June 7, 2009

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 29
Mark 3:13-19

There are many stories in the scriptures about Jesus sending out his followers to do ministry in his name. Our Gospel text today is one of these stories that give us insight into our mission as Jesus’ followers today. One of the interesting things about this text is that it lists the names of the people who were sent, and it gives them a new title.

Most of the time, Jesus’ friends were called “disciples”. You probably remember that “disciple” comes from a Greek word meaning “one who follows and learns”. In fact, today’s passage begins with Jesus inviting some of his “disciples” to go up on a mountain with him. And then he chooses twelve of them to receive a new title and a new task. The new title he gives these twelve is “apostle” — from another Greek word meaning “one who is sent”. And the only other thing in the passage, besides the listing of the apostles’ names, is a sentence about the work Jesus was sending them out to do. He sent them out “to preach and to force out demons”.

When I study a passage like this one, I usually start wondering about what those apostles were feeling as Jesus’ sent them out to preach and to force out demons. Did they feel like they were ready to do it? Had they figured out what they would say to the people when they reached the first town or when they met some strangers along the road?

Though one of the men called Simon was known as “the eager one”, I wonder if the others were excited about their mission, or were they rather hesitant to set out on the road? When Luke’s Gospel describes how Jesus sent them out, it includes instructions not to take much with them. They had to rely on the kindness of the people in the towns and villages. And sometimes the people wouldn’t be so kind… they wouldn’t always be welcomed, and they would just have to shake the dust from their feet and keep moving.

And what do you suppose they were going to do to “force out demons”? There’s another passage in which the apostles try to force out a demon, but they can’t seem to do it. Jesus comes along to help, of course, and tells them that they would have needed to pray to get rid of it. But did they know this kind of stuff before they set out on the road? Did they have any idea of what they were getting themselves into? I don’t know if they did or not… but they went. Jesus sent them out. And they went.

Just as Jesus chose twelve disciples to become apostles and sent them out, Jesus continues to choose followers today and gives us particular missions to carry out in his name. Some are called to be missionaries, to travel to far-away places and to share the Gospel both in word and in deed. And most of us think, “Yes, missionaries. They are the ones that God calls and sends out. I wouldn’t know what to do. I wouldn’t know what to say. I wouldn’t have the right skills or abilities or power to do things like preach and force out demons.”

I may not be called (at least, not right now) to go to a far-away land to serve as a missionary. But I believe that God has called me to this place, to this community, and sent me to preach within this community. It is an amazing privilege and a constant challenge to be a Christian preacher… not because it’s such a hard job, but because I must always approach the task of writing and presenting a sermon with utmost seriousness.

My preaching professor said that with experience, most preachers start to feel less “nervous” when they are preaching. We can get over our “stage fright” if that was an issue for us. But… we should never completely relax so that we no longer remember the importance of what we are doing as preachers. We should always ascend the steps to the pulpit “in fear and trembling” before God.

We are called to “speak God’s words”. That means that we must take the scriptures seriously, and we must listen carefully to what God might be saying to us through them, and we must pay attention to the community in which we are preaching, and we must pray and ask God to help us put into words God’s message for these particular people.

And I’m not suggesting that we always get it right. Sometimes we utterly fail to preach the good news that forces out demons. But we must remember that the preaching task is not about promoting our own agendas. It’s about speaking God’s words… faithfully considering what those words might be, and boldly sending them out there, hoping and praying that our voices will carry the power of God’s voice to those who have ears to hear.

Sometimes it can be discouraging… maybe because the church is not filling up with people who are having their hearts and lives changed by the words that we speak. It is difficult to see or to measure the power of the words that are preached in this place. We probably have even less knowledge of the effect of the words that we speak in God’s name throughout the week. But I believe that it’s not only preachers that have been sent by Jesus to speak the words of God. Whether it’s a kind word to someone on the street, words of confession or forgiveness offered to bring reconciliation in a relationship, or words of comfort or consolation offered to someone who is suffering… We often do not even realize the power of God’s words spoken through our words.

Today is the end of another year of church school, and it is the day that we celebrate and give thanks to God for our church school teachers and for our leaders in ministry with children and youth here at St. Andrew’s. Our teachers and leaders have been called by God and sent to preach and to force out demons in the name of Christ. Most of them probably think about themselves just as “volunteers”… but they are much more than that. They are apostles of Jesus — chosen and sent to speak God’s powerful words of grace and love among our children and youth.

You probably all know that I spend a great deal of my time in ministry working with our younger members in Kids’ Club and Youth Group, and I enjoy the younger children as well when we have our February School Break Program each year. But it’s rare for me to get to experience the ministry that takes place in our church school on Sunday mornings. (I’m usually upstairs with you – preaching.)

But last Sunday I went downstairs for church school. I joined the teachers Maureen and Eva Anderson, and Karl Behrend, and a group of kids. And I heard God’s powerful words spoken in our church school last Sunday… I heard the words of a scripture story shared… I heard words of prayer… and I heard words in song. Those were the planned words from God, and they were good. But then I also heard lots of words of encouragement, as the children shared their responses to questions, and as they worked on a craft project. I heard words of acceptance, words of sharing, and words of joy as well as sounds of laughter.

Sometimes teachers and leaders may leave a class or program feeling great… with a sense of the joy and exhilaration of sharing God’s words of love and seeing them joyfully received. Other times, the effects of their words may not be so visible and obvious. Sometimes our teachers and leaders may feel confident and excited about the ministry that they have been called to, and other times they may feel unqualified and nervous, wondering if they’ll find the words to speak to share the good news of God with our children and youth. And yet, God sends them out. In fact, I think God chooses each of us to go out in our particular sphere of life and ministry with power to preach (to speak God’s words) and to force out demons… to conquer evil with good, and to make peace where there is conflict.

Today’s psalm reminds us that God’s voice has amazing power. When we speak God’s words, we get to share that power of goodness. And the vision of Isaiah reminds us that even though our voices have been used for other purposes at times, it is God that has the power to forgive us, to cleanse us, and to renew us, so that we can use our voices for good.

When Gwen and I were talking about these scripture texts last week, we were reflecting on the good news that seemed to leap from these texts. That good news is the fact that God gives us words to speak that effect healing, and that bring love, justice, and hope to the people around us. (That’s what “forcing out demons really means, I think.) And just as Jesus was God’s loving Word made flesh in our world, we get to embody God’s loving Word in the world today… not only with the words we speak, but also with our attitudes and actions towards our neighbours near and far.

As we were talking, this illustration came to mind for Gwen. It’s the story of the Inukshuk. You know the beautiful piles of rocks that Inuit People build as markers to guide their way through the wilderness. Inukshuks are rocks piled up to look like a person… with a body, head, and arms stretched out. Sometimes non-Inuit people ask about how the Inukshuks direct people on their journeys. One might think that one of the arms would be built to point in the right direction. That would make sense, wouldn’t it? But that’s not how they work. You may have noticed that Inukshuks are built with a small hole in the middle… a gap between the rocks. And I guess, the way you find out which way to go is by looking through the hole. It is the very heart of the Inukshuk that gives the direction, that shows the way.

The words that we speak with our mouths are very important. When we preach, we choose our words carefully, trying to listen for God’s voice and to share those words with the people. And when we speak to each other, to our families, to our neighbours, to our colleagues, or to strangers on the street, our words have power as well. We need to be conscious of the words we share, seeking to share God’s words of loving kindness at all times.

But as Jesus embodied God’s Word of love and grace in the world, we are given the responsibility of embodying Christ’s continual love and presence even today. As the Inukshuk is built with a hole in the middle to guide travellers on their way… we are created in the image of God, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit to live in and through us, and our very lives have the power to witness to God’s loving kindness.

Whether we are preachers, teachers, or leaders, or whether we are called to serve in some other way… we give thanks that God is sending us, and that God empowers us to do so much good in the world. Let us continue to listen for God’s voice of power, and let us respond to God’s call, as Isaiah did, by saying: “Here am I; send me!”