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Sheep and Wolves: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, July 3, 2022:
2 Kings 5:1-14
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

“[T]he Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” The world described in the passage is in some ways very different from ours, yet there are some ways in which we might relate. It might be a more distant memory in the time of the pandemic, but most of us have probably encountered travelling evangelists at one (or more, or many) time or another. Maybe in sharp dress clothes, or in white, short-sleeved button shirts, with backpacks, but whatever the case, almost always in groups of two. The more traditional, what we would call orthodox families of churches, in our society, have tended not to adopt this practice, having gotten accustomed to people just naturally gravitating toward us, whether their heart was in it or not. But the world is different these days, and passages like today’s have a new-found importance to the inherited churches.

I think it was Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple, in the 1940s, that said something like ‘the Church is the only institution that exists primarily for those who are still outside it.’ I’m not sure if he meant that the church did good, merciful things to people who were not in their pews on Sunday, or if he mostly just meant that the church worked to get people not in their pews… into their pews. But there does seem to be a difference to the two meanings: one seems self-less, and the other more self-interested. And that latter tendency is probably why our defenses go up when those two-nicely dressed people show up at our door, or someone hands us a tract at the bus stop, or we pass a street corner preacher, like I mentioned last week. It doesn’t feel good to be objectified. Though it’s a complicated issue: is there a way to ‘proclaim’ something for someone else’s own good, while still respecting their autonomy? Even if we go way back to the Rule of St. Benedict in the 6th century, in the very first chapter he lists all the different types of monks, and says that the absolute worst kinds are the ones that “spend their entire lives drifting from region to region, staying as guests for three or four days in different monasteries. Always on the move, they never settle down, and are slaves to their own wills and gross appetites.” He doesn’t trust them. And yet, the description sounds a lot like the strategy described in the gospel reading.

For me, I wonder if a helpful way to hear and apply this passage in our own day is to focus for a moment on what Jesus says: “I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” Balanced, at the end of the passage, with an assurance that “nothing will hurt you.” If the famous Lucan Parable of the Good Samaritan is an indication, then travelling preachers and missionaries, or anyone, probably faced danger when they were out on the open road, whether from the elements, or from human beings. These days, in many parts of the world, we are much more insulated, and confident about our safety. (Though as I say this I do recall driving through parts of Praetoria, South Africa, with city signs warning that we were in a “carjacking zone.” So in some cases, the danger is literal. In other cases, though, in our day, I would move from plain danger to something more like ‘vulnerability.’) Danger is almost completely a negative thing, whereas vulnerability has wider associations: when we open ourselves up to someone else in love, we are being vulnerable to them. We open ourselves up to hurt, and pain, but the vulnerability is not bad in itself. So in speaking of vulnerability in our mission, my hope would be that it sets the stage for true relationship-building. That’s what is lacking in the awkward interactions with the sharply-dressed folks going door-to-door. But Jesus describes a situation of vulnerability, and of hospitality. Again, here, we might want to adjust the way we usually interpret this. Usually in the Church, we talk about us being hospitable to ‘the other’ (or about our struggle to be as hospitable as we should), but in this passage, the hospitality is a gift of that other person. The 35 pairs of people are reliant on the hospitality of the townsfolk, on the unconverted. If Archbishop Temple said that the Church exists for the not in the pews, then this passage reminds us that the Church depends, to some extent, on those not in the pews. And the question the Church must ask itself is how to deal with this reality, when the world’s hospitality, for various reasons, is shrinking. Do we polish up our message and create a slick, attractive product. Do we strategize, crunch numbers, and figure out the most convincing arguments? Do we become belligerent and antagonistic? Or is there another way? A way that is more rooted in our vulnerability as sheep?

One of my favourite thinkers in our tradition, William Stringfellow, wrote a bit about evangelism, and he described it, if I were to summarize it, as ‘the proclamation in the world of the presence of God… in a way that is accessible to all people.’ He says it’s not so much about “trying to persuade another that the Gospel is true or relevant… rather, [it’s about] loving the other in a way that calls upon the other to accept themselves… The evangelist is engaged in exposing to another who they are… that [they are] loved by God and thus set free to be who [they are.]* There is a time and place for teaching, he, and others, will assure us. For apologetics, and literature, and inviting people to church. And the task is to discern when those paths are being opened up.

But Stringfellow, and others, will differentiate proclamation from teaching. The proclamation is rooted in the assertion that “the Kingdom of God has come near.” We point to a different way of being in the world. We follow a different master. We describe, or paint, life as it is changed (transfigured) in light of the incarnation and resurrection; in light of Jesus. And to do this we need to take seriously, and get to know, and honour, the person that has expressed hospitality to us. It is not objectification. Elsewhere Stringfellow wrote “First the Christians have to live a while in the streets before they can know how to minister to, how to love, the people of the streets and how to understand, to accept and enter into, the action on the streets.”

This is where that powerful reading from Second Kings might come in. We, like Naaman and the King, are so attuned to the supernatural, the hocus pocus, the overly-complicated solutions. That’s the kind of healing Naaman expected. He wasn’t ready for what was prescribed: go and was in the river. And he initially rejects this. But that’s what he was given, and that’s oftentimes how Jesus healed. Not to mention that undergirding Jesus’s three years of healing, preaching, teaching, and everything else, there was a full thirty years of just being. Being with the people. “Dwelling among us.” (And we have seen his glory.)

So the message, one of the messages, for us today, is to keep it simple. ‘Live a while in the community before you minister to it.’

© 2022 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Instead of Death (New York: The Seabury Press, 1965), 53.