God Succeeds in Our Failures

2016-07-03 Sermon for Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

So, funny story – the first time I went to Luther for on campus courses, they lost my baggage! I tried so hard to pack everything I needed, so many books and all the wool and flannel I could find because it’s St. Paul in January, and that’s like the sub-arctic, right? I’ve never been there, so I expected the worst. I get up there, my first time to seminary, no idea what to expect or what kind of people I’ll find there, and discover that I’ve got nothing but the clothes on my back. So I’m standing at the carousel thinking, well, this is an epic fail. Jesus, what have you gotten me into this time?

It’s a little like our gospel reading for today. Jesus appoints a crowd of followers to go out and prepare the way for his coming. They’ve got the message – “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near – repent and believe the good news.” They’re just itching to go and tell. After all, its good news. There’s a lot of oppression and economic hardship going around. Slaves and masters. Deep class divisions. If you’re not worshiping the king or Roman gods, your neighbors are going to be pretty suspicious. So, to hear that the kingdom of God is breaking in, should be like this ray of light that tells you there’s more to life than all these struggles. It’s freedom and peace and everything that the empire isn’t. For Jesus to even have a crowd to appoint in the first place, you can be sure they’re all fired up about it.

And the first thing out of Jesus’ mouth – “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.” Plentiful! Let’s go! Except, it’s all downhill from there. “I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” There’s a bombshell – what do wolves do to lambs? Devour them. Whatever house you enter, declare peace, but if they don’t share in your peace, it will return to you. Huh? But that’s the whole point of the message! And Jesus saves the best for last – Whenever you enter a town, and they do not welcome you, go into the streets and say “even your dust that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you.” Now, that’s dramatic, but isn’t it going a little overboard? Why make a big deal about it? Just move on.

Now, to be fair, it doesn’t all sound bad – “Wherever they welcome you, remain there, eating and drinking whatever they provide.” Ah, that sounds a little like hospitality and kindness. Jesus is saying this will happen too. Except, it’s a problem! If you’re a Jew in the crowd, then you’ve spent your whole life observing endless purity laws – from God – and you don’t just let that all go. If you’re a Gentile, not so much, but this fellowship in Christ confronts you with all these strange food anxieties that you don’t understand, and God forbid you offend your Jewish brothers and sisters. Because we’re all about unity. So, this food matter is a big deal, and the Titanic doesn’t turn on a dime. Maybe they’ll struggle through the motions, but what kind of turmoil do you think will rage in their hearts? I mean, over 20 years later, and Paul’s writing to the Corinthians about the food issues tormenting their own congregation. Our fights about coffee in the narthex kind of pale in comparison. But for these folks, it’s kind of like Jesus is telling them that sacrilege is ok – to be like the people you’re trying to save. That doesn’t compute. It’s just like a church going into a bar and drinking with everybody else, and we all have strong opinions about whether or not that’s befitting.

After all, what are we calling others to do? Repent. “Repent” is judgment. It says that something isn’t right. The thing is, you can’t talk about the kingdom of God without talking about repentance, because repentance is the change of mind that reveals the kingdom of God breaking through all the crap of the world that mires everybody. But when others hear us calling them to repent, they don’t hear anything about the kingdom of God. They hear judgment and they get stuck. We get stuck too, because deep down we hear the same thing. So we don’t want to deliver that message, because who wants to judge anyone else? Except, we do, because when we talk about repentance, it ends up being about what we think people should say or do, and has very little to do with what God thinks. We have a lot of baggage – we want so much to show how Jesus has changed us, because we think that’s the only way to prove that we’re following Jesus. Because we think there’s someone around every corner just waiting to call us out, especially when we judge. You know what they’ll say – “Take the plank out of your own eye first.” So, it’s like we’re caught in a self-defeating cycle that we just can’t break out of. But if we don’t really believe the message ourselves, and if we don’t have the actions to back it up, then how could we possibly ask it of anyone else?

But brothers and sisters, hear this good news – “The kingdom of God has come near!” Not because of what we say or don’t say. Not because of anything we do. The kingdom HAS ALREADY come near to all of us. It is unfolding AND accomplished, in spite of everything. That’s a good way to put it, too – in spite of everything, because no matter how impossible the odds, the kingdom breaks forth among the least likely people in the least likely places. But why is that a surprise? Our God is a God who turns everything inside-out. We look to Jesus, who was crucified, who died real death on a cross, but who was raised after three days from a stone tomb. In their hopelessness, the women go to retrieve his body, but discover the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. And mysterious strangers tell them, and us – “why do you look for the living among the dead?”

It’s precisely because we always think things are so certain, so doomed, that God constantly breaks forth in unexpected ways. After all, that’s why this is good news! In spite of all the evidence, something new is happening, and God is far from done with us. By the power of the Spirit, we repent and give thanks for the new possibilities that God is bringing us into, because the past no longer defines who you are. By this same Spirit, you hear Jesus declare you entirely forgiven, and you know that you are forgiven. You are a new creation. Our judgment, our blindness, our misspoken words – all that baggage falls away. Where we heard Jesus commanding us to leave behind things, we’re so surprised to discover the incredible lightness of our being, freed from the weight of prejudice and sin. It’s not what we do, it’s what’s done to us. And not just once, but daily, drowning in the waters of our baptism and being raised in the new life of Christ.

Further, we finally begin to see others in the same new light. We become open to strangers with formerly strange ways, brought together by the Spirit, and at the same time, we are no longer strangers to each other. By their presence in our lives, in the space of these unexpected relationships, we finally recognize hospitality, because we discover that we can be exactly who we are as the children of God. The crazy thing here is that it’s precisely in the reality of our humanity and our brokenness that the kingdom of God breaks forth for others to behold. When the world has just beaten us down and failed us, somehow we find ourselves still showing a small kindness to others, the same exact thing we desperately need, but just can’t get for ourselves. How can this be? Because the power of God is truly revealed in the space of our helplessness, for this and only this could be the work of God – not just for our own sake, but for the sake of the world. The world might call this magical thinking, but we call this faith, the free gift of the unbounded Holy Spirit, the peace that passes all understanding.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we don’t go forth from this place to succeed. No, we go forth to fail, to experience our reality as the children of God, who came down and met us and claimed us in our brokenness. The God who loves us unconditionally, to the end of the age. We travel light, because God has freed us of the baggage of our failures. Because this is exactly how God loves to make all things new. This is how we will all behold the power of God’s wondrous kingdom breaking forth. But before we go, let us sit at the table of God our gracious host, to be fed and nourished with Christ’s body and blood set before us. And this food will sustain us on our way. Thanks be to God.

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