Year C Proper 9: Independence, interdependence, and discipleship

Some of you had the experience three or so years ago of hosting the Bishop’s Bike Ride as it came through town. On any given evening on the trip, thirty or so saddle sore riders roll into an Episcopal church driveway looking for a shower to wash away the dust of the road and the sweat of the ride; food, lots of food, oh so much food after spending lots of energy chasing down hills whilst wasting precious breath talking, teasing and laughing as they go; and a homely bed to land in to refresh themselves before doing it all over again tomorrow. I was riding the first couple of days of this week’s ride; we set out from Perrysburg on Tuesday morning early, and rolled into the camp ground at Wakeman for the diocesan picnic at lunchtime on Thursday; that’s when I took my leave ready to come and rehearse a wedding here Friday for yesterday’s celebration, while the others cycled on to Norwalk, Findlay, and back to Perrysburg yesterday.

Of course this gospel was in the minds of those of us who preach, when we arrived at a stranger’s front door to accept whatever hospitality they might offer us. When we read the instructions given to the disciples, we might think, ok, travel light, live off the land, hope and trust in the kindness of strangers; we read words like “sandals” and we conjure up a romantic image of the Holy Land, rural and easy to navigate, with food growing by the roadside for the eating, a pleasant climate in which to walk and sleep under the stars if need be, “summertime and the living is easy.”

But the reality for these disciples was not as rosy. They were travelling in occupied territory. Think about the checkpoints and the random acts of violence, the distrust and suspicion with which different people living uncomfortably close experience in that region today; it was not so different in the disciples’ time. It was dangerous to go to the wrong town, to the wrong house, take the wrong road, and for the traveler far from home, few guides to tell which was the path to peace and which the deadly path. If it was dangerous in the towns, it was just as difficult out in the country, where bandits waylaid the unwary, and wild animals hunted the weak, lambs were stolen by wolves.

In the verses that we missed out of our gospel reading (Luke 10:11-15), Jesus pronounced a curse on those who would fail to protect his people in their journey: “I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.” The commandment to hospitality was one of the foundations of the Jewish faith, because without it, the stranger and the traveler was toast. The sin of Sodom was exactly that failure to protect and care for the stranger in need, which is why Jesus brings it up here; it is nothing if not the epitome of bad grace and failed hospitality (Genesis 19).

So the seventy or so people that Jesus sent out on the road might have had authority over snakes and scorpions and demons and diseases; but they were also at the mercy of their neighbours, those who would receive them and offer them hospitality on the road, and Jesus bids his disciples submit to these hosts, not to pick and choose, but to receive their ministrations with good grace and humble thanks, offering them words of peace and the good news of the gospel.

Maybe Jesus thought that, in the midst of their victory over the powers of darkness, the disciples would need reminding that they, too, were ever dependent upon the Lord of Light for their life, their safety, their eternal salvation. “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

We all from time to time worry about keeping our independence, about staying in control of our own lives, our finances, our homes, our bodies. We none of us enjoy being dependent upon others; we use phrases like “being a burden,” or “not wanting to be beholden” to anyone else. The fact is that we are beholden to one another; without one another we wouldn’t have a church. Without one another, we wouldn’t have a town, a country, any kind of community. Even though we just celebrated Independence Day, we know more than ever these days how interdependent we are on one another around the world. We cannot turn our backs on those living across the sea, because they supply many of our own needs. We need one another to live and move and have our being. None of us is as independent as she thinks, and none of us would be anything at all without God. Whatever authority we own, however powerful we think we are, we are all under the authority of the living God.

Naaman wanted to control his own cure. As much as he wanted healing, he wanted it on his own terms, and he hated having to submit to the instructions of Elisha. The disciples were used to having their own way – Peter, Andrew, James, John, they were all fishermen, with their own boats and nets and employees; they were used to having authority, but they were not used to submitting to the kindness of strangers, to being dependent upon others for their livelihood and their wellbeing. But in his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think themselves something, they deceive themselves.”

Jesus sent out the disciples to preach peace, to bring good news, to spread the word about the kingdom of God drawing near, to cure sickness and drive out demons; but he was also training them: training them in humility, in grace, in empathy, in mercy, in kindness and hospitality. He was teaching them how to love one another by receiving as well as giving that kindness. He was teaching them the authority of the cross, that power that is so gentle that it would die for us.

One of my colleagues on the bike ride likes to see how it illustrates our being the church: we feed the riders, offer hospitality; we help one another out on the road; we come together to journey forward, to pray, to share; the support drivers offer good cheer and occasional rescues; everyone is welcome to go at their own pace, and as far as they can; there is no unfriendly competition, and plenty of mutual encouragement. There is also that element of submission to one another, the stepping over the threshold of a host’s home, receiving the kindness of strangers with complete vulnerability, with nothing to offer in return but gratitude. It is, in the end, the way of the cross, a journey which demonstrates the power of life over death and disciples over demons, God’s healing over the decrepitude and decay of the world, but one which does so with humility, vulnerability, with sacrifice. We walk the way of the cross with the remembrance that none of us travels alone, each of us is dependent upon God for our authority, our power, our independence.

We, like the disciples, have the words of life to share with the world; and it is our service to the world, not our dominion over it; our sharing of our lives, ourselves, our interdependence, our faith, that brings those words to life. Amen.

 

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