Lectionary 14C (July 3, 2016)

It is Fourth of July Weekend. I state that at the risk of being labeled Captain Obvious, but sometimes things that should be obvious are not obvious. The holiday is part of our context today, and if we’re honest it does influence our readings of today’s texts. America’s 240th birthday may tempt us to read Isaiah 66 as pointing to us, our nation, our culture. Beautiful figurative language portrays Jerusalem as a mother. From the beginning, Christians interpreted Jerusalem here to point ultimately to Christ our mother, and in the meantime, to the Church as our mother. Since the time of the Pilgrims, some in America have considered our land to be in that crucial role of mother, taking the place of the Church. From there, it is an easy leap to saying that our country is the mother, taking the place of Jesus: Isaiah is not fulfilled in Christ, but rather fulfilled in us. From a Christian point of view, this interpretation is alarming. Everyone throughout history has been inclined to think that God looks and feels as they do, and values what they value, and the Christian faith is quite clear that this is not a good confession.

Likewise, I could ask any room full of Americans to interpret Galatians 6. Those who favor laissez-faire capitalism will latch onto verse 5, “For all must carry their own loads.” Those who favor structuralism will latch onto verse 2, “Bear one another’s burdens.” And those who buy into the prevailing neoliberalism will say it is supposed to be a careful blend of the two. Whatever the case, we’ve got a Bible that says what we want it to say, and we can proceed with doing what we were going to do anyway. Again, not particularly Christian.

Christian interpretation says: well, Scripture interprets Scripture, and Jesus is kind of a big deal so listen to him. So, if we’re trying to figure out Isaiah 66 and Galatians 6, let’s see what Jesus is up to in Luke. Jesus sends The Seventy. Their mission puts them in a place of dependence. Look at their instructions! Carry no purse, no bag, and no sandals. Stay in someone’s house. Eat what they give you. If I leave the house without my iPhone it’s a disaster; these guys take nothing. They rely on the hospitality of strangers. And there is a fairly good chance that these strangers are Samaritans. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem from Galilee, and the shortest route goes through Samaria. When they show up, they are to say, “the Kingdom of God has come near to you.” While this is portentous it also carries the simple meaning, “God exists and is here.”

The Samaritans already believe in God. It’s the same God the Hebrews have, but they have different editions of the Bible, their hymnals have different harmonies to beloved hymns, and they serve food differently at church dinners, so they hate each other. You can imagine the Samaritan reaction to a pair of Hebrews coming to state the obvious: God is here. “Thanks, Captain Obvious.” Then, the Hebrews say they want to stay over! “I don’t know; are you gonna judge my “purity”? Sorry, I’ve only got one set of dishes. You’re not gonna get all high and mighty on me when I serve you meat that’s touched milk, are you?” And the pair of Hebrews just have to stand there and let the Samaritans say their piece, because the Hebrews need the Samaritans in order to survive.

Our western culture trains us that we don’t need other people, though other people definitely need us. I—the westerner, the American—know what is right for the other—the non-westerner, the non-American. A couple of years ago at the North American Academy of Liturgy, Gennifer Brooks, a native of Trinidad and a professor at Garrett Theological Seminary, presented a paper on her struggles as a black woman who studies and teaches preaching. It was in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. Brooks said she was sick of the turns of phrase wherein white folks speak of giving black folks their humanity, or acknowledging their humanity, as though black people aren’t human without white people saying so. “I’m a human being!” she said. “I don’t need you to give me that; God gave me that.” Now, without boring you with a digest of my graduate studies, I’ll tell you that I come out of a school of thought that says that we live fully into our humanity through other people. My humanity comes from interaction with other humans. So as Brooks is saying this all of my scholarly alarm bells are ringing, and I am preparing a counterargument.

But I didn’t give it. I knew she was right. Gennifer Brooks does not need me to make her human. So, I thought about this and realized that I was looking at it backwards. She doesn’t need me to make her human. I need to treat her as a human being in order to make me human. Any time I have treated a person as less than human, I have made myself less human. I needed to go to her and treat her as a human being, or else lose my humanity. I have to think that a similar dynamic is at play when Jesus sends the Seventy: the Seventy gain something by depending upon others. They gain their humanity.

Jesus sends us to proclaim the kingdom is near by announcing the obvious—you are a human being in the image of God—and in so doing, to gain our own humanity. I see this when we minister to one another, in what Luther calls “the mutual conversation and consolation” of the faithful. Look at the little bio lines for our Stephen ministers (they’re posted in the foyer) and they all mention how much ministering to others feeds them. I’ve been blessed to go along on some of these visits as a way to get to know the care receivers, and it always fills me with joy to see the interaction, to see two people, care provider and care receiver, blessing each other through this ministry. When I interviewed here I was told, “We have a strong group of Stephen Ministers and others who visit the homebound. How do you envision handling this?” The unspoken question was, “Are you going to want to take this back away from us?” And I said I envision supporting it however I can. Jesus didn’t go to the villages by himself, nor did he appoint one guy in a chasuble to have all the responsibility of Jesus without any of the omnipotence to underwrite it. He picked a huge number, a number that had symbolic importance—Moses picked 70 helpers in Exodus, and some of Jesus’ contemporaries taught that there were 70 nations on the earth. By sending 70 Jesus says this work belongs to everyone. It is how we all become human.

When we heed his call, it informs our other readings. Jesus’ call informs Isaiah 66. God does not present us with a flawless city that draws all the faithful to heaven on earth. It’d be nice…but that isn’t what happens. God does send us into the city to proclaim that God has come near. Whether that “city” is Trinity or the Church on Earth, the city of Valparaiso, or the city of the United States or the World, God sends us into it to proclaim that God is present in the lives of our fellow human beings. When we let God lead us so, we take up the humanity that God gives us. Jesus’ call informs Galatians 6. God does not present us with a Pauline Epistle that miraculously endorses our favorite contemporary economic theory. While much that is political and economic in Scripture has been spiritualized by interpreters who find it too dangerous, this passage almost certainly is all about the fears and weaknesses, the sins and shortcomings of our fellow Christians. Paul writes, “Bear one another’s burdens” meaning, “minister to each other like I taught you,” and he writes, “For all must carry their own loads,” meaning, “Don’t be acting like you don’t have your own problems.” In Galatians, God gives us Paul’s powerful witness: Knowing that we are broken like Christ crucified, we seek healing by healing others.

This mission may seem insultingly simple: Go and tell others, “You’re human and God is real!” Yet we need it desperately. You might want to say, “Thanks, Captain Obvious.” But we live in a world where it is not obvious. We live in a world where a person’s value is measured in earnings potential. We live in a world that teaches us that our self-worth is tied to our purchasing goods and services. We live in a world that says that the lighter your skin, the fatter your wallet, and the more masculine your behavior, the more you know about what everyone else should be doing. It is not obvious that we are human and that God is here. So Christ sends us, every race, every gender, every income level, to take up our God-given humanity by announcing that the world’s impossible standards are not God’s standards, and that regardless of what the world says, God made you, and the Kingdom of God has come near.