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Bible readings:


Proper 14 Year C (July 3, 2016)                                      St James', Peace River

Conscious that this is my last time in this pulpit for at least the foreseeable future, I had a hard time sorting out just what I might want to say today. I had to revisit a few of the principles I've always tried to impart to my preaching students – one being that a good sermon should be “about God, about the readings, and about ten minutes,” meaning that now is not really the right time for a lot of reminiscing! Harder to resist was the temptation to “try to fit everything into one sermon”. Usually I encourage beginning preachers to remember that they have the whole Christian year ahead of them, and indeed many years, to ring the changes on the gospel and all the different things it has to say to us;  but today I don't have that luxury. On the other hand, we've travelled together through the three-year cycle of Sunday readings three times already, so I think I can rest content that whatever most needs to be said, already has been.

So that just leaves us with today as a kind of summing up. For me, the starting point for that is a goal that I've generally had in my sermons, which you may have noticed. I don't often use this privilege in order to tell you, or urge you, to do something specific, but rather to think about the Bible and its stories in a certain way – in a way which enables you to see yourself in the story, to see the story happening in your life, in your work, in your church, and in your relationships with other people. When God and God's word can be a living reality for us like that, it does lead to action, and in a way which multiplies far beyond what one preacher can tell you to do. As you keep encountering the Bible and its stories, I hope you will always find ways to ask yourselves, “When has this happened to me?” and “Who do we need to be for this story to keep happening?”

The readings today are an apt way of summing that up too. They speak to us about, not just what to do, but how to do it, and maybe more importantly, who to do it for. But they do that in a way which opens up those very questions about how their stories can come alive in us, in our church, and in our community. Working backwards, we just heard Jesus telling us what to do – that's if we can identify ourselves with the seventy disciples, and why not! A few years back, the speaker at our diocesan conference [Alan Roxburgh] helped us to do just that, encouraging us to use this exact passage as the basis for Bible studies in our vestry meetings, which for many months is just what we did. His point was that Jesus' instructions to his disciples “back then” were not just for that time and place. They say something constant about who Jesus is, and who we are in relation to him. He is who he is, here and now, just the same as he was then and there – and so what he says to us is still the same.

What this particular reading tells us about Jesus is that he is on the move, he is going places. And what it tells us about us, is that we go to those places ahead of him, to meet the people he wants to meet. He sends the disciples “ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” Jesus' instructions also tell us that, in order to do that, we can't hold ourselves aloof or separate from the people he's talking about. Nor can we act like we have the treasure they need, if only they would come to us. We need to be with the people around us in this town and place, experiencing what they experience, sharing their peace or lack of it, eating with them, accepting their hospitality and appreciating their welcome.

This actually reverses something we tend to think of as being central to who we are as a church. Normally we think we are the ones doing the welcoming, and we want to do a good job of it.... but here Jesus draws our attention to how much we need to be ready and willing to be welcomed into other people's lives, because when they invite us in – they invite him too. If any of us have truly got to know Jesus, it's because he came into our lives, not because we found our way into his. We owe others the same opportunity, and we have the privilege and call to help that happen.

Going back one reading, we listened to the conclusion of St Paul's letter to the Galatians, which I would say addresses the “how to” question – how to be the kind of disciples Jesus sent out to be welcomed into other people's lives. And the secret to that lies in the nature of our community together. This is where the church really matters. Can we be that place Paul was talking about, of mutual forgiveness, sharing, support, a place where we learn and practise perseverance and humility, so that we can build each other up as effective disciples, people who go back into the places where Jesus wants to go, in such a way that when people welcome us they actually welcome him?

Again, this question reshapes our way of thinking about the church. Sometimes we act as though just getting here is all we need to do, because this is where we find what we need. But that's as if our lungs were to say, now I've breathed in all that oxygen, I've got everything I need! God's Spirit breathes us out as well as in, and we find what we really need in giving ourselves away. I know that we are a place where people learn that, where we do it, and have done it, but I also know that we have to keep asking ourselves, “Who do we need to be for this to keep happening?” How do we respond to the shifting needs of our own members who want to grow into true discipleship; and how do we keep paying attention to the opportunities in front of us in God's world, so that we “do not grow weary in doing what is right”? We can only do that by keeping up a living relationship with a living Jesus, who keeps confronting us with the ways we can grow, in love for our neighbours and in sharing their burdens.

Finally, one last step back to the Old Testament reading, which is where I found myself thinking about who we do all this for – who are those neighbours whom Jesus sends us to, whose burdens we can share? Naaman the Syrian war commander is an interesting model for understanding who we're talking about. When we think about being sent out in Jesus' name, we may find it easy to imagine that we're being sent to people who are totally needy, and therefore of course not like us! There are indeed people whose needs are desperate, the poorest of the poor, in our own community or in the world as a whole; but there is no one who is all need, who is simply a blank slate for our generosity to write on, who has no identity of their own and nothing which we need to learn from them. And there are also many people who have a lot going for them, outward success, material wealth or power, yet are still in need something far more important than any of that (a truth which many of us here can testify to).

The Bible often presents us with people like Naaman, to bring that point home. He is a powerful man, but his illness eats away at him. He needs healing, and in the end that means he needs God, whether he knows it or not. Did you notice that he only finds that out because there is someone in his own household, who can speak to him where he is, to tell him that healing is possible with God? Another reminder of how Jesus does not teach us, “if you build it they will come”, but keeps telling us to go and be with people where they are. And then Naaman does make his way, to Israel and to Israel's God, in search of what he most truly needs. That story keeps happening, when people turn up here on a Sunday morning or through the office door on a weekday, looking for something they are only aware of because people like you are living out your faith where they can see it.

You know people like Naaman; you know what they are looking for because you know them where they live. You know how hard it might be for them to look for an answer or to accept it when they find it. But you also know that this why you are here, why this church is here and why it feeds you and shapes you every week to be the body and blood of Christ – because Jesus loves those people you know so much, that he wants them to be whole, he wants to go to them, and he is already being welcomed into their lives in so far as you are there with them.

I don't know what else there is to say. I know that this story will keep happening here at St James' and in your lives. I know this because I know Jesus is alive here and now, as much as ever, and I know that because I have met him here, in you: as you come and go from the altar rail at communion, but also as you leave the church each Sunday, and as you live out your lives in the community of which we have together been a part. He is still sending all of us, and will continue to send us, on ahead of him into all the towns and places where he himself intends to go. That is not something we can take for granted, or brag on ourselves about. But because we know something about what Jesus is really like, it is something we can depend on, and trust in, and take comfort in, and rejoice in. Whether moving on or staying right here, we can all say, “The Lord is here: His Spirit is with us.” Thanks be to God!