-6th Sunday after Trinity: Proper 9
Galatians 6 (1-6) 7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-
For decades of my life I sat in a pew on most Sunday mornings. The rest of the week in those years I was teaching in a variety of settings – great schools and ropey schools, girls schools, boys schools, mixed schools, day schools and boarding schools. I was also teaching in family centres and women’s centres and at The University of Sussex. I encountered thousands of students of all ages, and had hundreds of colleagues. I had a smidgeon of influence over my husband, who was managing hundreds of people, and I was bringing up my own child, and, it seemed, the dozens of friends she dragged in over the years.
Throughout those decades, no-one in the Church hierarchy seemed especially interested in my worklife. Nobody ever asked, ‘well what are the issues for you in your teaching, your research, and your parenting’? ‘Do you find conflicts between your work and your faith’? ‘How could we help you in your job’? To be honest, I didn’t really expect them to. I expected that clergy would primarily talk to me about how I could help them in church activities.
And then one day I thought I heard a voice calling me to work for the Church. After a few years of ignoring it, I tentatively approached my Vicar to discuss the possibility of becoming one myself. And suddenly I found a whole gamut of church resources being thrown at me – I was given books to read, interviewed many many times by all sorts of people including Bishops, I was sent off on courses and retreats. Eventually I was trained full time for two years and they still make me go on mandatory training days because the work I do now is so important that I just have to get it right!
And of course I’m grateful for this investment the Church of England has made in my development. But I also think there’s something fundamentally wrong with the situation I’ve just described. Let’s start with the maths. I used to speak in front of and interact with hundreds of people a day; now I’m lucky if I speak with 200 a week. The strategy is wrong too. If we want to change the world we need to invest in the people who spend their time in the world rather than focusing on the people who spend their time in the Church. The problem underlying all this is a false separation between ‘the church’ and ‘the rest of life’ which means that for many of us, what we do between 10-11 on a Sunday morning doesn’t carry over to that hour on a Monday morning. I really think I would have enjoyed my Monday mornings more, found even more purpose in them, had I been consciously trying to bring aspects of Sunday into the week -- the peace for instance, that I’d shared on Sunday morning, the nourishment I’d received, the alternative ideas that I’d considered, the sense of building community-- into the week. Yes the work we do in church – making music and coffee and smiling at the preacher is really important, but probably the main work God’s got for you begins when you walk out that door.
And that is why today’s Gospel reading, though it contains bits that are puzzling and foreign, is actually still enormously important for us to understand today.
Jesus sends out these 70 people to the towns nearby, saying prepare the way for me. What’s the modern day equivalent? You or I may at some point go on a specific mission trip, perhaps we’ll work in an orphanage or hospital in Africa – and that would be a fantastic and life changing adventure I’m sure. But Jesus in this passage is not sending his people off to foreign climes. Israel is a tiny country. They were going off on their mission trips like we drive a half hour or so to work. Back then the vast majority of people lived and worked in the same place, the same building even. Today most of us have several different spheres of activity. And in each of these mission fields we have a choice. We can plant, prepare, nurture and open the place up to the work of God. Or we can frustrate, obscure, criticize, work to rule, and help to close a place off to the goodness of God.
Notice that Jesus gives lots of practical advice to the 70 about how to be good missionaries. A lot of the stuff about sandals and cloaks and eating what’s set before you may sound foreign to us. That’s because it is foreign. Jesus was talking to people in Palestine 2000 years ago. But the fact that he cared about the details, even to the point of teaching them about how to cope with rejection, means something for us today. In this passage we’re given a strong nudge to get out there and help God to change the world… but we are reassured that He cares about the details of our ventures – it’s not just an empty vast command.
God inspires and works with us in ways that seem both Motherly and Fatherly. In the lovely passage from Isaiah which Genevieve read, God is describes as a mother, nursing us, comforting and carrying, and in the most surprising and delightful image, bouncing us on her knees. This is where we start with God, and this we where we return. Sunday morning here in church should be a place of mutual rejoicing – a place where you feel God rejoicing over you, and feeding you at his table. The more imaginative of us might even be able to sense God dangling us on his knee.
But God also calls us to another kind of joy, the joy of changing the world, the joy of getting out there and making a difference. And Church needs also to be a place which asks the kinds of questions fathers are prone to ask… “how’s work going?’ ‘what kind of changes are you preparing for in your company, in your family?’ ‘how courageous are you at bringing the values and priorities of Christianity into your workplace?’ ‘How do you cope with success and rejection?’
These two aspects of God – the mother, if you like which nurtures us and the father which sends us on a mission – they work together to bring us sustainable lives of faith, characterized by joy.
When the 70 return from their work, they are excited. They have seen things happen. They have faced rejection and shaken the dust off their feet. They have made a difference. You can imagine them bursting with stories from the mission field – even the demons obeyed us, they exclaim. They realize that they’ve been working in harmony with a spiritual force much greater then they individually possess, and that is exciting. Jesus also gets excited and in the verses following this gospel reading he sort of blurts out, ‘Father I thank you that you have shown such things to these ordinary people’.
This afternoon we hope and that Andy Murray will repeatedly find the sweet spot of his racquet as he connects with the ball. Any of us who have played tennis will know the joy, the sound even, of that sweet spot. The sweet spot of mission is finding what you have to offer the world, and working with God there, right there, to hit with great power and accuracy.
I’m reading a book on this subject which is peppered with stories of people from all walks of life who take their professional skills, their talents, their compassion and their desires and use them on behalf of God’s kingdom. A lady called Margaret, who volunteers for 20 hours a week in a primary school, talks about the joy and fulfillment of her work. ‘I don’t know, she says, ‘God just wired me to be a teacher. Not so much on a grand scale, but more of a one on one. This is something I’ve always dreamed of doing’. Derek lawyer recalls his previous role in the church as a Sunday school volunteer, a job he dreaded. Now he offers free legal advice to impoverished people and says he ‘gets a ton of joy.’ ‘By the grace of God’, he says, ‘I can speak the legal language that they need’. These two and many others are making a huge difference in their communities because they have found their vocational sweet spots and they are supported by their Church in the work they are doing.
One of the most exciting things I did over this past week was to introduce Underground’s Katy Weeks to the very inspirational woman who has built up the Pen Green centre for children and families in Corby. I almost cried as I watched this 60 year old woman and Katy batting back and forth their different visions of supporting children by creating a place for them. Katy was completely fired up as she toured the centre, met the staff and realized that she was not alone. They invited her to attend their seminars at no cost, and offered us access to supervision and fund raising software. As we got into my car at the end of the morning, Katy said she’d died and gone to heaven. A telling phrase. Pen Green, a place entirely constructed with the needs of the most vulnerable children in mind, does truly afford a glimpse into the kingdom of Heaven. And I was so happy to be able to give that bit of vision to Katy. Getting the right people together who can bounce off each other, using their talents and energy to further the work of God in the world – well that’s one of my vocational sweet spots. When I’m able to play a shot from there, it brings me the kind of joy which Luke is trying to describe at the end of this gospel reading. It’s the joy of being part of something bigger than yourself, the excitement of wondering what might happen next, coupled with the freedom to shake the dust off if it’s not working.
Now that I tend to stand at the front of the church, I want to apologise to you if we haven’t supported you in your own game. We want to. And within the constraints of the 24 hour day, we hope to do more to encourage and equip you to bring the kingdom of God to the places you live and work. If you’d like to talk to Philip or me, Lloyd or David about these things, please ask. If you’d like a mentor type person, perhaps from your line of work, please ask – you know I like to fix people up! If that sounds too much, but you’re facing some big issue at work and you’d just like to talk it through, ask. Perhaps you’ll conclude that a ‘faith at work’ discussion group, like many churches have, would work well here – let us know. Maybe you’d like the occasional speaker, or god forbid more sermons on the topic… Perhaps you’d like to meet with a group of people across several towns and villages who work in your field. We can work on that too. The number 70 which is 72 in some versions of the Bible, is symbolic. Both numbers symbolize a lot of people. A lot of us are called to go out into the world to bring make the good news of Jesus a reality for people. Those original 70 are sent two by two, and we also are not sent alone. Alone we will struggle, but with the support of our God who is interested in the smallest details of our missionary lives, and with the support of his Church walking hand in hand with us, we are promised that we will be able to find that sweet spot where as they put it 2000 years ago ‘even the demons obey us!’ Amen.