We are good at placing burdens on our clergy. One of the most severe is to expect them to be the chief, perhaps the only agents of parish growth. We await a new rector, ready to give a list of lapsed people, former parishioners who have strayed, or perhaps even the names of people we might think would fit in with the rest of us. Then we sit back and expect the new priest, who knows no one, has never lived here before, to get on with it. That’s what we pay the priest to do.
Consciously or not, our expectations transform our ideal of priests. We envision them as well-polished sales clerks, adapt at getting customers to buy. For our part, we make sure that the building looks spick-and-span, the sign welcoming, the doors open and the grass cut. It is so difficult to avoid imposing on our faith that which we have become used to in our secular lives. Few things impact us more than marketing. We are consumers all, bombarded with objects on offer at a price, most of which we neither need nor really desire. It’s important that we don’t start to think of our priest as the object designed to provide what we believe to be our “spiritual” needs.
Lessons like the one from the gospel today tend to reinforce all this. St. Luke tells of Jesus sending out over 70 disciples into the surrounding villages. They are to travel light, but are armed with special powers. When they return, it seems they had great success. So, we reason, as the disciples, or some of them, became Apostles, and as we think of apostles as clergy, who created bishops and through them priests and deacons, obviously this story is meant to inspire the clergy to do a better job for us.
People who write scholarly books about St. Luke’s gospel note that Luke alone mentions this story. Some think the number 70 refers to the non-Jewish nations, the “gentiles” evangelized by Peter and Paul and company. We read about their missionary endeavors in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke’s second volume of his history of Jesus and the first Christians. Others note that Moses called 70 people to assist him in his task of shepherding Israel as it moved through the desert. Perhaps both are true. Jesus sends his followers into “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the furthest parts of the earth.” Jesus created a team to assist him and sent them into the world. But was that team made up of clergy alone?
We continue to insist that these people were the first clergy. In this we are both right and wrong. We are right that among those called and sent were those who would be pastors, preachers, celebrants of the sacraments, those who led emerging Christian communities. We are wrong if we think that all those called and sent filled that description, or were rather like our full-time, paid, professional clergy.
Those called and sent today, as then, are not merely the ordained, but rather they are the baptized. Yes, this gospel is about you.
The gospel tells two things about every baptized Christian here today. The first is that the task of telling the Good News to others is given to us all. We may achieve that task in many different ways, quietly or spectacularly, verbally or by our loving care for others, but the task of showing Jesus to others is one of the chief reasons why we exist. That is not an exaggeration. We have to grasp the idea that each of us has been created, was born, for a purpose, and that purpose is in the mind of God and is more important than any other purpose we may take on.
The second truth the gospel tells us is that we have been “empowered” so to do. That’s an assurance and a challenge. We tend to absolve our passivity by muttering things like, “I’m an introvert,” “It’s not in my nature,” “I get embarrassed.”
The Gospel assures us – and Luke later stresses this at the beginning of Acts – that we are all empowered to witness in the world and that empowerment is not the same as natural talent.
Imagine that you find yourself by a sick bed. Everything in you tells you to cut and run. You are extremely uncomfortable, don’t know what to say, feeling inadequate and close to panic. Yet you stay, maybe holding a hand and just sitting there. That action comforts and cheers the sick person. You have used not your talent, but the power given to you in baptism and reinforced every time you receive Holy Communion.
Perhaps you are in line at the store; an irate customer is yelling at the sales assistant. It’s not her fault. She is close to tears. When you get to her, your notice her name, speak it to her, smile and offer her silent comfort. In so doing you use the grace given to you in baptism.
You see, our second problem, apart from consigning the task of witnessing to the clergy, is that we don’t recognize spiritual gifts because we think they must be spectacular. Yes, the 70 were given the power to cast out evil, but to do so may merely be the offering of goodness and kindness, objective love.
That may sound trite. Practicing consistent, objective love, particularly toward people we hardly know, or are not like us, or are people that repel us by their actions is no trite or easy thing. It’s much easier to lump them in a convenient group, label them, espouse an all-embracing cause and keep one’s distance.
Jesus, present among us this morning, continues to call us, send us, and empower us. We all have a vocation to ministry. Perhaps this coming week, in our quiet times, when we have the opportunity to reflect, or even to pray, it might be good to consider what task, seemingly beyond of strength or talents, our comfort zone, God wants us to take on and embrace, in the strength of the Holy Spirit, who has lived within us, often unrecognized, since the day we were adopted by God in Baptism.