Richard Maxwell

Proper 9 C
7 July 2013
Grace Episcopal Church

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Hurry up!  Don’t waste any time!  Get OUT there . . . heal the sick and spread the Good News:  the kingdom of God is near.  Hurry!  Hurry!  Time is almost up!

Today’s Gospel story is about Jesus sending out 70 disciples, to preach and heal the sick.  It’s a story with many familiar bits . . . and so, when we hear the story, it’s easy to get sidetracked by a familiar sentence or saying and miss some of the story’s key elements.

One of these elements is urgency.  The urgency of the mission underlies all the instructions Jesus gives the disciples.  There’s not much time!  Get busy!  Most of us are not farmers, so it may be hard for us to relate to the imagery Jesus uses . . . we may not feel the anxiety of the story.  The harvest is ready . . . it’s here . . . the crop is ripe . . . NOW . . . if we don’t get the harvest in quickly, it will spoil.  If the harvest spoils, not only will we have worked for nothing, but also we’ll be facing disaster . . . poverty, hunger . . . it’s IMPERATIVE that we get the harvest in NOW.  There is no time for ordinary greetings.  No time for scruples over what sort of food we eat, no time to search for a better place to stay than the one we have.  Hurry, hurry!  Heal those people!  Tell them the message:  “The kingdom of God is near!”  Get on with it!

We can read all sorts of meaning into the instructions that Jesus gives the disciples as he sends them out . . . but if our interpretations are not grounded in the urgency of the mission, we have gone astray.

And who are these people Jesus sends out?  The Gospel story begins with this:  “The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs…” (Luke 10:1).  Don’t let that sentence just roll past you.  When you think of Jesus sending out disciples, don’t you usually think of the twelve?  I do.  But here we have another story, in which Jesus sends out SEVENTY disciples . . . seven, zero.  It’s the only place in the Gospels that we hear about these 70.  We don’t know who these folks are . . . but clearly discipleship extends beyond the inner circle of the twelve.

There are all sorts of Scriptural echoes we may find in this number 70 . . . perhaps most obvious, the story of Moses gathering 70 elders and the Lord coming down and sharing some of the spirit that rests on Moses with these 70, so that the burden on Moses’ shoulders can be lightened.  Or, when we hear of the 70 that Jesus sends out, perhaps we think of the 70 offspring of Jacob . . . who are to become as numerous as the stars in heaven.  Perhaps we find numerological meaning in the number.  Luke may well have been aware of all of these echoes and even more . . . who knows? . . . let the commentators argue.  But I do believe that it’s true that all true disciples of Jesus share in his power . . . as those ancient elders shared in the Spirit with Moses . . . and that disciples are meant to make disciples, so that eventually we WILL be as numerous as the stars in heaven . . . like the descendents of Jacob.

Notice that one of Jesus’ first instructions is for the disciples to beg God for more laborers to join in the work.  The success of the harvest depends not only on the disciples healing and preaching . . . and doing it quickly and efficiently . . . the success of the harvest also depends on the disciples getting some help.  Even more people are needed to do the work . . . and they’re needed NOW!  So how is this help to come?  Through prayer!  Prayer itself is a crucial part of the mission.  This is another element of the story that we often overlook . . . the importance of prayer.

So where do these 70 disciples go?  Where do they return from?  We’re not told.  We’re given no specifics . . . except that Jesus sends them to every town and place where he himself intends to go.  There’s no specific geographic information given.  But . . . hmmmm . . . Jesus sends them to EVERY place he intends to go?  Did Jesus have a carefully planned itinerary for his journeys . . . for his work?  Did he plan his missions like I plan a vacation?  Maybe . . . but that doesn’t sound quite right to me.  Rather, perhaps this is Luke’s way of saying that Jesus sends his disciples out to reach as many people as possible . . . because, in the end, doesn’t Jesus intend to reach EVERYONE?  So perhaps the specific places these 70 disciples go are not so important . . . perhaps what’s important is that they are sent by Jesus . . . to reach as many people as possible with the power and word of Jesus . . . and then they are to return to Jesus.  We shouldn’t forget that Jesus is the center of the story.

In the end, these disciples return amazed and thrilled with what they’ve been able to do.  But Jesus reminds them that he has seen and done even more.  They must not be too impressed with themselves . . . too prideful . . . about what they’re able to do through Jesus Christ.  Because, ultimately, their goal is not earthly but heavenly . . . they work not for honor, prestige, or power here, but for eternal life . . . and for the glory of God.

So . . . there are some of the key elements of today’s story . . . but . . . so what?  What’s it telling us? . . . you and me . . . here at Grace Church this morning?

Well, let’s see . . . let’s start with evangelism, that scary word.  We’d like to see our parish grow in numbers, wouldn’t we?  We’d like to see Grace filled with people, a joyous, vibrant place filled with the Spirit.  How do we do that?

How many are we?  The laborers are indeed few.  (Especially this Sunday.)  Ask the Lord to send more.  Pray.  Ask God to bring us more disciples.  We can come up with all sorts of strategies and tactics for bringing people to Grace – and, in fact, we’re working on these – but without prayer even the most brilliant plan won’t work.  Because ultimately it is God who brings the workers to the field.  Yes, we must do OUR work . . . but our prayer itself is a crucial element in our labors.

Okay, but in addition to prayer, what IS our job?  Yes, we must organize, and meet, and plan . . . form committees and do all sorts of pragmatic, practical things to keep Grace alive and healthy and growing.  But really, all our tasks are about two things:  healing, and preaching the Good News!  That’s our work.  Surprised?  I bet those 70- people Jesus appointed were pretty surprised, too.  After all, Jesus always seemed to save the important stuff for his twelve special friends.  But discipleship is not just for the select few.  We’re ALL appointed to be disciples.

Do you feel ill-equipped, unprepared, unqualified?  Well, so did those 70 disciples . . . Jesus sent them out with no money, no change of clothes, not even decent walking shoes.  We certainly have it easier than that!  You think you can’t heal someone’s pain?  Of course, you can!  Oh, you may not CURE them of what ails them, but don’t underestimate the power of a kind word, an attentive ear, a helping hand . . . and, of course, prayer.  You think you can’t preach?  Of course you can!  Oh, you may not be the most eloquent speaker anyone’s ever heard, but you can preach the Good News with your LIVES!  Live your faith!  And PRAY!  Never underestimate the power of discipleship.  When we claim our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ, and accept the work that we’re given to do . . . we share in the power of the Spirit . . . just as those ancient Hebrew elders shared in the Spirit with Moses . . . just as those 70 disciples found that they had the power to thwart the evil they encountered.

And as we do our work, we must stay centered in Christ.  Jesus sends us out, and it is to Jesus we return.  Whatever we achieve, however many lives we touch, when Grace is bursting at the seams, filled with joyous disciples . . . it’s not about us, my friends . . . the point of our work is not OUR success, no matter how gratifying it is.  The point of our work . . . our prayer, our healing, our preaching . . . is the glory of God!

And remember, there’s not much time!  We don’t know what tomorrow will bring.  The harvest is ready NOW!  Our neighborhood . . . our city . . . is ready NOW.  There are people outside our doors yearning for healing . . . yearning for the Good News that they are loved.  Don’t waste any time!  We’re meant to be as numerous as the stars in the heavens.  Get busy!  Hurry!  Heal the sick!  Spread the Good News:  the Kingdom of God is near!

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