When I remember the class of 3rd graders I taught in Brooklyn, I remember how each student learned differently. In a room of 12 kids, there were 12 learning modalities. I taught a math lesson by sight and sound and touch – we had math toys and math art and math books. Math on dry erase boards, math on chalkboards, math on felt boards. Math in song, math in posters, math in repetition. It took me too many months to realize my message rarely resounded in each student’s brain. After many, many failures, I began the tedious and vital task of communicating to the ears/brains/hands of each person, rather than treating them as one, homogeneous body. And – even though my room looked chaotic and I felt constantly divided – each student began to learn, began to grow.
I come back to this lesson again and again in my work here with the youth. I often joke with our Youth Leadership Team – the students responsible for helping brainstorm our programs and projects – that if it were left up to me, we’d go to the Nasher Art Museum every Sunday and study Scripture among beautiful paintings. We talk about how each person accesses their faith differently, through their own God-given eyes and God-given brains, their own ways and methods of reaching conclusions or generating questions. A younger sister might need to run around and play a cooperative game to understand the Christian value of community whereas her older brother might prefer to sit in the Sanctuary with his friends and study the stories of the early church figuring out how to be community. One is not more “right” or valuable than the other – they’re simply different ways of coming to the same learning. And in the church, in this piece of God’s kingdom here on earth, we need every way to fully grasp the Good News.
When we arrive at our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus has pivoted towards Jerusalem. Moments earlier in Chapter 9, Jesus “sets his face to go to Jerusalem,” (9:51) meaning he is walking the way to his death and resurrection. He’s prepared a great deal for this moment – having sent out his disciples to share the Good News of the kingdom, they’ve returned and thus, practiced what they’ll be called to do after Jesus has ascended to heaven. Now, as Jerusalem and Jesus’ fate looms ever nearer, Jesus sends out another group to do likewise – to share the Good News, to break bread, to share the peace of God. We hear that Jesus commissioned 70 people to go out in his name. This number is not random but instead is a reflection of Genesis 10, when the nations are listed as 70 in number and thus, 70 becomes synonymous with “all” as in the whole of God’s people. Jesus appointed this small group as an accurate reflection of the fullness of all God’s children, of all God’s possible messengers.
In his commissioning, he gathers these 70 and tells them to go out, sharing the good news. He gives clear instructions – carry no purse, no bag, no sandals. Talk to no one on the road. Eat whatever someone gives you. He gives clear warning, too – this is going to be rough. You are a lamb. I’m sending you into the midst of wolves. There will be people who do not welcome you. But – go! Go now! The time is near.
And while I’m certain that all 70 were listening most intently, I am also certain that the 70 moved in 70 different ways. Their interpretation of how to walk and where to walk would vary. The tone they imagined they were to use sounded like the most wide range of harmonies. Their style of approach, of knocking on doors and of introducing themselves was personal. And – most certainly – how they taught this message of Good News – that the kingdom of God is near – rolled off the tongue and heart in beautifully variant ways.
Christ had to know this, don’t you think? Christ had to know that when you give 70 people a singular message, they will share it in a myriad of ways. Christ had to know and had to desire this or I would imagine he would’ve gone himself and preached the Word has he wanted it to be shared. Christ, instead, commissioned 70 people with 70 backgrounds, 70 family histories, 70 hang-ups and baggage and behavior patterns, 70 attitudes and temperaments, 70 voices and visions of the future. Christ, instead, chose to trust that the core of his message: the kingdom of God is near – would be heard in the ways it needed to be and spoken in the ways most reflective of the breadth and depth of his people.
My son, Hank, and I were on a flight to Kentucky last month when we met a young man flying home from his two-year missionary service in the Mormon Church. He served here, in the Triangle, and hadn’t been home to Nebraska in two whole years. He felt so young – just 20 – and yet incredibly mature, dressed in a suit and tie, his possessions simple – a small bag and a notebook. I couldn’t help but think about him this week as I studied our passage. So many young people sent out to share the Good News of Christ and while well-trained and commissioned – wholly their own and unique. Watching the other LDS missionaries on the plane with us, it was clear that each one was as different as they come and I imagine, shared the Good News in ways that reflected their dual individuality made true by God and their unity in Christ as the one who sent them.
Such could not have been more true for us last week during our Mission Stay. 35 youth – all wonderfully and distinctly made in God’s image – served Durham and shared Christ’s love in their own ways. You can rest assure that I and our 70 volunteers gave them clear instructions and you can also rest assure that the youth understood their tasks through their own eyes. You heard me right, too, that we had 70 adult volunteers – I wish this were just some slick sermon trick but it is – maybe divinely or at the very least, providentially – true. 70 folks ranging from elementary-aged to wisest-aged sent out to the corners of the kingdom in Durham to serve with our youth.
I visited the sites, checking in on how diverse Christ’s Good News was being shared. I saw youth light up when they caught on to a task. There were voices stacked upon voices of excitement at a completed project. Questions were asked – when can I go there again? What if we did this at youth group? I watched as our youth each found a space and place to share their God-given talents to the good of the kingdom. I watched as each interpreted their call and commission to serve in ways that mirrored who God made them to be. I watched as the Good News was shared in ways only Christ could’ve predicted when he sent them out.
And it wasn’t just the youth who lived out Christ’s call to go and share the Good News. Each day, teams of youth came back filled with wonder at their fellow church members. Did you know that so-and-so volunteers like every other day there? Did you know that when we put address labels on a fundraising mailing, we kept seeing church members’ names – do they all support that ministry? Did you know that she knew the name of every person there? Did you know that he has volunteered there for forever? Did you know she brought us snacks? Time and time again, the youth saw how the kingdom of God was embodied and interpreted and shared through the voices and bodies and lives of our church. They marveled at the fact that every place we went, someone from Westminster was either on the board, had served on the board, or helped start the organization. They couldn’t believe how many of you took off work – took actual vacation time – to do volunteer work because you liked it and felt compelled to, not because you had service hours to fulfill. When you spent the night sleeping on a cot in the youth suite with them or had a feast prepared for their hungry bellies, they were amazed that you did so with a smile on your face. When they recalled all the ways you had supported them in prayer and in fundraising and in their commissioning, you could almost see them stand a little taller.
I count this learning – this learning that God’s work here in Durham is done in so many different and distinctive and beautiful ways by just as many different and distinctive and beautiful people – as the most valuable from our Mission Stay. I could not have manufactured or taught the lesson of going out and sharing the Good News in any better way. It took the support and service of the entire congregation to share with our youth a message that they didn’t even know they needed to hear: that all their voices and bodies and actions are part of a larger effort to serve God here in the midst of the city. Their lives and their actions are invaluable to the broader network their covenant community has spent its entire existence building. The work of the church is not just for an exclusive group of missionaries or for those with the ability to write checks or for those who have bountiful time on their hands but instead, is the work of the whole church, the whole body, the fullness of every single person. And because you live it, the youth could see such truth and in seeing this truth, were transformed. Because you are emboldened by your call, my friends, the youth now know they are, too.
In a few minutes, we will come to the table. At our closing worship during the Mission Stay, we talked about how this table is a foretaste of the kingdom that is to come – when all will feast and all will be fed. When all will be healed and well; when wars cease and peace reigns supreme. As we gather today, such is true for us, too. This table is a foretaste of what Jesus sent out that 70 to share and proclaim: that the kingdom of God is near. The kingdom where all are welcomed and loved, where peace is in every house, where suffering is no more. It took the 70 to spread this news. So, too, it takes all of us to come and taste and be sent back out to share the Good News. So, too, it takes all of us – in our own voices and own lives – to be messengers of what the kingdom can be on this side of heaven. Thanks be to God that this is so. Amen.