Proper 9, Year C, July 3, 2016, The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

Have you ever considered how the message and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth spread from his small hometown in a backwater of a tiny nation to cover the entire world?  After all, he didn’t write anything that we have evidence of.  The spread of knowledge happened very differently than it does now.  His active ministry lasted three years at the end of which his followers were only numbered perhaps in the hundreds but certainly not in the thousands.

Today we hear an account that gives some idea of how Jesus approached the sharing of his message of God’s love.  It happens near the end of his life as he is on the move towards Jerusalem.  He has influenced a fair amount of people through his teaching and healings.  He asks 70 of them to pair up and go ahead on the route he plans to take to be a kind of advance party.

He provides specific instruction for how they are to prepare people to receive him and while this account takes place while he is still walking on the earth, it also seems to apply to those who continued to spread the good news of God to the world after his death and resurrection.  The author of Luke may have intended both purposes in writing down such detailed guidelines for the followers of Jesus.

And I wonder, does this have anything to do with the world as we know it now?  I remember as a new Christian during college that I went on a couple of “mission trips” to the city in order to practice evangelism.  Our leaders trained us to go into public places so that we could strike up conversations with strangers.  The hope was that we would find a way to “lead the person to Christ” by sharing with them “Four Spiritual Laws” about how they were separated from God and needed Christ as the bridge to salvation.

Most of us were wildly uncomfortable with this assignment and certainly most of the people we tried to talk with were resistant, indifferent or even hostile.  I can honestly say that I learned a lot about praying for and paying attention to others and developed skills in having conversations that I had never possessed.  But I never was able to share the 4 Spiritual Laws or ask someone to become a Christian.  It felt false and forced and inauthentic.

That was over 30 years ago.  All the research tells us that there are now more people than ever before in the U.S. who claim no religious identity and that resistance, indifference and hostility towards organized Christianity has increased.

And yet the message of Jesus is desperately needed in our world, the message of love for enemies, of the freedom of forgiveness, of God’s grace poured out for all, of peace and the hope of a transformed reality.  I know that I will never again accost strangers and try to run them through a formula to get them saved.  And yet I do long for a way to share the hope that is within me and to speak to the pain and longing and seeking of so many of the people I meet.

There must be an alternative to formulaic evangelistic efforts or simply remaining silent.  Which got me thinking about the way of Jesus which in turn got me thinking about the “Way” or the Camino.  Some of you know that last fall I walked an ancient pilgrimage route across Northern Spain.  My partner and I carried everything we needed for 30 days on our backs.  We walked about 14 miles per day and stayed at night at hostels and shelters specifically set up for pilgrims.  We were provided simple meals along the way and often ate bread, cheese and fruit by the side of the path.

The remarkable thing is that we were very rarely alone.  People from every nation walk the Camino.  There are over 200,000 pilgrims every year now.  Each one walks for a very personal reason.  My walking partner and I are both Christian and we met and befriended a Hindu woman, an Israeli Jew, countless folks who are spiritual but not religious along with observant Catholics and many who were searching for something they could not name.

And they told us their stories.  Bobbie and I decided to make ourselves available to our fellow pilgrims by praying for them and by asking them the simple question, “Why are you walking the Camino?”  The answers stunned us.  We walked and cried with two different men from different countries whose sons had committed suicide.  We talked with 40 year olds who had lost or left their job and didn’t have any idea what they should do next.  We met rich businessmen who felt like there had to be more to life.  I wept with a mother whose only child was killed by a drunk driver and a recently retired cop who was burned out from seeing a lack of justice in the justice system.

Although we never advertised our faith and I rarely shared my profession as a priest, some found out and I was peppered with questions about Christianity and Jesus and my own convictions.  One woman walked with me for three days asking me to give her the entire historical development of the Christian faith.  Another spent hours asking me about her concerns about God and evil, life and death and her perceptions about Christianity that were all negative.  Frankly, I was trying to remember everything I had ever learned in Seminary at the same time as I revealed my own stories of faith and doubt of belief and rejection and the joys and sorrows of following Jesus.  Every day we walked the Camino, Bobbie and I were called upon to live and give testimony to what we believed.

The word creed implies what you give your heart to.  Each day we revealed at a deep level what we had given our hearts to as we listened to the stories of those who opened themselves to us.

This is what it must have been like for the 70 who went ahead to prepare the way for Jesus.  They came in poverty, carrying very little.  They allowed themselves to be vulnerable and needy to those who would receive them.  Instead of coming with all the answers, with great riches, power and influence, they came as beggars, dependent upon others for their meals and their shelter.  This is not the vision of a triumphant, wealthy, well-resourced organization with answers to every question and a program for every need but one beggar sharing with another where to find food.

I love that Jesus instructs them to eat whatever is put in front of them.  Hospitality works two ways.  It is the gift of the one who welcomes the stranger and provides for the hungry but also the graciousness of the receiver who is willing to share in whatever cuisine that is offered in honor of the host.  Humility and trust develop when we truly share in another person’s life.

They are to go out in their own weakness, as lambs in the midst of wolves.  This is not triumphant domination but rather risky relationship.  The disciples are called to share the gift of God’s love and the message of Christ but only when it is welcome and requested.  No force or manipulation is involved.

Ultimately their role is simply to prepare the way for Jesus.  When they return to share with him what has happened, they begin to boast and talk about some of the more dramatic successes they experienced.  Jesus reminds them that these dramatic successes are far less important than their identity as children of God who names are written in the book of life.

Jesus calls us to walk in this world as representatives of his life-giving way.  We don’t have to have all the answers, our lives don’t have to be perfect, we don’t need to be powerful or influential or successful.  We are called to walk in humility and trust, in weakness and vulnerability, authentically and honestly.  Because our lives are secure in God’s love, we can give ourselves away to those in need, to those who are hurting, confused, wounded and grieving.  Our foundation is firm in the one, “Who holds our souls in life, and will not allow our feet to slip.”