(A sermon for Pentecost 5 June 15, 2008 Genesis 18:1-15, Matthew 9:35-10:14)
Friday afternoon I took a walk to Deering Oaks Park, about ten minutes on foot from our house, to meet my friend, Pastor Peters. She lives on the other side of the park, just a couple of blocks beyond. We met at the bridge and then sat and talked on the steps by the little wading pool, not yet filled for the season. I meet her fairly often, sometimes for coffee, and although we live pretty close together, I almost always take the car. I think, “I want the car to go on to my next appointment,” or “suppose I should get a call on my cell phone and need to leave in a hurry?”
I like my wheels.
But for several reasons, one the age of my car and its general condition, and the other the price of gas, I’m re-thinking how I get places. And meeting Elsa on foot was good for all kinds of reasons. It saved gas, it meant one less car on the road, and the walk and being outside felt nice on a beautiful day. If I came home with a little sunburn on my nose, well, live and learn. I will remember my sunscreen next time.
It’s time for a change in how I do things. If I have to get the car out, I will think twice about whether I really need to go and what trips I can combine.
I remember listening to my mother talk this way in the 1970’s. I remember the summer trip we took in our Ford Country Squire Wagon with the wood paneling on the sides. I remember how we filled up that tank every morning for another day of driving, and I remember learning how to calculate our gas mileage: 9 in the city, 13 on the highway.
There are moments when we hear a message loud and clear, aren’t there? We can look back and see those times, and we may wonder, as another younger friend of mine did, how the message got lost. She asked, “If people were aware of energy problems in the 70s, how did we get into this situation now?” She hears the stories of Jimmy Carter speaking to the nation about wearing a sweater and turning down the heat in the White House and sees him as a hero of thinking green, but I know there were people at the time who scorned him for acting like Fred Rogers instead of the leader of the free world. And even those who became more mindful during the energy crisis did some back-sliding during the more affluent ‘80s and ‘90s.
There are moments when we hear a message loud and clear, and we have a choice about how to interpret it and whether to pay attention to it and whether to change the way we live to accommodate it. We have a choice about whether or not we hear news as “good news.”
Sarah, bless her heart, had to laugh when she heard what would have been VERY good news, if only it had come earlier in her life. She lived in a time and a place where a woman’s value to her husband and her community lay in her ability to bear children successfully. Although married to a man who God had promised would be a patriarch, she had no children. Her “failure” marred her status and her husband’s status. All her beauty and desirability, characteristics mentioned in their story more than once, could not make her able to have a child, and therefore she was less than other women.
But at her age, to hear a stranger who had stopped along the dusty road, a stranger or an angel, say that she would have a child—ha! She had to laugh. She had to laugh.
Sometimes we may feel too old for a change, that the time has gone by, that we cannot do things in a new way.
In Matthew 10, we read that Jesus told his disciples:
10:7 As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.'
10:8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.
10:9 Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts,
10:10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.
10:11 Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave.
10:12 As you enter the house, greet it.
10:13 If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.
10:14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.
I couldn’t help thinking of the folk song about walking down that old dusty road, which we used to sing at summer camp. 300 girls in a big wooden building stamped our feet and sang about the shoes that hurt our feet and the shoes that fit us fine and we had no idea it was a song from the 1930’s and a hope for getting to a better place where the water would turn to wine, where the kingdom of heaven would do more than draw near, where the gates would open to them and there would be enough to eat and drink and a person’s feet would not hurt.
I have a privileged blister from my little walk to and from the park. It was not a huge journey; it involved no danger. The blister feels privileged because I did not get it from hard work or a necessary hike but for my own pleasure and through my own choice not to drive. I’m not a migrant traveler of the Depression era, struggling from one town to another to seek a job and three square meals for my children. Instead, I had the company of husband and dog on the way there, and the pleasant company of my own thoughts on the way back. I crossed 295 and looked forward to the shade on the other side of the bridge and thought how much I love where I live, how well-placed I feel.
It feels good to have a moment like that; it does. But I’m not so sure that’s what having the kingdom of heaven come near means. I have a feeling the kingdom of heaven is a bit more disturbing to the status quo.
It’s one thing to invite someone in when they are right on your doorstep, as Abraham did. It’s another to go out, even among your own kind of people, and tell them you know something they may not have heard, and tell them something they may not want to hear.
And…some of us are better at building up excitement than others. Some of us are better at telling the story than others.
At summer camp, every year, they employed a Song Leader. Oh, she had other duties, teaching classes and being a counselor to some of the older girls. But the Song Leader played an important role, deciding which songs we sang at Assembly and which after meals and which at campfires and special programs. She created the mood. We watched for her cues. New girls, little girls, watched her every move, to learn the way to do things. She never announced the next song, she just started singing it, and you leapt in to join her, “walking down that old dusty road.”
Imagine the disciples, who had been following Jesus avidly, watching his every move, and how they felt to be sent away from him.
“Go on out there! Heal people! Amaze them! Take nothing with you, and find your food in the hospitality along the way.”
Now, it was a culture that prized hospitality, and this particular first wave of ministry was intended for people like them. They were to seek the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Eventually Jesus would tell them to go out to all the world, but on this first round of travels, they were playing to their base, you might say.
Not that the base is always friendly.
Just because Jesus sent them out didn’t mean people wanted to hear what they had to say or see what they would do.
Jesus prepared them for that, too. “If people don’t welcome you or want to hear what you are saying, move along, shaking the dust from your feet.” Don’t let them get you down, he seemed to be say
ing, just keep walking down that old dusty road.
I like to imagine them, paired off, walking down those roads, reflecting on how it went in this last town compared to the one before, wondering if they already knew someone in the town up ahead and whether that would prove to be a good thing or a bad thing.
They had learned one way of being disciples—sticking close to Jesus and listening to all he said—and now they were learning another, working together as a team to reach more people.
In this political year, we’re seeing people spread the word in new ways that came as a surprise to more experienced candidates. The Internet has grown in importance and with that the involvement of young people in various campaigns. Fundraising has changed. Candidates who understand this will be better prepared next time, as the trends swing firmly in a new direction.
I wonder about churches and how we are going to respond to new ways of doing things. We tend to like to keep things familiar, don’t we? Like the older girls at camp, we know what the Song Leader is going to do, and we feel secure in the knowledge of the number of verses to the song about that old dusty road. I remember the thrill, and when I say thrill I mean it, of getting to the last verse, which was the first verse all over again, and singing it as loudly as we could, stomping our feet so hard that the building trembled and dust came out of the seams of the pine planking on the walls and ceiling. It was a transcendent moment!
We need those moments, those familiar times of excitement, but we need the new moments, too, when we strike out down the road, when we try something completely different, when we risk ourselves and see if we can raise the dead. We need to remember that Sarah, despite her laughter, did have that baby. We need the new ways and the new ideas because Jesus calls us to them, to reconsider the possibilities, to believe that we are more than poor travelers and that we will come to a place beyond our hopes, where the water turns to wine, where the kingdom of heaven opens wide to welcome us, beyond that old dusty road. Amen.