Member of St. David’s and Teacher of Humanities at Warner Pacific College preached this with us on July 7th for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost in Ordinary Time.
“See, 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. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!”
When Megan and I were looking to buy our first house last year, we knew we wanted to be in SE Portland. We wanted to be here because it is close to our respective jobs; because it is close to friends; because it is full of places we love; because it feels like home. But, of course, we had some parameters; not just any house in SE Portland would do. Large swaths of SE Portland were well out of our price range, including pretty much every house within 10 square blocks of St. David’s, and the lion’s share of houses west of Mt. Tabor between Division and Burnside. That’s a big chunk of SE Portland.
So we identified the neighborhoods with smaller houses a little less centrally located. But many parts of these neighborhoods had what we came to call “problems”: too close to Foster (which has too many strip clubs and bars and which is full of seedy characters), too close to 82nd (see comments about Foster, and add prostitution, violent crime, and strip malls), too close to Powell (too many cars, too busy, too loud, again, too many strip clubs), too close to houses that looked really busted up, unkempt, or looked to be inhabited by seedy characters. Of course, this was not merely aesthetic nitpicking. We started searching for a house just after Emerson was born, and we intended to find a place that was quiet, a place that was safe, and a place where we could feel at peace raising him.
There were other parameters, too, having to do with the house itself. We wanted something nice-looking, something with some character, and, importantly, something with a good backyard in which we could plant a garden. Here, too, we were after a kind of peace: the peace that comes from knowing where our food comes from, the peace that comes from the sometimes meditative work of tending a garden, the peace that comes from drinking a glass of wine amidst the tangy fragrance of freshly watered tomato plants.
We wanted a place, and, truth be told, some things in that place, that would create for us and for Emerson peace. I strongly associate quiet, safety, separation, and control with peace. If I cannot control where I live, whether it is quiet, whether I have the power to separate myself from the business, clamor, and confusion of what is going on around me, I do not feel at peace.
This peace that I seek contrasts strongly with the peace that Jesus commands the seventy disciples to proclaim in this week’s reading from Luke. Here, God’s peace is embodied and proclaimed in the words of disciples who are instructed to “carry no purse, no bag, no sandals”. The disciples are instructed to become profoundly (and in my mind, horrifyingly) vulnerable to the world around them. They are not to preserve for themselves food to eat, no money set aside in case things go wrong, no sleeping bag for cold nights when shelter cannot be found. Moreover, they are instructed to reject familial and cultural norms when they conflict with the mission of the proclamation of God’s kingdom, God’s peace. In last week’s reading from Luke, Jesus brings the cost of discipleship into sharp relief for his would-be followers, when he declares homelessness and the rejection of familial responsibilities prerequisites for participating in his ministry. Indeed, Jesus admits to them the dangerous place into which he is calling them. He says: “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” That does not sound very peaceful. And yet, the seventy disciples carry with them the peace of God; God’s peace is with them. They are lambs in the midst of wolves, and they are at peace. This does not make sense to me. It is clear that the peace of God has to do with something other than the quiet, safety, separation, and control that I associate with peace. The peace of God that Jesus is proclaiming on his way to Jerusalem is starting to sound rather unpeaceful.
In his sermon last week, Josh drew our attention to how the Lucan narrative of Jesus on his way to Jerusalem is constructed to remind his readers of Elijah. We are meant to see and hear Jesus as a prophet. Prophecy, as Josh taught us, is not really about the telling the future. Theologian Walter Brueggemann, in his book The Prophetic Imagination, wrote that prophets “are concerned with the future as it impinges upon the present”. Thus prophets tell us what we are doing right now. They tell us this, because we literally do not know. That is, we are so deeply shaped by the dominant consciousness of our age that we find ourselves incapable of seeing and hearing the world differently, and so we do not know that the way we see the world, what we are after in it, and the means that we use to make the world what we want it to be, are broken ways of seeing, broken ends, broken means. The prophetic voice, Brueggemann argues, presents its hearers with an alternative way of imagining the world.
The narrative and life of the church is, as the embodiment of the peace of God on earth, supposed to be about prophetic ministry. Brueggemann writes that “The task of prophetic ministry is to evoke an alternative community that knows it is about different things in different ways.” It is not just that we are about different things, i.e., that we want different things for the world. The ministry of Jesus does say that we want different things for the world; but what angers, frightens, disturbs, and turns off so many about Jesus’ ministry is not the ends toward which his work is directed but the means by which he says they must be effected. Everyone wants redemption, peace, wants goodness, wants justice, wants the love of God in the world; what Jesus’ ministry teaches us is that most of us are unwilling to take seriously the alternative ways of imagining the world that are necessary to bear witness to the redemption of the world that has been made real by the death and resurrection of Jesus. We are so enmeshed in the dominant ways of understanding the world that we cannot imagine an alternative.
I cannot, in the terms of the dominant consciousness, of reasonable ways of thinking about safety, quiet, separation, and control, imagine the peace of God embodied in Jesus’ sending us into the world like lambs into the midst of wolves. This is an unreasonable way of proclaiming and embodying peace. The peace of God is unreasonable. It is unreasonable according to a reason that teaches that financial and material security are equivalent to peace, or inevitably lead to peace. The prophetic voice in Luke (like many of the prophets of the Hebrew bible) in fact proclaims that peace cannot be secured through financial or material means. Peace is not the safety, quiet, separation, and control of our homes and neighborhoods. More often than not, Jesus teaches, this reasonable version of peace serves as an anesthetic, a numbing agent that covers over the reality of a suffering world. The peace of God prophesied by Jesus is a peace that embraces and enmeshes itself in the reality of the suffering world, the reality of the suffering of those seedy characters, strip clubs, strip malls, the prostitution, poverty, slavery, and violence that we were trying so hard to avoid when we were searching for a house.
I don’t know what to do with this. I don’t know how to reconcile this deep, reasonable desire for safe/quiet/separate/controlled peace with my calling to attend to the radically disturbing, disquieting, ecstatic peace of God proclaimed by the church. Perhaps that is the point. Maybe the narrative and life of the church is intended to disturb, disquiet, and draw us out of ourselves. Prophets have never led quiet, peaceful lives. The good ones, the ones about whom we read in the Bible, are absurd, suffering creatures, rejected and denounced. Perhaps, then, if there is nothing absurd, suffering, rejected, or denounced in our lives, we are doing something wrong. This passage from Luke, perhaps as much as any other part of the gospels, has inspired over the centuries various forms of radical and intentional poverty, from many monastic communities of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches to the intentional, embedded poverty of the Catholic Worker houses, many of which intentionally forgo endowments that are readily available to them, as a way of maintaining faithfulness to the reality of the meaning of poverty. At times, this passage has inspired a radically dualistic way of understanding the world, where not only materialism but materials themselves are rejected in favor of a life of the spirit, detached from the demands, pleasures, and distractions of the sensuous life of the body. I don’t think this kind of dualistic thinking is what the life of discipleship calls for. God through Christ has reconciled not only human spirit but the whole of creation to him; it is the world as a whole that has been redeemed, including the sensuous reality of the body. My glass of wine amidst the fragrant, freshly watered tomato plants is a redeemed reality. But if that sensuous reality is only secured through a separation from or denial of the sensuous reality of suffering with which it is surrounded, and by which it may be nourished or maintained, then that reality fails to bear witness to its own redemption.
The life of discipleship, proclaiming and embodying the peace of God, requires our whole lives to bear witness to the prophetic reality of redeemed suffering in which we live, to name it, to call it out, to condemn it, and to point to the alternative reality of the peace of God made possible by the redemptive work of Jesus. The redeemed life is a life lived like lambs in the midst of wolves. When we listen to the prophetic voice of God that is present in the narrative and life of the church, we are moved to continually ensure that our life is a pursuit of that reality, that we are not lambs safely tucked away behind fences or walls, or yet, that we are not the wolves. We are sent into the world like lambs in the midst of wolves. Amen.