Proper 9C

Almighty God, you never send us out alone.  Help us to see you working with us as we work with one another.  Amen.

Have you ever – in your professional life, or even just in your life as an adult – had one of those experiences that made you feel like, perhaps, you missed the one day in school where everything of value was taught?  Like – everything was leading up to it, and then, after you missed it, it was never reviewed again…  You were just left to your own devices for the rest of your life or career.

Hearing this Gospel Lesson today – in the middle of a holiday weekend – feels sort of like that.  It’s kind of like the crux of what it is to follow Jesus, wrapped up in one little, easy-to-handle package, and of course it falls on a weekend when a lot of people (not just in our congregation, but all around the church) are travelling and likely to miss it.

It’s the lesson where Jesus tells his followers that it’s time for them to go out into the world in his name.  We say this sort of thing all the time – that we’re the ones who are called to carry on the ministry of Jesus in our own day, that we’re the ones who have been sent in Jesus’ name to be Christ’s hands, feet, eyes, mind, and heart in the world.  But how are we supposed to do it?  How can we – humble followers – dare to bear the ministry of Christ into the world?

While the world has certainly changed in the 2,000 years since these words were first spoken, there is still some timeless wisdom contained within.  The world of our ministry is wildly different from any world that those first disciples – those 70 who were sent out – might have imagined, but many of the “tools of the trade” taught in those days are still relevant today.

For one, the people were sent out “in pairs”.  Jesus is not calling us to bring about the salvation of the world all on our own.  Jesus isn’t even telling us that we are each, individually responsible for making sure everyone hears the message of Christ.  In the way of Jesus, the Good News of God’s salvation through Christ, is good news of relationship, community, and incarnation.  We aren’t meant to be alone in this ministry.  We need others, and others need us.  When we get too full of ourselves and too sure of our own individual importance, that’s when we’ve strayed from the way of Christ.

You probably remember the old song from Sunday School and Vacation Bible Schools –

          I am the church.
          You are the church.
          We are the church, together!

The verse goes on to say: “The church is not a building.  The church is not a steeple.  The church is not a resting place.  The church IS the people.”

That’s the same message Jesus is talking about – we are the church together – with a heavy emphasis on “together”.  None of us has to bear the burden of salvation alone.  None of us CAN.  Not alone.

Another important piece of the instruction manual for evangelism is that bit where it says, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals…”  The reality is, when we’re not careful, we can all find ourselves carrying around a lot of baggage when we step out in the name of Christ.  Baggage from the traumas we’ve known.  Baggage from abuses we’ve witnessed.  Even baggage from times when the people and the institutions of the church have failed us.

Those things are important and valid, and the other people of Jesus are here to love us through all of them.  But when we’re doing the ministry of Jesus, we have to let some of that baggage go.  The ministry isn’t about our baggage, because it’s not about us.  It’s about the ways that following Christ can make the baggage seem lighter.  It’s about the ways that Christ saves us from the burdens we would otherwise carry.

If we go out into the world to work through our own baggage on others, we’ll have missed the point.  The point is to help ease the burdens that others are carrying – because that’s what Christ does for us, and what Christ would have us do for others out in the world.

But the best part of the Good News comes right at the end.  The disciples have been out, they’ve been doing the work that Jesus called them to do, and when they return they are stunned at what all they’ve seen.  “Lord,” they say, “in your name even the demons submit to us!”

That’s the best part – when we are faithful to the call of God, and when we do the work that Christ has sent us out to do, then the wondrous works of God will happen.  As a priest, and as a person of faith, I can testify to you – the power of God will surprise you.  It may not look like you’d imagine – there may not be magic tricks, or herds of swine flinging themselves off of cliffs…  But when we make space for the power of God to come into the world, we will be surprised – shocked even – to see how well God can work.  To see how well God can work with just a little space and attention.

I suspect God is always working anyway – the real magic isn’t that God is doing anything out of the ordinary.  What is out of the ordinary is our rare willingness to actually see God working in the world.

So Jesus warns us not to “rejoice at this” – not to get too full of ourselves because we’ve seen God moving in the world.  The real joy is not what we’ve witnessed, but that we’ve come to know that our names are written in heaven.  The real joy is knowing the love of God, even more than the power of God.  And the real joy is spreading that love around.

But don’t worry – this won’t be the only time we’ll cover this.  If anyone has missed anything, they haven’t missed it forever.  There is grace in the teachings of Christ.  Holiday weekend, or not, the message is available to us again and again.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.