“... See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals ...” It is a strange commissioning of the disciples, to acknowledge that Jesus is sending them on a journey that makes them as vulnerable as lambs among wolves and yet they are to go undefended and dependent on the hospitality of strangers. And it is this call to vulnerability, surrender and trust that I want to explore this week. (RCL Luke 10:1-24.)
But before we need to talk about vulnerability and being sent out beyond our comfort zone we are reminded in the reading from the prophet Isaiah that God cares for us over the longest of times like a mother comforting her child. Firstly we are nurtured with tenderness and forbearance and we are reminded that what has been our grief and hardship will be our joy. Jerusalem, the spiritual, social, political and economic centre of Israel will again be a source of joy and replenishment. It is under this overarching love and blessing that we invited into, grown up in and sent out from. Abundance and joy are not carrots at the end of a trial so much as the overarching truth, the main story, the beginning and the end.
So now we can come back to this strange and hard commissioning by Jesus of his followers, which is toward the end of Jesus ‘earthly ministry. He has already turned his face toward Jerusalem and he is preparing his followers for the faith journey without his physical presence. It is a trial run for what will come later. The first thing to note is that there are seventy sent out. This means more than just the inner circle of the twelve. And it probably is meant to echo the Moses story and the gifting of the seventy with the spirit in the Exodus story. So for all these reasons we should listen to this story as one intended for those who wish to grow in their faith as part of the maturing process for the individual and for the community, as part of the preparation for the great exodus, the journey from enslavement to liberation.
Jesus, having warned the followers that it is dangerous out there, does not suggest that they should protect themselves: take extra clothing, a purse with coins in case you get stuck, and a good strong staff or a knife to protect yourself with. No, Jesus says, don’t take any of those things that would protect you from the experience but empty yourself, place yourself fully at the mercy and service of those you encounter. (This is almost the direct opposite of what many Christians are advocating when they demand that difference be punished and suppressed and that their views should be forced upon every one else!) The two things Jesus does give the followers is the company of a travelling companion, two by two, and a portion of the spirit.
This is the faith journey – to go and be with those who are in need of good news and respond to their invitation to share food, shelter and the ministry of healing. If you are responded to with peace leave your peace. If not then shake off the dust and let God deal with the consequences. Know that when you enter someone’s life – their town or their home – you are to be the embodiment of the kingdom of God coming near. What a tall order. What an impossibly high standard to aspire to! And if that is not confounding enough then Jesus finishes the trial by telling the returning followers, who are full of excitement at the things they achieved, not to be too impressed with themselves and the fact that demons submit to them but that their names are written in heaven or the book of life. And just in case they don’t get it Jesus then really bursts their balloon or ego by saying “I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants!!!” So the followers are told that the fact that they have done well on their trial run – casting out demons, healing the sick – is because they are not wise or intelligent and that they are infants?!
Now Jesus is being rather harsh, indeed nasty and overly critical, or is in teacher mode, desperately trying to teach hard lessons before he has to go. Teachers/mentors often have to unsettle the self satisfaction of the student or follower, or unseat the ego, in order to challenge the student/follower from settling on too small a truth. God, not the ego, must sit on the throne. And that is not easy because the ego, even the ego of a very religious person, wants to be in charge! Wants to protect the self, wants to decide what is going on and what they will or will not agree to.
Being sent out into the world without spare clothes, or money, or a staff or knife to protect ourselves with, works at two levels: on the interior as a path for our souls to develop; and on the exterior as a way to make ourselves available to discern what our world needs from us and has for us.
On the interior the experience of having to rely on what we are given by God, by strangers, by life’s circumstances, is an ongoing lesson in surrender, and trust and gratitude for what we are given; and a lesson in graciousness and acceptance when we do not get what we want or thought we were going to have or do. The more we rely on God’s providence and the spirit that has been given us to discern if something is for us or not the more potential we have to grow in maturity of spirit. The attitude we are called to is that of surrender and availability which is not the same thing as door mat for the disciples were instructed to shake off the dust if something was not right. It is just that the discernment is not from the place of ego and need for recognition but from the spirit and the ability to see if peace is desired and intended or not.
You would think that this surrender would become easier with age but I’m not finding it that way. I confess to often railing against the increasing invisibility of being a woman of a certain age and being overlooked by shop assistants. While I sometimes laugh at my children’s tendency to speak to me with exasperation about technological matters, it often stings to be treated as stupid. While my theology grows more inclusive in theory I find myself often irritated by others. And on the list goes. Life certainly gives us plenty of opportunities to surrender, to have the ego unseated. What we need to get better at is to recognise when it appropriate to push back and when it is good for us to surrender. Our first instinct is not always the wisest. Sometimes we do need to take a deep breath and push back as a justice issue. And often it is an opportunity to let go and give thanks for another opportunity to be humble and trusting, curious and receptive.
And this way of being, this humble vulnerable way of being in the world, is a strangely effective way of responding to the 'harvest', the needs and gifts of the world. Rather than turning up in people’s lives with our ready-made answers and righteous rules we need to turn up with open hearts and minds and hear and see what they need and what they have to offer and then to respond. Including humbly receiving the gifts that others, including those outside our tribe, have for us.
And at the end of whatever success or failure we may have help us to be grateful that we find our names written in heaven, written in the book of life.
Come Lord Jesus Christ, come open my heart and my mind.