The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Many years ago, one of my cousins got married in Charlottesville, VA. Now there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about this, except that it was one of the first family weddings that wasn’t local. It was about a 5-hour drive from my family’s home in suburban Philadelphia, so all of us geared up for what we love to get geared up for: ROAD TRIPS!
Now, maybe you think YOUR family takes road trips seriously. That’s cute. You haven’t met my family. My grandparents’ generation fled a genocide, so they had, shall we say, a heightened sense of danger or catastrophe that could await you at any moment. Of course our cars had first aid kits, blankets, towels, jumper cables, bungee cords, paper towels, hand wipes, a box of hard candy, a spare bottle of water, some trail mix, flashlights, batteries, a spare cardboard box for good measure, a freshly checked spare tire, and a toolkit in the trunk, at all times. But there are additional essentials required for any drive longer than 20 minutes. And I don’t just mean an entire music collection to sing along to. I mean: Beverages, in case you get thirsty: 2 coolers of drinks, one with bottled water, one with other things like juices and teas and sodas. Food, in case all that sitting makes you hungry: 4 giant shopping bags – each categorized, mind you – of fresh fruits and vegetables, dried fruit, nuts, chips and pretzels, peanut butter crackers, cheese and crackers, cookies and other sweets. All in case you get stranded alone for days in the middle of… I-95.
As I sat with my knees to my chin, looking at the apocalypse survival kit taking up all the leg room in the back seat, I thought, “I hope we haven’t forgotten anything?” We had enough food to feed all four of us for at least 3 days and we weren’t even going to be on the road for the amount of time people normally wait to eat between meals. We could have eaten breakfast, gotten on the road, and arrived where we were going in time for lunch. But our family motto is, “You never know. Just in case.”
So with that in mind, I find Jesus to be completely off his rocker when he sends his disciples out into clear and present danger, and tells them to bring absolutely nothing with them. (He’s clearly never met an Armenian.) There’s no “always be prepared” or “just in case.” He simply tells them, “I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.” Jesus, what on earth are you thinking? I would think you’d need to be a little more prepared if you are a lamb walking into a pack of wolves.
I’ve been thinking about this image of lambs among wolves in light of this holiday weekend. At at time we are meant to celebrate freedom, it’s no secret that for many people, this country has always been a land of lambs governed by a pack of wolves. A tour through the Native American Museum or the African American Museum will make that very clear. And it’s no secret that after the Supreme Court decisions last week about gun violence, abortion, and the environment, many more people are now joining those vulnerable to the tyranny wolves wielding the power of an unpopular extremist ideology.
We’re scared and unprepared.
This is, in part, because the name of Christian has been used to access earthly power and promote policies that are completely antithetical not only to the gospel of Jesus Christ, but to the teachings of many other faith traditions in this country – Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh. The freedoms we are supposed to be guaranteed are crumbling, and white evangelical fundamentalism is being used to control the laws of our land. We’re scared and unprepared because being a Christian in America no longer comes with the safety and security and “insider status” it once did. No longer do our values and our identity align with people in power.
At times like these, especially now after years of increased de-socialization from a global pandemic and the replacement of human connections with digital ones, it’s tempting to retreat into what one of our parishioners so aptly called “self-protective isolation.” It’s tempting to look at the road ahead, see a frightening and violent uphill battle, and think, “I’ve gotta be prepared. Protect myself and my own first.”
It’s good to remember that this was the world Jesus’ followers were living in, too. They experienced an increased loss of power and protection from the ruling government, mass persecution, and internal factions. In fact, Paul’s letter to the Galatians is the angriest letter he ever wrote – to a community completely torn by some who kowtowed to earthly powers and principalities, and others trying to abide by the commandments of God. He talks about those who “want to make a good showing in the flesh.” Those who prioritize earthly status and power and control. People who weren’t eager to be part of a religious community that would put them more at odds with the ruling powers and subject them to persecution and hardship. People who were only happy to bear the name of their religion insofar as it gave them status and security, without any regard to keeping its commandments. People who used religion to become insiders and gatekeepers.
Paul’s words to these folks are clear. “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh.” In other words, gaining worldly power ultimately gains you nothing.
For 1700 years, Christianity has been aligned with empire and the ruling class, particularly in the West. Christians have forgotten that Jesus was never interested in building a theocracy. When Jesus was brought before Pilate, he didn’t say, “I’m here for your job.” He said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”
The laws that govern God’s kingdom are radical and revolutionary and counter to the laws that govern almost every human society. Paul tells the Galatians:
Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. … Let us not grow weary in doing what is right.” That might seem like common sense and basic human decency, but they are a challenge to a world both ancient and new where people were and are constantly tempted to seek their own status and power at the expense of the freedom of other people.
As we see more and more of our laws being used to strip away people’s freedoms, we must remember that God’s law seeks something entirely different. In God’s kingdom, freedom does not come from keeping other people down. It comes from lifting them up. Bear one another’s burdens. Do not grow weary in doing what is right. That may not be a reality we will ever find ourselves living in on this side of heaven, but it must not be a reality we lose sight of.
I had a lot of fun on that road trip all those years ago. We barely touched the apocalypse kit, but we laughed and sang the whole way down. And the truth is, if we hadn’t packed a single one of those provisions, we would have had just as much fun. We didn’t need the trail mix and the bottled water just in case something went wrong. We needed each other.
Jesus understood this profoundly. He actually did send his disciples out prepared when he sent them out among the wolves. He didn’t send them out with nothing, because he didn’t send them alone. He sent them out two by two. He sent them out with each other. To walk among wolves, and bear one another’s burdens.
Maybe you noticed, though, that Jesus had to set the disciples straight when they return to him all jazzed up about how successful they’ve been on the road. “Demons bow down to us! We’re superstars! We have so much power!” Both Jesus and Paul have something to say about what truly is worth celebrating, or boasting about. Hint: it has nothing to do with victory or power according to this world’s standards. Our boasting in God reaches above and beyond and around those things the powers around us say are worth celebrating. It has nothing to do with others bowing down to us, and everything to do with us bowing down to God and each other.
The strongest Christian witness isn’t the earthly stuff we amass and carry with us. It isn’t in political power, or the candidates we get elected or judges we get appointed. The kingdom of God is not represented by republicans and democrats, or corporate executives. And the freedom that comes from God is freedom from believing that your safety and security, your salvation, can come from anything or anyone other than God.
God sets us free to bear one another’s burdens, do what is right. God sets us free, yoked one to another. What a paradox. God sets us free to seek the common good — “whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all.” That is a freedom truly worth celebrating. That is Christian freedom. Not freedom from other people, but freedom FOR other people.
That is a freedom no government can ever take away.
That is a freedom we can always be prepared for.
So are you ready?