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Near to You
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
July 7, 2019
A Reading from the Gospel According to Luke
After this 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. Go on your way. 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.’
If you need to hear a word this morning about the courage it takes to follow Jesus into the world, this story of Jesus sending his first seventy apostles might speak to you. It is staggering to me, every time, that Jesus denies these evangelists such simple comforts — no purse, no bag, no sandals. There is something here about the naked vulnerability into which he calls them that I think has worlds to say still for those of us trying to walk his walk. There is also, to be sure, a sermon here about mission priorities. Jesus does not call his disciples to stay in the town that does not offer them a welcoming ear. He does not call them to stick around and grind their audience into submission. He does not ask them to try this same strategy over and over and expect different results. He tells them that if it doesn’t work they should shake the dust off their feet and get back on the road. Frankly, if ever I needed to stand in front of you, church budget in hand, and say “look, some of this stuff just isn’t working, let’s refocus,” this text would not be a terrible jumping-off point. Sometimes we shake off the dust off our feet and move on.
But this morning I would like instead to read this story a bit differently. It is ingrained habit for us to read this story from the perspective of the apostles — we almost always read these Gospel stories from the perspective of the apostles. But it occurs to me that the early church who first heard this story might not have identified in the same way. Imagine this scenario. Imagine you are an early evangelist in the church, carrying this story among so many others as you travel from town to town spreading the word about Jesus of Nazareth. Imagine that you are one of those early evangelists doing what Jesus more or less proscribes in this story, going from town to town, seeking open ears, seeking welcome. Imagine having someone open the door to you and then beginning to tell the story of Jesus Christ. Imagine telling this story, imagine telling the story of the sending of the seventy in the living room of somebody who has not yet decided whether or not to throw you out the door.
It must be particularly odd to tell this story in that living room moment, it’s this place in the Gospel when the story almost comments on itself, it’s a story about how the story gets told. It must be particularly odd to stand there as a traveling evangelist, no purse, no bag, no sandals, to identify so completely with one perspective in this encounter. And yet the people sitting in the living room listening are not hearing a story about what it’s like to be an evangelist. They are not hearing a story about going from town to town and spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. They are not hearing a story about sending at all. They are hearing a story about welcoming. They are hearing a story about what happens to people who open their doors. And they are for sure hearing a story about what happens to people who don’t.
“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.’ If I’m hearing this story from some traveling evangelist. You know they say just one bad Yelp review can absolutely torch a new restaurant. The last thing any of these towns needs is the wrath of God come down upon them. So if I’m hearing this story from some traveling evangelist. I’m going to get out the good bowls. I’m going to make the good soup. I’m going to lay down the good blankets. I’m going to roll out the reddest carpet I can find. I’m going to open my doors as wide as they will go. And I’m going to keep them open to anyone — no bag, no purse, no sandals, anyone as long as they come with a word of peace — I have just heard a story about the judgment of God laid down on the inhospitable. So I’m going to keep my doors as open as they will go.
What I love about this reading is that it feels a lot more relatable. Few of us would have the occasion or the stamina or the imagination to do what Jesus instructs his apostles — to head off on the road, no purse, no bag, no sandals, to do what really sounds like neighborhood evangelism, the sort of doorbell-to-doorbell work that I suspect more than a few of us might instinctively recoil at. We don’t always love talking about evangelism because that’s what we think evangelism looks like, it looks like pamphlets left folded under windshield wipers and tables full of free life bibles sitting outside train stations and young kids of conviction going door-to-door in fancy suits and asking whether you have accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. And yet no matter how you read it, this story is still about evangelism. The Kingdom of God has come near to you, the apostles say. And it takes them to say it. And it takes someone else to open their door. It means that when we talk about evangelism and when we talk about hospitality that we are fundamentally talking about the same thing.
In one sense this is great news for those of us who aren’t great at leaving pamphlets under windshield-wipers. It means that we can do evangelism by doing the very sorts of things that we’re already good at. We can do hospitality. We can wear our Sunday morning nametags. We can say hi to visitors after worship and make sure everybody gets coffee and a cookie. We can put on a good Sunday morning potluck when the moment calls for it. Churches have been good at this stuff for a long time. But something about that doesn’t quite capture the tone of the story we’ve just read. After all, Jesus handles the apostles with a very light touch. Look, if one house doesn’t work, just move on, it’s fine. If the Tuesday morning young adult bible study isn’t getting numbers, that’s fine, try something else. But the problem is that the stakes are impossibly high. Hospitality is a matter of life and death. In this story, you get one chance. Your home need to be as available as it can possibly be, lest God make protest against you and move on down the road. It is a single and uncompromising standard. It means the doors have to be open to everyone who comes in the name of peace, all the time, no matter what, full stop.
The good news for us is that some of this comes naturally. In just a few moments we will gather around the Communion table and invite all those who hunger and thirst for the sake of righteousness to come forward and be fed and it is as broad a welcome as we can offer and I know this church means it whole-heartedly and one of the reasons I know that is that just in the last few months our session has taken the time to write the words on the back of your insert that state in no uncertain terms that all of God’s children rich and poor and gay and straight and of every color and of every gender are welcome here at this table. One of the reasons the session put those words on paper is in an attempt to live out what we talk about in elder training, their Book-of-Order given responsibility in Calvin’s language to make sure that the sacraments are rightly administered — that is, that if we say all are welcome at communion, then we’d better mean it.
But we have to say it with more than words. If all are welcome at the table then we’d better be sure that anyone who wants to can find the church, and find the parking garage, and find the front door, especially amid the mess of construction and campus that surrounds us. Why do we have large print bulletins? Why do we have hearing-assistance devices? Why do we have margin notes explaining our way through the steps of worship? And what about the work left undone? We stand in a long tradition of reformed worship but we still have to make sure that the language we use isn’t putting up any invisible barriers. We stand in a big complicated building and we have to work hard to make sure that anybody who finds our courtyard can find our table. At some point we even have to talk about something as gritty as wheelchair access. You can’t get to this table without two working legs. But if hospitality is truly an uncompromising standard. If we say that all are welcome. Then we’d better mean it.
And if we mean it, it will also send us into the world. The invisible barriers to this table don’t just get overcome with inclusive language and margin notes. What about someone who cannot get to this table because they cannot afford the car or the bus ticket to get to this table. What about someone who cannot get to this table because they have been priced out of this neighborhood and now this table is too far away. What about someone who cannot get to this table because they have been too traumatized by the church in the past and those wounds don’t heal easily. What about someone at the border right now. Imagine this. Imagine someone in an immigration detention center as we speak who wants nothing more than to come to this table for communion this morning. Imagine a young parent locked up in McAllen right now who wants to bring their child here to receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation. Perhaps that seems an unlikely possibility but the thing about having an uncompromising standard is that we have to consider even the unlikeliest possibilities. So who do we need to be, this day and every day, so that these doors are open to anyone who comes in the name of peace, all the time, no matter what, full stop.
This is what hospitality looks like, fully extended. This is what evangelism looks like, fully born. This is what it means to take that word seriously, to be sharers of the good news, to be convinced of the Gospel that the kingdom of God has indeed come near and is even yet here and is offered up at this table and alive in this place and is knocking at those doors and is waiting for us in this world. It is a Gospel alive with possibility. It is a Gospel alive with hope. It is a Gospel alive with purpose. And it is a Gospel that wants the doors open, thanks be to God.