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Pack Light

Updated: Jul 8, 2019

Lesson: Luke 10:1-11

When you think of missionaries, you might picture young Mormons in black slacks and white shirts, walking through neighborhoods and knocking on your door at inconvenient times. You might picture Junipero Serra, whose chain of missions more or less enslaved the native population of California in the name of God. What you probably don’t picture when you think of missionaries is yourself.

In this morning’s passage in Luke, Jesus sends out seventy disciples, instructing them not only to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God, but to make it real by performing the same works of healing that he is doing.

He sends his disciples out to be missionaries. We are Christ’s disciples, too. And so this is a mission we now share. Now before you start squirming, notice what Jesus doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “I am sending you out to convert people.” He doesn’t say, “I’m sending you to save souls.” He doesn’t even say, “I’m sending you out to try to convince people to come to church.”

He sends the disciples to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God, and to demonstrate it by healing sick people. We talk about the kingdom of God fairly often here at First Presbyterian Church but it’s worth reviewing this morning, because when you start talking about something scary like missionaries, our old preconceptions start creeping into our thinking. The kingdom of God is the central metaphor that Jesus used to convey his message. It was not focused on how to escape this world and its problems after death, but instead, focused on how God’s will might be done on earth, in history, in this life. The kingdom is “God’s dreams coming true for this earth … Gods justice and peace replacing earth’s injustice and disharmony.”[1]

So maybe you’re sitting there thinking missionaries are scary because they try to convert people; they try to force their religion and culture on other people. That is scary; especially for Northern Californians, who’ve figured out that other faith traditions have practices and ways of talking about God that are actually helpful. But what Jesus is really sending his disciples to do is perhaps even scarier. What Jesus is sending the disciples to do is to change the world.

Jesus is sending his disciples to change the world. Jesus is sending us – you, and me – to change the world. Pretty big mission, huh? Jesus’ instructions to the seventy disciples help break this down for them, and for the rest of us, too.

First, Jesus sends them to the local villages that he intends to visit. It’s like that old saying: “Think globally. Act locally.” Change the world, but start here. Eventually, Jesus extends this mission beyond the Jews and even to the ends of the earth.[2] So it boils down to a question of calling. Some of us are sent to Mexico to build houses, or to Gulfport to rebuild houses, or to Afghanistan or Palestine to plant trees and build bridges. Some of us are sent to classrooms in San Anselmo, offices in San Francisco, encounters with our next door neighbors or even our family members.

Next, Jesus says pack light. In fact, leave your baggage at home. Perhaps the baggage we most need to leave behind is our assumptions about who people are and what they need. The painful fictional example of what this baggage looks like is the Rev. Price in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Poisonwood Bible. Price is an American missionary who proclaims, “Jesus is bangala!” to a group of confused villagers in Congo. He means to say something like “Jesus is supreme,” but he fails to catch the nuances of their language, and what comes out is “Jesus is poisonwood” – the name for a local plant that causes severe itching. But language isn’t the biggest problem. Price doesn’t see the richness of the local traditions and the very real needs of the people. In the end, Price’s mission fails miserably because he’s so stuck in his “save the pagans” approach that he can’t see the Congolese as God’s children, created in God’s image. He doesn’t love them. He can’t learn from them. There is little if any communication.[3]

In contrast, Lesslie Newbigin was an English missionary in India in the late 1930’s. Unlike Price, Newbigin knew he needed to listen and learn the cultures of that vast country’s peoples. As he lived among the people of India, he came to understand that he’d been trapped in a modern and Western perspective which assumed his way of looking at the gospel was the “right” or even the only way to read it. India required him to hear and read the gospel all over again in ways he wouldn’t have discovered had he stayed in the UK.[4]

If we enter the mission field around us, which is everywhere, what do we encounter that requires us to hear and read the gospel in new ways? Alan Roxburgh writes that the two crucial questions we are to ask as missionaries are: What is God up to in our neighborhoods and communities? How do we join with what God is doing in these places?[5] These are the questions that help us to leave our baggage behind, and challenge us to ask: How would we function as missionaries if we understand the gospel as telling us that God is already at work in people, and we are to participate with them?

This may be why Jesus says don’t move from house to house – settle into the neighborhood. How can you build relationships, after all; how can you listen and overcome your assumptions if you don’t settle in and take time to get to know people? Jesus says eat what is set before you. That means we enter the world of the other on his or her terms, not our own.

We often talk about extending hospitality and that’s important. It’s fascinating that what Jesus is talking about in this passage is accepting hospitality. The disciples will have to rely on the kindness of strangers. Something about their vulnerability and dependence is the key to the success of the mission.

Vulnerability and dependence are not considered virtues in 21st century United States but think about the times that you have accepted hospitality from others. I told you this story some years ago but it bears repeating. On a trip to Japan in 1983, my traveling companion and I stood in front of a map in the Tokyo subway, trying to figure out which train to take to Tsukiji, the 56-acre fish market where restaurateurs and grocers buy the catch of the day. A man with much better English than our Japanese approached us and asked if he could help. It turned out that he owned a restaurant and was on his way to Tsukiji to buy seafood. Not only did he show us how to get there, but he also showed us around, and we saw things we never would have seen without him. When we felt we’d imposed on his hospitality long enough and said we had to go, he insisted that we come to his restaurant. We understood Japanese hospitality well enough that we knew if we showed up at his restaurant, he’d insist on buying us dinner. This, we thought, was just too much of an imposition. We politely took his card with the address of his restaurant, thanking him profusely for his help, and bowed our way out of his presence. We figured we were off the hook. Tokyo, with 12 or so million people – there was no chance we’d run into him again, right?

Wrong. We were in a park near Ueno Station, and there he was. Why hadn’t we come to his restaurant? he asked. He was so sincere and so kind that we put aside our Western definitions of hospitality, and went to his restaurant. He ushered us into a private room, and sat on the floor with us at our table. For the next two and a half hours we were treated to course after course of seafood like you can’t imagine, and in some cases like you probably don’t want to imagine, but it was a feast. He sat with us through the entire meal. His English was good because he’d participated in the World’s Fair in New York in 1964, but what he really wanted to talk about was World War II. I wasn’t alive during World War II and he must have been a small child, but in 1983, the echo of that war still rang through the relationships between the American and Japanese people.

I would never have known this if we hadn’t accepted his hospitality. I would never have been able to see this part of his world, from his perspective, on his turf, if I hadn’t accepted his hospitality. Accepting his hospitality transformed me.

This notion that we are to accept the hospitality of others as part of proclaiming the kingdom of God really turns our traditional notion of what it means to be a missionary on its head. Accepting hospitality is vulnerable. It means we aren’t in control. It means we’re on someone else’s turf. We in the church are often convinced we have to figure out how to get people to come onto our turf. But this passage this morning tells us that proclaiming the kingdom includes being open to what God is doing in someone else, on his or her turf, and that changes us. John Philip Newell describes a conversation he had with a Mohawk elder in Canada. “I have been wondering,” the elder said, “where we would be as a Western world today if the mission that came from Europe centuries ago had come expecting to find Light in us.”

What might it look like for us, here in our little corner of San Anselmo, to expect light in our neighbors? This is exactly why your Mission Study Team is interviewing leaders in the San Anselmo community. A mission study is Phase 1 of a search for a new pastor; it describes who we are as a congregation and what we hope to become. The Mission Study Team has interviewed the principal of Drake High School and a Town Council member, and more interviews are planned – other Town Council members, the principal of Wade Thomas; folks from Children for Change, the seminary, the homeless chaplaincy and others. We’re learning about their perceptions of us as a congregation – I’m delighted to say they’re good – but also about the good work these folks and institutions are doing, the light that is already there, so that we might figure out how to partner with them in that good work – which is, indeed, God’s work.

My friends, when conversation is mutual, when there is a possibility of learning and growth and healing on both sides, when we are vulnerable to seeing the world from a different perspective, then the kingdom of God is indeed near. May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2019 all rights reserved.

[1] Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crisis and a Revolution of Hope (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007), p. 21.

[3] Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible (New York: HarperPerenniel, 1998).

[4] Alan Roxburgh, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), pp. 34-35.

[5] Roxburgh, p. 22.

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