There are times it feels like the world has gone mad-that it just seems like a truly scary place with very little good in it. And at those times, church type folks are often tempted to think of the church-treat the church- as a hide out. Somewhere safe- somewhere we can be comforted, can feel good about ourselves and the world for a spell. Somewhere we don’t have to think about anything scary or threatening or challenging in any way. In our consumer driven society we might begin to think of church as one more consumable-the place where we get to relax and open all of God’s gifts to us: healing, forgiveness, resurrection. And then the Holy Spirit comes barging into the place, crashing into the pew doors, rattling the Table- reminding us that this is in no way shape or form a members only meeting, not a feel good fest. The Holy Spirit comes reminding us that it is time to give, to share. Reminding us that we are not consumers of God’s love, but providers of God’s love- deputized, authorized, to go out into the world and serve as Christ’s hands, heart, and feet.
We are at a pretty fair distance from this Gospel story so it may have lost its teeth, but imagine what it was like for the people in the story. They had been hanging out with Jesus for a while-following him all over the place- when one day he comes home, after a long day healing, preaching, and teaching, and he looks like he is at the end of his rope. And he looks at his followers and says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. I need some help- and you are it.” Then he holds out his hands and prays over you- a prayer that you can feel working its way into every fiber of your being- his prayer gives you authority over demons, disease, even death itself. When he is finished you cautiously open your eyes- wondering if you will look different. You don’t. Do you feel different? Wiser, stronger, braver? Nope- feel about the same. Except sort of ready for whatever is next. Then he starts making assignments: Barbara, you take Point Breeze, Jonathan, you and Beaty take West Philly, Christy, North Philly, Elaine, you’ve got South Street. Leave everything behind- no purse or wallet. Oh, and go barefoot. God will provide what you need and that will be more obvious to people if you aren’t laden down with stuff-pretty hard to preach dependence on God when you are dragging a suitcase full of things with you.. Here’s your assignment: Preach the kingdom, heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the outcasts, cast out demons. I’m going to take the weekend off- I’m beat. Now go!
Now you might be sitting there thinking, whew, glad none of that happened to me- I’m just sitting in church. But it has happened. It happens every Sunday. The very last thing we hear before we put our hymnals down and start thinking about lunch, is some version of “Go!”- “Go forth in the name of Christ!” “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” “Let us go forth into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirit, Alleluia!”. Those words are our commission- they are words for providers, not consumers. They are words, as Barbara Brown Taylor, whose thoughts influenced this sermon says, words that are meant to remind us that Jesus didn’t just take a brief holiday then take back all responsibility from the disciples- perhaps letting them help out a bit-hold the bandages while he touched lepers. He didn’t pull the “Son of God card” and let them off the hook because they weren’t born under an unusually bright star while angels sang ecstatically. He did the opposite. He transferred his ministry to them while he was still alive- entrusting it to them- a rag tag band with no qualifications or experience to speak of, except that they somehow wanted to follow him. So off they went, with little more than his blessing, to heal wounds, restore outcasts, bring the dead back to life, and tell people the kingdom was near- probably something someone who had just been healed really didn’t need spelled out, but he had told them to do it, so they did. It may be that preaching the kingdom without doing anything is little more than politics, and doing good work without speaking the Good News is no more than a temporary reprieve. But proclaiming the kingdom while acting it out, now that is what Jesus sent his friends out to do. Which sounds great, but the part that nags at me is the “take nothing” part. He didn’t order a limo for them- or send them out with backpacks with a fancy “Disciple” logo. He set things up so they could not provide for others out of their own abundance, but only out of their need. They had all the authority they needed to do good work, but every day they had to knock on someone’s door and ask for shelter, or pop over at lunch time and ask for a meal. So are they beggars or miracle workers? And why would miracle workers why do they have to depend on strangers for even as little as a cup of water?
There is a Buddhist custom in Cambodia-all seekers of the truth have to spend a year as a beggar- wandering from village to village in saffron robes and sandals, carrying a begging bowl. When the year is over, they are free to go back to life as they knew it. But none of them does- none of them is the same person.
Which makes sense if you think about it- perhaps owning nothing, having nothing to offer, is the only experience that makes us understand that all we have to offer anyone else is what we have been given. That makes us understand that reliance on God is the same as reliance on the hospitality of others. I imagine, after living like that, it would be hard to take a turn at the food cupboard and not see yourself in the face of the person across the table from you, receiving food. When you looked you would see yourself, or you would see God, but either way whatever you were offering would be offered out of your own need, not your abundance. It would be offered out of your need to be related to her, to know about her and let her know about you, your need to give to her a portion of what had been given to you and to receive what she had to give in return without thinking that makes you a hero.
It is simply what you do, when you know who you are and who you are working for, when you are sent out to proclaim the kingdom and act it out with no money, or shoes. Because when it comes down to being a provider of God’s love, there is really only one provider-the One who sends us out with absolutely nothing yet with everything we need: healing, forgiveness, restoration, resurrection. That is really all we have to share with the world and, coincidentally, that is exactly what the world really needs. So, Go!