Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

The term "forward sweep" is a military term also used by the United States Secret Service in checking ("sweeping") an area before a dignitary under their protection will be allowed to enter into that area.  The purpose is to make sure the area is, or can be made to be, the safest environment possible for maximum protection of those in their protective charge.

I hesitate to use that term in the context of the disciples who were sent by Jesus to "every town ... where [Jesus] intended to go" since they were clearly not being sent for the sake of our Lord's protection; yet Jesus sent these many "ahead" to "every town where He intended to go" for a clear "sweeping" purpose.  Could it be that perhaps those places that "do not welcome" the disciples would become places where Jesus Himself would not bother going, especially as He says, "Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects Me ..."  After all, if these will not at least welcome the messenger, why expect they will care anything about the Message?

I will grant there are some clergy who believe this passage - coupled with a few others - grants substantial authority.  I agree, but only to a point.  As I have shared before, I do not claim to be any kind of "authority" of myself; I serve under that authority granted to the office I serve by the bishop of Arkansas and the Discipline of the United Methodist Church.  The point of authority is not about who is "in charge"; the point of authority is about how it is used, and to what end. 

Even from the time of the Reformation, the question has been asked often: if the clergy performing the duties of the office (particularly the Sacraments) is in a state of sin, does he (or she) lack sufficient authority to perform those duties?  Are the Sacraments rendered null and void?  Can the duties even be "sacramental" if the clergy is less-than-worthy?  Here, I think, is the final consensus: NO MORTAL BEING is "worthy" of the Sacraments of the Church, yet no mortal being - however unworthy - can shorten the Lord's Hand!  That is, no mortal being can withhold the Sacraments of the Church.  So the "authority" under which the disciples were acting, then, had very little to do with their own state of worthiness - yet perhaps everything to do with their state of willingness.

Connect that willingness to "go" to a willingness to "welcome" and at least listen respectfully, and there then is a bountiful harvest waiting for sufficient laborers to see to the task at hand; and as Jesus states, "The harvest is plentiful ... but the laborers are few".  On the other hand, take a willing worker and throw that willing worker into a field of unwilling, unwelcoming, close-minded, hateful people - and there will be a crop that will rot in the field and finally be burned by the sun because if the worker will not be welcomed, there is no reason to believe Jesus would be any more welcome.  Think of it in Jesus' own words: "Whatever you do to these, you do to Me". 

The essence of this passage, however, cannot be adequately compared to the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds (Mt 13:24-30) by which the "willing worker" would decide which are "wheat" and which are "weeds" since they look so much alike - as do people.  We are not equipped to tell the difference between who is worthy and who is unworthy nor are we called to do so.  This makes me think of an Irish blessing that goes: May those who love us love us; and those who don't love us may the Lord turn their hearts.  And if He does not turn their hearts, may He turn their ankles so we'll know them by their limping.

Even then it can be dangerous for us to decide who is worthy of the Message - or who will welcome us or reject us before we've even given them a chance.  When (not if) we are sent - and we are all sent in some form or fashion by virtue of our baptism and/or confirmation and the vows we take - we are sent not to judge but to proclaim.  This task is so important that when Jesus gave instructions to His disciples, they were told, among other things, to "greet no one on the road" (Lk 10:4).  The 4th-century archbishop, Aurelius Ambrosius, compared this gospel passage to 2 Kings 4:29 in which Alisha's disciple, Gehazi, was sent on a mission to heal a child with these instructions from the prophet: "If you meet anyone, do not greet him; and if anyone greets you, do not answer him ..."

St. Ambrose' lesson warns of a clear danger in distraction: "lest he be turned from the duty laid upon him by conversation with someone along the way.  The zeal of greeting is not taken away here, but an obstacle ... is removed.  When divine commands are given, human obligations are surrendered for a little while.  Salutation is fine, but the performance of duties to the Lord is finer because it is more fitting.  Hindrance of these duties has often brought offenses.  Even honorable acts are prohibited, for fear that the grace of ceremony deceive and hinder the ministry of the task, the delay of [which is in itself] sinful" (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT III, pg 172, 173).

It may sound rather cold and distant, but maybe we should think of such strict "marching orders" in the vein of Divine Will revealed in prayer.  Can we devote ourselves to serious prayer on any level if we are constantly distracted?  Of course not; no more than we can have a serious conversation with anyone who, for instance, is constantly checking their cell phones for messages.  In those moments we are being told, however subconsciously, that we are not important to them; they're not listening, so there is no "conversation" happening.  I know many people have convinced themselves they are "multi-taskers", but that notion of being able to do several things at once - and do them all well - has been largely debunked as little more than a myth.  We can DO "at" several things maybe well enough to get by, but we will not do them all well; maybe none of them.

So Jesus is establishing priorities for His disciples before He sends them out; and the #1 priority is the Gospel, the Good News, the Message that "the Kingdom of God has come near" (Lk 10:11).  Notice also that for those who "do not welcome" a messenger sent by Messiah, this is also bad news: "the Kingdom of God has come near" ... and you missed it ... because you rejected the messenger ... therefore you rejected the Message!

In this modern age there are a lot of "Christians" who are not "disciples" because they have largely rejected the Messenger which is the Church, the "ecclesia", the assembly of the faithful - AND - they have largely rejected the written Word because they never read or study the Scriptures.  For good or bad these so-called "nones" who have rejected the authority of the Church or who have rejected the notion of "organized religion" have in fact rejected the many "messengers" who have been sent.  These who reject may have their reasons, but so did those whom Jesus said would reject the disciples then.  And our Lord's message was - and is - the very same.  There is no reason to think it would somehow be different today.

It is unfortunate, however, that too many of the Church have decided they are better suited to "judge" than to "proclaim".  Sometimes the hard Word is the call to repentance met by many who see no need to repent, but sometimes the Church makes demands - like the Judaizers of St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians - that are more burdensome than our Lord requires.

The "message" of the Church is the Gospel; the Good News of our Lord.  It is fitting that we remember this constantly, but it is also useful for us to remember that the task of discipleship must never be incidental to the lives we have chosen to lead.  Discipleship is indeed a way of life and a way of living and doing and being, but discipleship is also purposeful in and of itself.  Even today the Church is called forth and set apart to continually offer "Peace" to every house we come to - not just those who come to us.  And our "marching orders" are the same now as then: let peace rest on the house that "welcomes" us, and take our peace with us when we are asked to leave.

Especially with the intentionality of discipleship, we are compelled to think of what it is we are offering to those we encounter - if we bother to "offer" at all: Did we truly offer that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near - or did we show them the gates of hell?  Did we truly offer the Peace of Messiah, or did we thrust upon them the judgment reserved exclusively to our Lord?  The Church is called to be in a constant state of a "forward sweep" operation - that is, "movement" - but what is being accomplished in our "sweep"?  Are we blessing or cursing?  Are we letting Messiah's peace return to us because of their rejection, or are we TAKING Messiah's peace because of our judgments?

It is a common saying that "it is what it is", but this is not our Lord's call and claim.  It must be, rather, what our Lord wills it to be; and the Church is established as the instrument of our Lord's will.  So let it be what He wills, not what "it is".  Otherwise the world can truthfully say on the Day of the Lord that the "messenger" never showed up - even though the church "building" was right around the corner - and the doors were closed to us.   

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  May this be NOT our judgment.  Amen.

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