Sermons

Being baptist (Lenten Reflection on 1 Peter 3:18-22)

There was a dream and one day I could see it; Like a bird in a cage I broke in And demanded that somebody free it And there was a kid with a head full of doubt; So I’ll scream ’til I die; And the last of those bad thoughts are finally out.

I’m baptist. That’s a quirky self-identification these days. However, it’s one that is a core part of who I am. Along the way, I was ordained by a wonderful congregation. So I’m a Reverend baptist. But we push for the priesthood of all believers, so Rev. Sam Harrelson seems superfluous.

I wasn’t necessarily born into being baptist. I had choice and made decisions along the way. MaNy of those choices are why I’m probably not a full time pastor in some congregation in Rhode Island or North Carolina right now at age 42. My family started attending church somewhere around my 12th-13th birthday. We ended up at Little Bethel Baptist Church in Mullins, SC as that’s where a number of our family members and family friends attended. Most of my friends growing up were either Presbyterian or Methodist (including my high school girlfriend). My Aunt Lib and Uncle Herbert were also staunchly Methodist. They were thrilled when I went off to Wofford College, being that it is tightly associated with the United Methodist Church and still produces many fine and upright Methodist pastors in the 21st Century.

While at Wofford, I eschewed the Baptist Student Union for the more progressive theology (and alcohol) friendly Wesleyan Fellowship. I changed my major from Chemistry / Computer Science to Religion sophomore year and worked my way to deciding that I’d attend Yale University Divinity School. My Wofford Religion professors were all good Methodists as was the beloved College Chaplain (obviously). Rev. Skinner urged me a number of times to join a Methodist church and go off to Yale with the intention of being a Methodist minister or academic or some combination in-between.

My beloved roommate was a Lutheran-turned Methodist (now turned Lutheran… or maybe Greek Orthodox?) who would depart to a Methodist seminary after our graduation. Somehow, he lived with me for four years and was there for the many late night conversations we’d have about “going Catholic” after attending a moving Mass at St. Peter’s or perhaps exploring the monastic lifestyle after drinking too many beers at a monastery in Salzburg. We still have many of those conversations late at night after our children have fallen asleep and our minds wander in the darkness. My fiancé at the time was going off to a Methodist seminary herself and in many ways, my reluctance to switch teams led to our eventual breakup. She’s now a fine and upstanding Methodist minister.

Surprisingly to myself (and Rev. Skinner), I declared myself “Baptist (Southern)” on my Yale Divinity application. For some reason, they admitted me. I think it was partly out of pity and partly out of amusement.

I was a fish out of water in New Haven and quickly regretted that I hadn’t taken up Rev. Skinner’s admonition to become Methodist. There were no polity classes for Southern Baptists at Yale Div, so they lumped me into a very welcoming but coldly New Englandly American Baptist group. I learned the ins-and-outs of American Baptist tradition and found it very similar to the Methodist kudzu that surrounded my baptist trunk. The professor was a Pastor of a local American Baptist congregation and urged me to come visit with them and see if I’d be interested in becoming American Baptist. I thought about it, but ended up wandering across Whitney Ave from my apartment to a stately and very New Haven-y United Church of Christ on most Sundays for service. I was surprised to find their minister was a female and self-identified LBTQ. There were rainbow flags. Sermons included social justice themes. Depictions of Jesus were all non-white (and some non-male). It was 2000 and I felt my world was changing rapidly.

I almost joined the UCC. I identified that church as my “home church” in polity classes and became this enigma trapped inside of a riddle with my Yale Div classmates. “I thought you were a Baptist?” was a question I often heard as we discussed a theological point over coffee. Oddly enough, it was there at Yale and in Connecticut that I discovered why I self-identified as baptist (and rekindled my love of NASCAR and wearing cowboy boots). I dove into the history of Baptists and Anabaptists and Baptists in America. I wrote papers explaining the Southern Baptist conservative takeover in light of 1970’s eschatological theologies and political maneuverings with Revelation as the anchor text. I read as much as I could about the various responses that Baptists had in the North and the South to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. I traveled to NYC by train every year for the Martin Luther King Jr. Service at Riverside Church (famous anchor Baptist church were MLK Jr had preached). The more I studied being baptist, the more I appreciated the complicated history of the movement(s) and the nuances of this particular quirky expression of faith.

For me, personally, being baptist became a philosophical thought technology as much as a walk of faith. I realized I could attend a UCC or Methodist church and still “be baptist” without compromising those deeply held and recently uncovered historical kernels I’d just discovered in the musty but exhilarating tight corners of the 13th floor of Yale’s Sterling Library that seemed to swallow readers whole as one ventured through the stacks.

After Yale, I moved back to South Carolina and found myself teaching Middle School Science at an Independent school (as one does). I loved teaching even though I was back to my days of studying chemistry rather than theology. I let it slip that I’d been to Divinity School and identified myself as a Baptist during a few conversations. Turned out that the Math teacher on my team was married to the head of the state Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. She took me under her wing and I found myself attending a CBF church and discussing ministry again with the Senior Pastor.

A couple of years later, I was off to Gardner-Webb Divinity School for another go at being a baptist in theological studies. This time, I would be surrounded by other Cooperative Baptists and Southern Baptists and Missionary Baptists in the context of the unique culture of South-Central North Carolina. I met professors there who pulled and tugged at my conception of baptist and encouraged me to dig deeper. I’m still friends with many of them today. It was a wonderful time to be at Gardner-Webb because of the strong academics and collegial atmosphere. There were young people straight from college looking to become pastors. There were pastors in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s who were looking to complete a seminary degree and finalize their MDiv (not always a requirement to be a baptist pastor here in the South). The school was diverse in thought, race, gender, and expressions. I appreciated my time there and look back on it as an experience that helped define my own conception of being baptist and myself in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. I finally might take up a calling to become a pastor, I often thought on the long drives from Asheville to Gardner-Webb in Boiling Springs, NC.

Then, my mentor there unexpectedly passed away at the young age of 40 and I felt all of that warmness turned cool. He had guided me through Gardner-Webb and many aspects of life over the previous two years. He was patient with my procrastination and encouraging of my righteous indignation. We often talked of baptist-as-a-philosophy and he shared his passion of Jewish-Baptist relation with us. For him to be gone from my life so suddenly and completely was a major hole I couldn’t patch. I was on the “preaching circuit” around Western and Central North Carolina, preaching in various sizes (and styles) of Baptist churches most weekends. There were a few job offers and interviews. I came close to taking one pastor position in particular. But I was still grieving and that clouded what should have been easy decisions about my future. I lasted until the end of that year but decided not to finish my last semester of study and go back to the Middle School classroom to teach.

I had another great experience in the classroom while also working on the side to rekindle my consulting business. I was able to quell that still small voice calling me to something theological by podcasting with my friend about religion, writing papers and sermons no one would read, and having long conversations with myself on drives between Spartanburg and Asheville. But after 4 more years in the classroom, I knew it was time to hang up the bow ties and try my hand one last time to finish the MDiv I had started years ago.

My business was taking off with a number of high profile local and regional clients. I had a new girlfriend that was amazing and encouraged me to pursue my theological side more often. Things seemed inevitable. I submitted my admission papers (re-admission?) back to Gardner-Webb and planned to continue building my business while attending the last few classes and maybe picking up some preaching gigs on the weekends. Everything seemed to finally be on track and inevitable. For the first time since I began this journey with God and the Bible and my own baptist faith and message back as a 14 year old, I felt that things were coming full circle towards a completion of sorts. I finally knew what I was going to do with my life. Well, I finally knew how I was going to do what I was supposed to do with my life.

Turns out my “ministry” as a baptist (as it were) didn’t turn out exactly like I had expected. In the next few weeks, I would have a series of conversations with my then girlfriend and now partner, Merianna, about her own calling. That would lead to her deciding to apply to Gardner-Webb for seminary as well in pursuit of understanding and following her call to ministry. It was an exciting moment in our relationship. I loved our exploration of her Baptist tradition and seeing her while she went through an extended process of discernment. I tried, in my limited way, to be both an advocate and a supporter. As the first day of classes approached, I was also in a process of discernment about my path again. I made another decision to forgo those last few classes of the MDiv program.

Now looking back on that pivotal point in my life, I realize it was the right decision to make. Merianna’s ministry has flourished and paved an amazing path for both herself and other people in both Baptist and now UCC life to listen to their callings and pursue theological education. Being able to contribute occasional pulpit supply or Sunday School series or pastoral care duties along side her over the years has been the truest expression of being baptist that I could have experienced. We’ve laughed, cried, argued, agreed, under thought, and over thought about her own experiences as well as mine.

To be walking alongside her in this path and attempting to do what I can to support her has opened my own eyes to the systematic sexism (and misogyny) that infects much of religious life in the United States still. That’s especially true in my the Baptist ecosystem regardless of regional or identification flavor. From the Southern Baptist Convention to the American Baptist Church to the Alliance of Baptists to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (there are many others, those are just the ones I’ve been affiliated with or participated through in some way), issues around gender, identification, ableness, and identity run rampant in local churches large to small and progressive to conservative.

That eye opening realization has led my own consulting work with churches (and nonprofits) to focus on some of these issues with clients. What begins as a conversation about tech or messaging and public relations often turns to a deeper look at the intrinsic nature of underlying problems within a church instead of outside a church.

“How can we get more people to like our Facebook page and attend our (virtual) services?”
“Why aren’t young families participating and giving like they once did?”

These are the style of questions that I address with many churches that often lead to a discernment process which uncovers the same sort of systematic rot that lies at the heart of congregations on the brink of having to cut staff, sell property, and make tough decisions about the future. I don’t know if I’ve “saved” any churches directly through my work, but I know that some have blamed me for being able to keep the lights on a few months later. That is a form of ministry I never would have experienced had it not been for that intrusion of Merianna’s calling in my own life.

As an Ivy-league educated white male with a head full of doubt but a road full of promise in the Baptist world, I would have taken a pastor position at a small church and worked my way dutifully up the ranks until landing a coveted Senior Pastor position at some large Baptist congregation with a six figure income and a nice vacation and health insurance package (and maybe a country club membership or Chamber of Commerce speaking opportunities thrown in) while I worked on my eventual series of books about spiritual guidance in troubled times while passing off difficult pastoral care duties to Associate Ministers due to my heavy schedule of speaking arrangements and decisions I had to make regarding committee budgets.

I’m glad I chose not to pursue that path.

Being baptist isn’t a career ladder nor is it a call to the ordinary. It’s not a phase or a stage. It’s not something we get over, but it’s a process of thought. It’s about listening and hearing that still small voice inside all of us calling our souls to competency but also calling us to be outwardly be transformed by an inner revelation. That means working for good for all. That means standing up for those who have been shut out of the board rooms of decision and the committee calls of power and allowing space for their voices to be recognized.

Perhaps the fictional Jerry Maguire’s Mission Statement / Memo sums it up the best:

That happens when we don’t listen to the loud sound of the quiet voice inside. Life, I believe, is not a country club where we forget the difficulties and anxieties. Life is the duty of confronting all of that within ourselves. I am the most successful male in my family, but I am hardly the happiest. My brother works for Nasa, helping grow blue-green algae that will one day feed the world. He was originally targeted as the “successful” one in my family. But he gave up early, for a quieter kind of success. He was once tortured, now he is quietly making the world a better place. He learned earlier what I am just now starting to wake up to. He sleeps well at night. And he doesn’t worry about being too preoccupied or too busy to get the dance right. He dances for something greater.

Don’t dance (as we Baptists would say) for people, but dance for something greater than yourself.

1 Peter 3:18-22

3:18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,

3:19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison

3:20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.

3:21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you–not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

3:22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

Sam’s Bible Read Through Plan

I’m making something for you that’s available here for you to make a copy of for your own use, download, print, or save for your own additions and edits. It’s a work in progress and will be continually worked on in the coming weeks. But you can start using it now.

Over the last several months on Instagram, I’ve been posting images and short thoughts that come to me during or after my daily Bible studies, mostly with my old and rapidly deteriorating Harper Collins Study Bible I bought as a college sophomore in 1997 and continued to use to store notes from classes there and at Yale Divinity and then Gardner-Webb as well as the various classes I’ve taught and Sunday School series I’ve led over the years.

These Instagram pictures started as a quick way for me to share something personal in a format that I thought others might enjoy. Over the last few weeks as I’ve continued to post these, I’ve had a number of people ask if I’m using a certain plan or just going through the Bible and picking out my favorite passages.

These questions have caused me to formalize my approach and finally take the time to write it down. The attached read-through here is a work in progress but I wanted to go ahead and post this so that people can follow along in the New Year if they’d like (I’ve got January and February finished that includes Matthew – Mark in the New Testament and Genesis – Leviticus in the Old Testament). I say this is a work in progress because I’ll be continuing to add texts for March – December in the coming weeks. I’ also will be adding notes and thoughts directly on the document as I do my studies and interesting links and images that are relevant. But make a copy and make this yours as you see fit.

The read-through is the product of studying the Bible for the last twenty-two years from a Liberal Arts College perspective as well as an Ivy League Div School and a Baptist Seminary. Part of it is based on an old Cokesbury Bible reading guide that I picked up at the United Methodist General Assembly in 1999 shortly before I went into the woods to be a counselor at Asbury Hills UMC Camp in Upstate South Carolina. I fell in love with their reading guide while at Asbury and in the years after. I’ve certainly made alterations based on my own studies and connections I’ve made. But I’ve kept the overall structure of a yearly Bible read-through cover-to-cover.

Ultimately, we can all agree that we need to read more in 2019. I would argue that Americans can benefit a great deal personally and as a country, if we “read the Bible” more often. That doesn’t mean it has to be with a lens of a certain theology or with an aim to save souls. The Bible is a fascinating collection of stories of people wrestling with God and with each other and with the land and with the seas. We would all benefit to turn attention to these with the goal of understanding and making connections rather than just finding snippets of text that confirm our preexisting biases and unexamined privileges.

“It is not Christianity”

Interesting piece from the Sr. Editor of The American Conservative Rod Dreher (also a big fan of St. Benedict).

The rapid erosion of American Christianity is a reality that sincere “Church Going People” (as we call them here in SC) need to accept. I personally believe it’s a societal net-positive to have a large number of Americans get out of bed, put on dress clothes, and hear a good sermon that tells them to love another and that they are not the center of the universe once-a-week. That’s not the reality of many / most churches of course… but I do like to romanticize the Sunday morning experience. We can’t pretend that’s the norm in 2017 and beyond and that our young people and young families will eventually go back to church any more than we can hope that they will find the joy of telephone landlines in the near future.

Whatever “comes next” after American Christianity will be shocking, “not normal” and “not my type of church” if the Age of Trump is any inkling…

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a pseudoreligion that jettisons the doctrines of historical biblical Christianity and replaces them with feel-good, vaguely spiritual nostrums. In M.T.D., the highest goal of the religious life is being happy and feeling good about oneself. It’s the perfect religion for a self-centered, consumerist culture. But it is not Christianity.

via Trump Can’t Save American Christianity – The New York Times

 

Wrestling With the Text

I’ll be preaching on Genesis 32:22-31 (Jacob wrestles God / Angel / River Demon / Jungian Archetype … depending on your persuasion) at First Christian Church Columbia, SC on August 6. This is probably my favorite text in the entire Bible and I’m excited that it comes up in the lectionary next week.

I always wonder how others read this story. Leave me a comment here or on Facebook, Twitter, email etc and let me know.

I’ll post the sermon when I’m done, but maybe you can impact in how that turns out.

“The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’

So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him.

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.”

 

Wise as Serpents and Innocent as Doves

The following is my sermon from June 18, 2017 (Father’s Day here in the US) at New Hope Christian Fellowship in West Columbia, SC.

In countless American churches this morning, a preacher (mostly white males with white hair such as myself) will give a sermon about the importance of Fathers and how Fathers are their best when they match the example of God The Father with their own family.

The sermon writes itself, right?

Pluck a passage out of this collection of books about God The Father and talk about how God placed us men at the head of our families to model that notion of fatherhood. Be responsible, and be loving and caring, but be stern when needed (because those kids will test you, after all!). Be loving to your wife and support her in all that she needs while you’re out winning the bread because your wife is just like the church and can’t do much without your guidance and wisdom.

I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be too cynical here, but this is the word that God has laid on my heart. So bear with me.

I love my family. I love my children. They love me (right, kids?). But I’m not a fan of Father’s Day or Mother’s Day for much of the same reason that our family doesn’t participate in cultural Christmas. We need Easter more. And I want my children to know that.

I also want my children to know that the patriarchal language that we use when we talk about “God the Father” in the 21st Century United States is far far removed from the biblical witness. I don’t believe that God can be described as a male or in the sense of an American Dad anymore than I believe that an actual human-sized bunny breaks into houses all over the world once a year.

I want my family to hear from “Dad” that if we take our faith seriously, it comes with a whole set of challenges that we must face honestly in a world that encourages easy answers. In a world where Facebook posts and over sentimentality based on likes and hearts tells us to shut our minds to complicated issues, we are faced with a Jesus who tells us to listen up and to get ready to move.

I want my daughters and son to hear that God is not a male and is not white haired and doesn’t hold a lightning bolt at bay ready to strike you down if you displease HIM.

But in acting out on faith, it’s not going to be easy. We’re not going to get everything we want. Santa will not follow us all the days of our lives. There will be times when we are called weird, different, odd or even hurt psychologically or physically for a faith that goes deeper and is lived out in actions and intentional ways. But this is what happens when we let the Spirit of the Father speaking through us. And the Spirit of the Mother. And the Spirit of the one Triune God.

Hear now, the message of the Good News of Jesus Christ:

Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)

9:35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.

9:36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

9:37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;

9:38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

10:1 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.

10:2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John;

10:3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;

10:4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

10:5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans,

10:6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

10:7 As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’

10:8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.

10:9 Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts,

10:10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.

10:11 Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave.

10:12 As you enter the house, greet it.

10:13 If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.

10:14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.

10:15 Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

10:16 “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

10:17 Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues;

10:18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.

10:19 When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time;

10:20 for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

10:21 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death;

10:22 and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

10:23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

This is one of the five important sections in Matthew. Often called the Five Discourses of Matthew, these sections are perhaps meant to mimic the Five Books of the Torah in what we Christians now call the Old Testament. The Torah was of utmost importance to Jews in Jesus’ day but even the community around the author of Matthew would have still viewed them as their scripture as we don’t have anything like a New Testament yet (Matthew would have been written sometime around the year 75, or forty to forty-five years after the death of Jesus). Matthew was setting up Jesus as a new Moses. A Moses 2.0 that would restore Israel to its glory and righteousness as a people set apart to follow God’s law.

So in this section, we have a different depiction of Jesus that stands in contrast to the Great Commission at the end of the book of Matthew when Jesus commands his apostles to spread the Good News to all people on earth. Here, Jesus is only concerned with the people of Israel to the point where he actively directs his apostles not to go into Gentile or Samaritan towns.

That’s not always the Jesus we want to encounter, is it?

As we find Jesus here, he is doing lots of healing, preaching, and teaching in synagogues. But things aren’t particularly going as well for his ministry as we might-might think. The crowds, when there are any, are skeptical. He’s being sent out of towns for his works. Pharisees are accusing him and his disciples of being gluttons and hanging out with the wrong groups of people.

Previous to this, Jesus had just healed the bleeding woman, cured two blind men, raised up a dead girl, healed a paralytic, called Matthew to follow him, and healed a mute demoniac (which caused those who saw it called him the Ruler of Demons). Plus, he drove two deadly possessed souls into the body of a herd of pigs… and was asked to leave the town right away. It has been busy, but not necessarily easy or popular, time for Jesus and his ragtag group.

We open here with Jesus wandering around Israelite villages in the Galilee teaching in Synagogues, proclaiming the Kingdom, and curing diseases and sickness.

But he has a growing compassion for the people in these towns and villages. He sees them as lost sheep without shepherds or leaders.

We get the famous “harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few” statement. It’s nice language that makes it easy to read this as a quick directive on missions work. But keep in mind that anytime we hear or read “Harvest” in the OT or NT, it’s not necessarily a positive term. In both, “harvest” normally refers to the judgment coming at the end of the age. Jesus sees the end times coming any moment.

I like this passage in many ways, but particularly it’s here that we see Jesus have something of a revelation himself. It’s almost as if he begins to see the enormity of his own mission and comes to grips with what his developing ministry needs.

And that’s where we come in.

After all of this healing, teaching, and preaching, Jesus realizes that it’s going to take others besides just himself for these ongoing missions. So here at the beginning of Ch. 10, Jesus gathers together his twelve disciples (12 tribes of Israel, 12 disciples… 12 is an important number) and gives them authority to cast out unclean spirits, cure every disease. This is a new Israel. Jesus is enacting the Kingdom and not just preparing but actively setting up the infrastructure that will be needed when it arrives (which it will any minute now).

Jesus can’t do this all by himself. Just as Moses did.

Jesus uses the exact same phrasing as Moses did in Numbers “sheep without a shepherd” as he passes authority to the Apostles, just as Moses passed authority to Joshua. There’s an element here, where if we think about the early Christians living fifty or hundred years after the death of Jesus, that makes sense to the hearers of this text both then and now… we want legitimate leadership. Jesus is giving us that with these apostles just as Moses did with Joshua.

Then we get the names of the apostles themselves. See the change from “disciples” to “apostles”? It’s important. A disciple is one who follows. Apostle literally means “one sent out”. So, we see a transition here in Jesus’ group.

Then in Ch. 10 vs 5, we get “The Little Commission” to the Twelve. “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the sick, cast out demons.

The apostles are sent to Israel, all Israel, and only to Israel.

This is an eschatological event. Jesus is enacting the Kingdom. THIS is the Kingdom. This is Heaven. I’m going to break the Fourth Wall here. This is what pastors or preachers or clergy have a hard time telling you. It’s almost like an industry secret. Like how Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are capitalist holidays created by corporations to make us spend money and why we emphasize Christmas so much more than Easter in our culture that is so much more in need of the Easter story than the one of the cute baby.

Ready?

Here it goes.

Jesus is telling us here as he reconstructs Israel, as does the entirety of the biblical witness, that heaven will come down to the earth as the Kingdom of God draws near. Jesus isn’t just healing people or raising people from the dead in order to win souls for some afterlife where we’ll all float around on clouds and play harps. No, this is very real. And very now. And it should matter to us. Jesus here isn’t concerned with your soul or with the souls of Israelites. He is concerned with getting the people of Israel ready to enter the imminent and very real Kingdom of Heaven that will happen… here. Not somewhere up there after we die.

It is reaffirming and warming to think of heaven as some fantastical place where there will be chocolate fountains (well, in mine at least) and we’ll be reunited with Ol’ Sparky and have cool white robes. But that’s simply not what Jesus taught. We miss the point every time.

Instead, the Kingdom is coming here. Heaven and the reign of God will be in this reconstituted creation.

God is not abandoning the earth and drawing us all into a sky kingdom. It’s here and it’s real. It’s a place where the dead will rise, the sick will be made well and the disease will be cleaned. “Then there will be no time of sorrow.” In our world of modern medical marvels, food production at scale, and government programs meant to help those who have needs they cannot meet, it’s comforting to think that heaven or what Jesus is doing here is meant to edify our souls so that our souls can “go to heaven” after we die. But I don’t think that’s the point here or from any of the biblical witness on the Kingdom of Heaven.

So as we read the Little Commission and Jesus’ instructions to his newly-minted apostles here, we realize that there are an immediacy and importance to what he is directing them to do. Keep moving, don’t worry about whether you’ll make money if people don’t want to keep you or hear the Good News then shake the dust off your sandals and go. Don’t let money or gear slow you down. Move. Move. Move. The Kingdom of God is at Hand.

But then.

Then.

10:16 “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Tough passage and we try to make light of it. I’ve read pastors try to use it as a testimony to “Balancing Acts” or that Jesus is telling us to be “Prudent Yet Pure.”

No.

It’s important to read this in the context of what is going on. Jesus is telling the Twelve that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. They must go. And go quickly. Spread the Good News. But, he says, but … know that not only will there be challenges. There will be persecutions, especially as you preach this to the Chosen People. Jesus has already felt the sting of rejection from his hometown, from the places where he performed miracles, and even from his family. But don’t look to a political party or TV host or blog or money seeking false teacher to tell you how you are being persecuted.

No, those trollings and persecutions and challenges won’t come from where you expect.

You, the apostles of Jesus (if you so desire) will face those same people Jesus faced who knowingly and unknowingly will curse you, persecute you, and look down on you because we live in a world where Christmas is much more important than Easter and it’s much easier to send a greeting card or an email or make a Facebook post than it is to actually get out and do something.

But realize, you will not be trolled or persecuted because you call yourself a Christian in the US. You won’t face the dirty underbelly of the internet or the office water cooler or the warehouse lunch room because you cling to a cultural form of Christianity that dilutes messages to platitudes and repeatable sound bites from the latest radio personality or Instagram meme card that we all just hearted. I want my family to hear that American Christianity is not under attack from some radical world government or a powerful fringe group of ultra-fascists looking to take our guns and our crosses and replace them with healthcare. No, the liberals are not persecuting American Christians. No, the conservatives are not taking away our religious liberties. We are all lost sheep. Jesus is calling us to be apostles.

Instead, Jesus is calling us to go beyond. Go deeper. Take our faith seriously. To take the Kingdom seriously. To have ears to hear and eyes to see rather than fingers to angrily respond to a tweet that doesn’t fit your previous conception of what it means to be one of God’s people.

God keeps us on our toes like that. So be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. There are very real wolves ready to pounce. But be bold with God.

The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Go.

You will be persecuted because of the very name of the one who offers entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. Don’t worry about those who will mock and beat you and put you on trial or pick on your “weird” faith. Move. Go. Practice Resurrection. The Kingdom is at Hand.

Amen.