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The Risk of Vulnerability – Br. David Vryhof

Br. David Vryhof

(The Sending of the Seventy)

Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20

Given what the gospels report about Jesus’ twelve disciples – how they were often slow to comprehend the message of the kingdom, and repeatedly failed to live by its principles – it seems to me that Jesus is taking quite a risk here in commissioning these seventy to go out as his representatives.  If the twelve he had chosen to be his closest friends and companions were having trouble grasping the message, how was this lot supposed to get it right?  What training did they have?  Who was going to supervise them or hold them accountable? How could he be sure they were capable of representing him, or that they would be faithful to his message?  Had he had a chance to test their theology?  Had he checked their backgrounds?  Had he measured their commitment, or tested their reliability?  But here he is, entrusting them with the message of the kingdom and empowering them to heal in his name.

It seems that Jesus was willing to take chances. He was willing to place heavenly treasure in fragile earthen vessels.  He was willing to turn them loose, to send them out, to let them speak, without being certain of the outcome.  And, not surprisingly, he’s still doing that today – sending each of us out to be messengers of that Good News; asking us, despite our weaknesses and shortcomings, to be his ambassadors in the world; proclaiming, through us, that “the kingdom of God has come near.”

That he chooses these seventy as his messengers is surprising, but even more surprising is the instruction he gives them before sending them out: “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals… Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’… Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide…”  Just as he has taken a risk in choosing them, he now asks them to take a risk by making themselves vulnerable, traveling into the countryside without money or possessions, without reserves of food and drink, without the assurance of safety or shelter.  They are to trust that they will be received and welcomed, fed and sheltered.  And whatever provision is given, whatever food or drink or shelter they are offered, they are to receive it graciously and without complaint.  They are to proclaim and spread peace wherever they go.

Notice that they are asked to go out in weakness rather than in strength.  They will be in need of the kindness and generosity of others; and not in a position to simply demand it or purchase it.  Jesus seems to want them to know their fragility, their vulnerability/ He wants them to rely on God and on others for their very survival.  He seems to believe that their message will be more credible if they approach others in this way, if they come in weakness and humility, with nothing to offer except this Good News: “The kingdom of God has come near you.”

There is something here for us to learn.

Not long ago we brothers were given the opportunity to make a pilgrimage together to England, to revisit the historical sites that were important to our founding just over 150 years ago.  One of the places we visited was Lindisfarne, a tidal island off the northeast coast of England, where we heard the story of St Aidan. In the 7thcentury, Aidan, one of St Columba’s monks from the island of Iona, was sent to Lindisfarne to establish a monastery and to evangelize the local peoples.  He decided to send his monks out, two by two, into the neighboring villages and countryside.  But he insisted on two restrictions: The first was that they were to travel on foot, not on horseback.  And the second, that they were not to carry a knife or any sort of weapon with which they might defend themselves.  Given that travel was extremely dangerous in those days, this was remarkable.  

Aidan wanted his monks to come in poverty and weakness; he wanted them to embodythe principles of the kingdom they were announcing.  They were to come in humility and in peace, as loving servants with Good News to share.  Like the 70 ambassadors sent out by Jesus, they were not come with wealth or power.  They were not to distinguish themselves from the people they wished to serve, or lord it over them.  They were not to conquer or to coerce; they were simply witnesses to the love and peace they had come to know in Jesus.  

Aidan’s wisdom in choosing these guidelines led to his brothers being graciously received, and their message spread like wildfire throughout northern England. People were receptive to the message because they saw it embodied in the messengers.  They were surprised that these monks had taken such risks and had made themselves vulnerable by exposing themselves to hunger and thirst, and to the dangers of the road.  They were impressed by their peaceful ways and by their complete trust in God.  They listened to their message and received it.

What might have been the outcome, I wonder, if they had come riding in on horseback, brandishing their weapons and forcing their religion on the people?  Make no mistake: Christians have done this, forcing conversions by the edge of the sword. But it is no­­t Jesus’ way.

Jesus himself came in weakness rather than in might. He was born in a stable, not a palace; to peasant parents, not to royalty.  He chose to be poor rather than rich, weak rather than powerful, faithful rather than successful.  He made himself one with the people, identifying especially with the lowly and poor, the outcasts and the marginalized, the powerless and the vulnerable. He came in love, “not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” He did not impose or coerce others, but simply offered the Good News of God’s love to one and all. 

In the same way, he sends his followers into the world, asking them to be channels of God’s love and carriers of God’s peace.  He risks being vulnerable, and invites them to do the same. The evangelism he teaches and demonstrates is an evangelism from below, not from above.

One of the great examples of this “evangelism from below” in SSJE’s history is that of one of our founders, an English priest named Simeon Wilberforce O’Neill.  Before joining Father Benson in 1865, he had taught mathematics at the distinguished Eton School and later was the assistant curate at the Parish of Wantage.  He was an extremely intelligent and capable man, who used his considerable talents as a mission preacher and conductor of retreats in England, in the Caribbean, and in the United States.  

In 1874 Fr O’Neill went to India, where he was to spend the rest of his life.  There he settled into a life of rigorous asceticism at Indore, described by the local British government official as “the worst place in India to come to.”  He scandalized the European population by choosing to live in much the same way as his Indian neighbors.  He chose to live alongside them, to share their daily lives, rather than retreat to the more comfortable dwellings that were available to the ruling Brits.  It happened that while visiting SSJE brothers in Bombay, he heard that cholera had broken out in Indore.  He returned there immediately to be with the people and to offer what assistance he could. In July 1882, he became sick with cholera and died the following month.  

Several years later, when visiting India, Father Benson went to Indore and saw the place where Father O’Neill had spent the last years of his life. Writing to the brethren in Oxford, Father Benson said, “When I was shown the hovel where O’Neill lived and the oratory where he spent hours in prayer, I could not help feeling that it was a more important place in the history of India than many a battlefield marked by crossed swords upon a map.”

Father O’Neill knew that God’s power was most at work in his weakness.  He chose not to come as an agent of the British Empire, exercising his power and privilege and imposing his country’s faith on the people, but rather to come alongside in weakness and vulnerability, wanting only to learn from his neighbors and to live as one of them.  In his humility he was imitating Christ and following the admonition of Paul, who charged the Christians at Philippi to 

“do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:3-8)

This is the way of Jesus that Father O’Neill lived so powerfully and effectively.

The seventy returned from their mission, overjoyed with its success.  But Jesus reminds them that success is not the goal.  They are to rejoice not so much in what God has accomplished through them, but in the fact that they belong to God, and their names are written in God’s book of life.  

So, too, we, when we experience the power of God at work in us and through us, remind ourselves that God’s power is most clearly evident in our weakness.  We learn to approach others with curiosity and respect, with humility and grace, from a posture of loving service.  We are peacemakers, carriers of God’s love and agents of God’s blessing in the world. This is Jesus’ way.

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