I’ve begun to prepare for my sabbatical later this fall when I will explore how urban churches are doing innovative ministry and mission in our changing 21st century context, As part of that preparation, I’m thinking and reading about cities. While reading urban theorists and historians of the city, I’ve realized I was operating with certain assumptions about the nature, purpose, and history of urban environments, and that those assumptions helped to shape my approach to ministry and mission here at Grace.
I grew up in a small town but since turning 18, I’ve lived and worked for the most part in urban or suburban settings. But of course, in many ways the immediate environment for my work and community throughout most of those was not the city but rather the university or college. When I did think about the larger context, it was most often in terms of the relationship between town and gown. Over the past seven years I’ve gotten to know Madison pretty well–its institutions, its history and challenges, and its peculiar political culture or ethos. The reading I’ve been doing has helped to give me some tools to understand what I’ve come to see in Madison.
So many of our challenges are shared by cities throughout the nation and even the world—the rising economic and racial inequities, the difficulties of providing basic services and needs like housing, healthcare, adequate food and water; the tensions between citizens and the police. To all of that might be added another huge challenge—the growing divide between urban and rural, the faultlines of which we see even here in Wisconsin.
Most of probably don’t think about cities as a thing. We enjoy the amenities they offer; we’re grateful for the jobs they provide. And often, we hope to escape them to our homes in the suburbs or to more peaceful vacation destinations. We certainly aren’t accustomed to think about our Christian lives in the context of the geographical places in which we live those lives out.
Today’s gospel reading offers a unique lens through which to examine our lives and the places in which we live. The so-called sending out of the 70 in Luke and in its parallels in Matthew and Mark has worked powerfully on the imaginations of Christians over the centuries, providing inspiration for reformers and saints like St. Francis. Its specificity is part of its appeal. That same specificity is at once off-putting as it seems to hold up for us an ideal lifestyle against which to judge our own.
A couple of preliminary remarks might help to contextualize all of this. First, it’s quite likely that the specific instructions about what to take with one on a missionary journey–no purse, no bag, no sandals—as well as the careful instructions about receiving hospitality: when entering a house, to offer a blessing, to accept whatever food and drink is set before you, to stay in one place—all of this reflects early Christian debates and concerns about the proper treatment of and behavior by itinerant evangelists. We know from Paul’s letters and from texts outside the New Testament that such issues were widely discussed.
The second thing to point out is that the mission of the 70 (or 72) is an extension of Jesus’ own mission. Jesus sent them in pairs to all of the towns and villages that he would visit himself. In a sense, they constitute his advance team. Their healing and proclamation are part of Jesus’ own ministry.
All of this may be well and good, but it really does seem to be a world away from our lives and concerns. Few of us are going to go off on a missionary journey, and if we were to go, we would make sure to be well prepared. We would have bags with changes of clothes, money and credit cards, and certainly we would have sturdy walking shoes. Let’s be honest—few of us are comfortable sharing our faith with our neighbors or co-workers, let alone with the inhabitants of a town or village far away.
But I’m intrigued by the juxtaposition of today’s gospel reading with last Sunday’s. You may recall that in our reading last week, after Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, he and his disciples came to a Samaritan town that refused to welcome them in. Two of the disciples, John and James, asked Jesus whether they might call down fire from heaven to destroy the town because of its refusal to receive Jesus. Of course Jesus rebuked them and they went on to another town.
This week, Jesus gives the seventy instructions on how to behave both when welcomed and rejected. When you enter a house, greet the inhabitants with “Peace” or “Shalom.” In other words, offer a blessing. Similarly, if a town refuses to welcome his disciples, Jesus instructed them to perform something of ritual curse, shaking the dust from the streets off their sandals as they leave.
Most of us can think of times when we would have loved to have made such a similar gesture when leaving a community. Perhaps it was the site of a failed relationship or a failed job; perhaps we left after the dreams we had when coming were dashed by the realities of the world. Demonstrating our rejection of such a place with a dramatic gesture like shaking one’s sandals could offer a measure of satisfaction at an otherwise painful moment.
Some of us could imagine such the symbolic power of such a gesture even if we aren’t leaving. Sometimes we want or need to disengage from the struggles and conflicts that swirl around us. We want to leave the public square, abandon the conflicts that beset our communities or our workplaces, or our politics. The problems too intractable, the differences too wide, the possibility of effecting change too remote. We want to worry about our own lives and loved ones and leave the cacophony and chaos of the world to fend for itself.
But when we do that, we forestall the possibility of blessing and change. Jesus sent the seventy out, as lambs in the midst of wolves, to extend his ministry of healing and to proclaim that the reign of God has come near. As frightening as it might be, we have been sent out as well, as messengers of Jesus, as his ambassadors, as his face and hands and voice. But we are not alone. He is with us, but he sends us out as a community as a group to do his work alongside others. And as we go, we offer blessing, and peace, and the possibility of changed lives and a changed world. Our words and actions are signs that the reign of God comes near.
But there’s something else. When we open ourselves to Jesus’ words, when we accept his call to share in his ministry and mission, we open ourselves to encounter with others, with the strange and the new. We are not only the guests who knock on the door to offer a blessing and receive hospitality. We are also the ones who open the door to the stranger. When we open ourselves to those encounters, we open ourselves to the opportunity of our own change and transformation. We open ourselves to being blessed by others and receiving the good news that God’s reign is near.
Given all that is happening here in Madison, the deep inequities, the racial division, the fear and distrust of police, we may want to close our doors to the outside world, look inwardly, enjoy each other’s company and go about our daily lives. We may want to turn away and say that all of that is none of our business.
But Jesus sends us out into the world, into the streets, into the heart of its pain and struggles, into the middle of its conflicts. Jesus calls us to proclaim peace on the streets, in people’s homes, to offer healing and to preach the good news that the reign of God is near. When we do all that, we become signs of its coming and a blessing to our city.