A New and Very Old Kind of Mission

Interesting strategy Jesus has. Instead of relying on people coming to them, he sends people out to the towns. At first glance, one might say, “Sure, that’s just good old fashioned evangelism! Gotta get out there and get the message out, drop off some flyers, personally invite them to join us at church!”

But that’s not exactly what happens here.

Jesus’ followers are not sent out with flyers and hospitality gift bags, gummy bears and a coffee mug. They are instructed to go out with no purse, no bags, no sandals. And what exactly are they promoting? There is no rally back at church. Just convey peace to this house and if they offer hospitality to you, then stay there and begin a relationship. Work together with them… and while you’re there, heal their sick!…Sure.

There is one more thing the 70 are instructed to do: 3 Declare that “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” But nobody thinks the kingdom of God is right here, right now, do they?

And of course there is the ending which seems very heavy but only points out that there are consequences to one’s actions.

Let’s just acknowledge the strangeness of this passage. But as we do so, let’s be open to its wonder and hopefulness. And let’s be open to two of the major, major things we learn here:  where God is to be found  in this world, which happened to be one of Luther’s and the Reformation’s foundations. (Hint: God’s more at home in the world than you think!) And second, how God is present in this world, and that would be in relationships, community, daily work.

Here are two slides that set the stage for today. The first one (slide #1) shows the cozy relationship of a church to its neighborhood which was true for centuries in the western world, where the average person either included the local church in their life, or they were looking for a church. Where the church and broader community shared the same Christian assumptions and the culture was “Christian.” They call this the age of “Christendom,” the community working hand in hand with the local congregation.

That began to unravel about 50 years ago and it has only continued to unravel at ever increasing speeds. Now the picture looks more like this (slide #2). There’s a big chasm, isn’t there? In this world, the average person in our neighborhood and world is not looking for a church at all. Many even have negative feelings about the church, and even more are indifferent. “Christian churches are a relic of the past,” they might say. “Why would I go there?”

What is our mission in this world and in our own neighborhood? To those who think the answer is to make a godless world come back to us, keep listening. The church is re-forming out in the world because that’s where God is at work.

What’s interesting is that this picture could easily be drawn about Jesus’ time also, when he was sending out the 70. This was not a world friendly to followers of Jesus. After all, Jesus was put to death as well as some of his followers. Everyone already had their own local religion and god, so the talk of a savior born of lowly parents who loved beggars and prostitutes was laughable.

No surprise, then, that the 70 Jesus sent out were asked to bear witness to the God who had drawn near to regular folks by declaring repeatedly that “the kingdom of God was at hand.” “No,” would be the response of most, God resides in the temple or on a mountain somewhere. In short, the kingdom of God is somewhere else, not here.

This basic idea is very much like what many Christians believe about the kingdom of God (slide #3). This shows what many church people think our mission is: make sure people have a ticket to the off-planet kingdom of God. Not anywhere near my stupid world, where my neighbor is too loud, I can’t get the weeds out of my garden, and people don’t respect the flag and religion any more. It’s for this reason, that some of our more evangelical brethren believe that it doesn’t matter what happens to the earth as a result of climate change, because all that matters is getting to heaven.

But then we learn in Luke 10 that God is quite active in this flawed world. How do you think the harvest came to be plentiful? Seeds have already been planted, growth has already occurred, in fields and in human hearts. That’s God’s work!

Or consider that the 70 are supposed to find people of peace. How do they do they find people who already have this peace of God? Again, God is already present and at work in the world. (slide #4)

1500 years later, Luther said that God wears masks, that God is hiding in the world, at work in the world through our neighbor. Again, many said then and would say now that the world is lost and God has given it up. We don’t believe that! When a farmer is harvesting crops, God is making it happen. When a teacher is teaching 2nd graders, God is at work. When legislators are passing laws for the common good (I know, that’s fictitious), God is at work. When scientists are seeking a better understanding of the created world, God is at work. So, too, is God at work in grandparents, artists, and stock brokers.

So God simply cannot decide what to be for Halloween, he has so many masks to choose from!

God is loose in the neighborhood and calling us to join him there by finding people of peace with whom we can form community, doing good work for the common good, or joining together to find hope.

Jesus didn’t wait for people to come to him. Remember? He had no place to lay his head. He was on the move visiting places and people religious people weren’t supposed to visit. And almost without fail, he found more faith in those people than he did among the established churchgoers of Judaism at that time.

So why would we ever think that church is in one place when God is out there, loose in the neighborhood, calling us to partner with him? So Luke 10 is about where we find God!

It’s also about he we “re-form.” By bringing people together in life-giving relationships, in community. One of Luther’s great contributions is reminding us that God comes to us through each other in caring relationships. Think of a person in your life in whom you’ve seen God at work in your relationship with that person…

One might ask why the 70 don’t move about more from house to house. They’ve got people to reach, right? It’s about forming authentic relationships that are not rushed. Don’t try to save the neighborhood. Get to know one family or just a few. In a word: Love.(slide #5) Love your neighbor, and that means listen to them. Then listen some more, to their story, to their struggles, to their hopes.

One church set up a listening post in the neighborhood and their only purpose was to listen. “As your local church, what do you want to tell us? What do you want to ask of us? What do you want us to be? How can we help you in your life?” And all they could do was listen. What if we did that? Imagine: a church that listened to who our neighbors were. They might feel that we actually loved them, that we cared about their story, not only about ours.

It’s as though these folks being sent out – the 70, you and me – are trying to find where God wants them to be, to find the people they need to meet. The truth is, whether they’re Christians, Buddhists or agnostics doesn’t matter. This whole thing grows out of relationships, community, and God is at work through our neighbor, whoever he or she is. We are already good at charity and sending money and things to people. At the moment, we’re not as effective at forming community with our neighbors. We don’t know who they are.

And what about being sent out without a plan, without gift bag or any “thing”? Maybe we have to discover who God wants us to work with. Maybe we have to discover that hospitality is as much about receiving as it is giving. When we are the receivers, we are not in control. There is required a new kind of openness. This is critical for us to be in mission now.

Mt Carmel was put here in this neighborhood because God has a mission in this neighborhood. If we learn how to form community with the folks of this neighborhood, then this congregation has a future here. If we function like a club, where we expect everyone to come to us and be like us, we have no future. Fortunately for us, as Luther and others have made clear, God is present and deeply at work in the neighborhood and in us. And we have a journey ahead of us, one where we don’t need to have all the answers, but we can listen and learn, but where we definitely need to be present!

One of the really cool things about our situation now is that there are two groups from our community out there who are already in our building, but who we don’t connect with much or know very well. We can reach out in the neighborhood and build community without leaving the building. Do you know who I’m speaking of?

Over the next months, I will be looking for a group of people who want to explore and experiment with being present in the community, listening, observing, looking for people of peace. Might you be interested? Do you know someone who is interested?

In the meantime, you might want to get a group of church folk and meet regularly in Coffee Shop NE or Parkway Pizza. When you hang around a place and become a presence, people ask questions and relationships form. Amen.


Pastor John is Mt. Carmel’s Senior Pastor.

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