Safety and Risk


A sermon preached on July 4, 2010 based upon Luke 10:1 -11, 17 – 20.

Our Gospel lesson recounts the travel instructions Jesus gave seventy of his followers as he sent them out into the world.  One chapter earlier Jesus had given similar instructions to the twelve disciples. A way of life is being described here that is at the heart of Christianity.   There is a lot packed into these words of Jesus, so I want to take them a couple of verses at a time:

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way.’ (Luke 10:1-3a)

There is this common misconception that sees Christianity as being primarily a set of beliefs.  In this view, the criteria for whether or not you are a Christian is based upon whether you can say you believe certain things:  that Jesus is the son of God, that he was born of a virgin, that he died for your sins: stuff like that. But to see Christianity this way is really unfortunate because it overlooks the fact that Christianity is first off a distinctive way of living in the world. In the book of Acts, in fact, the earliest expression used for Christians were “people of the way” – the way of Jesus.

It’s a way of life that is undergirded by certain beliefs, but if we publicly profess traditional Christian beliefs and then altogether fail to live the way of life that Jesus calls us to, then we should be brought up on false advertising charges.  The beliefs resonate with a distinctive way of life or else the beliefs are meaningless. In its original New Testament form, Christianity was a lot like Alcoholics Anonymous.  The 12 steps don’t present much in the way of theological belief, referring only to “a higher power however you conceive of it.”  The key is living the life described in the 12 steps.  Believing in the 12 steps but not practicing them is meaningless.

One of my heroes is St. Francis of Assisi. Jesus’ traveling instructions were pretty central to Francis and the order of Fransicans he established.   He practiced radical simplicity and  went forth offering God’s peace.  Francis once said, “Go into the world and preach the Gospel.  Use words if you have to.”  The idea being that the Gospel is best expressed in a way of life.

“The harvest is plentiful,” said Jesus, “but the laborers are few.”

There’s a story in the summer edition of The Upper Room in which a middle aged woman describes how late one night late she accidently locked herself out of her home in a semi-rural community, forcing her to drive some distance to a friend’s house where a second pair of her house keys were stored.

As she was driving down a lonely, dark road, she happened to pass a girl of about 14 or 15 walking alone down the side of the road.  The girl out alone in the cold caught the woman’s attention, but she was long accustomed to the idea that you don’t stop for strangers, especially late at night, so she continued down the road.   But the urge to go back stayed with, becoming, she said, like a physical ache in her chest. And so she did.

“I probably shouldn’t be offering you a ride, and you probably shouldn’t be accepting one, but do you need a ride?”

The girl was clearly in some sort of distress.   She gratefully accepted the woman’s offer of a ride, asking to be taken somewhere she could make a phone call.  The woman took her to a store that was open all night, asking the security guard there to keep an eye on her.

The woman writes that when she looked into the girl’s eyes she had this distinct inner impression that she’d never experienced before that she was at that moment the answer to somebody’s prayers for this young girl.

It led her to reflect on the fact that if she hadn’t managed to get herself locked out of her house, she wouldn’t have been out on that lonely road late at night to be there for that girl.  It wasn’t that God had intentionally locked her out of her house, but rather that God used her little misstep to bring about something good – that God is always looking to do this sort of thing, and that if you trust this, you don’t have to get all stressed over the missteps we all invariably make in life.   You just have to be open to the leadings of the Spirit.

The harvest is plentiful, said Jesus; there are endless array of wondrous moments to experience grace and love, opportunities, if we are just willing to be a laborer, where God can make something good happen.  But too often we miss this abundant harvest, perhaps because of our preoccupation with safety.

‘See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals…’ (Luke 10:3b – 4)

It is important to travel light as we go through life. Most of us have way too much stuff, and it just bogs us down.  It is not true that the one with the most stuff at the end wins.   Simplify.

But that’s not what I want to focus on in these verses.

These two lines don’t seem to fit together in our usual way of thinking.  On the one hand, Jesus is right up front in acknowledging that there are plenty of wolves out there waiting to eat us up. There really are dangers in the world into which he sends us.  There is good reason to think twice about stopping to pick up strangers late at night.

And yet in the very next line, Jesus goes on to tell us not to take along with the sort of stuff by which we might seek to take away the risk involved.

Which is to say, there is something about taking risks in the face of danger that is really important.

Going camping this past week with my family got me thinking about two words that are linked together:

Safety and risk.

The camping we did was pretty tame; nonetheless, there were mild risks involved in comparison to the option of staying at home behind locked doors at night.  Who knows for sure what looms out there in the darkness of the woods?  And yet embracing that bit of risk is a significant part of what it is that makes the experience of camping worth doing.  Embracing the risk brings an intensity, a certain aliveness that we could not find inside our safe houses.

There is a legitimate need to feel safe in this world.   A central part of what it means to be a parent is to create a home where a child can feel safe from the threats of this world.  And yet, if all the child ever feels is safe, the child will never grow. We need both safety and risk in our lives.

We have a tendency in our culture, however to be obsessed with safety, as though the purpose of life is to do away with all possible risks. But to be absolutely safe is to be dead. Or to put it another way, the safest possible place in this world is the grave.   So “the way” to which Jesus calls us is one in which we willing embrace risk.

If we are preoccupied with safety we will close ourselves off from experiencing the living God.  God is calling us on an adventure, and without risk, there is no adventure.

Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.  (Luke 10:5)

Whenever we encounter someone and dare to reach out to them in peace, there is a risk involved.  There is no guarantee your offer of friendship will be received.   Maybe it will, maybe it won’t.

There are good-hearted people in this world, and there are people in this world whose hearts are closed down.  (There are good-hearted people whose hearts at any given moment have temporarily closed down for a whole host of reasons.)

Where are good hearted people found? Everywhere, in all races, cultures, religions, genders, sexual orientations, whatever.  Where are people with closed hearts found?  Everywhere, in all races, cultures, religions, genders, sexual orientations, whatever.

Where does prejudice come from?  It arises having an encounter with a person of a particular demographic and having that encounter go badly for whatever reason, and then proceeding to generalize about all people of that demographic. Resorting to prejudice is connected to our preoccupation with safety.  It allows us to close down the world, making it smaller and smaller, thereby reducing the risk of rejection.

If your offer of peace is rejected, Jesus tells us not to get strung out about it; don’t generalize about all people (or types of people), simply move on to the next person. Your peace is not lost; it comes back to you.

But what a difference it would make if we could approach every person we met with an intention of blessing them with our peace?

‘Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. ‘ (Luke 10:6)

There are two things that catch my attention here.

First, live graciously.   We are to eceive what others give us with gratitude and humility.  We are not supposed to get bent out of shape with the idea that we’re indebted to them for their help.  If we come to another person offering peace we have given them something wonderful, even if they end up doing what seems like the heavy lifting in the interaction.  We don’t have to grovel in feelings of indebtedness.  Human beings were put on this earth to help one another.  If someone else helps us, we have given them an opportunity to fulfill their purpose in life.

Secondly, Jesus counsels us not to get succored into the perpetual search for greener pastures.  We are to strive for contentment with what we have, or we will never really live our lives in the present moment.   Our lives are doomed if we succumb to the trap of thinking real living will only happen after we make an upgrade.

Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”  But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.”(Luke 10:7 – 11)

The only message Jesus instructs his followers to deliver is pretty simple:  “The kingdom of God has come near you.”  That which we most need, most desire is not far off at the end of a rainbow; it isn’t waiting for us at the end of retirement or at the end of a mortgage or at the end of whatever.  It isn’t waiting for us when we meet the perfect lover or find the perfect job. It is right here now, whether or not we acknowledge it.

So the seventy followers went off on their own to have adventures.  After a time they return to Jesus, bubbling over with what they have experienced.

The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. (Luke 10:17-19)

The followers are absolutely stunned by all the good stuff that happened when they went into the world with the intention of putting into practice what Jesus had instructed.  They’ve embraced risk, let go and trusted God’s presence right here, right now in their lives.  They’ve met all kinds of people and offered them peace, and more often than not the peace has been welcomed.

Jesus confirms that this is so.

When we enter into this way of life, there is a certain sense in which the power of evil is broken in our lives — we can’t be harmed.  That doesn’t mean nothing bad will ever happen to us.  It means you enter into this place where evil can’t take us over.   Our souls remain intact, come what may. But then comes this final line:

‘Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’ (Luke 10:20)

When we get in tune with God; when we begin to learn what it means to go with the flow, travel lightly, keeping our hearts open, expectedly looking for what God is doing in our lives, then lo and behold we discover a degree of success in this world we had not known was possible. We find doors opening, help offered, opportunities arising.

But a danger arises when we begin to focus our hearts on the success itself.

On the television you can often find something called “the prosperity Gospel” put forth by preachers.  It contains a partial truth.  There is a lot of stuff in life that will go better when we are in tune with God.  But there are times when God calls us in a way that will feel any thing but prosperous.   To recognize this truth we need look no farther than the cross.   A great deal of the ministry of Jesus was characterized by prosperity and a joyful serendipity.   But the larger story contains what looked in the eyes of the world very much like defeat.   It was only in the mystery of the resurrection that the horrific defeat of the cross was transformed into something immensely wonderful.

Jesus tells us to focus our hearts not on success but rather on what he calls “having our names written in heaven,” which I take to mean living with a sense of integrity that our lives are consistent; that our beliefs and our actions reflect the Gospel.  It means going through life without letting the world close down our hearts.

Along with my son Bobby I spend a great deal of time within the world of sports; specifically sharing in my son’s passion for soccer.  Of course, we’ve been watching the world cup.  We rooted for the US National Team, but after they lost to Ghana, we began rooting for Ghana, the only African nation to advance.   This past week we watched as Ghana played valiantly against Uruguay, taking a tie into the final minute of overtime.   In the final seconds, a Ghana player took a shot that was headed into the goal, stopped only when a Uruguay player intentionally stopped the ball with his hands, forcing a penalty kick.   The star of the Ghana team lined up to take the kick.  All he needed to do was sink the shot and his team would advance to the semi-finals, to the great delight of the entire continent of Africa.   After 120 minutes of non-stop running, however, his legs were exhausted.  He hit the cross bar, missing the kick, sending the game into a penalty kick shoot-out.  Uruguay won the shootout.

It was agonizing, to say the least.   To play so valiantly, only to fall in defeat — the disappointment was oceanic.

Watching this with Bobby, it raised the question of how does an athlete give his or her all while accepting the possibility that in the world of sports, more often than not one’s best will not be enough.  Sports can be heartbreaking.   How to you go forth to compete accepting the risk involved that theartbreak is quite possible?  This is, perhaps, the greatest lesson that sports have to offer, and one that in turn applies to ever other arena in life.  How do you love at all knowing that your love may well break your heart?  The answer is reflected in the words of Jesus that we are to care more about having our names written in heaven than we are about being a success.  Success and failure is so fleeting in this world.  Integrity of heart is what matters in the end.

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