There is a story about a Celtic priest new to his parish walking along a country road. He saw a farmer with his horse and plow working a field, preparing the soil for planting. He hollered out to the farmer. “Hello sir, may a share a word with you?”
The farmer incredulous, looked over his field and said, “ My word for this day is to get this field plowed.”
The parish in which I find myself in Portland, Oregon is called the none zone — the spiritual but not religious zone where 9 out of 10 people do not attend church. In essence I live among folks who would rather have a root canal than walk into a church on Sunday morning.
That is why I love the story from the Gospel of Luke in chapter 10 in the New Testament where Jesus sends out 70 people as his advance team in Samaria, an unfriendly territory with a history of animosity toward the Jews. Samaritans were known to have an indifference to God language and cool contempt for outsiders trying to preach religion to them. And yet it is here that Jesus sends us out.
The first thing Jesus instructs us to do is to get on our knees and pray for workers because the harvest is so huge. Could those workers be us? Could he be asking us to pray for our own quest towards grace and boldness because we are like lambs in a wolf pack? Could it be that this was Jesus’ way to shape and form his apprentices into a new way of living and thinking by jarring us out of our complacency and comfort? Could it be that he is reminding us that we can do nothing without the guidance of the Spirit of love?
Next Jesus tells us to leave our baggage behind. Oh my! Why do we have to do this? And what kind of baggage is he asking us to drop?
For me it boils down to letting go of my ego needs and the ego needs of the corporate church. These include the need for control and power, affection and esteem, safety and security. These needs are manifestations of our false self reacting to a sense of scarcity in the world on individual, institutional and cultural levels. This is our wolf pack, our dark side, our barrier. When we recognize this, we can begin to sharpen our listening skills and trust in our intuition, our home to Spirit.
Interesting isn’t it that Jesus addresses all of these through his instruction to the disciples in this passage! In essence he is saying, “You will not have control, power, affection, safety or security on this journey. You have much to work through in order to go the distance. So who’s in?”
To nurture that interior life with God is to embark on a journey through a refining fire. There is nothing like a boot camp in the streets of Samaria to bring up all sorts of fear and anxiety within! It is as if Jesus is inviting us to discover our true selves as sons and daughters of God. Imagine!
It is exactly at the point of trusting enough to let go that we are able to truly seek people and places that will welcome us. And through that welcome we are asked to let go even more — eat whatever they place before you even if it is unclean!
In essence Jesus wants us to humbly meet people where they are. Listen to their stories, eat with them, laugh with them, weep with them and learn with them until we finally arrive at a sense of one-another-ness, interconnectedness, joined-in-the-common-good-ness. When that happens we become a healing balm for each other.
Then Jesus adds, before you go, tell them that together you witnessed the unfolding of God’s realm right before your very eyes. Tell them that the Kingdom of God is at work, is here, is within, is right now! Can you feel it? Do you see it?”
You see Jesus does not expect people to believe first! He turns our lived out church model on its head with a relational approach. Can we hang with you and will you hang with us? Will you welcome us into your world? Will you allow us to sit at your table? Will you allow us to learn about you — your joys, sorrows, aspirations? And who knows maybe you will know we are Christians by our love, by the way we listen, by the light we carry within and just maybe in the process we will discover the Christ in each other.
I think Jesus is helping us to understand that we are not called to welcome the stranger; rather, we are called to be the stranger seeking welcome. Jesus invites us to listen deeply for the presence of God already in the world and to give witness to the sacrament of life unfolding around us with every breath we take.
The beauty of this approach is that it is light — it is not about heavy-duty programming or months of planning to launch something new. Rather it is organic.
As leaders of this paradigm shift in the mainline church it is important for us to practice what we preach. To be the change that we wish to see. Because as a student of John Wesley, I know the practice itself will teach us what we need to know.
When the 70 returned they were filled with stories that I think surprised even them. As they journeyed into the unknown they grew in their trust of the unfolding of the Spirit — that God was with them, even in times of fear and doubt. They learned that it is okay to shake the dust off and move on. They discovered that when seeking welcome we find the Kingdom of God as plain as day.
I know for many Christians this sounds risky. We have been brain-washed into thinking that church as we know it is the only legitimate House for God and that there is something wrong with people who don’t visit God in God’s house. And for those of us with paychecks and pension plans invested in a butts in seats model this new way of being is heresy.
But what would happen if we flung open the doors, dropped our baggage, stopped loitering in meetings and discovered that the whole world is the House of God — proclaiming like Jacob in the wilderness as he set up his stone altar, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it, this is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven.”
Back to my story about the Celtic priest. After the farmer yelled back to him. The priest without missing a beat climbed over the stone fence, rolled up his sleeves and said, to the farmer, “How can I help?”
The priest and farmer worked side by side all day in the field, not saying much at all. At dusk the farmer turned to the priest and invited him in for dinner.
At table that evening after breaking the bread the farmer said, “Now about that word…”