The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: July 8, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Such a perfectly timed gospel reading – summer is a time to set out on journeys, traveling far and near in search of a break from the city. Some of us are great at packing light; most of us aren’t. Our family has been packing for our summer trip west, to see family and to backpack in the mountains. We’ll be gone just long enough, and doing enough different stuff along the way, that packing light is nearly impossible. We’re taking as little as we can and trusting to the kindness of family washing machines, but for all the camping and hiking part of it, we’ve got to bring gear, lots and lots of gear. Every time we prep for a backpacking trip I think of John Muir, the great early explorer and lyrical writer of American wilderness. He would head off into the Sierras with some bread and tea in his pockets and a rolled up blanket strapped to his back, and stay out for days. As I survey all the colorful and indispensable items that must fit into my backpack, I wonder every time how he did it.
And here’s Jesus telling us the same advice. Go off on a trip and take as little as possible. Head out unprepared to tend to your physical needs, and assume that others will provide for them for you. If you’re not welcomed, if they don’t like it, well, that’s their problem. Refreshing advice – but it also might fall into the category of ‘How not to get yourself invited back next year.’
And Jesus tells us this right after getting rejected himself in his hometown…while on a family visit. It makes me think that we follow him at our peril – his model isn’t very reassuring.
Yet the message is clear: receive what God has to give us, and offer it to others. No matter how it unfolds, we have a part to play in God’s healing grace.
Jesus heads to his hometown, preaching and offering healing just as he’s been doing everywhere else. Everywhere else there have been people crowding around to hear him, reaching out to touch his clothes, coming to him for healing. But in his hometown, it’s totally different. Instead of responding to him, the people just mutter about Jesus. And their rejection of him is so strong that Jesus is unable to heal there, with just a few lucky exceptions. Jesus is ‘amazed at their unbelief.’ And yet undeterred, he continues on his way, and sends out his disciples to do likewise – just as he goes to preach and teach and heal, they also are to go (at least they get to go in pairs). And if they are rejected too, well, Jesus says, shake the dust off your feet and don’t worry about it.
It all raises some interesting questions. If hardness of heart and rejection are enough to keep Jesus from healing, then clearly it matters how we respond to God. God’s healing power may even depend upon us for it to have an effect. And maybe God depends upon us not just to receive for our own healing, but then to go off to other towns and offer it to others too. And then it again depends upon those others to receive us for further healing to happen. There’s a whole web of interdependence at work here.
For one thing, this upends the idea that God is just up on a cloud with a thunderbolt, acting or choosing not to act solely on the basis of God’s inscrutable will. We have a part to play in our own healing. We’re called upon to uncross our arms and open our hands to receive what’s being given to us, part of the movement of healing. God doesn’t act entirely regardless of what we do, simply overruling us – how we respond matters. That’s the risk God took in giving us free will, rather than making us obedient robots. God risks us rejecting God’s healing love, and sometimes we do. But – I want to be clear in saying that it does not therefore follow that when healing doesn’t happen in the timing or fashion that we long for, it’s our fault. God’s healing depends upon us, but not only on us. God has ways of healing, and a timing for that healing, that we can sometimes find hard to see and understand. Think of the woman in last week’s gospel story, who waited twelve years before she finally grasped Jesus’ cloak and was healed. Or think of Paul in today’s epistle, asking three times for a ‘thorn in the flesh’ to be removed, only to hear, ‘No – my grace is sufficient for you.’ We don’t control how and when healing happens. But we do have a role in being receptive when that healing might come.
So keeping our arms crossed and turning away can prevent God from working on us. But our responsibility goes even further – the work of healing relies upon us to go out and offer it to others – something that also requires us to open our arms wide. No wonder Jesus tells us to travel empty-handed, unencumbered with all that we might want to carry to protect ourselves. If we go with our arms full of what we think we need, tending to ourselves, focusing on our backpacks, then we are less available to others. Others are depending on us to share what we receive. Our actions can influence how and whether God’s healing spreads. Healing is meant to flow through us – not get bottled up for safekeeping and personal benefit.
Our Presiding Bishop at General Convention this week addressed the whole church in laying out what he calls the Way of Love. It’s not another church program, he said. It’s taking seriously our relationship with God through Jesus, and being changed by that in how we relate to others. Bishop Curry gave us some tag words to hang it all on, seven of them: turn, learn, pray, worship, bless, go, rest, all as a sort of cycle to follow over and over again. We turn to listen to Jesus, we learn about God in scripture, we pray in quiet and worship with others – all of that being with God, receiving God’s love and healing power in our lives. And then we bless by sharing with others what we have received, and go to bring that healing to the world. And then we rest with God, and do it all again. It’s how we live as Christians, what we’re all about here today.
Being in and building our relationship with God matters, as we receive and ground ourselves in God’s love for us. And what we do with that also matters. As one writer put it, every day we have a choice to resist what God is doing, or to partner with God in healing. Every action we take does this. When you take time to come on a Saturday morning to help in our kitchen meal, you’re part of the healing. When you speak kindly to someone who is having a rough time, or talk through differences with respect and love, you’re part of the healing. When you give some of your money to help with the church in Haiti, or to buy supplies for our tutoring program for this fall, you’re part of the healing. You’re not just ‘being a good person,’ or following the rules – you’re going with open hands to share the good news of God with others. It puts a different frame on how we go about our day when we think of it this way, doesn’t it?
Our opening collect for today, the prayer we started with, asks God for help to do all of this: ‘Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection.’ The way of love isn’t always easy; it may not always come naturally, even. So we ask for God’s help to live it – for God to help us keep our disciplines of prayer and scripture and community, for God to direct our words and actions toward others. And, as Jesus reminds us again, we open our hands to receive that help. May God renew again in us our desire to receive, and to give. Amen.