Sunday, June 06, 2021
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Dealing with the Walls of Your Heart
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, June 6, 2021
Reading: Luke 10:1-11

For all the wonderful things that Benjamin Franklin did, it is little known that he was interested in horticulture and farming. He discovered that one of the best ways to make grain grow, is to put plaster with lime in the soil. He talked to the local farmers about his idea, but they thought it was ludicrous. Why would you put plaster in the soil to help things grow? They rejected, mocked and laughed at him. They thought he had no idea what he was talking about. Then one day they him in a field by the side of a road, sprinkling something on the soil, but he wasn’t doing it in a normal way that one would do, rather he zigzagged, in a strange way, then stopped, and started again. They couldn’t understand why and laughed at him thinking he was losing his mind.

Well, a few months later, they discovered that those areas where he sprinkled the soil with his plaster and lime mixture, everything was green and fresh, where that around it was not. He wanted to demonstrate the truth of what he believed, and he knew that words and words alone, were not going to convince even the most interested. His words were not enough, he needed to demonstrate it. Now, there are times when demonstrating things silently isn’t enough. Sometimes there is a need for words to be used, as well as deeds, and the two go hand in hand. What you say and how you act, what you espouse and how you deliver that and demonstrate it, are inextricably tied.

Jesus, in giving guidance to disciples, applied both word and deed, both gesture and proclamation. In our passage from the Gospel of Luke, we have a singular moment, an iconic moment, where Jesus calls seventy followers, sets them apart and gives them a mission. Now, these were not part of the twelve disciples, these were a group people who were following him as an itinerant preacher, but believing him to be the Messiah, and so he gives them very strict instructions.

The fact that there were seventy is significant. If you remember last week’s sermon, I dealt with Moses and the book of Numbers, and how there were seventy leaders of the people that were taken into the tent and out of the camp, to pray and learn and witness to the people. Seventy was an important number. The Sanhedrin, the governing body of the religious Jews, had seventy members, and seventy was also believed to be the number of nations that existed in the time of the New Testament. There were seventy nations that represented a universal number.

So, when Jesus sends out the seventy, he’s expanding the witness and the ministry of the twelve. He is sending out seventy people to bear witness to the Kingdom, and to his ministry. It’s a seminal moment in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. What is particularly moving about it is the timeless nature of Christian mission. It wasn’t restricted to the twelve but was there for seventy others who were believers. The method that Jesus used, while not having to be followed exactly, nevertheless has within it a powerful message about the nature of Christian outreach and mission in the world.

I think this is a good time for us to reflect on that and its meaning for you and me. What we notice at the very beginning is that in sending out these seventy, Jesus says, “You are like lambs going out to wolves.” He states quite clearly that the ministry he is sending them on, is not an easy one. Lambs to wolves.

Lambs are a powerful biblical image, an image for Israel, an image for those who are innocent, those who are dependent, those who are pure. Lambs were given sacrificially to God as a sign of people’s faith. And of course, you cannot read the New Testament without being overwhelmed by the number of references to Jesus being the Lamb of God, and Jesus being the sacrificial lamb for the sake of others. So, the lamb is a notion of dependence. A lamb going to the wolves is a dependent one, but what they're dependent on – and this is significant – is their faith in God. It is fitting that Jesus says to those followers to go out in twos, one to speak and one to bear witness to what is being said, and that they take nothing with them. They don’t take a satchel or a bag or food or money, or even sandals. They go as people totally dependent on the grace of God; they go into a world of wolves as lambs, as the innocent ones, dependent on the grace and the love of God.

Jesus also realised that there was a danger if they went under their own power, or their own wealth. If they went under a more significant political mandate, they would not be bearing witness and depending on God and on the Spirit. Therefore, Jesus didn’t want them to go equipped with power instead of relying on God. No, they were lambs going into the world without the trappings of power or wealth.

This, I believe, is a significant message. I think it's one that the church of Jesus Christ, to be quite honest, has struggled with for two thousand years. We’ve struggled with it under Constantine, who made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. We struggled with it with Charlemagne in the period before the end of the first thousand years. Then he was there to be blessed by the Pope, and the empire and religious authorities became one. It has happened subsequently since many times: with the Popes who initiated the Crusades; in the colonial world, where protestant churches and missionary societies went hand in hand in their missions, with the work and the witness of the state and of the power. When those things come too closely together, Jesus’ warning to those disciples needed to be heard. Don’t take those earthly powers with you but rely on Jesus and the Kingdom. That is what they needed to do.

Over the last few days many Canadian hearts have been broken. The discovery of the remains of two hundred and fifteen unnamed children, outside a residential school is one of the most devastating moments in Canadian history. It is one that has brought all of us to our knees, both in disgrace and shame, in sorrow and compassion. I believe that moments like this remind us of the importance of our mission, and resets what we believe to be the truth. The mission is always the mission of Jesus Christ, it is always the mission based on his example. It is not based on sailing close to the winds of power or being instruments of the state.

This past week there’s been a great deal of conversation about this amongst those of us within the church. While I'm always pleased and proud to say that the United Church of Canada has gone out of its way fairly early on to make its apology to indigenous people on the basis of the news of the residential schools, nevertheless, everyone is hurting and feels ashamed. A statement by Danny Zacharias (I was in touch with Danny to express my own feelings of sorrow and regret), a professor of New Testament at Acadia, and an indigenous person said this:

As an indigenous follower of Jesus, I cling to Christ, even as I rage against His followers and institutions that claim His name, past and present, who commit acts and atrocities utterly foreign to His teachings. If you claim to follow a homeless man, yet glory in a society that makes the wealthy even wealthier, you're a hypocrite. If you claim to follow a brown-skinned man, yet discriminate against coloured people, you're a hypocrite. If you say you follow the one who said to love your enemy, and yet embrace war and violence, you're a hypocrite. If you claim to worship the one who Himself had to flee His homeland for His own safety, and yet you dislike immigrants, you're a hypocrite. And yes, we’re all hypocrites to some degree.

Everyone I know, regardless of their ethnicity, is appalled by this story, and they should be. But I remind myself of this, and you should remind yourself too, this is another of many waves that have crashed upon indigenous peoples in Canada, and there will be more to come. My heartbreak and your heartbreak is something that’s being felt and continues to be felt for multiple generations of First Nations people. This is not ancient history, but a living reality.

In another comment, made by the principal of Wycliffe College, in an incredible piece entitled in Latin, Sine Nomine, which means, without a name, says this:

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of this discovery in British Columbia, is the realisation that these children were not dignified by the preservation of their names. They were more than casualties of a malign social experiment. They were at one time members of families, each one a beloved child and a child of God. And they had names.

As painful as it may be now to hear them, hear them we must. We must spare no effort in helping to discover these precious relics in the wreckage we have created. And when we pray, those whom we have forgotten, do Thou, oh Lord, remember, let us do so shamefully and in the hope that God has recorded for them a new name, shared only by the departed and God alone.

That is the ministry of Jesus in words, and truth for us. Jesus also sent out people to bring peace and healing. Jesus says, “Let peace be in this house.” The disciples were sent out not only as vulnerable people to a world of wolves, to a place of danger, but to bring peace and healing. The peace that Jesus is talking about is not the peace that is the absence of conflict. Peace is not just a nice idea that we live up to. Peace comes from God, peace that is of the Kingdom. “My peace,” said Jesus, “I leave with you,” and that is the peace that we leave with people today.

I think that that peace is what is so desperately needed and will be desperately needed with the anxiety that we have about how we’re going to come back together. There is going to be – and I’ve said this before – a mixture within our churches that changes because of COVID-19. There will be people who will come, who have no prior experience in this church, and there will be those who have years and years of devoted service. There will be those who will want to watch online, and those who will want to come forward for the laying on of hands. There is going to be a mixture.

I listened to a wonderful lecture this week by Professor Al Tizon, through the Oxford Centre of Mission Studies. He said that the church is like a Filipino dessert – halo-halo, and as he described it: crushed ice, milk, fruit, rice, and purple ice cream, oh man, my mouth watered. He said that halo-halo means, “mix-mix”, and this mixture is what community is all about.

Community is about having this mixture brought together as one and when it is brought together, it needs to live and exercise its ministry in peace. The peace of Christ is what will guard and guide our churches going forward. We might be anxious. You in your home congregations may be anxious. What is it going to be like? How are we going to relate to one another? We’ve been wounded by the pandemic, by what happened to the children in Kamloops, by the many deaths because of COVID-19. We need some healing, and the church should be the place where that healing takes place, a halo-halo community.

Jesus also said, “Go out and heal. Restore that which is broken, heal the cracks, mend things in my name.” As churches we might not be able to provide ventilators for those having difficulty breathing, but we have a great resource in our faith, in our lives, and in our experience, and that is the breath of the Holy Spirit, which I believe also needs to be breathed into us.

That healing isn't just a matter of our lungs expanding and our breath restored, it is also about the healing power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and in broken lives that need restoring. When Jesus sent out those disciples, he told them to go in peace, and to go in healing. That, it seems to me, is now the mission of the church as we reset and look to the future.

There’s one last thing that Jesus said, and that is, “The Kingdom has come near to you.” He has come near to you. He’s here. Of course, Jesus was talking about himself, and saying that he is the one, the embodiment of the Kingdom. Their mission is to go, not that the Kingdom will come, but the Kingdom is already here, that their mission is to proclaim and to share with people the glory and the presence of Jesus Christ, and as messengers that the Kingdom of God is near in Christ. Christ, and Christ alone, once again becomes the focus of the ministry of the disciples who were sent out.

My uncle Ray – and I think I’ve shared this in a Bible study – was a historian, a Cambridge-trained historian, writer, and principal. When I was a teenager, he used to take me around to all these historic relics and buildings to teach me history. My uncle couldn’t stop being a teacher, even if we were just going to the beach to play. He pointed something out to me that I hadn't noticed before. He said, “Andy, have you noticed when we look at castles, how all the castles have big walls around them, and often moats and gates that lower, and turrets from which they can defend themselves with arrows. Castles are a fortress, set to defend itself from the world.”

Then he said, “Have you noticed abbeys? Abbeys are not like that. Abbeys do not have walls or moats. They have doors that are often wide open and welcoming. Abbeys are places where people are welcome and invited. Abbeys are places for safety and security for those who are in trouble.”

“Which one” he said, “do you think represents the Kingdom of God?” The abbey.

As believers we must not, as Teresa Avila said, set up walls in our hearts. We should not set up walls that divide us against one another, we should not set up walls that prevent us from being followers of Jesus Christ. We should be abbeys that are welcoming and safe in this world.

When Jesus sent out those seventy, He sent them out into a world of wolves. He was worried that they could become wolves themselves, but he wanted them to be lambs of peace, of healing, of the Kingdom. For there is only one Lord that we should follow, the one whose Kingdom is near – Jesus of Nazareth, our Lord. Amen.