Nothing like getting a few vacation packing tips from Jesus–”Carry no purse,” he told the 70 he was sending out, “no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.” Well, that would certainly simplify the leave-taking but I’m not sure how long into the trip that would be a good idea.
I sometimes marvel at people who have recently come to town and come to the church looking for assistance. When I ask them if they knew anybody here or if they had a job or something else to draw them to Bennington, I marvel, as I said, at their trust, when they say, “No, it just seemed like a nice place to come to.” Is it faith? Or naivete? Irresponsibility? Or something worse?
It sure seems like that is what Jesus is telling these 70 missionaries to do. “Go your way,” he told them. “But see, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves.” There are, obviously, people who take this–and everything else in the Bible–literally, but I find myself agreeing with the commentator who wrote that here there is “the need for historical respect for the narrative, a willingness to let it be an account of the first century community. The drive for ‘instant relevance’ becomes a ludicrous if not dangerous inclination with a text like this.” (Texts for Preaching, Year C, p. 416) Take nothing with you. Just knock on doors and see who will take you in.
Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan thinks this is essentially a description of the early Christian community and how the gospel spread after the death and resurrection of Jesus. This was a mission not just for the 12, but for “70,” or 72 as other manuscripts say; for ordinary people, for householders and for couples, for Crossan suggests that it is quite likely that some of these pairs were men and women, some married to each other, some not. It was a story meant not only for those who had the freedom to travel or “itinerate,” but also for the householders who received them. There was a part for everyone in this kingdom creation.
And though the number 70 had significance for the Jewish community, as tradition talked about the 70 elders, the point really was that they were not alone, even as they went out as “lambs amidst wolves.” They traveled two by two, there were at 68 others out there, doing the same thing they were. Seven–and therefore 70– was thought to be a perfect number. You are enough. You have everything you need.
And there was no elaborate pre-mission training. This was not a traveling vacation bible school with a curriculum, or a campaign to spread doctrine, or even a marketing strategy. It was simply a description of how the gospel is spread–by sharing meals, by extending and receiving hospitality, by bringing healing, however we might conceive of that, embodying grace and forgiveness and love.
“People [then as well as now] seek meaning, community, purpose, a source for engaging the world as willing participants in it,” as one writer says. [Susan Kendell, the Christian Century, 6/22/16] We gather this morning with one another, not because it’s “the place” to be, obviously, but more likely because each of us is looking for meaning, community, purpose, a source for engaging the world as willing participants in it. We are looking for our 69, for companions on this journey, which sometimes does indeed feel like being sent out as lambs amidst wolves.
“Take no purse, no bag, no sandals,” Jesus told them. As one preacher says, it speaks to our “tendency to put all kinds of stipulations in place before we feel secure to go and witness to what we know about God and to how we’ve experienced God’s love.” [Karoline Lewis, workingpreacher.org, 6/26/16] But for Jesus the question is not what you need, but who. He begins his instructions for the journey with prayer–”pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Make sure you stay open to Who is sending you and Whose harvest this is. And take a partner with you. Don’t go alone. That’s the most important thing you need, and the packing check list can take care of itself.
“It is not good for the earth creature, the adam, to be alone,” God says in the creation story of the Garden of Eden. In that foundational story, or “myth,” we learn that fundamentally we need each other. Back in 1938 when the artist Bob Kane first created the character of Batman, the Dark Knight was a solitary figure. But in 1940 Kane decided that Batman needed a partner and so created Robin, the Boy Wonder, to be Batman’s companion. “It is not good for even Batman to be alone.”
This is not exactly a popular theme in this day and age of heightened individualism, of nations breaking off from other unions, of “doing your own thing.” On this Independence Day weekend, we celebrate our independence as a nation, declared in that great declaration of independence which, oddly enough, is full of “interdependence” language, about “union,” and reliance upon one another and upon God.
The nature of the Christian faith is radically communal–”wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” But all too often it has devolved into a “you and me, Lord” individualism, or “I don’t need church–I’m just trying to be a good person on my own” or splitting off or isolating ourselves from others whom we deem to be somehow “impure.” Christian history is full of splinter after splinter, schism after schism. The United Church of Christ was created as a result of 4 different denominations coming together, with the intention of working with other communities whenever possible.
“Whenever you enter a town,” Jesus told the 70, “and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off against you; nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.” The threat of condemnation which Jesus offered to those towns that would not receive them, saying “I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on that day for Sodom than for that town,” is because the people of Sodom were inhospitable. It had nothing to do with homosexuality, despite the common misconception about that, even giving us the word “sodomy.” Rather, the mob of men in that story were out to do harm to outsiders, to people “who are not from here.” We would do well to re-read the story of Sodom as we make decisions about whether to welcome refugees.
Quaker author Parker Palmer says he is more and more committed to a campaign to make July 5 Interdependence Day. He quotes part of a favorite poem by Julie Cadwallader-Staub, entitled, “Blackbirds,” whom she saw flying and swooping together in one great flock.
How do they do that?
Oh if we lived only in human society
with its cruelty and fear
its apathy and exhaustion
what a puny existence that would be
but instead we live and move and have our being
here, in this curving and soaring world
so that when, every now and then, mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives
and when, even more rarely, we manage to unite and move together
toward a common good,
we can think to ourselves:
ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be.
Ah, yes, we are meant to unite–in all our diversity and individuality– and move together toward a common good. As the United States becomes more and more tribal, more divided and angry, we would do well to remember our interdependence. On a planet where we do in fact breathe one another’s air, drink one another’s water, share one another’s atmosphere, we must remember that we are not created to be alone. We are made for each.
“I am sending you out to bring word that the kingdom of God has come near, and all you need is each other…and God.” Surely there is no more perfect symbol of this than the one loaf and one cup, one body, one blood. And so we are invited to the table, to receive nourishment for the journey, to be reminded that we are part of each other. Take and eat. Take and drink. This is my body and blood for you, and for the whole world. Let us keep the feast.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark