As we celebrate Independence Day, it’s appropriate that we’re often led by historians. They remind us that amid the picnics and concerts, the appliance sales and all of the red, white, and blue, there are real people who made our independence possible. There were real people who stood up, who wrote and sang and stitched and fought so that we might live in the country we do. We remember those names, of Betsy Ross, George Washington, Dolly Madison, and Paul Revere. More recent historians have helped us remember a larger picture, including the stories of people like Crispus Attucks, Prince Hall, and Sally Hemings, and those whose stories are still being told and shared. It’s right that we learn about our heroines and heroes, but it we keep them and their ideas only in the past, then Independence Day is a waste. They were real people, who lived lives like we do, and yet, because of their decisions, their sacrifices, their choices, their ingenuity and resourcefulness, they changed the course of history. If WE fail to be changed, to be enlarged or to learn from them, then their contributions mean very little.
A similar thing has to do with our reading of scripture. We can sometimes hear the old words and stories as hopelessly abstract and distant. People were different then, we say. They believed different things about God. They had different power structures. Often, in the name of faith, they oppressed and enslaved and conquered. We congratulate ourselves on having done well to move beyond some of that and we’re glad to be the people God has brought us to be. But like those in our more recent history, the people whose lives are reflected in scripture were real people who, at their best, were somehow captivated by the Spirit of God and they were changed. They became more than before. They made decisions and took off in new directions that changed the world. And in the Communion of Saints, their faith flows through us. We can learn from them. We can be changed because of them.
The Gospel from Luke tells us about such people—people long ago, but people, nonetheless. We heard how Jesus gets his followers organized. He picks 70 people. This number of 70 might be significant for a number of reasons— 7 and 70 are important in the Hebrew scriptures. Moses picks 70 elders to help him, and there’s even the tradition (Jesus would have known) that the primary version of the Hebrew scriptures translated into Greek in the 3rd century BC(E), called the Septuagint, was translated by 70 scholars picked by King Ptolemy, who worked for 70 days to translate the text.
For whatever reason, Jesus picks the 70 and he sends them out in pairs. If you notice the verses we heard from Luke, you’ll notice that there was a break. The first section, verses 1-11 of the scripture, has Jesus give his instructions to the 70, like a coach in the locker room before a game, Jesus is giving them a sort of spiritual pep talk. Offer peace. Travel lightly. Get to know people. Be gracious. Be careful.
The middle verses, the ones we did not hear consist of a series of statements about some of the places who did not receive the good news brought to them. “Woe to them,” Jesus says. It’s as though word has come back that some of the 70 who have gone out are being given a hard time, and so someone—whether Jesus or someone else Luke hears of—is commenting on these places that seem obstinate, unwelcoming, and unfriendly.
Then we have the last section, verses 16-20. Here, it seems the 70, or some of them, have returned. They’re reporting success. They even seem a little carried away with how successful they’ve been, “Lord,” they say, “in your name even the demons submit to us.” Jesus then reflects on this, and his long experience with the devil, as though to say, yes, demons are out there. They always have been and they always will be, but in the end, God wins. Rejoice in the victories you have over the snakes and the scorpions and the serpents of the world, but don’t let it go to your head. Just be grateful to God, Jesus says, and keep close to me and to each other.
This reading can seem like it’s about spiritual heroes, the greats of the faith who left family and homes and jobs and went out as missionaries extradinaire. But I don’t think so. I think they were probably pretty ordinary people who responded to Jesus and tried to do their best.
We, who are baptized in Jesus’s name are also called to “go out,” even if we never move very far. We encounter others in our homes, in our families, at work, at play, in the neighborhood, in the supermarket. And wherever we go, we are called to take our faith with us and to deal with others with faithful heats. And that’s where some of Jesus’s advice to the 70 comes in handy. It becomes good advice for us, as we live our lives.
Be as lambs among wolves. Go into the world with gentleness and respect—love, even. But don’t be naïve. There are those who would be our enemies. There are those who do us in. There are those who would do us harm.
Know that the kingdom of God has come near you. Jesus promises that the kingdom of God begins in this life, as we grow in his love and his ways, this kingdom unfolds all around us and even within us. The kingdom is not a physical place to be visited. It is not a set of rules to be followed, or set of doctrines to be held. The kingdom can look like some of those qualities mentioned by the Apostle Paul to the Galatians: a place where people share in carrying each other’s burdens, where people are forgiven and olds wrongs forgotten, where a spirit of gentleness prevails, and hope never gives up.
“The kingdom of God has come near.” Elsewhere in the Gospel stories, Jesus gives us other images for what the kingdom of God looks like, for how it arises or how it’s uncovered. The kingdom comes in surprising ways—it’s like water turned into wine. It’s like yeast that grows in bread. It’s like a pearl uncovered in the depths of dark water. The kingdom of God is very near, and it’s this sense that we’re to embody, to embrace, and to share in the world.
And then, Jesus warns that there will be those who won’t understand his message of love. There will be those who, for whatever reason, don’t recognize or hear or want a God of love. The images offered by the Prophet Isaiah are strong images, but they can be overwhelming. God is like a mother who consoles her children on the breast. She gathers them close and loves them. She nurses and carries us, she lets us play on her knees. For some—broken down by circumstance or relationship, by addiction or disease, such an image of God seems invasive and dangerous. Jesus says, “Shake the dust off your feet.” Move on. Offer the love of God as best you can, but if people cannot or will not hear, move on. The kingdom of God is near and those who receive it, will receive it.
Those who have gone before us in the recent past of our country’s founding, as well as those who have gone before us in the distant past of our faith, would have us become like them, at their best.
In 1630, as people crossed the ocean to come to this country, John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, preached a sermon to that early group of Puritans looking for a place to worship and live in freedom. Well into his famous sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” he says, “Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of [the Prophet] Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God . . . We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.”
May we learn from those who’ve gone before us and may we be guided by them. As we continue to struggle with how to be faithful AND free, may we do so with the knowledge that the kingdom of God is very near.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.