Sermon: Proper 9 RCL C – “Authentic Sign”

The Audio of the sermon can be found here.

A young woman was filling out an application to attend a very prestigious business school. After completing the normal name, address, social security number questions she began working her way through the essay questions. “Describe the most difficult situation you have had to overcome.” “Describe your method of problem solving.” All of these came with the directions, “Answer in less than 250 words;” however there was one question that she couldn’t come up with a good answer. She avoided it until the end, but finally had to tackle it: “Are you a leader?” Being both honest and conscientious, she eventually wrote one word for her 250 word answer: “Are you a leader?” “No.” She returned the application, expecting the worst. To her surprise, she received this letter from the college: “Dear Applicant: A study of the application forms reveals that this year our college will have 1,452 new leaders. We are accepting you because we feel it is imperative that they have at least one follower.”

In Numbers chapter 11 we find the Israelites wandering in the desert. They have the manna to eat, but have begun to complain to Moses that there is no meat. They said, “If only we had meat to eat!  We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

Hearing this, the Lord became very angry and Moses – apparently getting a bit of an attitude toward the Lord – became displeased himself. He asked the Lord, “Are these my children? Did I bring them into the world? Why are you mad at me? How the heck am I supposed to feed all these people?” He then says, “I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me.  If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once.” In other words, “I can’t deal with these whiners, just kill me now and be done with it.”

The people got their meat, quail, but the Lord also saw that the role of leadership was a great burden for Moses, so he said to him, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them… I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them.” He did this because the work was too much for Moses to bear alone. But in doing so, a community was formed. A group that was able to provide support and resources to one another.

Today, in our Gospel reading, we see Jesus doing something similar: “The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” Unlike Moses, Jesus was not sending out the seventy to lighten his load, he alone was able to accomplish the work his Father sent him for, but by sending out the 70 (which most agree were in addition to the 12) Jesus was laying the foundation for continuing the work of the church after his resurrection and ascension. However, like the 70 leaders that Moses appointed, those that Jesus sent out clearly had the Spirit of God upon them, for they were able to cast out the demons and perform the work Jesus had assigned them. Yet, not even these would have been able to perform this work had not others been there to support them. The 70 took no food or money. They had no where to stay or any way to provide for the basic necessities. It fell upon others to care for them, so that they – the seventy – might go about the work of God. As Paul writes, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” They formed communities that provided the support and resources to accomplish the mission; which was to say to the people through word and deed, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”

The mission of the Christian faith relies upon the community, but in order for the community to be successful in fulfilling the mission there must be one other key element present.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The reason why any one refuses his assent to your opinion, or his aid to your benevolent design, is in you: he refuses to accept you as a bringer of truth, because, though you think you have it, he feels that you have it not.  You have not given him the authentic sign.”

The “authentic sign” applies to individuals and communities. Philosophically it speaks of ethos; however, within the Christian person or community it is Jesus. Can a person, whether they know him or not, look at you and your community and see Jesus? If “no,” then you work to correct this. If “yes,” then you are giving that authentic sign, which can lead to success.

In 1975, Pope Paul VI published an encyclical on Evangelization (Evangelium Nuntiandi). In it he spoke about how the Christian faith was brought into Africa. It wasn’t all about preaching the Word, but had a lot to do with how the Christians lived their lives, which led those who watched them to ask questions. Paul VI wrote:

“Above all the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness. Take a Christian or a handful of Christians who, in the midst of their own community, show their capacity for understanding and acceptance, their sharing of life and destiny with other people, their solidarity with the efforts of all for whatever is noble and good. … Through this wordless witness these Christians stir up irresistible questions in the hearts of those who see how they live: Why are they like this? Why do they live in this way? What or who is it that inspires them? Why are they in our midst? Such a witness is already a silent proclamation of the Good News and a very powerful and effective one. Here we have an initial act of evangelization.”

That is saying that you and I must live out our faith, so that others may see. It was Cardinal Séan Patrick O’Malley who was fond of saying that many Christians today may live as witnesses, but it is as though they were in a witness protection program, hiding out rather than living out their faith. Charles Spurgeon said it best: “The Gospel is like a caged lion. It does not need to be defended. It just needs to be let out of its cage.” It is not your job to change a person’s heart. Only God can do that. But you can show them what a changed heart looks like. You can demonstrate to them how a life in Christ has changed you by sharing your faith through word and deed. By letting the lion out of the cage.

Speaking of lions, did you know that a tiger will defeat a lion in a fight, but that five lions together can defeat five tigers that are together? Why? The tiger fights alone, but the lions fight as group, taking on one tiger at a time. The Lord appoints leaders, but the leaders can only accomplish the mission of the church, that is proclaiming, “The kingdom of God has come near to you,” if they are a part of a community who demonstrate that authentic sign – who individually and corporately reflect Jesus and follow Him.

As we said last week, the message of the Gospel is not passive, it is active. This is part of that faith in action. Jesus sent the seventy to prepare the places where he intended to visit. Jesus sends us for the same reason. To prepare a place in the souls of others, so that he might come in and visit them. As individuals and as a community, be that authentic sign and prepare the way of the Lord.

Let us pray: Heavenly Father, you have called us all to holiness which means sharing in your divine life. Fill us with a sense of our true dignity as those called to be your daughters and sons in the world and your ambassadors of justice, love and peace. Give us the desire to be worthy of this great calling and the courage to live up to it. We ask this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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