptism, you were made part of Christ's very Body on earth. The Spirit with which Christ was anointed has been poured out -- not just on the Twelve, not just on seventy, but on the whole of God's people.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because God has anointed YOU to bring Good News to the poor. And nothing is impossible with God's Spirit.
Thanks be to God!
Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C
The graduating seniors from the high school youth group did indeed preach last Sunday, and indeed they did an excellent job. They preached on Jesus' command to "love one another as I have loved you." What impressed me most about their sermon is how open they were in talking about the barriers and struggles they (and we) encounter trying to live into that command.
They're a tough act to follow, and I'm preaching this Sunday, so I want to build on the important things -- the crucial things, the foundational things -- they said to us last week. Those things were crucial and foundational for those of us who want to follow Jesus because when Jesus says, "those who love me will keep my word," the word he is referring to specifically is the "new commandment" from last week's sermon, the commandment from John 13:34 to love others as Christ loves us. Last week's gospel told us that our love proclaims whose disciples we are; this week's gospel builds on that by saying that our love for others is how we experience God's love for us, and how we make where we live into God's house, God's home, the place where God's Spirit lives on earth.
Some of you have heard me talk about the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. When Jesus was growing up, that was the place he was told was God's house, God's home, and he was told what made it possible for God's Spirit, God's holiness to be present there to an extent not possible any place else. Such a holy place had to be carefully guarded and protected. The conventional wisdom is that pure things are pure because they haven't come into contact with anything dirty. As soon as something dirty -- even something little -- penetrates into something that's clean, the dirtiness has spread, and the whole thing is dirty. For example, let's say I'm baking a cake for a special dinner. I've made the batter, and I pour it into the pan. Then I remember that I need to scoop out the catbox before the guests arrive, so I make my way to the bathroom where the catbox is, set down the cake pan next to the box, and start scooping the catbox. Just a little tiny piece of what I'm scooping from the catbox falls into the cake pan. Can I go ahead and bake the cake, and tell my guests that there's only one chunk from the catbox in the cake, so if they get the slice of cake with the cat-generated surprise in it, they can just pick it out, or let me know and they'll get a new slice? I don't think so; the minute the tiniest chunk from the catbox gets in the cake, the whole cake has to be thrown out. That's why not very many people would have the cake pan anywhere near the catbox. Pure things have to stay well away from dirty things to stay pure. If your hands are clean, you can't touch something dirty, or your hands will be dirty. So God's people guarded the purity of the Holy of Holies very carefully, because if the wrong sort of person, a dirty person, got in, the place wouldn't be clean. And God's house has to be clean, right? Conventional wisdom is that God's holiness, God's purity, means that God can't live in a place where impurity or sin dwell.
But you know what's coming, don't you? How much does Jesus teach conventional wisdom? St. Paul puts it well: Christ's wisdom is foolishness to the world. The world says that you make a place clean by separating out the dirt, by keeping dirt in its place, in the flower beds outside. I think some of our anxiety about dirt and what to do with it springs from our knowledge that we are dirt. We see others as dirty because they remind us of something in ourselves that we don't want to face. We have to make our boundaries between us and them, pure and impure, clear because we don't want others to think we're like those people, the ones who do those awful things. Those people are dirt; our hands are clean.
But God formed each and every one of us from the dirt; we are dust, and to dust we shall return.
This is not bad news. This is Good News. Because God's Spirit does not dwell in spotless temples of white marble, but in earthen vessels. The temple where God's Spirit dwells, the place where Christ and God the Father make their home on earth, is in the dirt. It's the Body of Christ. We don't need to get rid of the dirt to make Christ's home, to be Christ's Body, to build the temple; we need to love the dirt.
This is in no way saying that we should take God's presence among us lightly, or that we can experience the fullness God wants for us without hard work done intentionally over a lifetime. But it's not the sort of work we might think. It's not trying to get rid of what's dirty, or trying to be different from those dirty people out there. It's the work of seeking out those we're tempted to think of as dirt, whoever that is, and loving them as Christ loves us. If we want to experience God's purity, we need to go out and make some mud pies. Because as we learn to love those who stretch our ability to love, we see the face of God. As we learn to love dirty people, we can recognize that we too are people of earth, of dirt, and we experience what we can't understand with worldly wisdom: God's holiness, God's purity does not flee from dirt, but requires it, as God's purity is pure love and forgiveness.
So "do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice!" Don't let your hearts be troubled. Open the doors of God's house WIDE. Invite every creature of earth to come in and join the feast. Don't fret about whether they'll track in the dirt from outside. Don't look for ways to make people ashamed of dirt; proclaim God's word that God is in the midst of God's earthy people, and God's people shall never be put to shame.
Thanks be to God!