Mission with Empty Hands

Proper 14      July 3, 2016

Lk 10:1-11,16-20

We have been talking a lot lately about how the church relates to the community around it. “It’s about the world”, the slogan of last years diocesan synod, gets thrown around a lot in the diocesan newspaper. Just recently we had Bill and Lisa with us, talking about the marks of a healthy church, and number 2, “Outward Looking Focus” took a lot of our attention.

Today’s Gospel reading talks about how Jesus sent his disciples to relate to the world around them.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all speak of the sending of the twelve disciples two by two to the towns of Galilee. Only Luke tells us of this second larger sending, of seventy disciples. Who are the seventy, we might ask? This is the only place we hear of them. Of course Jesus had other followers than just the twelve disciples, but here we learn that they were not just passive listeners, but also active participants in Jesus’s ministry.

Now these disciples are being sent in a very different context, and have very different experiences than ours. They are sent in radical poverty, without bag or sandals. They are sent to cure the sick, which is not something we consider part of our ministry, unless we happen to be trained medical professionals. They come back reporting that demons submit to them, which is not the way we tend to think of people around us, as being possessed by demons. So much in this story is so exotic, so extreme.

And yet it is interesting: these things must surely have been exotic and extreme for Luke himself. If, as the tradition claims, Luke was a follower of Paul in his missionary work, he would have lived in a different world than the one he describes here, a world not so much of demons and miracle cure, but of teaching and rational persuasion, a world much more like our own. And yet he passes on this tale of the first disciples, no doubt challenging to his own world as it is to ours, passes it on because it has something to teach us.

If we can get beyond the demons and the miracle cures, what is striking in this story is the radical vulnerability with which Jesus sends the disciples out. They are sent like sheep in the midst of wolves. To spell that out: they are sent with no purse, no bag, no sandals. The instructions echo the sending of the twelve in the previous chapter: no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. In other words, they are sent without all the things one needs to be independent in our society. No money, to pay for one’s needs; no staff, to defend oneself from dogs and robbers; no food, no spare luggage. They will need to be completely dependent on the goodwill of those they meet to survive. They go with empty hands. The only thing they take with them is the name of Jesus, as they tell people about him.

Could there be something in this that we need to learn? Well, lets think a bit about what our missionary practice has been in the past. Last week Lorraine spoke to us about her family’s experience with the residential school system. And of course the story she told, a story that happened in this community in the lifetime of most of us here today, was simply the tail-end of a long missionary undertaking that stretched back over the past couple of centuries. It was an undertaking based on the assumption that we were coming to these people from a position of strength; that we had everything to offer them, Jesus and technology and civilization and material goods; that we had it all and they had nothing of value. Sometimes our attitude towards the native people was callous and cynical, calculated to exploit them to our advantage; sometimes it was more well-meaning, genuinely concerned with their well-being. But what the residential schools have taught us is that even when we mean well, if we approach others from a position of power, with the assumption that we have it all and they have nothing, we will end up doing terrible wrong to them. It is a wonderful testimony to the power of the gospel that so many first nations families, like Lorraine’s, are people of deep Christian faith; that is certainly no thanks to the way in which we European Christians treated them.

So much of our historical missionary enterprise has been based on a few lines at the end of Matthew: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” How different things might have been if we had paid more attention to passages like today’s reading.

The residential schools may be an extreme example, but it is so easy for churches to slip into the same trap today. When we think about the people around us in the community, those without a church connection or often without much understanding of the Christian faith, it is easy to assume that, spiritually speaking, we have it all and they have nothing. I think we all know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of this kind of mission, when the Jehovah Witnesses show up at our door with their tracts and their rehearsed spiel, but without being really equipped to hear about our spiritual lives and journeys. We know how dehumanizing it can feel to be confronted with someone who is so convinced they have all the answers they can’t even perceive our questions and our experiences.

When Jesus sends his disciples out without a purse or bag or sandals, he is not imposing some bizarre arbitrary discipline on them: he is trying to teach them something fundamental about himself. Because Jesus’s whole life and ministry, from his birth in a stable to his death on the cross, is about God coming to us in weakness and vulnerability. How easy it would have been for God to split open the heavens and come down in glory, to lay down the law about how things are. And that would have left us with no choice but to submit to his superior power, to submit and obey. But God does not want our submission and our obedience, not really. What God really wants is our love. And love comes only from the free consent of a heart that has been touched; not crushed by superior power, but wooed by a gentle hand that sees us for who we are and values us. Among all the appearances of the divine in human history, Jesus is God coming to us in vulnerability to call forth our love.

And so, really, there can be no other way to bring Jesus to others than in vulnerability and genuine concern for and interest in the other. If we approach others with certainty and watertight arguments and impressive shows of strength, then we may overwhelm them for our cause, but we haven’t really brought them to love Jesus. If we approach others as though we had all the answers, without regard for who they are and what gifts and experiences they have, then we haven’t really shown them Jesus’s love for them.

I wonder, though. It seems to me that for us Anglicans, the danger is not so much that we overwhelm others with our certainty. Rather, it is the opposite problem, the assumption that the way to respect our neighbours is to leave them alone. And sure, if our neighbours aren’t interested in our faith, then we don’t bother them with it, and just try to be good neighbours. But it may be that we too often assume that others aren’t interested in questions of faith. Are we so sure that is true? Just because people don’t want to have some church’s theology crammed down their throats doesn’t mean that they don’t have questions, doubts, struggles. Most of us are trying to make sense of our lives, to find meaning and joy in the midst of daily life and depression and cancer and all the hatred the news throws at us. And someone like you, someone who does not think they have all the answers, and yet still has found something in faith, has encountered in Jesus’s love and humility something that has touched their hearts, may be just the person our neighbours need to talk to.

Jesus makes an amazing claim in this passage: The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few. We tend to be sceptical about that: the harvest can look pretty meagre some days. But when we remember what we are sent for: not to collect souls for Jesus, as our ancestors thought, but simply to witness to what has moved us in our lives; and when we trust enough to take that step to make ourselves vulnerable, to share just a bit of what is important in our faith in all humility – well, we may be surprised what the lord of the harvest will show us.