Last Sunday, I was invited to speak at the first-ever Northland Pride event, which was held at Linden Square in Gladstone. I was invited to talk about my faith experience – my relationship with a Jesus who loves me just the way that I am created, and how I believe that we are called as Christians to be open and affirming to all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
There is a history of LGBTQ people being rejected by the church, and many LGBTQ people have had deep hurts inflicted on them by this rejection – some are scarred over, some are still open. So I walked into the event not sure what to expect in terms of a reaction. But I wrote a speech about the peace that I find, resting in my sure knowledge that I am a beautifully-created child of God, and decided that I would be fine with whatever reaction I got.
I don’t know if you have ever been to Linden Square Park. It’s a beautiful open space, a little less than a block square, with a band stand on the southeast corner, a building on the west side, parking on the north side, and a beautiful open lawn in the middle. And hardly any shade at all. And the heat index last Sunday afternoon was about 105 degrees.
So when I got up to speak, it didn’t look like there was much of an audience. The lawn was empty, except for a couple of artists sitting at their tables selling their wares. The band stand was empty, except for the few people who needed to be there, standing in the sun. People were congregated under the two trees on the northeast corner, or in the shade of the building, or wandering through the booths in the parking lot. To be honest, I had a moment of thinking, “Why am I even doing this? Why am I even up here?” But I shared my story. I shared my peace.
Have you ever had an experience like that? An experience when you offer words of the impact of God’s presence in your life, only to be met by a negative response, or worse yet – indifference? It is easy to feel rejected in those situations. We become vulnerable when we share words of God’s peace, and it’s easy to put our defenses up in response. For the first part of the week, whenever anyone asked me how the event went, I deflected. I talked about the heat and how we stayed cool, I talked about the turnout over the course of the afternoon. I talked about anything except the overall lack of response to my talk. It’s hard to admit, even to ourselves, when we put ourselves out there and then have very little impact that we can see. One person told me they liked my speech, and a few others throughout the course of the day asked if I had been the one speaking, but I was arrogant enough (or perhaps misguided enough) to wish that my words would be the ones that would make the difference, would bring people to Jesus, would heal the hundreds of wounds people carried from a lifetime of rejection.
But then I re-read the Gospel for this week, and realized that I was doing exactly the opposite of what Jesus calls us to do! When the 70 returned to Jesus, celebrating that even the demons submitted to them under Jesus’ name, he cautioned them not to rejoice at this, but rather to rejoice that their place in heaven was secure. The corollary to this is easy to see: had they been unsuccessful, had the demons not submitted to the apostles, the response from Jesus would have been the same: he would have cautioned them not to be down-hearted or disappointed, but to rest assured that their salvation did not depend on their ability to overcome demons.
And instead, here I was, deflecting questions of how the event went on Sunday, because I did not want to admit that the demon of pain, the demon of old, deep wounds did not lay down, submitting to the name of Jesus on the power of the words I spoke.
But when I paused to reflect on my own experience as I walked away from that band stand, I realized something very interesting. I was at peace. I believe, deep in my soul, that I preached the Gospel on Sunday. I said to everyone gathered, “Peace to this festival, and everyone attending it!” I proclaimed, “The Kingdom of God has come near to you.” It was not my responsibility to determine whether my words were well-received, or poorly-received, or ignored. That was God’s responsibility. I was merely the messenger, merely the servant of the Lord. And because I was deeply grounded in my confidence in God’s abiding presence with me, this peace could not be taken from me when I offered to share it. God’s peace is not finite,
and cannot be removed from us by disagreement, ridicule, or even indifference. So I went back to our table, to greet festival attendees and offer hospitality and peace.
There is a mandate in this Gospel reading for today – we are called not to be silent, but instead to proclaim the good news of the peace of Christ and the nearness of the kingdom of God
to all we encounter. We are called to be brave enough to make ourselves vulnerable, to travel lightly, to depend on the hospitality of others to nourish us for the journey, and to respond to rejection by not taking it to heart – instead leaning on the promises of God to call us, and to lead us to where we are being sent, equipping us for the task at hand.
But there is also a subversion of the power and privilege of this world that we need to pay attention to here. Jesus is not calling us in this passage to use our relative wealth, or our privilege as middle-class Americans, to set ourselves up as people who must be heard and agreed with! We are not called to argue with those who disagree with us, trying to convince them of the rightness of our purpose. Instead, when we share the good news with people, we are called to do so humbly – approaching them empty-handed, relying on their willingness to welcome us in and to listen to the good news we bring.
And this good news, the peace of Christ, is challenging for some to hear. We offer the good news of God’s loving mercy for ALL people, regardless of race or ethnicity or immigration status, whether they have gotten away with committing a crime or have been wrongly imprisoned or have always been law-abiding, whether they engage in nonviolent protest against power structures they believe are unjust or whether they feel such protests are unjustified, whatever their religion, regardless of age or language spoken or family circumstance. Sometimes, it is even challenging for us to share. We encounter demons that we worry are louder or more convincing than we are. We even have our own demons to fight.
These demons might be deep hurts that tell us we don’t really belong. Or they might be a kind of nationalistic pride – a conflation of patriotism and Christianity – that says that this is a Christian nation, and “they” aren’t welcome, whoever “they” may be. Or these demons might tell us that because we have achieved a certain age or status, or because we look a certain way, we should be listened to. Or they might even be demons that tell us to expect a kind of charitable quid pro quo – if I help you out in some way, then you’ll listen to me. They might be demons that tell us when we share the Gospel and don’t feel heard, nobody is really listening and anyway, people believe what they want to believe, so what does it matter?
But the message in the Gospel for today is that it does matter – it matters so much, in fact, that Jesus sends us out to every place that he intends to go. And he doesn’t rely only on those of us who feel prepared! No – this call is for all Christians. The 70 that he sent out were not restricted to those closest to him. They were pulled from among all his followers, even the introverts, even the ones who were not sure what to say. And they were sent to every place that he intended to go, to prepare the way for him, planting the seeds that may in time grow into faith, if the hearers were receptive.
In the context of our Gospel reading, this means Samaria. Jesus sent the 70 out to the towns and villages of the Samaritans, a people who shared common ancestors and a common God with the Judeans, but who worshipped differently and had different rituals and customs. These were the places that he would stop on his journey to Jerusalem, to the cross and to our salvation.
In the context of today’s world, what does all of this mean? Jesus sends all of us – every baptized follower of Christ – out into the world, to share the peace of Christ with those whom we encounter, and to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near. We are sent, not to each other, but to those who have different traditions, different customs, different life experiences. We are called to encounter the demons of doubt, fear and hurt. We are called to encounter the demons of belief that the kingdom is only available to some, of the insistence that some people are more deserving of God’s mercy than others, whether because of ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity, or any other reason. And we know that these demons – and any others we encounter – may not submit to God, at least not yet. But we are also called to be prepared for this – to know that our peace is not diminished,
that we are still beloved children of God who have the full measure of Jesus’ love and nearness to share with the next person we meet, and the next, and the next. We do not know what seeds we plant,or when they will grow into faith. It is not our responsibility to determine when they will be ripe for the harvest, or even whether the soil is fertile enough. With enough time and work, all soil can be made fertile. And God is a very patient gardener.
We are sent out as we are, without stopping to collect any possessions we think might better equip us for the journey. We are equipped by the Spirit with everything we need, and anything else we take would just weigh us down.We are facing the demons that try to defeat what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature” – the demons that would prevent the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” from seeing that the kingdom of God is within reach. We are facing the demons that would prevent us from seeing that the peace of Christ is available and the kingdom draws near to everyone, even the jailers of the huddled masses. We are called to embrace the peace that passes our understanding. To accept that it is not we who defeat demons, not we who change hearts and minds, not we who determine when the harvest is ready, but God. We are the laborers in the garden. We are the instruments of peace.