Sermon preached for the Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
Luke 10:1-11, 17-20
After these things, the Lord commissioned seventy-two others and sent them on ahead in pairs to every city and place he was about to go. He said to them, “The harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest. Go! Be warned, though, that I’m sending you out as lambs among wolves. Carry no wallet, no bag, and no sandals. Don’t even greet anyone along the way.Whenever you enter a house, first say, ‘May peace be on this house.’ If anyone there shares God’s peace, then your peace will rest on that person. If not, your blessing will return to you. Remain in this house, eating and drinking whatever they set before you, for workers deserve their pay. Don’t move from house to house. Whenever you enter a city and its people welcome you, eat what they set before you. Heal the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘God’s kingdom has come upon you.’ Whenever you enter a city and the people don’t welcome you, go out into the streets and say, ‘As a complaint against you, we brush off the dust of your city that has collected on our feet. But know this: God’s kingdom has come to you.’
The seventy-two returned joyously, saying, “Lord, even the demons submit themselves to us in your name.”
Jesus replied, “I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning. Look, I have given you authority to crush snakes and scorpions underfoot. I have given you authority over all the power of the enemy. Nothing will harm you. Nevertheless, don’t rejoice because the spirits submit to you. Rejoice instead that your names are written in heaven.”
Erron and I have been on a bit of a superhero kick this summer, so this past week we tuned into one of the Marvel universe’s newest offerings, a show called Ms. Marvel.
The show stars Kamala Khan, a Muslim teenager from Jersey City who fangirls hard over all things superhero. In the first episode, Kamala sneaks out of the house to go to a superhero convention, only to discover she herself has superpowers, able to shoot light from her hands and save another teenage damsel in distress.
Of course, when she sneaks back into her bedroom afterwards, her disapproving mom is there to catch her red-handed—and red-suited. In addition to the lying and sneaking out, Kamala’s mom is angry that Kamala doesn’t seem to want the life she has—the life her parents have sacrificed to provide for her. There’s more to it, but finally, in that devastatingly disappointed mom voice, she asks:
“Do you want to be good, like we raised you to be, or do you want to be some, you know, cosmic head-in-the-clouds person? You think about that.”
As she closes the door, Kamala looks at her hand glowing with superpowered light, and smiles as she answers “Cosmic.”
Kamala doesn’t know the whole extent of her mission yet, other than a vague understanding that superheroes are supposed to be helpers, and fight villains. But in her smile, you can see her joy at leaving the ordinary behind.
Ms. Marvel is still dropping episodes, so I can’t tell you how this choice plays out for her, or even whether ultimately I’ll think it’s a good show, but it did strike me as a pretty incredible analog for how the disciples behave in today’s scripture.
By this point in the gospel, Jesus’ preaching has gotten some traction in the Galilee. People are interested—and yet Jesus also knows his time on earth is short. So Jesus recruits 72 extra volunteers (which ought to be considered one of his miracles in its own right) and sends them out to all the towns he plans to visit, like advance scouting parties for the kingdom of God.
However, this army of 72 isn’t supposed to go out with any fanfare or weapons. Jesus sends his followers out like lambs among wolves—and that is intentional. He wants them to be vulnerable, to have to rely on each other and the people they will meet.
Take no wallet, he says, no bag, no sandals. Simply take the word peace. If you go to a house and say peace, and they say peace, then stay there, and eat the food they give you, and get to know them. Create a little slice of the kingdom of God right here in the Galilee.
Jesus warns his disciples not everyone will welcome them. Even then, though, Jesus tells them to simply shake the dust off their sandals and move on. No calling down fire and brimstone, no writing long letters of disapproval. Let them know that the kingdom of God has come near, Jesus says—that they have missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime—and let that be that. Just move on to the next place where the peace you share is shared with you back.
It’s an ordinary kind of mission. Get to know the neighbors, and love them.
And yet, when the disciples come back, instead of telling Jesus about the people they met, about the homes they stayed at, about the peace they shared, about the sick they healed, about any of the ordinary things that they were commissioned to do, this is all they can talk about:
“Lord, even the demons submit to us!”
Cosmic, they shout. We have these cosmic superpowers! We can quell demons.
You can almost hear Jesus sigh. Big deal, he responds. I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven. I was there for that. I know he’s around, doing his thing, but he is not your mission. People are your mission. “I gave you authority over the powers of evil,” he says, “to keep you safe. But that is not the point. The people are the point.”
Sometimes in the life of faith, this passage tells us, we will encounter evil, true adversaries to the work of Christ. More often we will encounter regular old persnickety people who get in each others way and muck up the mission even with the best of intentions. Do not let either group deter you.
There is a sort of urban legend that goes around pastor groups about an archetypal hero known as the Overeager Seminarian. The Overeager Seminarian concludes his studies all fired up for the kingdom of God, loaded down with theological quips and quotes, flush with plans to feed and clothe and house the unwashed masses, and above all ready to win souls for Jesus.
The Overeager Seminarian inevitably gets sent to somewhere like Iowa or Kansas. Cornfields. Cows. A little old building with little old people who are unimpressed by his quotes and his proclamations.
After about a year, the Overeager Seminarian makes an appointment to talk to one of his seminary mentors. “How’s it going? she asks.
“Well,” he says. “I feel like I went riding into this church like a knight on a white steed, ready to set people on fire for Jesus. And instead I’ve spent this past year fundraising for a new boiler and setting up chairs for the potluck and making endless trips to the hospital for hip replacements and listening to people complain. Oh, and the choir is always off-key. Even on the hymns.”
“I’ve just got one question,” the mentor responds. “Do you love them?”
The Overeager Seminarian thinks for a minute. He thinks about Esther, who pilfered her rainy day fund to cut the last check they needed for the boiler, because she said if she had an umbrella on a rainy day, she should share it. He thinks about Marvin, who sits with the congregation’s kids at potlucks doing sleight of hand magic with carrots so their parents can have a break. He thinks about the choir, who laugh louder than any group he’s ever met, and when it was one of their own with a hip replacement, went to her rehab window to serenade her with an off-key Dolly Parton medley.
He smiles. “Yeah. For all their complaining and all their quirks, I do love them.”
“Then,” his mentor responds. “I would suggest you’ve already got your victory in Christ. Loving real, actual people is more of a miracle than we give it credit for.”
If you get caught up in the cosmic stuff, you can forget how important the ordinary stuff is. You can forget what love looks like with its work boots on.
As Christians, we have a call to serve in two worlds; our ordinary world of Crescent Springs, Florence, Independence, Taylor Mills; and our cosmic world of the kingdom of God. And the thing I truly believe is that it is impossible to serve one without serving the other. We cannot take our place in God’s peaceful kingdom while refusing to share our peace with our neighbors right here.
Over the next month, we’ll be road tripping with Jesus, following him into the ordinary towns and homes of the first century, into difficult situations not too unfamiliar to us in the twenty-first. We’ll listen to a lawyer wonder just how many doors down our love has to extend. We’ll meet Mary and Martha with their sisterly rivalry. We’ll consider how prayer is like being a pesky neighbor, always knocking on your door. We may even meet the owner of the latest mcmansion monstrosity. And in all these scriptures what we’ll see is that Jesus’ call to love our neighbors was never meant to be some idealistic, metaphorical thing. Jesus teaches us to love the neighbors we really have, in all their real, messy, nitty gritty glory.
Jesus had a cosmic mission: the salvation of the world. But if the cosmic event of cross was all that mattered, Jesus’ time on earth could have been over in a long weekend. But he took three years first, traveling from town to town, making friends, sharing meals, leaving bits of his wisdom behind. Three years in which he simply got to know his neighbors.
The big stuff—the cosmic stuff—it gets played out in the little stuff—the meals and friendships and laughter.
You and I may not be cosmic—we may not have the power to cast out demons or usher in the salvation of the world—but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a mission of our own.
To get to know our neighbors, and to love them—really love them—as ourselves.