The Risk and the Promise 

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Matthew 9:35-10:23

 

The message of the Good News in the Gospel for us today is all about risk and promise. The Gospel today tells us that God in Christ sends us out in mission, and that being sent out carries some risk. Being sent by God means going where you never expected to go, and leaving behind resources you never expected to leave behind, and doing things you never expected you would be called on to do. Being sent by God means taking some risks.

But the good news is that when we take God’s risks, we also discover God’s promise—we discover that Christ is there where we never expected to find him, and he gives us resources we never expected to have, and he empowers us to do things we never expected we would be able to do. It’s those two things together—the risk and the promise—that make the Good News for us today.

All of that comes across in this story of Jesus calling and sending his twelve apostles. When Jesus sends his apostles—and that’s what the title “apostle” means: “someone who is sent”—Jesus gives them very specific traveling instructions. “Take no gold or silver or copper,” Jesus says, “take no baggage, no extra clothing, no sandals or staff.”

Now, on the face of it, those seem like pretty strange traveling instructions. All those things Jesus mentions—money, luggage, proper footware—they are all things an intelligent and prudent traveler ought to have. Travel in Galilee in Jesus’ time was no easy matter—you couldn’t just call an Uber or reserve an airline ticket on your smartphone. For most of the populace, and certainly for itinerant preachers with no fixed occupation like Jesus and his apostles, the only way to get around was to walk—and walking on those roads required good heavy-duty sandals to keep your feet in good shape, and a staff to help you walk and to defend yourself against thieves and bandits, and money to buy food and lodging along the way, because you knew it would take you more than just one day to cover any appreciable distance. Travel was difficult and dangerous, and for Jesus to send his apostles out without the proper equipment seems, well, counterproductive.

And if Jesus’ traveling instructions seem difficult, then his instructions for what the apostles are to do when they arrive aren’t any easier. “When you enter a town,” Jesus says, “find out who is worthy, and stay with them until you leave.” Now that sounds easy enough—but keep in mind what “worthy” means in this context. “Worthy” here doesn’t mean “wealthy” or “respectable” or “righteous”; “worthy” means “ready to receive the Gospel.” Remember who Jesus usually shared the Gospel with: tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, the poor, the outcast, the lost. When Jesus tells the apostles to find out who is worthy, it’s as much as saying, “Find the most difficult, the most challenging, the most lost house in town, and stay there.”

And after they find a place to stay, what they’re supposed to do next is even more difficult: Jesus says, “Proclaim ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near,’ cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” All of those things are things that Jesus himself has been doing—but he’s Jesus, he’s Immanuel, “God with us,” the human one who is the embodiment of God’s own will and power and love. Of course he does miracles, that’s who he is—but the apostles, they’re just people, they’re just ordinary guys, they couldn’t possibly do the sorts of things that Jesus does. And yet that is exactly what Jesus sends them out to do: to be for people the representation of Jesus, just as Jesus is the representation of God.

At every stage of the way—in their traveling, in their arriving, in their ministering—Jesus gives the apostles instructions that emphasize the risk, instructions that emphasize how they must go beyond the limits they think they have and the resources they think they need, instructions that emphasize that they cannot depend entirely on themselves, but must depend most on the grace and the presence and the healing love of God. Going on the road without proper travel arrangements, staying in the houses of openly notorious sinners, doing miracles that are clearly beyond their ability to do—all of these are things that call into question the apostles’ self-sufficiency, they are things that require the apostles to give up their sense of being in control and trust in the leading and the guidance and the direction of God.

And the good news is that when the apostles do go out in faith, when they do take the risk and give up their illusion of control, then God does do wonderful things through them, then they can preach good news, and heal the sick, and cleanse the lepers, and reveal new life where before they had only been able to see death. The paradox of the good news of the Gospel for the apostles is that they must be willing to take the risk before they can experience the promise, they must risk giving up the illusion of being in control before they can know the reality of grace that takes them beyond the limits they thought they had.

That’s what the apostles discovered when they were sent out in mission; and that is what we discover when we go forth in mission as well. For us, too, the reality of the promise of God’s guiding grace becomes most real when we can most give up the illusion of being in control. We have to take the risk before we can realize the promise.

Today we are observing Fathers’ Day – and for me at least, being a father, being a parent, has been one of the most effective ways ever of peeling back the illusion of being in control, and revealing just how much the promise of grace is what keeps life going. Raising children will teach you pretty quickly that you are not the one who’s in charge, that you’re all in this together – and generosity and spontaneity and integrity and giving-and-receiving and making-it-up-together-as-you-go-along and love – in a word: grace – that’s what helps children and fathers and mothers all grow. Only when you take the risk, do you then you realize the promise.

And in what other ways have you experienced the risk and the promise of the Gospel? Where have you stepped out into some place you’d never expected to go? Where have you formed a relationship with someone you never expected to relate to, perhaps someone you feared to relate to? Where have you given up resources you thought you could never do without, and in the process discovered new capabilities in yourself you never knew you had? Where might you feel God drawing you right now to go out on a limb to build up right-relationships of shared well-being, even in the midst of confusion or hostility or distrust or outright hate? Will you take that risk? Will you realize that promise?

In this Gospel today, Jesus calls us to be willing to step out in faith, where we never expected to be able to go, and to find God there, leading us, guiding us, empowering us to proclaim and to heal and to raise up life in new and unexpected gracious ways. That is the paradox of the Gospel: that if we take the risk, only then will we find the promise; if we give up the illusion of control, only then will we certainly find the reality of grace.

All we have to do is take that first, risky, faithful step.

May it be so. Amen.