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s181g98 Somerton Park Sunday 14 5/7/98

"The kingdom of God has come near you" Luke 10.9

Some of you will remember that some time back we had a Jack Russell terrier, Bonnie. After some time I decided I wanted to have our Rectory back and found a family who also had a Jack Russell who needed a companion. These readings took my mind back to an occasion once when Bonnie was young and another local puppy who enthralled us playing "chasey" in our street. They were thoroughly enjoying themselves chasing one another, but each, in turn, looking back to make sure the other hadn't got too far behind!

It reminded me of another early human game "peek a boo", and the somewhat more grown up version, "hide and seek". I reflected that Adam and Eve played this with God in the garden of Eden. And the phrase most closely associated with the game of "hide and seek" after whoever was "it" had counted to the requisite number was the shout: "Coming, ready nor not!"

I am sorry that my brain takes a few twists and turns to get to the place where I intend, but it is this phrase "Coming, ready or not" which reminds me of todays readings as Jesus sends out these seventy, two by two, "to every town and place where he himself intended to go". For in the game of hide and seek, the fun is in the finding and the being found, not in any profound message that the finder delivers to the person found. The joy is in the meeting. For so it is with these seventy, their task was not to deliver a profound message, but to experience the joy of meeting, meeting other people on their own terms ... For as we look at the reading we find that the disciples are hardly given a message to deliver at all.

For the message is simply my text: "The kingdom of God has come near you" - coming ready or not!

I think this would be incredibly frustrating for those looking for a profound message to either take or hear, only to find this is the message that Jesus tells his disciples to speak on their missionary journey. Frustrating because anyone who heard would naturally say: "Well where?" Frustrating because it really took so very little time to say. I mean it would hardly be worth staying overnight, or even accepting the meals they were offered. It was hardly a difficult message to deliver, and if that is all we have to do then the description of "labourer" is very generous. In a more modern age they could have more easily rented a truck with a loudspeaker, like political candidates in elections.

Yet it is not just this time that Jesus proclaimed this simple message. Jesus first preaching was: "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand." (Matt 4.17 // though expanded by Mark 1.15) Luke records Jesus reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah, then sitting down and saying simply "Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing". It has come - ready or not. It must have been the shortest sermon of all time. No wonder "all spoke well of him"! (Lk 4.22)

In fact when one looks at the passage for today, these words are not given once, but twice. They are told that if where they visit are not welcoming, the same words: "The kingdom of God has come near you" - coming ready or not - should be spoken on leaving - such is their importance.

The only other message is to greet the occupants of a house, saying "Peace to this house!" It would hardly be courteous to do anything else, yet sometimes it is necessary to say the obvious. The normal Jewish greeting is to this day "shalom" - "peace". It's a bit like telling them they are allowed to breathe :-)

Perhaps even more frustrating is the direction: "cure the sick", but no instructions are given as to how they should go about this.

If I was in one of the thirty five pairs, I would actually wonder what the hell I was doing, launching out with so little to go on, so little instruction as to what I should say and do.

They are given a number of instructions about what to take with them, but the only other thing which is mentioned twice is that they are to accept the offerings of those they visit. They are told to eat and drink "whatever they provide" (10.7) and again to "eat what is set before you" (10.8). It seems that what they say is less important than that they accept the offerings made to them. It is not the message that is important but the finding and being found - it is enough to have a celebration.

The reference to Sodom is also instructive. Sodom is destroyed because the inhabitants wanted to abuse angels lodging for the night with Lot and his family. It is not for any sexual misconduct that they are destroyed - for in fact none took place. The people of Sodom saw these strangers as an opportunity to exert their dominance and authority over them, but as well over Lot and his family, who were aliens living in their midst. It was not that they were just not hospitable, for the angels who came asked lodging of no one - not even Lot - they were prepared to spend the night in the square. (Gen 19.2) Lot presses them to stay at his house, most probably trying to save the travellers from his malicious and vicious neighbours. Why Lot's wife would look back is a mystery to me. Again it is a question of hospitality - of not being malicious and vicious towards others. They looked at the strangers not as equals but as subjects.

But even if it was something other than maliciousness and viciousness, Jesus word is that simple rejection of the disciples would be to incur more intolerable punishment than will come to Sodom, whatever evils they had committed. Jesus must have been very sure of what these seventy would say and do. I mean amongst seventy there was sure to be someone who opened his or her mouth only to change feet ...

It is quite true that there have been ministers and priests who have abused their position of responsibility, and questions of eternal forgiveness aside, there is no question that God would want anyone to welcome someone who belittles another. This passage cannot be used by clergy to require acceptance of abusive behaviour on their part.

But of course they were to say little, only "The kingdom of God has come near you". Yet it seems remarkable things happened. We are told: "The seventy returned with joy, saying, "Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!" (Luke 10:17). And Jesus seems to place the mission in a cosmic dimension: "he said to them, "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning."" (Luke 10:18). Such is the power of meeting people on their own terms; of treating others with consideration and respect. Truly remarkable things, because this sort of meeting is in fact so rare, particularly amongst adults.

How many years is it that the "Readers Digest" has been telling us "laughter is the best medicine".

It is so usual to knock the younger generation and to decry what is happening in our schools, particularly by people of the older generation. Yet the education system is based more firmly than ever before on the principles of equality of dignity of all people. And I rejoice in this, even if it stems from (traditionally) labor rather than liberal party principles.

Accepting words of grace brings blessings by the simple act of accepting - rejecting of words of grace means those who do so have to rely on their own strength of character and in the end they have no option but to become coercive, malicious and vicious.

The disciples are sent out given a very simple and straight forward message, and provided they stuck with that, they couldn't go far wrong. For the words: "The kingdom of God has come near you" are an invitation to look, to appreciate, to accept and be blessed. I rather wonder whether we as the Church see our task as to coerce people rather than meeting people where they are at, and meeting them on their own terms, to join in the game of life and enjoy it.



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