The Truth That Turns The World Upside Down

This morning’s sermon for Hilltop United Methodist Church in Ava, NY.  The text is Luke 10:1-11, 16-20.

In 2003, I moved to Vancouver, British Columbia to start my seminary studies at Regent College.  I thought I knew exactly what God wanted me to do.  I was going to get my Master’s degree, then a PhD, and then I would teach religion in a secular university while I used my summers to take college students on short-term mission trips.

It wasn’t a bad plan.  In fact, my deepest aspirations were quite holy.  I thought I was following the will of God as best as I understood it.  However, I quickly discovered that knowing God’s path and walking God’s path were two different things.

The academic world is quite cutthroat.  Not only do you have to be the best, you also have to impress the right professors, who will write letters of recommendation, which will get you into the best PhD program, which will land you a good job with tenure, which will make or break your academic career.  I tried with all my might to play this game: I made sure my professors knew who I was, I wrote impressive and insightful articles, and I was brutal in classroom debates.  I would do just about anything to make myself appear smarter than the person next to me, even if it meant putting that person down in front of other people.

When I looked in the mirror in those days, I had to admit that I didn’t like the person I was becoming.  My name, “Barrett”, means “bear” and that’s exactly what I felt like: a big, hungry animal that would tear you to shreds if you got in his way.  I never wanted to be that kind of guy, but I kept telling myself, “This is what I have to do in order to follow God’s plan for my life.”

In my pursuit of academic success, I forgot the first (and most important) truth about following God’s plan: In God’s eyes, “who you are” is way more important than “what you do”. I think this truth is what Jesus was getting at in today’s passage from Luke’s gospel.

We enter into Luke’s story at moment when things are really starting to heat up.  Jesus has recently begun his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, where he will face suffering, death, and eventually resurrection.  As he travels, he commissions seventy disciples to go ahead of him into the villages.  The number seventy would have been important to Jesus’ Jewish listeners because, according to chapter ten of Genesis, Jewish people believed that the people of the world were divided into seventy nations.  So, by Jesus sending out a group of seventy disciples, Jesus was symbolically commissioning the whole world to participate in the work of the kingdom of God.

As the seventy disciples are sent out, Jesus gives them three tasks:

  1. To Proclaim peace
  2. To Promote hospitality
  3. To Pray for healing

First, the disciples are told proclaim peace.  To be clear, the word peace, as it appears in the Scriptures, does not refer to feelings of happiness that you get from standing around a campfire and singing Kum Ba Yah.  The disciples were not a bunch of flower-children dancing around drum circles in tie-dyed t-shirts.  The Jewish word for peace is shalom. Translated literally, it means “wholeness”.  It was used as a greeting and a farewell.  It was also used to describe the kind of relationship that God wants to have with people (and the kind of relationship that God wants people to have with one another).

I think it’s significant that Jesus told the seventy disciples to begin with this message of peace.  He makes his intentions clear from the get-go.  Jesus has come to restore wholeness and harmony between creation and Creator.  It’s also significant that Jesus gives the seventy strict instructions about what to do when their proclamation is rejected.  Rather than resorting to violence, Jesus tells his followers to “let your peace return to you” and then wipe the dust of that town off their feet and leave.  This nonviolent response would have been bizarre behavior in a culture that demanded revenge for every insult rendered against another’s honor.

Second, Jesus commissions the seventy to promote hospitality.  As itinerant preachers and healers, they were at the mercy of anyone who was kind enough to take them in.  It was not uncommon in those days for popular healers to shop around for the best meal and bed in town.  They would take advantage of the hospitality of the locals.  Jesus told his disciples not to do that.  He told them to “eat what is set before you” and “Do not move about from house to house.”  Jesus wanted his followers to encourage the practice of hospitality among all people by honoring the welcome of poorer and simpler folk.  Jesus wanted these people to know that there was a place for the kingdom of God in their houses too.

Finally, Jesus commissioned the seventy to pray for healing.  Healing was central to the ministry of Jesus.  He didn’t just have a lot of good ideas; he put those ideas into action.  The kingdom of God, for Jesus, is not just a nice place to go when you die; it is a present reality that is coming “on earth as it is in heaven”.  That shalom-wholeness that we talked about earlier was made real by the healing ministry of Jesus and the disciples.  Jesus wanted people to know that his message has the power to change their lives here and now.

So, these are the marching orders that Jesus gave the seventy disciples as they went ahead of him through the towns on their way to Jerusalem: they were to proclaim peace, promote hospitality, and pray for healing.  When they returned from these mission trips, they were shocked and delighted to see what an effect their efforts were having.  By all accounts, they had a highly successful ministry.  They said, “Lord, in your name, even the demons submit to us!”  In other words, they perceived that some kind of massive shift was happening in the cosmic scheme of things.  You might say that they were turning the world upside down.  Who wouldn’t be excited to be part of that?

At this point, Jesus steps in and throws a curve-ball.  He reframes their discussion, so that they might understand their experiences from another perspective.  Jesus says, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”  In other words, the fact that you have a successful ministry and are turning the world upside down is not what’s really important.  What’s most important is the truth that your name is known in the throne-room of the Master of the universe; you are known and loved beyond your wildest imaginations.  You are a child of God; that’s who you are!  All the rest (proclaiming peace, promoting hospitality, praying for healing) is stuff that you do because you are already known and loved by God.  The world is not turning upside down because you are so successful and important; the world is turning upside down because God is busy, drawing us closer to the place where we belong.  God is allowing you to play a part in that process, and that’s why you can do the things you do.

This world is a harsh place.  Our society measures us by all kinds of standards: money, property, power, etc.  Most Christians agree that these are not the be-all, end-all of life.  But many of us still fall into the trap of identifying ourselves with our activities.  What’s the first question people usually ask one another at parties?  “What do you do?”  As if that could ever define who we are as human beings!  I once heard of a person who came up with a good response to that question.  He said, “I am a child of God, cleverly disguised as a AAA insurance salesman.”

In seminary (of all places), I fell into that trap of mistaking “what I do” for “who I am”.  I thought I was following the will of God, but it turns out that God was more interested in me than in my job.  Sure, I had big plans for my life, but as they say, “If you want to give God a good laugh, talk about your plans.”

I almost lost sight of God’s will for my life because I was so focused on what I was doing that I forgot all about who I was becoming.  You and I are God’s precious and beloved children.  More than all our successes in life, that is the truth that will turn our world upside down.  Amen.

The Kingdom of God Has Come Near to You

Tonight’s Lectio Divina at St. James Mission came from Luke 10:1-11, 16-20.

As one member of our community pointed out tonight, it’s more than a little unsettling that Jesus tells the seventy to “rejoice that [their] names are written in heaven” rather than celebrate the tangible good that was accomplished during their ministry.  Isn’t that just one more example of Christian indulgence in irrelevant escapism?  It certainly seems so.

It doesn’t help that most popular images of heaven involve pearly gates and golden streets on clouds with angels and harps.  Could anything be more divorced from real life?

Someone suggested another image of the afterlife: you and me in the ground, becoming part of the vibrant ecosystem that exists underground.  What if we could somehow sense the presence of the worms and flowers that transform our broken bodies into sources of nourishment?  We might even be able to reconnect with the creative harmony that was lost when we left Eden.

This image of the afterlife is certainly more engaged and engaging than antiseptic visions of “pie in the sky when you die”.  Not only that, but I think it is more consistent with biblical visions of the prophet Isaiah and John the Elder, where the New Jerusalem is portrayed as an international garden-city.  With gates wide open 24-7 (just like the Waffle House), the nations of the world coexist in a multi-cultural rainbow of celebration.  Instead of an eight-lane highway running through an industrial wasteland, there is a tree-lined river.  This biblical vision of harmonious heaven-on-earth bears more resemblance to the teeming underground ecosystem than it does to clouds and fat babies with wings.

I think we get a foretaste of this biblical vision in today’s gospel text as Jesus commissions the seventy disciples to go and tell people, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”  Look at what the disciples are doing as they proclaim their message: they are inviting others to participate in an ever-widening community of healing and hospitality.  The Kingdom of God starts here and now as followers of Christ venture out to get dust on our feet and dirt under our nails.

Maybe we can rejoice after all that we are included in this dynamic, organic, and vibrant community?