Year C Proper 9 (2007) RCL Principal
The hard road
A favourite word in our household is ‘faffing’. Whenever Jo or I are in a flap or wandering about looking lost we normally ask each other ‘what are you faffing about?’ or when we are in a hurry to get anywhere (not an uncommon situation) and one of us seems to be distracted then the normal attempt to speed things up is to say ‘stop faffing around’. There is a fair amount of faffing goes on in the McCollum household, and in the past couple of years I have discovered how much children can add to it – not just because of all the things we have to do for them before we go anywhere, but because they are discovering lots of ways of faffing themselves!
For those of you who don’t use this wonderful phrase, faffing is generally messing around, being distracted, not having a focus, and not getting done what needs to be done and generally messing around.
There’s not much sign of that in today’s readings.
First of all Naaman the Syrian in the Old Testament reading is given very clear instructions. Go and wash in the Jordan, seven times, and you will be healed of your skin disease. It’s simple, quick, and involves no distractions. Not good enough for Naaman, though, he was used to important stuff, rituals and the like. he wanted a bit of holy hand waving, perhaps a chant or two, maybe something involving silver bowls or chalices and some blessed ointment would have satisfied him. He wanted it complicated. Fortunately his servant had the good sense to talk straight to him – you’ve come all this way, just do it and see what happens. And voila, healing – and a lesson in humility and simplicity.
St Paul, likewise, in today’s reading from Galatians is equally focussed. Do what is right, stop adding unnecessary religious ritual, circumcision to be precise, and all the Jewish laws that go with that. Be those whose concern is not for the flesh, but for living by the Spirit. Don’t be distracted, focus. In the passage at the beginning there are also some wonderful words about forgiveness and grace, so that the failings of others don’t cause you to be ungracious or superior in your attitude, another call not to be distracted from the way of the Spirit. But there’s a whole sermon in there so I will leave it for now!
And in today’s Gospel reading there is another clear message, a message about focus – live the kingdom, and let nothing distract you. Do not be concerned about people’s reaction to you, but be faithful to the kingdom. Don’t take all you can carry, just take what you need. His calling is to simplicity, no faffing!
There are echoes of last week’s reading where those who came to follow Jesus were told – no one who puts their hand to the plough and looks back is fit (or of any use) for the kingdom of God. There is likewise an intensity to the demands Jesus makes to those who are sent out to proclaim the kingdom, a passion that is called for. And the reason for including this in the Gospels is, I believe, not just to relate a story of something that happened when Jesus was leading his disciples, but a word to those of us who follow today.
There are strong messages for us today about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. I’ve preached previously on the fact that being a disciple means being disciplined, and accepting the discipline of Jesus, but today’s reading gives and idea of what that discipline may mean for us today.
Firstly the seventy that are sent out are given a sense of urgency. ‘The harvest is plentiful.’. Now those who have any connection with farming will know that when the crop is ready for harvesting then the work needs to be done pretty quick. This was even more the case in Jesus’ day – when the fields were ready, the harvest needed to be taken in a few days, a couple of weeks at most. With the terrible weather we seem to have had around harvest in Britain over the past few years, there is a sense of urgency here too. But it should be the same for those of us who are Christians. there is a sense that people are ready to hear the Gospel, many are open to an encounter with the living Jesus that will break them out of their stereotypical understanding of Christianity into a dynamic, vibrant relationship with a Christ who is alive and who offers new life to all. Many are seeking meaning in all sorts of ways, through all kinds of spiritual quests, now is the time for the Church to offer hope, love, community, faith and meaning to those who lack many of these things in our fragmented world.
We do this by living and sharing the values of the kingdom of God, by telling our story of faith and inviting others to join. We don’t do it by telling people how bad they are and how they need to turn from their wicked lifestyles. God is the one who convicts us of sin and calls us to repentance and forgiveness. In today’s Gospel the seventy were told to say ‘peace to this house’ and to show the good news in the way they healed the sick whilst proclaiming ‘the kingdom of God has come near to you’. Not the kingdom of God is coming, but that the kingdom is near.
Secondly, Jesus declared that the task of doing as he commanded, of living and proclaiming the kingdom, would not be easy - ‘see I am sending you like lambs among wolves’. He prepared them for rejection, saying that if necessary they had to shake off even the dust from their feet from those places which didn’t welcome them. It wasn’t going to be easy, the message of peace wouldn’t be for everyone, they would have no luxuries on the way, they would have to trust entirely on God’s provision and on the kindness of strangers.
It is humbling to me when I receive news of Christian missionaries, of Simon Hildrew from Bourn, or David and Ann Stearn from ‘team west’ who have gone to work for Christ entirely trusting in the support they receive from friends, family and the Church family. I thank God for their faith, and pray for their part in the mission of God. But they, and many others, should inspire us to consider again how much we trust God to provide for us, and whether we rely on our possessions, or our status at work, or our finances to offer us security at the expense of our faith in God. Jesus again reminds us that there are to be no distractions, no faffing about, the kingdom is to be our focus and our priority. But that this will be hard, we will face rejection and we must trust entirely in God for all that we need.
Thirdly, and lastly in our lessons from the sending out of the seventy. Despite the challenge, despite the hardship, despite the difficulties, despite the rejection – we will find ourselves surprised by joy! In verse 17 of chapter 10 of Luke’s Gospel we are told that the disciples returned with joy. Their faithfulness had been rewarded and their ministry had flourished. But again Jesus reminds them, and us, to keep focus. Not to rejoice because they saw spiritual victory, but because they worked for the kingdom. Those closing words in verse 20
‘do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven’ don’t mean ‘you can be satisfied that you have a place assured in the afterlife’ but that ‘you have performed service for God’s kingdom.
Again we come to the focus, working for God’s kingdom. And there are another thousand sermons in that phrase ‘the kingdom of God’ but we for now it is enough to remember that the kingdom is concerned with peace, justice, hope, love, faith, forgiveness, grace, life and truth. This should be our focus, and this is our calling – stop faffing about, and follow Christ!