A sermon preached yesterday, July 8, 2007 based upon Luke10:1 – 10.
The story is told about a young man who, every since he was a little boy, had wanted to be a fireman. When he was old enough to go to firefighters school, he was overjoyed. He spent all his free hours studying the manual, so he knew the procedures inside and out. When he graduated from firefighters school he had done so well that his teachers invited him to stay on and do post graduate research into firefighting, which once again he did so well that at the completion of his research they offered him a position on the faculty of the firefighters school. In this position he wrote many books on firefighting, and became generally acknowledged to be the world’s greatest authority on fire fighting. He retired as a professor emeritus.
On his death bed, he felt a single nagging regret. He had never actually put out a fire.
I learned this story in seminary. It was told as a dig regarding seminary professors who spent their lives teaching people who were going to be pastors without ever having been pastors themselves. The same joke could be told in reference to people like myself: preachers who stand up here telling you what Christianity is, without having to actually live it “in the world” the way you do, and without getting paid to be a Christian.
When Jesus called people to be his disciples, he didn’t grill them first on their beliefs. He said simply, “Follow me.” And they jumped in and did exactly that, trying as best they could to do what they saw Jesus doing.
Christianity is first of all an experience and a way of living. It is only secondarily a set of beliefs. We tend to reverse the order. We ask, What is it that Christians believe? What about United Methodists? How is what they believe different from Roman Catholics? Or what about Moslems? What do they believe? A better question would be, how do they live?
You go into a hospital and it is not uncommon to see a nursing student following around a nurse, learning how to do the work by watching the master. Eventually, though, the nursing student has to go out on their own. There are simply too many sick patients for them to continue to shadow the full fledged nurses. In this morning’s Gospel story, the time has come for the disciples to get off on their own and try and put into practice what they’ve been watching Jesus do up close. “The harvest is plentiful,” he says, “but the laborers are few.” There are a whole lot of people out there who need to have their souls touched by God’s peace. So Jesus sends the disciples out on their own into the world. He gives them no last minute instructions about belief. Rather, he gives them very practical instructions regarding how they are to live. Very concrete stuff, like go out two by two. Don’t take anything with you: no extra clothes, no money, no weapons. When you come to a village knock on the door of the first house you come to. Say, “Peace be on this house.” If they welcome you, be a good guest. Heal the sick. Say, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” Don’t keep looking around for ways to upgrade your accommodations. And if they don’t welcome you, just shake off the dust from your feet and move on. Don’t get caught up in angry retribution.
If you were to ask me what I thought the essence of Jesus’ teachings were — I would say things like, it is “trusting God.” It is love, forgiveness, the making of peace. I’ve given more sermons than I could ever remember about such things. But it is one thing to preach about them, and quite another to actually live such things out in the world.
Five years ago my son Andrew, 15 at the time, and I decided to take a little adventure together. We were dropped off with our bicycles in northwest New Jersey next to the Delaware River with the intention of bicycling over the course of three days to the southern most tip of New Jersey, Cape May. We intentionally traveled light; propelling yourself will do that, since the more you carry the harder the ride. Amazingly, I hadn’t given thought to the possibility of getting a flat tire, and had brought no provisions along for such a setback. Sure enough, towards the end of the first day as we were biking through a fairly deserted park, Andrew got a flat. Naturally, the sort of feelings began to rise up inside of me that you might expect in such a moment: Anxiety, fear, self-recrimination — “Idiot!!! How could you have not thought about what to do if we got a flat?!!” Somehow I managed to catch myself in this inner free fall. I told myself that maybe this was one of those instances where I might want to try and put into practice all those things I had told people in my sermons about trust; that this might be in fact an opportunity of some sort, and that what was necessary here was to try and stay loose — resist the tightening up that was going on inside of me, and wait and see what God might provide. (Part of what helped me in this regard was the fact that I was with Andrew; that whole two by two thing Jesus insisted on really helps in times like this.)
We walked our bikes some distance through the park and came upon a woman who had come to the park in her truck to let her dog run. We approached her, trying to do my best to have a spirit of openhearted peace. I told her simply that we had a flat. Did she happen to know where there was a gas station we might be able to get help some help? It turned out she personally knew the owner of a wonderful bike shop five miles down the road. Before we knew it, I was sitting up front with the woman in her truck with Andrew, his bike and the dog licking his face in the back. The bike shop was still open and in a matter of minutes they had repaired the flat. Meanwhile, the woman drove me all the way back to the park to pick up my bike, driving me once more to the bike shop. She even had a good recommendation of a local restaurant to go for dinner. We all came away feeling good about the interchange. Andrew got his tired fixed, the woman had got an opportunity to put kindness into practice with two grateful strangers in need, and I came away feeling like I had succeeded in putting one of my sermons on trust into practice.
Now, as remarkable as it seems in retrospect, I left that bike shop without it occurring to me that maybe I should purchase some provisions for fixing a flat should this happen again. And sure enough, late the next day, as we were biking through some deserted corn fields, Andrew’s other tire got a flat. Again, the anxieties and self-recriminations arose within me, but with the lesson of the previous day fresh in my mind, I tried to stay loose and keep an attitude of, “Let’s see what God will bring out of this!” We pushed our bikes for a mile or so until we came to a busier road and a diner. To the first man who came out of the diner, I gave my little speech: We’d had a flat; did he know a gas station nearby where we might get some help? Well, before we knew it, the man had invited us to pile both our bikes into his very large trunk, and we were driving down the road about ten miles to the hotel where we had planned to stay that night. Along the way the man shared some of his life story. His wife was sick. We touched each others’ souls.
There was a Kmart near the hotel that I biked over to and bought two new inner tubes. I managed to fix the tire myself; this time I would have a spare tube should we get yet another flat the next day. We didn’t.
Reflecting on this whole experience in the light of the words Jesus sent his disciples into the world with, a couple of things strike me. First, Jesus instructed his disciples to travel in such a manner that they would be obliged to rely upon the kindness of strangers. One of God’s primary means of providing for us is through the kindness of other people. If we put a lot of energy into being fully self-reliant, safeguarding against every possible mishap, well, we won’t leave any room for God to show us how God provides.
Second, we all have souls, and the harvest Jesus spoke involved the harvest of souls. In so many of our interactions we keep our guards up and our souls hidden away. Approaching people in this vulnerable, open hearted manner provides the opportunity for souls to touch, and for the blessing of the Kingdom to occur.
And third, it really does make a difference the spirit in which you approach people. People can sense what is in your heart. If you approach another human being openheartedly, conscious of God’s gift of peace, then nine times out of ten you will be well received.
Now Jesus wasn’t naïve, and he didn’t promise his disciples that they would always be well received. He told them that they would in fact receive rejections from time to time. He told them that they were going out as lambs in the midst of wolves, who, given a chance, will try to eat you up.
Lois Kelshaw is the person in our church who most effectively practices this open hearted, peaceful approach to people. Countless people have testified to the fact that when they first wandered into this church, it was Lois who welcomed them, charming them with her simple offer of peace. About six weeks ago a woman came to church for the first time. Lois, spotting a visitor, approached the woman, offering her customary warm hearted welcome. “I’m just church shopping!!” the woman said abruptly, making it quite clear Lois was to back off and leave her alone. The woman became famous in our congregation as the woman who had rebuffed Lois. We couldn’t believe it! We had thought she was pretty much irresistible. But Jesus said rejection would happen. Don’t get hung up on it.
There’s another great story about Lois that I’ve told elsewhere in which Lois was in the Pathmark parking lot when an older woman, attracted by Lois’ kind face, approached her. They engaged in a friendly conversation for a while, when suddenly another, younger woman approached them, carrying what appeared to be a bag of cash she had found abandoned. To make a long story short, the two women were scam artists. (This two by two thing can work for evil purposes as well as good.) They tried to entice Lois into a get rich quick scheme that involved her giving them access to her bank account. Now Lois isn’t rich by any means, but she had other priorities: She had an appointment to pick up her church friend Hwa from the doctor’s office, and that took priority over the enticements of easy money. The scam artists gave up and presumably went elsewhere for another lamb to devour.
Yes there are wolves out there who are looking to take advantage of you, and every so often we will meet up with one. The temptation after such an encounter is to close up our heart so we won’t be so vulnerable. The thing is, however, that in closing up our heart we also shut down the possibility of having a soul encounter with another person. And that is truly unfortunate. So Jesus says, don’t get hung up on the fact that there are people who will reject you, or use you. Just move on to the next person.
Finally, I want to talk about the whole peace-making thing that is implied in Jesus’ instructions. The offer of peace is made to all people. The instructions are to go house to house, without any sort of picking and choosing which doors we will knock on. Jesus knocked on the doors of Samaritans, who were the despised people in those days for Jews. In one case, the Samaritans at home told him to get lost. His disciples, James and John, wanted to call down fire from heaven to incinerate the Samaritans for their rudeness. Jesus rebuked the James and John. Just go to the next house. Apparently further down the road they did find some Samaritans who were willing to welcome them.
Those who would follow Jesus are called to reach out across the walls that divide us. Two stories: Tim Tyler called my attention to a gathering of evangelical Christians in Morristown known as “The Liquid Church.” These evangelicals seem to have gotten it that living by grace is pretty central to following Jesus. They do things like go out on the village green and simply give away stuff people might need. A few weeks ago about thirty of these folks went to the Gay Pride Parade in Asbury Park. It was a hot day and they were there to give out cold bottles of water. Naturally, the marchers were suspicious. The only time Christians had shown up to such events in the past was to hold banners telling them they were going to hell. Cautiously, thirsty people took the cold bottles of water, saying, “So, now are you going to tell me I’m a sinner?” “Nope,” they answered. “Enjoy the water.” Some folks sat for a while and they got to know each other. Souls were touched in both directions. Imagine, Christians who had come simply to offer peace.
The other story involves a man named Will Campbell who graduated from my seminary many years before me. He was a Baptist minister who as far as I know never actually pastored a church; rather, he was sort of a wandering chaplain supporting in the civil rights movement throughout the south. As the years past, his ministry began to focus more on poor, redneck white folk, who, in their own way, are an oppressed people. During one period of time, Will was present throughout a heart wrenching murder trial. A Klansman was on trial for the brutal, racist murder of a black man, and Campbell was splitting his time between caring for the grieving family members of the man who had been slain, and ministering to the accused Klansman himself. Noting the close, personal terms Will appeared to be on with both parties in the dispute, a reporter confronted him, asking how this was possible. In the reporter’s mind Will’s ministry was inconsistent, illogical, perhaps even hypocritical. The reporter continued to press him until finally Will lost his temper. Evidently he had been able to offer God’s peace to the grieving family and to the accused murderer, but the reporter was a different matter. “Why, you ask?!!! Because I’m a &%#$^# Christian!!!” (expletives deleted.) Yes, that’s what Christians do.
That’s what Jesus did, and that’s what he told us to do. And that’s what we’re trying to do here.