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The Rev. J. C. Austin The Rev. J. C. Austin

The Rev. J. C. Austin is director of the Center for Christian Leadership at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, NY.

Member of:

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Representative of:

Auburn Theological Seminary


Changing Plans

Luke 10:1-11,16-20

7th Sunday after Pentecost - Year C

July 07, 2013

 

If this story from Luke 10 tells us anything, it tells us that you do not want Jesus organizing volunteers at your church.  Can you imagine?  Everybody's milling around in coffee hour after the service, chatting and laughing and getting caught up with each other, and then Jesus steps into the middle of the room, clearing his throat and holding up a clipboard as he says loudly:  "Excuse me, can I have everyone's attention for a minute?  I still need seventy volunteers for a service opportunity this week.  This is a great chance to go out into strange and dangerous neighborhoods and invite yourselves into people's homes.  It will be like you are defenseless lambs sent out alone into the midst of ravenous wolves.  Oh, and please remember not to bring anything that might make it easier or safer or more comfortable for you to do that, okay?  So just come on over here and we'll get you all signed up. Thank you!"  That's no way to recruit volunteers!  How's he expect anyone to come?  Everyone knows you have to sell it: tell people it won't be hard, that anybody can do this; tell them it won't take a lot of time or effort; tell them everything will be set up for them, all they have to do is show up...you have to make it easy for them to commit, so your program can be a success.  What is he thinking?

Of course, he wasn't asking for volunteers. That's a pretty important thing to notice right from the beginning. Jesus appoints the seventy and sends them out.  He doesn't ask for volunteers, and he doesn't wait to see who comes forward on their own.  He's the Lord, after all; he can do what your volunteer coordinator church only dreams of doing.  But still: "I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves"?   This is clearly dangerous territory, and he's sending them out completely unprepared and unable to fend for themselves?  And wolves aside, without money, how can they buy food or get a place to stay?  Without a bag, what are they supposed to do about extra clothes if they get cold or wet or just dirty from the road?  Doesn't he know they're going to need these things? 

I think one reason this passage is so hard for us to understand is that it goes completely against one of the fundamental values of our culture, which is self-sufficiency.  Self-sufficiency is so important to our sense of satisfaction that there's a whole industry dedicated to equipping us to go out and test it in ourselves.  If you go to an adventure sports store, you are going to find everything you need to make it on your own in the wilderness.  And I do mean everything: high-tech boots specialized for maximum performance in different activities; socks and clothes that keep rain out or wick sweat away from your body or trap heat in or breathe to let heat out; shelters that can withstand gale force winds but pack down to the size of pillow; food that never spoils, takes up almost no space, and tastes like it's from a gourmet restaurant if you just add water; and so on and so on and so on.  You can be fully prepared for any contingency you might encounter while you're alone out in the wilderness, any situation that might endanger or just inconvenience you. 

But the whole point of what Jesus is doing is ensuring that he's sending these seventy apostles out completely unprepared!  They are not permitted to have anything that might enable them any level of self-sufficiency.  As a result of all this, they are the complete opposite of self-sufficient; their well-being is utterly dependent on the people to whom they have been sent, some of whom will respond with hostility rather than hospitality. And you can never tell which you're going to get until it's too late.

About 15 years ago, my wife, Tammy, and I were traveling through East Africa and we decided to go to Uganda to try and see some of the last remaining Mountain Gorillas in the world.  The gorillas lived on the western border of the country, but we had to go to Kampala, the capital, because you could only get into the park on an official permit on a particular assigned date.  The only organized trips to do this were geared to luxury tourists, which we couldn't afford, so we had to make our own way across the country using local buses in order to use our permits.  And that was a bit of a problem, because we only had one day to get there.  Even worse, there was only one bus going that day, leaving at 5:30 am, and our guesthouse was about four miles away from the bus station. So, we made careful preparations to make sure we didn't have a problem.  We asked the guesthouse to help us find a reliable driver to pick us up the next morning, since that was too early for public transportation to be running.  The driver assured us that he would be at the guesthouse no later than 4:30 am.  The next morning, we staggered bleary-eyed out the door a little before 4:30 am, backpacks on our shoulders, and waited in the dark.  And waited.  And waited.  A little before 5 am, we decided he was not coming, and we started walking into town, still in the darkness, mostly because we didn't know what else to do.  After about ten minutes of walking, a lone car roared past us; it suddenly slammed on its brakes and swerved into the gravel in front of us on the side of the road.  The doors opened and two young men got out.  "Where are you going?" the driver demanded.  "To the bus station," we replied.  They both looked at us for a moment.  "Get in the car," the driver barked finally.  Tammy and I looked at each other for a moment and shrugged. Either they were going to hurt us or help us, and there wasn't really anything we could do about it in any case, so we got into the car.  After about ten minutes, the driver pulled off the road and slammed on the brakes. The two men got out into the dark, then one stuck his head back in through the window.  "Get out of the car," he ordered.  Warily, I climbed out, turned around...and saw that we had pulled in right in front of the bus station, with our bus still waiting under a big street light.  I turned back and looked at the driver.  He smiled and said, "Have a good trip."  I tried several times to give him some money for gas, which is the custom when someone gives you a ride there, but he would not accept anything.  "I hope you enjoy Uganda," he said simply, climbed back into the car, and drove off. 

Sometimes the biggest problem with plans is that they work.  That morning could not have gone less according to plan, and I have always been grateful for that.  If things had gone according to plan, we would never have had that encounter; we would never have intentionally or willingly put ourselves in that vulnerable of a position, to have given up that much power to people we didn't even know, especially in circumstances that held some real danger.  And yet, the whole point of traveling in the first place was to not simply to get smoothly from one sight to the next, but to experience something of how ordinary people in these places live, to gain some insight on the beauty and difficulty and complexity and grace of those lives and see how that might help us to live our own lives more faithfully and fully.  If our plans had always worked, we might have actually failed at what our true purpose really was in the first place.  

Sometimes the biggest problem with our plans is that they work.  Almost by definition, a plan is something we expect to succeed.  But in order to ensure it succeeds, sometimes we tailor the goal to meet the plan rather than the other way around.  The formula for success, it has been said, is to "under-promise and over-deliver" as you plan your work.  If you do that, you can ensure that your plans are always successful, because you never promise more than you can achieve.  But in the process, it's very easy to lose sight of the whole reason you're doing this in the first place; being "successful" begins to matter more than what you're succeeding at.

Jesus, pretty clearly, is not concerned about being "successful," at least not in the way we tend to understand it, which may be why he's so blunt with the seventy about how difficult and dangerous this mission might be.  This is not going to be easy, he tells them; not everybody can do this.  It's going to require an extraordinary amount of time and effort; and no matter how hard you try, you're not going to be able to control the outcome.  Some of the people you visit will not share in the peace you offer; sometimes whole towns that you visit will reject you.  But that's not the point.  What Jesus is most concerned about is ensuring that as many people as possible get to hear the good news that God's kingdom has come near.  That's the point; that's his goal, his definition of success.  Because you never really know who's going to respond and who's not, who's really open to receiving the gospel in all its beauty and difficulty and complexity and grace and living their lives in it more faithfully and fully as a result.  You never really know who is desperate to hear good news; and you have to go out to them because you can't expect them to come asking about it if they haven't even heard it. 

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the mainline Protestant church in North America today, when you get down to it, is that pretty much our whole plan of how to do ministry is designed to welcome people in to hear the good news. That's what we've trained our pastors to do; that's how we've organized our congregations to work.  And that's how we evaluate our success: how many people attend worship, how many people join the church as members.  And that plan seems to have worked pretty well at one time. But, for all sorts of reasons, fewer and fewer people across the country are coming in on their own now.  But that doesn't mean they're not hungry for good news; perhaps they haven't even heard it.  Or, more painfully, perhaps we haven't given them enough reason to think we really have any to share.  In any case, it is time for a change of plans.

Wait, you and I might want to say; that's not what I signed up for.  That's not why I joined a church; that's not why I went to seminary!  Maybe not, Jesus agrees.  But the harvest is plentiful, and the laborers are few, and I wasn't asking for volunteers.  I am sending you out, but I'm not sending you unprepared: I'm giving you good news to share and partners to go with you and help share it.  That will be enough; go, and you will see.

Let us pray.  Gracious and Loving God, you send us out into the world in uncertain times to unfamiliar places entrusting us to bear your good news.  Give us courage, patience, humility, and grace that others may hear you calling and may know the abundant life you intend for us all.  Through Christ we pray.  Amen.

 


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