Wednesday, July 17, 2013

It's Everything!

Scripture for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost includes II Kings 5:1-14; Galatians 6:1-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

There’s quite a turn-around in the personnel department of the public ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Last Sunday’s portion of Luke’s Gospel let us listen in on three interviews with would-be staff members, and not a one of them sounded promising. One wanted to know if the hotel rooms would be air conditioned. Another had to go home and help his parents with their estate planning. If these candidates represented a trend, it wasn’t a growth curve in expanding the outreach of Jesus’s public ministry.

There’s no such thing as a wasted interview, is there? Even when you don’t get the position, you learn about the marketplace you’re trying to enter, you sharpen your interview skills. You learn from the experience. And to make sure they do, Jesus sends these applicants home with a proverb to consider: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Watch where you’re going, or you’ll go where you’re watching. Each of these disciple wannabes claimed interest in Jesus and his ministry, but their hearts were fixed on going home.

Yet today, just verses later, Jesus appoints seventy others and sends them out in pairs to the towns and villages he’ll pass through on the way to his pivotal confrontation with the ecclesiastical-political-commercial complex seated in Jerusalem. I’m puzzled. There isn’t even a hint of an interval between those disappointing interviews and today’s announcement from HR. What has happened that there’s suddenly such a deep pool of potential?

I’ll bet he established an internship program! How else does he wind up gaining so many workers without paying them (“no purse, no bag, no sandals”)? Maybe he learned from that earlier interview process a fresh way to pitch the opportunity to spend a summer with him gaining excellent training and discovering ultimate fulfillment. I don’t know… but the way Luke tells this story (the other Gospel writers don’t), there’s a quantum leap from a team of twelve rivals to a team of “seventy others”, hence 82, reasonably coordinated and successful servant ministers.

They go out in pairs. That seems to be a new feature. I don’t know how you picture the twelve disciples before this moment, but one way to imagine them is as a gaggle of geese with its own pecking order and that’s just about all Jesus got out of them, a lot of pecking, as the team of rivals tags along with Jesus, like a flock of goslings clustered around the big bird.

Sometimes we hear that three or four of them got to go on special field trips with their master, and that must have gone over really well with the other eight or nine. Gosh, maybe those three wannabes had better interview skills than we thought: could it be that they got such an eyeful and earful of those twelve dickering disciples that they just politely sidled home?

Is that detail about pairing more than meets the eye? It’s surely a biblical model, from the manifest of that big old ship Noah piloted in the book of Genesis, to the apostolic strategy evident in the Book of Acts and the letters of Paul, in days when the Church kept to the paradigm of sending out apostles two by two. We don’t hear about Paul without John, or Barnabas, or Silas, or Timothy as his partner.

Does the approach of two by two advance the kingdom of God that Jesus names as his primary concern? Is two a more demanding number than twelve or seventy because with two there’s no hiding? When you’re two on a mission together, you come to know one another. You learn the moves to the dance. You read one another. And, since Jesus didn’t minimize the danger of the mission (“I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves…”) with two, the life of each is in the hands of the other. Pairs may develop a deep teamwork different from twelves and seventies.

The world of the 21st century, like the world of the first, is run too much on the principle of win-lose and either-or. While the individual person can be torn within, teams of twelve or seventy seem even likelier to get caught up in winning and losing, excluding the possibility of that because we’ve already decided this… and I’d guess that the larger the team, the greater the temptation.

Two, on the other hand, have the opportunity and the necessity to negotiate mutually good outcomes and to live with ambiguity long enough to discover what there is to like about alternatives that just may not be as contradictory as first thought.

Our other readings today show us what a black-and-white, either-or world it was in days of yore. The Syrian (and therefore non-Jewish) army general Naaman is offended that God should even think of healing him by sending him to wash in Israel’s River Jordan. He stubbornly resists, until one of his servants gently reminds him how willing he would have been if the proposed remedy required him to do something really difficult.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians speaks to people who saw their world in exclusive terms, in this instance the circumcised and the uncircumcised. Paul makes the revolutionary claim that these cultural-religious categories are irrelevant to God, whose passionate purpose is an entirely new creation built of peace and mercy. Jesus instructs his interns to work with anyone who shares in peace, with everyone with mercy in their hearts.

That is the mission on which Jesus’s 35—or should I say 41—pairs of servant ministers return from today, exuberant at their results, meeting the apostolic call expressed by St. Paul: “Work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

When Bishop Fisher visited our Vestry last month, he invited the leaders of this parish to keep up the good work of taking care of the members of St. John’s (he called that important function “chaplaincy”) while also taking risks reaching out beyond the membership to the neighbors we live among and the strangers who we have yet to come to know as friends (he called this important function “mission”).

Our collect today reminds us that the grace of the Holy Spirit makes us able to express full-hearted devotion to God by uniting with one another in pure affection; and that’s not just the members of a parish, but the far greater community that represents our mission, that new creation which Paul (seldom short on words) blurts out “is everything!”