For several years now First Christian Church in Fort Smith has adopted a little slogan that we have used to identify us as a congregation: Mission Possible. You’ve seen it on t-shirts, on our Facebook page, and on our Narrative Budget that shares our mission with others.
The slogan has more meaning for me this week in light of today’s gospel lesson.
Mission Possible has been on my mind, because, as preaching professor Karoline Lewis has pointed out, Jesus’ instructions to the seventy before they venture out on their mission sound more like orders received from central command in the series “Mission Impossible.”
“Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road—Carry no provisions. Not even a decent pair of walking shoes. Danger abounds, and by all means, don’t stop and ask for directions!”[i]
And guess what? Although you are going in peace, announcing the Kingdom of God is here, not everyone is going to accept your peace or be happy with what the Kingdom of God being near entails!
Now, how many of us are ready to sign up for that mission trip? It sounds absolutely dreadful.
Yet… here we are.
On this weekend after the Fourth of July, there’s not many of us, but there’s at least, what would you say, 70?
A good 70, I’ll say; which, interestingly enough, just so happens to be the average worship attendance in mainline churches these days.
Here we are. And curiously, the mission to which we have committed ourselves through this particular church is no less daunting, dangerous, and dreadful today than the mission of these 70 Jesus sends out.
Like Jesus’ 70, we have inherited an Abrahamic faith that began when Abraham extended generous hospitality to complete strangers who just so happened to be messengers from God.
Sadly, in our current culture, sharing this hospitable faith, or even standing up for this faith is very unpopular.
Deuteronomy might say:
You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19).
But our culture says, “Some strangers are animals, not people.”
Leviticus might say:
The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:34).
But our culture says: “We should only love and welcome aliens based on their merit which we will determine through a strict vetting process.”
Mosaic Law may warn:
Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow (Leviticus 27:19).
And the Psalmist may warn:
The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin (Psalm 146:9).
But today’s culture says: “If foreigners and strangers are unhappy with the conditions of our detentions centers, just tell them not to come. All problems solved.”
The prophets may declare:
For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then [the true God] will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever (Jeremiah 7:5-7).
But our religious culture says, “The God you talk about is not the true God, but some imaginary God.”
The prophets may command:
Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another (Zechariah 7:9-10).
But today’s culture argues: “But they might be drug dealers, criminals and rapists.”
So many churches today have said, “Thanks, but no thanks, Moses. Sorry Jeremiah. It’s not happening Zechariah.” What you people of God are talking about, especially in these days, is Mission Impossible.
However, the good news is that this church, the First Christian Church in Fort Smith, says, no, what the holy scriptures command us is actually Mission Possible. But how? How do we do what the Bible tells us to do when we live in a world where we are like lambs living in the midst of wolves?
For the mission we have committed ourselves to seems impossible when we consider that not only are we a church with Abrahamic roots that has been called to stand up for the foreigners coming into our land, we are a group of people who claim to be followers of Jesus, who we believe Jesus is the Christ, the way, the truth and the life. Consequently, we are a church on a mission to embrace the way of Jesus, and to call on all people, all nations, including our own nation, to embrace the same way.
On this first Sunday after the day we celebrate our nation’s birth, we implore our leaders:
- To lose their way of greed and materialism, to follow Jesus’ way of generosity
- To lose their way of dishonesty and deceit, to follow Jesus’ way of truth
- To lose their way of militarism and perpetual war, to follow Jesus’ way of peace
- To lose their way of violence and domination, to follow Jesus’ way of servanthood
- To lose their way of putting themselves first, to follow Jesus’ way that started with: “For God so loved the world.”
- To lose their way of bigotry, to follow Jesus’ way of valuing every human as one made in the image of God
- To lose their way of harming children, to follow Jesus’ way of treating children as the greatest among us
- To lose their way of suppressing the rights of women, to follow Jesus’ way of empowering women
- To lose their way of abandoning the needs of the sick, the hungry, the foreigner and the imprisoned, to follow Jesus’ way of loving them as their very selves
And here is perhaps what makes our church’s mission seem even more impossible these days:
Not only are we a church with Abrahamic roots, and not only are we committed to following the compassionate and just way of Jesus, we are a church born out of the Stone-Campbell movement. That means, that like our foundersBarton Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell, we have made a commitment to be on a mission to follow the inclusive way Jesus, even if it causes us to lose some friends!
We have made the decision to welcome all people to Lord’s table as God has welcomed us—graciously, generously, lovingly, unconditionally. And we do this in a culture where such welcome is socially unacceptable.
We have committed ourselves to let the first word that anyone hears from our mouths be “Peace.” And we do this in a culture where the very first words that many hear from churches are words that denote the exact opposite of peace—Words of judgment and condemnation; words judging others as not only sinners, but as “abominations.” In the name of God, they justify their hate with the same type of Christ-less scriptural interpretation that has been used to support sexism, slavery and racial discrimination since our country’s founding.
So, how do we do it? How do we transform a Mission Impossibleinto a Mission Possible? How is that our slogan?
I believe the answer is in the obvious but oftentimes overlooked detail in our gospel lesson this morning. The answer is the number 70.
The good news is that we are not on a mission to be open and affirming in a culture that is closed and condemning alone. Each one of us has at least, at least, 69 fellow disciples, 69 friends in the faith, on whom to depend. Seventy people may look small in this sanctuary that seats 400, but 70 is a lot of bodies, a lot of somebodies, a lot of disciples on which to count when the going gets rough.
Jesus did not expect any of his disciples to be alone on the difficult mission to which he was sending them. And neither does God expect us to be alone to do our seemingly impossible work.
Right now, I want you to take a moment and look around you. For what you see… no… whoyou see, is all you need to do the work Jesus is calling you to do in a world where danger and injustice abound.
You need no purse, no bag, no sandals; and not even the ones you may meet on the road. All that is necessary to carry out our mission, to transform Mission Impossible into Mission Possibleare scattered about in these pews.
And I have a feeling that is why you are here this morning. You are here, because here, in this place, is your group of seventy. You come to be reminded that you are not in this alone. You come here acknowledging that if we are ever going to be the people God is calling us to be, we need one another.
Even before moving here two years ago to serve with you as your pastor, the Mission Possible slogan caught my eye.
For it is a slogan with optimism and assurance, potential and promise, success and victory.
With God, anything is possible! Right?
With God, it will be possible for me to declare that the Kingdom of God is coming near to the River Valley.
With God, it will be possible for me to announce to Fort Smith, Van Buren, Barling, Greenwood, Roland and Spiro: “Peace!”
With God, it will be possible for me to speak up and speak out, and the demons will submit!
Well, not exactly. With God, and about 70 others!
Today, I am grateful that I found a group of 70, well, at least 70, sometimes 120-140, and more than that on Easter and Christmas Eve, whatever the number, I have found a lot of good somebodies with whom to go out and follow Jesus wherever he leads.
And together, although we seem small, and our provisions are limited, with God, we can do some big things to bring the Kingdom of God near!
Let us pray together.
Gracious God, emboldened by being apart of our 70, may our spirits be filled with joy and enthusiasm by following the way of Abraham, Moses, the prophets and Jesus, sharing your redeeming love with all people. AMEN.