I’ll begin with a brief sketch of some biblical background before diving into the Gospel for today. Across the Bible, the movement of the plot is almost always from activity to rest, from work to sabbath, from journey to destination, from exile to home. In Genesis, God creates the world for six days and then rests on the seventh. Abraham is called away from his ancestral lands to journey as a stranger on his way to the land that God promises to his and his descendants. And a once wayward Israel, taken away captive to Babylon, returns to the Lord in repentance, and in so doing is allowed to return to Jerusalem, to return to home. In Scripture, labor or effort or movement is never the end goal in and of itself. It is always a means to the end, which is ultimately the eternal rest of the vision of God.
And so today, just a little further down into Luke 10 where we get our Gospel lesson this morning, we find this recurring theme again. Martha is distracted by her many tasks and frustrated with her sister Mary, who instead “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.”
Martha asks Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me. But the Lord answer her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
From this brief exchange, Christian thinkers from across the centuries have found deep metaphors for the relationship between the active life and the contemplative life, so-called, the life of Martha and the life of Mary, respectively. And just as Jesus suggests, the contemplative life, exemplified by Mary’s posture of relaxed attention, is the better part. Jesus’ teaching here sits upon this foundational theme in the whole of Scripture that I’ve set out so far: we are taught here to move from many things to the one thing, from distraction to undivided contemplation of God, just as God himself moves from work to rest in creation; Abraham, from wandering to promised land; and Israel, from exile back to the Holy City of Jerusalem.
Now none of this so far has much to do with our readings for this morning. But all Scripture is mutually illuminating, so it is always our task to “read the layers,” so to speak, to see how all the varying passages of Scripture harmonize and overlap with each other. This is especially important when we come to a Gospel passage like the one for today, because this overall theme is found here too. It starts out sounding like a straightforward job assignment with plenty of work to do. It’s all about activity.
The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.
This passage has doubtless inspired generations of evangelists to spread the good news and reap the harvest. This is about the Church and its mission. We’re the seventy others faced with a great big world out there where the harvest of the children of God is plentiful if the Lord would raise up faithful laborers.
But the Church is not only the Church that goes out into all the world. It is also the Church that arrives where it is called to go. And it turns out that we need a great deal of guidance for what to do once we get to where we’re supposed to be. Of course, many people have been sent out from among our community here at Emmanuel over the years. Just last week, Mother Mary Ann Hill was our guest preacher and she hearkened back to her years as a parishioner her over twenty years ago. But the majority of us are already here, some with families whose faithful participation in the life of this parish go back for generations. Emmanuel is the place that we have remained in. And remaining in a place is actually complicated. We need the Lord’s guidance.
And fortunately, just after our Lord commissions the seventy to go out ahead of him, he gives them sober instructions. Here are Jesus’ words at length:
See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, `Peace to this house!' And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, `The kingdom of God has come near to you.' But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, `Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.'
Notice first that they are sent very unprepared as far as logistics go. No purse, no bag, no sandals. They are not to be concerned with practicality and planning. They are to be sustained by nothing other than Christ’s mission for them. Rather than bringing a bunch of supplies with them, they are instead called to be at the mercy of those whom they meet on the way. They are not so much bringing some kind of pre-packaged product with them as as they are sharing peace with the people they meet. The metaphor is not that they are bringing goods to the market to sell; it’s not as though they have something already in their own possession that they then go and take to other people. Rather, in coming to town and sharing peace, remaining there indefinitely and eating and drinking whatever is provided by the place, Christ says that they will find the Kingdom of God coming near. The only instruction that doesn’t add up to just living alongside people in faithful stability is to cure the sick. That’s it. Everything else looks pretty mundane, so mundane that only their faith in the vague promise of the peace of the Kingdom can make sense of it. In short, the picture that comes into view here is one in which the life of the community in which they remain and the life of their ministry are more or less interchangeable, almost one in the same. To bring Martha and Mary back into it, their ministry is to look less like Martha, earnestly occupying herself with all her tasks and more like Mary, sitting by in an unassuming yet focused attention.
Now, to bring all of this into application for a church like Emmanuel, this all sounds like terrible advice! Like the perfect recipe for a complacent and comfy church that’s content enough with just the business-as-usual. “Oh, don’t mind us, we’re just remaining here in the same house of Champaign, eating and drinking whatever is provided.” This sounds like the “mom and dad’s basement model of church mission.” But if you look closely at Christ’s words, it’s clear that stability does not equal comfort at all. Stability is about a sense of caution for lambs in the midst of wolves. Crisis and peril are assumed. Likewise, the peace that they are to share is not about social harmony or the absence of conflict. This peace entails judgment. “Whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, `Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.'”
For a long-established church like ours, today’s Gospel provides us with an opportunity for self-examination. Is the peace we share the costly peace that risks relying on nothing but faith in Christ’s promises? The risk of carrying no purse, no bag, no sandals? Is it the peace of lambs in the midst of wolves? If our stability and our rootedness is the product of our comfort, then we actually have little need to share the peace and encounter the Kingdom. Our comfort will be more than fine enough. By contrast, when the seventy went out seeking the peace in their places, they found demons. Their faithful presence brought evil to light and Satan fell like lightning. “See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you,” Jesus says. The longer we remain in place, the sharper our attention must be. Attention to what is being set before us. Attention to the peace that is being shared and the peace that is being rejected. But no matter how long we remain here, the situation and our prayer remain the same: "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Lord, grant us grace that we may be worthy to be counted among your laborers. Amen