Texts: Isaiah 66:10-14; Galatians 6:[1-6] 7-16; Luke 10:1-111, 16-20
The mission field. It’s a big place. Jesus sent out seventy of his followers two by two. Seventy is a lot. After all, Jesus wasn’t very far into his own good news mission, so it seems likely that though the level of enthusiasm among his followers was high, maybe their talent for mission work was variable at best. You have to wonder what the standard deviation was. Maybe that explains why Jesus gave such a flurry of last minute instructions.
I went on a mission once. We went to dig a water well in Nicaragua. We signed on with a well-organized Christian mission group out of Houston, Texas. They provided a hydraulic engineer and a group leader. We went to the city of Lyon, a gently crumbling town where there has been a university since the 1500s.
We were driven into a compound with a large gate and high fence topped with razor wire. Inside we could not even see the streets around us unless we went to the very top floor of a house that served as our kitchen and dining hall. At our orientation our Houston leader told us the rules. Prayer meetings morning and night. Lights out in the rickety dorms at 9pm. No consumption of alcohol. No leaving the compound except in the vans they provided.
Our first afternoon there we were taken to the center of the city in a van, it was perhaps ten blocks away. They showed us the town square, the city administration building, and the really old Catholic cathedral. We were allowed 20 minutes to walk around. Then back to the compound.
The next day we rose early for the forty-five minute drive to the tiny village where we were to dig the well. We worked as a team, learned the drilling process. It was 95 degrees and 90% humidity. We shoveled a mountain of dirt to lay pipes. And took turns running the drill which was powered by a portable generator. We were introduced to the town leader who thanked us profusely. Late each afternoon we climbed wet and muddy into the van and returned to Lyon.
Arriving back at the compound we cleaned up, took turns leading the prayer meeting, and talked until dinnertime. One evening several of us climbed to the top floor of the house to look over the fence. We saw young schoolgirls walking along, talking and laughing. We wished we could get out to talk to them. Many in our group were fluent in Spanish.
Six long days later the well was dug, the pump installed and the water ran clear. On our last day some of the villagers came to the well site where there was a community hut equipped with a wood stove. In the humid Central American heat, they cooked us a lunch of freshly baked bread and chicken soup. There were root vegetables in the soup that we had never seen before. And the chicken might have been a hundred years old when it gave its all for us. Lots of flavor, and very, very, very, very tough. It was good and I was hungry.
When I was done, with my empty bowl in front of me, I looked around and saw that some of the others had eaten very little of their soup. Some said the meat was too tough to chew. Others said the vegetables were too strange. Though the bread was enjoyed by all.
I have thought about that mission many times. Especially when I read the story of Jesus sending out his disciples two by two in the gospels. It is the continuation of the journey that Christ was on as he “set his face” to go to Jerusalem. By which we mean that Jesus was willing to give everything he had, even his life, to bring greater love to us. In this gospel today, Jesus sends the seventy “before his face.”
The number seventy is also significant. It calls to mind the story of the Sinai wilderness years when God sent the Spirit to seventy elders to help share the burden of leadership with Moses.
So we know that the ones appointed and sent out by Jesus also were to share themselves in life-altering love with everyone who would receive it. This was a mission of great honor for the appointed ones.
Jesus said, don’t get tied up in greeting acquaintances on the road. Get to know the people in the towns you enter. Go into their homes. Eat what they give you. Bring your peace to them. Tell them how near God’s kingdom has come to them.
On our mission in Nicaragua we’d failed nearly every instruction that Jesus gave. Maybe the Houston Christian Mission organization folks thought of their gated compound and security as essential. They were keeping us safe. Perhaps we were sheep among wolves.
The disciples though, came back with a story of great achievement. Triumph even. “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” Jesus affirmed their work. People had been cured of sickness, had real peace shared with them, and have heard about God’s love. Through these actions Jesus, God’s Word was intimately embodied by the seventy rather than explained.
Jesus was saying that God’s kingdom is most tangible when people are able to be together without judgment or fear. To respond to others rather than react to them despite considerable differences. Jesus did not tell the seventy to judge the virtue of the communities or households they entered. He only told them to go, heal, and announce the nearness of God’s kingdom.
We did a good thing in Nicaragua. We gave a lot. But we did not engage with the people much at all. Apart from eating some chicken vegetable soup… We drilled a well and came back with photos and a story of success. Along the way we became painfully aware that we were missing out on an important part of the mission experience by not getting out to greet the local people.
Mission begins within each of us. Just as Paul told the Galatians. Do your own work first before you go to help others. It will require self-examination and true humility. The peace we are able to bring from such a grounded place is something real and tangible from deep within ourselves.
It’s more than a state of calmness or absence of agitation. It’s that peace of God that passes understanding. All kinds of difficult spirits give way when they encounter that amazing peace.
Mission is also not a field far away. It’s right here. It is something we can all take on. Here’s the challenge: How can you offer the peace of God to someone this week? Not by saying these words, but by something you do or say that encourages, consoles, or shifts the energy of a reaction into a response. And remember how Jesus told the seventy that if they offered peace and it was rejected, they would have no less peace in themselves. That’s good news too. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.