July 7, 2013

Proper 9, Year C

When I lived in Nepal, I worked with an elderly Jesuit priest named Father Donnelly.  As a young priest, Father Donnelly had been sent from the cornfields of the Midwest to the tea plantations and rice paddies of India and then Nepal.  He had served people as a teacher and pastor for many decades.  When I knew him, he seemed to be devoting the last season of his life to one specific prayer: that God would send more laborers into the harvest.

Father Donnelly would have sounded like a broken record with this prayer request, but he prayed so earnestly and intensely, that this prayer came straight from his heart each time.  He wanted more people to find vocations in the Roman Catholic priesthood or religious orders—particularly missionary orders.  Father Donnelly even told me that I'd make a great nun.

Father Donnelly lived with an acute sense that the harvest was plentiful, but the laborers few.  He saw that the world needs people who are utterly dedicated to God's mission of sharing peace, healing the sick, and announcing how very, very near the kingdom of God is.  He saw that the world needs people who can resist the cultural programming that encourages us all to spend our lives building greater security for ourselves.  

It's hard to find people like that.  It hurts to see how badly the world needs them.  But in today's gospel, Jesus has some very practical instructions for how to become the laborers that the harvest needs so badly.  These instructions fall into two main categories.  First, don't carry burdens.  And second, don't get distracted.

Let's start with those burdens.  Jesus doesn't want the seventy to carry a purse, a bag, or a pair of sandals.  They should take nothing more than they need to fulfill their mission of traveling from one town to the next, accepting hospitality, and offering their peace.  Anything they brought with them would slow them down.  They might see little need for other people, and rely on the sources of comfort and security that they had brought for themselves.  These burdens would hinder their mission.

So would any distractions.  Jesus doesn't want the seventy to talk to anyone on the road.  It seems a little strange that they aren't allowed to say hello or stop and chat with people they meet along the way, but again—distractions would slow them down.  They would have superficial relationships—relationships in passing—rather than opportunities for experiencing the kingdom by receiving hospitality and sharing peace.  Distractions would hinder their mission.

These instructions make sense to me so far.  Burdens weigh us down.  Distractions disturb our peace.  Most of us should probably pare down our to-do lists, turn off our electronic devices, and re-focus on the rich field of essential tasks and relationships that Jesus has sent us to harvest.

But what really strikes me is how well Jesus knows our burdens and distractions.  Yes, Jesus instructs the seventy not to carry a purse, a bag, or sandals.  But he also asks them not to let some of the heaviest life burdens build up.  These burdens can come from our experiences of rejection and conflict.  Burdens also pile up when we make ourselves responsible for successful outcomes in everything we try.  

But Jesus says that whenever people don't share the peace that his disciples offer, they should simply wipe off the dust.  Don't dwell on rejection.  Don't get stuck in conflict.  Don't bear the weight of all successes and failures on our shoulders.  Don't let the dust cling to every surface, build up a film, form a thick layer.  Before we know it, we'd have the whole earth on our backs.

Jesus also understands the extent of our distractions.  Yes, Jesus instructs the seventy not to greet anyone on the road.  But, more than that, Jesus tells them to be present and open to the place where they are.  To eat what is set before them.  To stay in one house.  Well, it's easy for me to see how often distractions can derail our own agendas.  Distractions keep us from getting from point A to point B as efficiently as possible.  But it's harder for me to acknowledge how distractions keep us from resting at point B—or wherever we are.  Letting go of distractions means relinquishing even our own distracting agenda, and being fully present.

By asking the disciples to eat what is set before them, he is not only asking them to give up an array of distracting choices and preferences.  The radical nature of this instruction is that Jesus gives the seventy permission to give up their dietary laws.  Instead, they allow themselves to be served and changed by the people they meet.  They give up what they know, what they are sure about.  Their mission isn't to dish up something for the people they meet, but to live peaceably with others.  They aren't there to implement their own agenda or to be directed exclusively by their own determination.  They are there to be a true presence.  Jesus asks us not to move from house to house, but to stay where we are, in that moment.  We are not to be distracted by things passing us by, or by our own preoccupations.

So Jesus' instructions are deep.  Jesus seems to know the full weight and depth of our burdens.  Jesus seems to know the vast extent of our distractions, and how deeply rooted they may be in our own agendas and plans.  But how can we free ourselves from the burdens and distractions that hinder our missions?

In this passage, Jesus doesn't give us a lot of clear explanations for "how."  He is more practical: just do it!  We have to learn by experience and experimentation.  What Jesus really gives to the seventy is a reward for laying down their burdens and letting go of their distractions.  Their reward is this: they get a taste of their own power.

It sounds as though, if the people sent by Jesus can be freed from their burdens and distractions, there is no stopping them.  When the seventy return to Jesus with joy, he tells them, "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening."  Jesus sent them out like lambs in the midst of wolves.  They came back as people who could tread on snakes and scorpions and be unharmed.

But here's the twist.  On the one hand, if we can shed our burdens and distractions, there's no telling what we can accomplish.  Yet: Experiencing this power is only part of the mission.  Jesus gives the seventy one last instruction: "do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."

Think back for a minute to last week.  In our gospel passage, the disciples James and John saw that a village of Samaritans would not receive Jesus.  They asked, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?"  But the gospel tells us that Jesus "turned and rebuked them."  Then, "they went on to another village."

Jesus was teaching James and John the same lesson that he tries to teach the seventy in today's gospel.  The lesson is that we can't see our work of proclaiming the kingdom according to the paradigms we usually use to measure our missions.  We see many of our life's missions in terms of success and failure, or triumph and defeat.

But for Jesus, mission is not about expanding an empire; it's about sharing peace.  It's not about returning victorious; it's about rejoicing in the harvest.  It's not about building the kingdom; it's about being in the kingdom.  

As we step out into our fields like lambs among wolves, may we remember these instructions from Jesus.  Shed your burdens and shake the dust from your feet.  Let go of distractions and be present to this moment.  Rejoice—not because these disciplines make us more powerful than Satan, but because we have tasted the peace of heaven.

Lora Walsh