“Start off now, but remember, I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Carry no purse, no haversack, no sandals. Salute no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, let your first words be: ‘Peace to this house!’” Luke 10, 1-12, 17-20
Jesus was so fired up with his appreciation of God as father and his dream and hope for a world in which all would be free, equal, respected and treated with dignity that he saw the need for helpers in bringing his vision to everyone without exception. Relying on what he had heard about Jesus, Luke gave us a picture of how Jesus engaged seventy-two assistants in an effort to put order and organisation into spreading his message. We now call it “evangelisation” or spreading the good news. However, it indicates just how practical Jesus was. Convinced that his message was worth sharing and conscious of his own human limitedness, he gathered together a group of assistants and gave them basic instructions as to how to go about spreading his message.
Over centuries, the Christian community, taking the lead from Jesus, has set about packaging and promoting his vision in many different ways in their efforts to convince others of the value of Jesus’ dream for us and our world. Sometimes, they presented his message in a distorted way and ended up using fear as a tactic or motivational force to pressure others to embrace the “good news”. Ultimately such efforts became counter-productive as they presented God as someone of whom to be afraid rather than as “loving Father”. As a result, many people have come to regard “organised religion” with a degree of suspicion because they have experienced so many organisations as oppressive, controlling, bureaucratic and institutionalised. Many contemporary Catholics have a healthy suspicion of their local churches because they have experienced them as authoritarian, hierarchical, prejudiced against minority groups, and reluctant to fully accept women and the gifts they bring.
Yet, if we are not careful, we can fall into the trap of identifying God with the Church, as if the flaws and failures of the organised Church can be attributed to God. The truth is we look to attribute our dissatisfactions to what we perceive to be the failure of Church leaders and members to be faithful to the commitments emanating from their baptism. It seems to me that there is a three-fold source of our dissatisfaction: the scandal and betrayal of child sexual abuse and subsequent cover-up by leaders; the apparent reluctance or inability to celebrate liturgy with imagination and creativity and with connection to the lives and needs of teenagers and young adults; the insistence on prescribing a brand of religious education heavily-laden with doctrinal material that has little relevance to the struggles of life.
Since Vatican II, the demanding challenges of Jesus and his Gospel have been so domesticated that their impact is all but neutered. Those challenges have been replaced by a kind of “placebo Christianity” that seems to ignore the fact that Jesus named the deficiencies of his disciples for what they were and confronted with vigour, and even venom, the Temple money-changers, the Pharisees, and religious hypocrites. Paradoxically, however, service of others, especially the poor and needy, is now more in evidence than ever before.
Still, we would be deluding ourselves if we were to think that doctrine or theological dissertation moved anyone to embrace Christianity. The earliest converts to the Gospel seem to have been drawn by the vibrant, attractive and magnetic person of Jesus, as well as by the kind of people like the seventy-two disciples of today’s gospel.
We are given no details of the gifts, preparation or qualifications of that group of seventy-two. Their only claim to fame is that they were selected and commissioned by Jesus himself, to address a need he clearly saw as urgent. And they returned rejoicing in the fact that the straight-forward directions he had given them actually worked. The implication, of course, is that we and others like us are their modern-day successors. God is sufficiently big-minded to work through people as ordinary and ill-equipped as we are, through ordinary people like us who visit the sick, the lonely and the forgotten. What these people offer matters much more than who they are or their qualifications and training. They come as messengers of peace, and their love speaks all languages and touches all hearts. As today’s second reading from Galatians reminds us, external characteristics count for little. What matters most is that we are renewed and enlivened by the grace and love of God. And the messages of peace we give and receive can come in surprising ways. So, I conclude with the story of Brennan Manning (1934 – 2013), former Franciscan priest, writer, speaker and recovering alcoholic. It is a story about himself, and this is how he told it:
“A few years ago, I lay desperately sick on the floor of a motel room. I learned later that within a few hours, if left unattended, I would have gone into alcoholic convulsions and possibly died. At that time, I could not admit to myself that I was an alcoholic. I did my best to crawl to the phone to dial for help. However, my hands were shaking so hard that I managed to press only one digit. Providentially, it connected me to the operator, who dialled Alcoholics Anonymous for me. Within ten minutes, a complete stranger walked into the room, scooped me up in his strong arms and rushed me to a detox centre. After I had endured the pain of withdrawal, that stranger loved me back to life. A fallen-away Catholic who had not been to Mass in years, he told me repeatedly that the Father loved me, that God had not abandoned me and would draw good out of what had happened to me. He told me that this wasn’t the time for guilt and fear and shame, but for survival. Above all, he affirmed me in my emptiness and loved me in my loneliness. In time, I learned that my benefactor was an itinerant labourer, who fronted up daily at an employment agency in the local area, taking whatever work was on offer. He put cardboard in his work boots to cover the holes. Yet, when I was able to eat, he took me to McDonald’s for my first meal. For a full week, he breathed life into me physically and spiritually, day and night, and asked nothing in return. I learned later that he had lost his family and fortune through drinking. Yet every night he would spend fifteen minutes reading a meditation book. And before going to bed, he would thank God for what he had left, pray for other alcoholics and then open his window and bless the world. Two years later, I returned to that city to reconnect with my friend. When I was unable to locate him, I called AA, only to be told that he was back on Skid Row. So I went in search of him. When I thought I had spotted him sitting in a doorway, I went up and discovered another wino who was neither drunk nor sober. ‘Hey man’, he said, ‘can you gimme a dollar to get some wine?’ I knelt down in front of him, took his hands in mine, and looked into his eyes. They filled with tears, and I leaned down and kissed his hands. He began to cry. He didn’t want a dollar. He wanted what I needed two years earlier as I lay on that motel floor: to be accepted in his brokenness, to be affirmed in his worthlessness, to be loved in his loneliness. He wanted to be relieved of what Mother Teresa described as the worst feeling of all: the feeling of not being accepted or wanted. I never located my friend.”
“Several days later, I was celebrating Eucharist for a group of recovering alcoholics. Midway through my brief homily, my friend walked through the door. My heart skipped. But he disappeared during the distribution of communion and did not return. Two days later, I received a letter from him which read in part: ‘Two nights ago in my own clumsy way, I prayed for the right to belong, just to belong among you at the holy Mass of Jesus. You will never know what you did for me last week on Skid Row. You didn’t see me, but I saw you. I was standing just a few feet away in a shopfront window. When I saw you kneel down and kiss that wino’s hands, you wiped away from my eyes the blank stare of the breathing dead. When I saw you really cared, my heart began to grow wings, feeble wings, but wings. I threw my bottle of wine down the sewer. Your tenderness and understanding breathed life into me and I want you to know that.” (Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Penguin Random House NY, 1990)
Flawed and addicted though these winos were, strangers to one another as they were, they still ministered caringly to each other, they breathed life into one another. Were they different from the seventy-two sent out by Jesus to bring peace, comfort and consolation to others? Flawed and broken like the rest of us, they reached out in their brokenness in the alleyways of shame and loneliness. Can we step away from today’s gospel reading thinking that we can leave being Christ to others? Are we not really among the seventy-two sent out to breathe life and love into those we encounter?