Fireworks! I love fireworks! Red, White, and Boom! Lying on your back on the inclined riverbank, nestled in the quilt you brought from home and lugged all the way from the car, arms propped behind your head, making a few new friends as the sun sets. But you have to be close…so close that you're afraid some of the debris might fall back on you… so close that your entire field of vision IS the explosion. Brilliant colors light up the blackened sky. Vivid reds and blues, shooting star whites that burst again at the end of their tail into a blast of spinning swirling sparkles, followed by an even more spectacular display coordinated with music blaring from boom boxes tuned to 97.9 FM. From Sandy Patti's National Anthem to Ohio State fight songs, from The Boss's Ballads to Sousa marches, from Garth Brooks to the 1812 Overture… each flare dances to a specific phrase in a song. I love fireworks! Today is the Fourth of July and we are celebrating our independence!
Fireworks were not always as grand and glorious as they are now. At eight years old, I sat on a lawn chair in our front yard, watching the fireworks launched from the Lincoln Lodge golf course, waiting an interminable minute or two between blasts. That was back when, on a clear day, you could see the Lincoln-Leveck Tower eight miles away from my bedroom window. I didn't know grand, and I didn't know glorious. All I knew was I loved fireworks, and they were always … always worth the wait.
There are fireworks in our text today, but we'll get to that in a moment. Luke tells of Jesus sending out 70 disciples in pairs to all the towns and cities he himself would visit. Jesus gives instructions: pronounce peace on a house before you enter it; eat whatever you're given; heal the sick; stay put; proclaim the Kingdom of God has come near. But he also gives some strange instructions and warnings: take no provisions, no money, no overnight bag, not even an extra pair of Steve Madden's. And don't greet anyone on the road. Beware! You are lambs among wolves. Sometimes, no one will receive your peace, so it'll come back to you. Sometimes a whole town will reject you, your peace, and your message. If that happens, wipe off their rejection, and move on.
Let's take the strange directions one at a time. First what not to take, and who not to greet. All the commentaries say the purpose is to enable the disciples to rely on God alone and be focused on their mission. That may be, but I think it over-spiritualizes two practical matters. One is that a servant is worthy of his hire. Even Deuteronomy says, and in the Epistles Paul quotes it twice, that "You shall not muzzle an ox while he is treading out the corn."1 In other words, even an ox gets to eat while he works. God will supply. It might feel scary to have nothing with you, but I want you to make friends, form relationships, and I want those friends to be given the opportunity to support you in your work. If this new endeavor is going to succeed, it will not be on account of a pack of lone wolves… it will be as a flock of lambs.
The other over-spiritualization is simply a matter of safety. It comes to light especially considering the very next story Jesus tells in Luke is the Good Samaritan. You know… the traveler who is attacked, robbed, and left for dead, until someone helps him. In today's Gospel, Jesus tells his followers not to greet anyone on the road. The road is a dangerous place, full of wolves. If you were a robber-wolf lying in wait, and you see two guys walking up the road, chatting it up with all they pass, money purse jingling with gold, heavy bag of provisions slung over one shoulder, and a second pair of Diesel's slung over the other, what would YOU do?! Why, any self-respecting wolf would be obliged to act! Remember that old Far Side with two deer in the woods? One deer has a target on his back. The other deer says, "Bummer of a birthmark, Harry." Jesus is saying, "Don't wear a neon target that says, `Rob me.' Be a lamb, but you've got to be at least as smart as the wolves!"
Jesus also warns them about rejection. Some will reject the peace they offer. Sometimes entire towns will reject them. They might be run out on a rail. All they want to do is share a little bread, heal the sick, and proclaim that the Kingdom of God has come near. How could anyone refuse that?! … Maybe the disciples didn't think that would happen. WARNING!!! There ARE wolves out there! Wolves that devour lambs… wolves that fight against the kingdom of God… evil is real, and it seeks to destroy what is good, and life-giving, and just.
Evil still fights against good. Wolves still devour lambs. Overtures of peace are rejected everyday. Forces oppose the Kingdom of God on every front. Nonprofit hospitals deny healing through overpricing when they charge a poor uninsured person THREE TIMES the rate of an HMO-insured patient.2 Through unstable low prices, huge multinational corporate wolves gobble up Guatemalan coffee growing lambs, forcing families to look for work in overcrowded cities with steep unemployment. In our inner-cities, children living in poverty are at the mercy of systems that either cannot or will not address the multiple levels of their need. These systems… governmental, educational, societal… oppose the Kingdom of God! And before we get too comfortable pointing our collective finger elsewhere, how often do WE reject peace when it knocks on OUR door? Sometimes the Kingdom comes in strange clothing. We don't recognize it, and we miss an opportunity to share in its coming. Last week the kingdom came dressed as a homeless man, one of the least of these, asking for thirty cents. I don't know about you, but I was uncomfortable, and I'm PAID to care! How could he come into OUR sanctuary, on a SUNDAY MORNING no less, and bother OUR parishoners?! Thank God for the likes of Bob Fowler and Ron Botts, who saw that he was helped.
We eschew the Kingdom when we declare our independence from God. We struggle alone, in isolation, unwilling to be vulnerable one more time. We hold grudges, refuse to forgive, nurse anger and resentment. Unwilling to seek solace in the arms of Love, unable to nurse at the breast of God, we turn away like a baby too early self-weaned. … Dare we pray with sincerity, "Thy Kingdom come"?
But come it will! Jesus told the seventy, "Even if you are not welcomed, get up, dust yourself off, and let 'em know the Kingdom came!" We are not privy to any of the specific stories; Luke does not share those details, only that they went out, and came back celebrating. In the name of Jesus, bread was broken, healings happened, and demons deferred! The Kingdom came, the Kingdom conquered, and peace prevailed. The peace that angels promised at Jesus' birth made a grand and proleptic appearance foreshadowing the day when Peace will rule supreme. Jesus was so excited when he heard their reports that he exclaimed, "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening!" Fireworks! Jesus saw heavenly fireworks! A celebration of Good overcoming evil… a celestial display of righteousness in action!
Driving through Oklahoma late one summer night, an electrical storm raged off in the distance. The closer we got the more it filled our windshield, until we were right in the middle of it, surrounded on all sides. Bolts of lightening flashed across the midnight sky from heaven to earth. Horizontal jagged streaks splintered into five witch-like fingers clawing at trees. Like a Fourth of July finale, lightening bolts shot one upon the other in every direction until at last, the show was behind us. That's what Jesus saw as the disciples told their stories… Satan falling from heaven like a flash of lightening!
When healing seeps into a nation, an industry, a school system, or a family… the Kingdom comes, and Satan falls from heaven like a flash of lightening!
When peace is proclaimed upon a house … the Kingdom comes, and Satan falls from heaven like a flash of lightening!
When coffee growers in El Salvador earn a living wage by selling their produce at a fair price, … the Kingdom comes, and Satan falls from heaven like a flash of lightening!
When you drink a cup of Equal Exchange coffee this morning during our fellowship hour, coffee that was purchased by helping farmers earn a living wage, when you taste justice, … watch the Kingdom come, and Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening!
When people like Geoffrey Canada establish the "Harlem Children's Zone," unlocking the prison doors of poverty, not just helping SOME kids beat the odds, but CHANGING the ODDS for all who live within his zone. … the Kingdom comes, and Satan falls from heaven like a flash of lightening!3
When First Church gives to homeless needy people, when you prepare meals at Faith Mission, or when you work in B.R.E.A.D. to promote justice… the Kingdom comes, and Satan falls from heaven like a flash of lightening!
When bread is broken, and the cup shared in remembrance of Jesus Christ, … the Kingdom comes, and Satan falls from heaven like a flash of lightening!
When peace comes into your house, your home, your family, when you forgive and are forgiven, when you declare your DEPENDENCE on God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, when you nurse at the bosom of God… the Kingdom comes, and Satan falls from heaven like a flash of lightening! Watch for it. It's all around you like an Oklahoma storm, like the finale on the Fourth of July. The Kingdom of God is coming, Satan is falling from heaven like a flash of lightening, and we are lying on the riverbank with a front row seat. Amen.
1 Deut. 25:4, I Cor. 9:9, I Tim. 5:18
2 Reed Abelson & Jonathan Glater. "Nonprofit Hospitals Said to Overcharge Uninsured." New York Times. nytimes.com. June 17, 2004.
3 Tough, Paul. "The Harlem Project." The New York Times. nytimes.com. 06/20/2004.