On July 7, 2019, Justin Perkins gave this sermon on these texts: 2 Kings 5: 1-16; Galatians 6: 1-16; Luke 10: 1-24
Alleluia! Go! Prepare the way, the harvest is at hand! But what exactly is the harvest? Who are the laborers? What are their wages? Where is the field?
Chapter 10 of Luke’s Gospel begins with a narrative which mirrors the sending of the twelve in Chapter 9. Except now the ragtag twelve apostles have grown to an entire coterie of seventy (or 72, depending on the source)! Luke’s dynamic narrative is steeped in metaphors of agrarian life, teems with allusive cosmic implication, polemical political commentary, commands to stay, eat, drink, heal, and give peace; a subtext awash in a pathos of contingency, itinerancy, and the overwhelming immediacy of present mission and apocalyptic future. Notice the dualities present throughout: the bounty of Jesus’ metaphysical harvest and dearth of material resources he commands, the sending of disciples two by two, the proclamation of God’s kingdom within the mundane, the narrative’s interweaving of the earthly and the cosmic, of what is hidden and revealed, comparisons between the wise and little children, between kings and prophets and Christ’s disciples; all culminating with Christ’s laudatory prayer giving praise to the Lord of heaven and earth.
The Gospel narrative displays several rhetorical tactics worth noting. Unknown are the lives of the seventy missionaries and their plethora of subjective perspective. As a former missionary myself through the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission program—the sheer absence of subjective reality is remarkable. Absent are the stories of adversity, doubt, homesickness, and personal transformation. Absent the fundraising events, theological orientations, risk assessment trainings. Instead, we are presented with an apparent counter-narrative—one typically excised from the lectionary text—where Jesus demands repentance of the cities Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum. This prophesy entails yet another parallelism, pairing concrete political, historical, and geographical significance to the assumed towns who will reject welcoming the disciples. Scholars often locate these three cities as the epicenter of Christ’s ministry with his disciples, with Christ reportedly having resided in Capernaum.
As a result, the story appears to rupture, abruptly de-centering our subjective bias only to then re-center on Christ’s reality. Not only does this tactic give particularity to Jesus’ prophetic call, but also emphasizes Christ’s unity within God’s narrative. Further, this absence of narrative gives symbolic weight to the number seventy itself. Seventy is a number reaching all the way back to Genesis. Seventy names are inscribed upon the table of nations (the generations of Noah), there are seventy descendants of Israel who go down into Egypt, seventy elders of Israel who accompany Moses on Mount Sinai and attend God’s covenant ceremony. Christ’s mission with the seventy disciples thus represents a culmination of God’s covenantal promise within history, firmly planting Jesus’s ministry within the prophetic Hebrew tradition, whose mission of healing and proclamation now extends in unity with all humanity.
On what greater occasion to celebrate the harvest of God’s covenant than on the week of America’s Paschal Feast Day of Independence. Where else in the world can freedom so loudly be proclaimed; Liberty beaming its clarion call across 24-hour cable news pulpits, our American covenant displayed in the might of tanks sacrificed from the fatted coffers of defense companies at the altar of the Lincoln Memorial.
As Lyndon B. Johnson, 36th heir to the patrilineal White House, said in his 1965 inaugural address, “[Our ancestors] came here—the exile and the stranger, brave but frightened—to find a
place where a man could be his own man. They made a covenant with this land. Conceived in justice, written in liberty, bound in union, it was meant one day to inspire the hopes of all mankind; and it binds us still. If we keep its terms, we shall flourish.”
But what exactly are these terms of freedom? Echoing those who envisioned America as the “New Israel,” let us turn to George Washington, America’s ecclesial forefather—General of the Revolution who brought us to democracy’s promised land of enlightened freedom. In 1798, Washington explained the terms to English actor John Bernard in a visit to Mount Vernon. Discussing the quality of liberty in England and the newly-minted United States, one of Washington’s slaves happened to come by with a jug of water. Washington told Bernard: “This may seem a contradiction, but it [slavery] is neither a crime nor an absurdity. When we profess, as our fundamental principle, that liberty is the inalienable right of every man, we do not include madmen or idiots; liberty in their hands would become a scourge. Till the mind of the slave has been educated to perceive what are the obligations of a state of freedom, the gift would insure its abuse.”
Naaman—another one of history’s great generals—might understand the sentiment. Naaman was a valiant solider, but he had leprosy. The Hebrew word translated here as leprosy was used for various diseases affecting the skin, not necessarily what is known as Hansen’s disease today. It was a disease that no doubt left an identifiable mark, a visible sign of uncleanliness that could have jeopardized Naaman’s social, political, and military standing. Paradoxically, however, just when Naaman would have been made untouchable by both disease and high social renown—though it may have seemed a contradiction—he was so moved by the young girl taken captive from Israel that he bowed down to listen to her. Naaman’s healing, it seems, begins with repentance.
As it goes with mighty men of valor, Naaman had a mighty ego. He would not let go of his control, refusing to bathe in the insignificant and murky Jordan. Nonetheless, Naaman’s will toward restoration is enough that he capitulates to Elisha’s command. In doing so, Naaman suspends his pride, yet only first by abdicating control to the woman taken as a slave from Israel, then to the prophet Elisha, who Naaman considered a charlatan, and finally to his servants. In the end, Naaman’s cure was not just the freedom of release from disease. When Naaman sought to control the narrative of his own healing, God’s narrative broke through, demonstrating that God’s power lies with God’s healing grace, and could not have been bought even with all of Aram’s gold and silver. embracing Naaman’s humanity just as the rolling waters of Jordan receive his body. God’s healing, manifest through redemption and reconciliation, entailed both physical restoration and a full restoration to community through the the act of opening space in oneself and modeling vulnerability. Just as the rolling waters of the Jordan receive Naaman’s body, God embraces Naaman’s full humanity. Naaman’s repentance is such that no longer is he the mighty general of old made untouchable by social standing and skin disease; rather Naaman is made new, willing to submit his hubris before God, embracing others just as he has been embraced by God.
As it turns out, the true contradiction of human freedom is found when God’s wisdom turns the wisdom of the powerful and mighty into folly. For if we are to speak only of Naaman’s cure, then we ourselves miss the fullness of God’s reconciliation. It is this woman who is the first to initiate reconciliation; rather than submitting to the seductive power of vengeance for her capture, this woman boldly speaks God’s word of healing and repentance, thus performing acts mightier than what Naaman could ever do. It is not just Naaman who is restored in society and
God’s embrace, but even more so for society’s slaves and servants, those left in the periphery of our narratives. And it is God’s word that re-centers these marginalized voices as agents of God’s healing, those whose stories God appears most fully throughout history, a God whose reconciliation is a justice that topples the dominant narrative, lifting the oppressed as central figures in a society that would rather estrange them.
Contrary to the empty freedom professed by history’s mighty figures—those profitable myths of freedom ensnared in the bluster of demagogues and incessant cacophony of corporate advertising brandishing a status-quo worthy of Aristotle’s “prosperous fool”—God demasks the wealthy’s greed, the politician’s self-righteous deceit, the false narratives of individualism sold at the expense of community. Not even then sum of all our gold, military might, or rational thought can match God’s utterly gratuitous self-giving love. Like wisdom its value flees with the itinerant wind, vanishes like dirt flung from sandals at the doorsteps where God’s peace is not welcome.
In Galatians, we hear the Apostle Paul profess, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” Paul expands the domain of mutual suffering in the world with his own sin: “the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Just as Christ demands us to take up the cross, Christ demands his followers to inhabit the domains of peace among us, search out the sick, the unclean, the outcast, the downtrodden, the excluded of society, that we might inhabit new and profound domains of creation within the ordinary in the embrace of solidarity.
We see this demonstrated in Christ’s call to the seventy to “Stay in that house, eating and drinking whatever they give you,” that is, a call to inhabit radical solidarity among those who receive each other in peace. Indeed, According to Amanda Witmer, the proclamation of the coming of God’s Kingdom during Jesus’ time gave an unmistakable political and social potency to Christ’s mission. Indeed, during the time of Roman occupation, there was tremendous wealth to be derived from advanced agrarian societies such as those in the region of Galilee. Their production, however, was subject to political and social control through a system of redistribution that concentrated the wealth of the society and best fruits of the harvest into the hands of a small number of elites, draining the human and material resources of those living in the countryside. Jesus’ mission, then, not only called those within the lowest strata of Palestinian society, even assigning to them seemingly cosmic powers to submit demons and heal the sick.
Witmer also suggests there was an intimate connection of illness for those suffering both physical and societal maladies. “Spirit possession,” according to Amanda Witmer, “is an idiom which, when it exists within a society, can act as a form of discourse that allows the one possessed to speak to political issues just as they might speak to other issues. First and foremost, spirit possession is a social phenomenon or form of discourse, which expresses a culture’s most basic values (152-153).” Likewise, it is an oppressive framework. When dominant powers associate as evil what is marginal, they not only justify political action against the marginalized groups, but likewise entrench their power by seducing the population into a systematic process of “othering” those at the periphery of society.
Yet Christ’s body reaches to touch us at the borderlands of our geography and identity, to the crossroads of life and death, the perplexing liminality of being, to assert God’s restoration of humanity in intimate relationship with God, forging a new creation to the ends of our world. Christ subverts the symbolic boundaries drawn by false religious beliefs that ascribe sinfulness to what is innocent. We make a scourge of freedom only when we arrest the vision of God’s reconciliation, bend its narrative to the image of our self-serving direction It is this radical de-centering of the self that abolishes the false logic of powerful empires, men of valor, dehumanizing violence of exclusion, and absurdities of our exploitative economies.
Theologian Vítor Westhelle describes economy as it pertains to its premodern notion of a nurturing of the self through labor and social reproduction. Derived from the Ancient Greek “oeconomia,” economy, in fact, pertains to the household sphere. A house functioned as an extension and representation of oneself. In this domain one posits the reality that one shapes, reshapes, consumes, and divests into. God’s economy of grace, it is an economy that satisfies God’s desire. This economy is one already brimming with abundance. God’s grace outpours, we reap what God sows. Jesus’ ministry therefore is directed at the very domains of conflict and hostility, seeking out those among the lowest rungs of society to be endowed with the power of healing. Christ de-centers us from our subjective and self-enclosed realities only to radically re-center us on the foolishness of the cross, the promise of justice repentance and forgiveness, and God’s self-giving love and desire of relationship in the Trinity.
On the cross, Jesus renews God’s covenant with all of humanity, crucifying our hostile flesh to God’s word made flesh. Like the blood sprinkled by Moses on the elders of Israel, God’s covenant transforms Christ’s death on the cross into the new creation of humanity. On the cross it is then our flesh that we have crucified with Christ, then it follows that on the cross we have crucified onto Christ our pride, crucified onto Christ our systems of economic exploitation, crucified the wealthy’s subjugation of the poor, crucified the imperialism that plunders the resources of other nations and makes slaves of its laborers; crucified, then, is our sexism, crucified our despoliation of the planet, crucified is our binary logic of exclusion, crucified our racism, crucified our dehumanization and erasure of imaginations of gender and sexuality, crucified our self-righteous ideologies, crucified our xenophobia, crucified our nationalism.
For this freedom, Christ has set us free. For freedom Christ has set us free from the empty freedom that masks the distorted face of imperialism, militarism, and neo-colonialism. We are set free to respond to our enemy not with Tomahawk missiles, but with wholehearted and repentant calls for justice and embrace. For while in our brokenness and sin we called to crucify Christ, it is Christ on the cross who says, “Father, forgive them…”
Here, at the foot of the cross, wrapped in the guise of death, God seals God’s covenant by the creative activity of the cross. The harvest is fully revealed. The Lord of the Harvest, the God of Abraham who grants repentance among the mighty and the weak, who tears asunder the walls that ostracize humanity into false categories of clean and unclean, alien and citizen, slave and free, madman and wise, righteous and sinner. whose fullness is revealed in the divine relationship of the Trinity. Nourished by God’s economy of grace which suffuses our creaturely wondering with the self-giving love of the triune god, made real by the apocalyptic in-breaking of Christ into our home, we celebrate at Christ’s table at the Eucharist; the fullness of God’s covenant renewing us in one united communion where no member is made external to its multi-member body, no one is made untouchable, we are called to receive all. It is this one and Holy God who makes a place at the table for all humanity to enjoy the fruits of the harvest, who brings salvation by dismantling the structures of oppression, and radical restoration of the sick, the poor, the downtrodden to full humanity. God makes touchable the untouchable; reaching deep into the ungodly and creaturely brokenness of our sin to make space in the harvest field for the mutual-indwelling and unconditional embrace of an estranged humanity that would rather crucify this God on a cross than to face their own repentance.
For the kingdom of God is near. God’s kingdom wraps its divine embrace around the horizons of our existence where death seems to have won the upper hand. The kingdom of God is near in the captives in detention centers at our border, the cries of justice of families in the Middle East killed by US bombs at weddings and funerals, the mourning cry of mothers who have lost sons from Ferguson to Florida, the plea of the Rohingya fleeing from ethnic cleansing.
In this kingdom, a voice such as Alice Walker cries from the wilderness, who said (in a speech at an anti-nuclear arms rally) “Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it. In any case, Earth is my home—though for centuries white people have tried to convince me I have no right to exist, except in the dirtiest, darkest corner of the globe. So let me tell you: I intend to protect my home. Praying—not a curse only the hope that my courage will not fail my love. But if by some miracle, and all our struggle, the Earth is spared, only justice to every living thing (and everything is alive) will save humankind. And we are not saved yet. Only justice can stop a curse.”
Alleluia. Prepare the way, God’s harvest is at hand