Lectionary 14 (Sixth Sunday after Pentecost)
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
July 4th, 2010
Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.
I went back home to Philadelphia last week for five days with my kids.
I went to a baseball game to see my beloved Phillies play – they lost –
and to an amusement park designed for young children in Lancaster County.
I stayed a few days at my brother’s house and a few at my in-laws’ house,
drove through my old neighborhood,
and even ate a street vendor cheesesteak on the back lawn of Independence Hall
while my kids blew bubbles and ran around on ground
where Founding Fathers surely held conversations
about tyranny, freedom, and self-determination.
It was a great trip.
But despite reliving some old memories and creating some new ones,
the trip was also tinged with a bit of sadness.
As I drove through the suburbs and the “ex-urbs” –
those far western suburban areas
that have seen significant growth in the past twenty years –
I was struck by the number of boarded up restaurants and gas stations,
the empty lots hopelessly waiting for development that isn’t coming any time soon,
and the growing number of Dollar Stores.
As we drove out Route 30 into Lancaster County,
I saw that once-favorite antique shops
and a tourist trap called “Basketville” had closed up shop.
A once-bustling, several-acre lumber yard was all but empty,
one of many signs that Philadelphia’s housing market continues to stand still.
To be sure, my old haunts aren’t entirely blighted, but they surely aren’t thriving, either.
As someone who looks at the world from “Inside the Beltway,”
where government and government-related jobs
seem to be on an ever-increasing curve,
walking on the proverbial Main Street in a state where unemployment is 9% –
just a shade better than the national average but
3 percentage points worse than here in the DC Metro area –
was an eye-opening and heart-breaking experience.
And then in last Sunday’s New York Times
Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman suggests
that we’re in the early stages of an economic depression,
much more long-lasting and crippling than any recession could be.
On Friday we learned that the economy lost another 125,000 jobs in the last quarter alone.
Add to this the large number of underemployed workers
and those workers not counted in the unemployment numbers
because they’ve given up hope and have stopped looking for work …
Add all this up, and the short-term prospects for jobs, opportunity,
and increased prosperity are quite dim.
On a weekend when we should be celebrating our nation’s independence
and the freedoms we enjoy in this land,
we can’t help but take notice of an economic situation
that wields a tyranny worse than any distant colonial monarch could muster.
So it is with this troubling economic news ringing in our ears
that we hear in today’s Gospel text about Jesus sending seventy of his followers
ahead of him, into towns and villages,
where they are to heal the sick, and proclaim the approaching of God’s Kingdom.
Heal the sick, and proclaim the approaching of God’s Kingdom.
What does it mean to proclaim the approaching of God’s Kingdom,
the dawn of God’s holy realm of righteousness and mercy,
to the long-term unemployed,
or in manufacturing towns with shuttered factories
where upwards of 14% of the work force can’t find a job?
What does it mean to heal the sick as an ever-increasing number of families decide
which bills don’t get paid,
which dreams go unrealized,
and which job for which they are overqualified they’ll apply for,
joining hundreds of applicants for one position?
If the seventy are sent out today,
what are they preaching, what kind of healings are they performing,
what demons are submitting to their command?
Economic situations such as the one we find ourselves in today
create demons of uncertainty, doubt, and fear,
demons which tear at our social fabric
and create tensions and anxieties that threaten to undercut
our nation’s highest and most noble aspirations
of a land where all people are created equal, a land of opportunity.
As households in our community and across our nation
come under increasing pressure to make ends meet,
they inevitably feel isolated from neighbors and former co-workers,
and turn in on themselves, prevented in part by a predictable but needless shame
from connecting with their community or family,
from grasping a hand to hold for support, prayer, or a good meal.
It is this loss of connection,
multiplied time and again in this community and especially beyond the Beltway,
that hurts families and neighborhoods … and indeed, our nation.
And it is precisely this loss of community that the church is uniquely poised to address.
Churches – our congregation and those across this country –
can and should be centers of community well-being and nurture,
one of the few places left in America where people come together in mutual support,
to build relationships and strengthen not only our relationship with God,
but with each other and with our broader neighborhood.
In an automated and online world,
the church provides the space and the people for authentic community,
for flesh-and-blood embrace, for genuine relationships …
relationships that can heal wounds of loss and isolation.
Yes, the church has and will continue to follow our Lord’s call
to serve those in need through traditional acts of charity –
such as our Clothes Closet ministry,
and the generous financial support we give to local non-profit organizations –
but let us not overlook the blessed and holy task
of simply being a community of God’s people in this place,
nurturing, loving, and caring for each other and for our neighbors.
Imagine a nation filled with these kinds of churches –
intentional and life-giving communities
witnessing purely by their being that our Lord is a Lord of life, of healing, of hope.
The demons of isolation and despair flee such places of sacred community.
But more. The breadth of the church’s response to the economic crisis –
and the myriad micro-crises it spawns –
must also include discernment and dialogue of the issues themselves,
and shouldn’t be limited to faithful service to those adversely affected by the crisis.
Christians, and we Lutherans among them,
ought to get meaningfully involved in examining the causes of this crisis.
We ought to look at the system that created this crisis,
a system in which all of us participate
and from which many,
but certainly not all of us, benefit.
Our civic involvement shouldn’t be limited to prayers for our country and its leaders,
but our churches should become places of faithful deliberation
on issues of importance to our faith and to our communities.
So let us not be afraid of political conversation in this place –
a fear that stems from
a misreading of what of the separation of church and state really means,
and from the unfaithful notion that if we talk about difficult issues
we’ll risk losing the unity we have in Christ.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Rather than be afraid of political conversation,
churches are precisely the place where political conversation should take place,
the kind of political conversation that is all too lacking in our nation’s discourse –
one not beholden to purely liberal or conservative talking points,
one not brought to you by special interests,
but a distinct conversation,
a conversation in but not of the political world,
a conversation shaped both in content and in tone by faith,
a conversation shared within a caring community –
a community that cares about its faith,
a community that cares about its members,
a community that cares about its neighbors and nation and world.
You see, we’re not going to agree on the issues
and our unity in Christ doesn’t demand that we do agree on the issues.
This is why, perhaps, churches should be less often involved with political advocacy
and more often involved with this different kind of political activity …
Such political activity,
a distinct and faithful kind of political activity that just might leaven the bread
of political discourse in our neighborhoods and our nation,
can dispel the demons of apathy that sicken our nation,
and through words and deeds bear witness to the kind of community
that God promises to establish in his promised Kingdom.
We are called to do works of healing in this world,
and we are commanded to proclaim the dawning of God’s Kingdom.
I believe that when the church lives up to its calling to be a community
gathered around Word and Sacrament, sent to love and serve,
caring for our faith, our selves, our neighbors, nation, and world,
that when the church is faithful in these things,
God reveals through it in this day glimpses of his coming Kingdom.
And God’s Kingdom is filled with Good News, especially for people and a nation in crisis …
for it is a Kingdom in which the whole world will be set to rights!
It is a Kingdom where the lion will sleep with the lamb, [Isaiah 11:6-9]
the hungry will be filled with good things, [Luke 1:53]
all peoples , all nations will gather at the Lord’s table
and share an eternal feast … [Isaiah 25:6-8]
Pretty darned Good News for a nation in the midst of economic turmoil!
Let me be clear about this:
we are not going to inaugurate that Kingdom through our action –
and neither will our government –
for indeed, the dawning of God’s Kingdom is the work and promise of God alone.
But trusting in the promise of what God is doing and will do in his Kingdom,
we are free to live now in the hope and promise of that coming Kingdom,
free to be a community of faith that brings into our neighborhoods and our nation
works of healing and the hope of God’s Kingdom,
in this day, in this life, in this Kingdom …
For the Kingdom of God has come near.