Sermon for Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, July 3 2016, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
2 Kgs 5:1-14; Ps 30; Gal 6:7-16; Lk 10:1-11,16-20
It is not an easy world to live in, these days. The murders on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. The terrorist attack on the Istanbul airport. Apocalyptic warnings of the rapid advance of climate change. A double murder right beside this church, just two days ago.
But it wasn’t an easy world that Jesus and his companions lived in, either. That too was a world of violence, a world of military occupation and war and ethnic and religious hostilities, Roman soldiers and puppet governors and petty kings and crucified dissidents, poverty and desperation, murder and fear. Then, as now, it seemed to many that the world was coming to an end, that we must be living in the final times, because only the final times could be so grim.
And into this world, Jesus sends a group of seventy people, to scatter in pairs through the dangerous countryside. He sends them out with instructions which amount to “be vulnerable.” Go two by two—not alone, never alone, but in no larger group. Go without anything. Without a stick or a bag, without sandals, without resources. Rely entirely on the dubious kindness of strangers. Eat what you’re given, sleep where you can. Don’t think about results. Talk to those who’ll listen, and leave those who don’t to their own concerns, but tell the same things to both—the kingdom of God has come near.
For the world is always ending. The moment in which we live is always passing away, what we know is always dying. But the world is also always, potentially, being born. The kingdom of God is always coming near. Is always, potentially, breaking in, making new. And we are called to be part of that making.
“I have sent you out,” Jesus says, “like lambs among wolves.” For in a time of violence, the only way that we can respond—the only way that we can enable the new world to rise out of the old—is with our vulnerability, our openness, our helplessness. All we can do is go into this occupied territory with nothing in our hands, and nothing more to our names than a paradoxical promise of hope.
This is, of course, easy enough to say; it is not at all easy to do. It is painful and frightening and exhausting and confusing. But for some, it is the only real choice—for those marginalized by power, the only possibilities are to go vulnerable into the world and struggle to make it new, or be, in one way or another, destroyed. This was probably true of many of the people around Jesus; the Galilean poor, the women who had been possessed by demons, the men who had been blind or leprous, the ones who had no place to be. And it is true of many of the most faithful apostles now—indigenous people, racialized people, queer people, disabled people, striving at the end of this world for the birth of something new, because life depends upon it.
But there were a few among the apostles who were in a position to profit from the world as it was—people who were able to be at home in the empire and at least partially thrive. There were none of the Roman occupiers, as far as we know, not until much later, after the resurrection; but there was Matthew the tax collector, there seem to have been some people with wealth, people who had to make a choice to let go of the things which were protecting them and the comfort in which they had been existing, and accept the possibility that the world would hurt them now, that they would no longer be safe. And they went out, too, no better than the others and no worse, to do what had to be done.
And what had to be done, what has to be done, is really very simple—not, as I’ve already said, particularly easy, but very simple. Talk to people. Tell them this—another world is possible. And in our own vulnerability, our own openness, we model its nature, we create a small fragment of the new in the ruins of the old. Another world is right there, within our grasp, if we can reach out for it. Accept it or reject it, either way it is the same truth. The world is always ending, will inevitably end, and another world is always potentially being born. It is up to us to choose whether to live in the end, or in the beginning.
It wasn’t especially glamorous work, trooping around back roads with dirty feet and no money for a nice meal, and other people being sometimes dangerous, and sometimes insulting, and probably most vaguely polite and uninterested. Obviously, there were moments of drama, and it is these which the first apostles choose to report when they come back, filled with stories of exorcisms and healings—stories to which Jesus responds, basically, “Yes, that’s nice. Don’t get too excited about it.” Drama, power, praise, sometimes these things happen, but none of them are the point. The point is being, together, part of the body of the new world.
Naaman is looking for drama, too; he is enraged that this prophet, about whom he’s heard so much, doesn’t give him a cure which involves exciting theatre or difficult exploits. A cure which is about just going to the local river and splashing some water on yourself hardly counts as a cure at all, it’s so dull. But Naaman is, nevertheless, cured. It is in the simple, the everyday, the things near at hand, that we find what we need to do. The local river, the street on which we live, the person beside us, and the dull plain things which are needed, the new world is born in these. Whenever we have opportunity, let us work for the good of all, unglamorous as it may be.
It is unlikely that we are going to come up with some astonishing solution which will cast gun and knife violence out of our city. But perhaps we can do small things to create spaces of safety in our own neighbourhood, find small ways to identify and address the anger which lies beneath these acts. If we can be a place where one person, one time, can find a moment of calm and quiet, maybe that is our building of the kingdom.
We are not going to do wonderful heroic things which will end violence and hatred against gay and lesbian and trans people. And if people cheer for the Proud Anglicans as we walk in the parade later today it is, let’s face it, not so much because we are awesome, as because they are polite. The church doesn’t actually deserve to be congratulated because we’re starting to behave, now and then, in a decent human manner. But still, we need to be there, our small inadequate witness; and we need to be there every day, when the words and daily acts which reinforce hatred take place. We need to be there because we are one body, and we can never go anywhere without each other, and the birth of the new world relies on us all.
And we will do even less interesting, even more important, things. Visiting someone who’s sick. Buying groceries for someone who can’t get out. Washing dishes in a hot kitchen for our community breakfast, mopping the floor, chatting with someone over coffee. Knowing and naming the strange and lost and lonely and unwelcome parts of ourselves, naming ourselves as the ones who are not brave or strong, who need each other for our very lives.
Wash in the local river. Do what is at hand to do, as opportunity allows. Speak of the new world, whether or not anyone pays attention. For the kingdom of God has come near.