This July, our summer sermon series pairs Scripture texts with well-known and loved books by Dr. Seuss as modern parables to deepen our exploration of faith in the world together. This week our Dr. Seuss classic is Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
“Congratulations! Today is your day!” our book this week begins. It could also be a modernization of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples. While often we think about Jesus sending the disciples out into the world with the Great Commission in Matthew 28 which called us into worship this morning, our text from the gospel of Luke reveals another sending of the disciples that is equally compelling. On his way toward Jerusalem, Jesus sends out disciples to spread the good news to all the world. And did you catch the number? It’s more than “the 12” we tend to cite. It’s 70, and that number is significant. It mirrors the number presented in the list of all nations in Genesis 10 alongside the story of the tower of Babel. Thus, we are meant to understand it to be complete. It is a monumental moment in the gospel, furthering Luke’s insistence on sharing stories that reveal God’s desire for the gospel to truly be for all peoples and all nations, a theme that continues well into the book of Acts. One step further, this is a story about what it means to be in community together. The disciples are even sent out two-by-two. Mitties McDonald DeChamplain offers that:
Jesus is clearly affirming that proclaiming the good news of the kingdom is not a solo performance, but a communal and relational activity – a concert of the whole body of those commissioned. The message is ever inclusive and expansive[i].
But, before the disciples can race on their way, Jesus has some words of wisdom for what they might expect. He lays out the possibilities for them for the road ahead. You know the countless locker room scenes shown in tv, the movies, or even real-life sporting event coverage? The coach tends to have an uplifting, inspiring speech. The players are captivated and focused, and everyone leaves cheering because of how pumped up they are? Yeah – this isn’t quite that pep talk. You see, Jesus lays out for them not just the exciting and wonderful good news that is the message they will deliver; he also tells them to brace for things that are difficult. They’ll have to figure out their way without carrying much of anything with them. But more disturbing, they may face total rejection. Here in 11 verses, Jesus describes what life looks like as a disciple, and it’s full of ups and downs.
Dr. Seuss’s last book, published in 1990, was Oh! The Places You’ll Go!. It quickly became a best-seller and reached #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list. It still remains near the top of those lists, especially in the springtime, when there is a bump as it’s purchased for its words of wisdom to new graduates. Ready for the roller coaster? The book begins with that uplifting notion, quite literally with a hot air balloon soaring. But then bang-ups and hang-ups happen. You can be left in the Lurch. Confusion sets in on which way to go. You get stalled out in the tediousness of waiting. Until you don’t, and then you’re barreling ahead to fame and fortune. Or the bottom can fall out and leave you lonely, or scared. Surrounded by fears that threaten to overwhelm. And you get mixed up with all sorts of strange birds. But you can, and will, do amazing and marvelous things in the end. Whew! It’s a whirlwind of experiences, all wrapped up neatly in rhyme. But, isn’t it also a depiction of the realities of the journeys of life?
That same kind of comprehensive description of the way things might be is what Jesus gives to the disciples in Luke’s gospel. I love that Jesus paints such a realistic picture of life. He doesn’t look at the crowds that have been following them and promise them something that is perfect. He doesn’t promise riches or good health or any form of guaranteed benefit for doing this work. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is not a guarantee of “the good life” here and now. In fact, sometimes it’s quite the opposite. DeChamplain continues saying:
The reality that many things can devour and diminish the commitment of Jesus’ disciples, and the likelihood of rejection on the journey is strong. Those commissioned, however, are not to be people pleasers but God bearers – offering God’s peace to all[ii].
Some days, that will be received well, and community will be formed. Meals will be shared, people will be healed, and the kingdom of God will be glimpsed. But other times, well, it’s just not pretty. And when that happens, Jesus calls his disciples to leave, and not even take the dust from that place with them on their feet. Move on, there is more journeying to do.
We often like to imagine that beautiful mountaintop scene from Matthew, with discipleship being all about going out, preaching the gospel, baptizing babies, and celebrating God’s presence with everyone joining hands and singing happily. But Luke’s version of the kingdom of God is grittier than that, reflecting that life as a disciple can be a bit of a roller coaster. Personally, I find that kind of honesty about life refreshing, because it carves out space for God to be a part of every aspect of our journeys, with us at every twist and turn in the road. And if we know that to be the case from the start, it might be easier for us to find God in the midst of the “Great Balancing Act” we know as life. And if we can do that, we might have a chance at this thing called discipleship.
We know that living a life of faith has its ups and downs. Some days, we are filled with the Holy Spirit and enthusiastic about spiritual practices. Our prayer life feels focused, we are eager to read the Bible or some other devotion. We serve others with love and compassion. We might even come to church with a spring in our step, excited about participating. The music is uplifting and the sermon really hits home with us. Other days, though, it’s not so easy. Our Bibles gather dust on the shelf because life is too chaotic. We rush through prayers or forget them all-together. We would rather hit snooze or go to brunch than attend worship. Or maybe the sermon is a dud. It happens. Or, we want to engage in fellowship, but feel disconnected from others. Maybe we fight some with each other, or grieve the loss of what once was in our faith communities. The list goes on. If we took stock of our lives, attentive to the faith aspects, I imagine we’d also find it full of ups and downs. The good news of today’s text, I think, is that Jesus tells us that’s normal and to be expected. He also calls us to go anyway.
Robert Short gives us wisdom for the journey, saying:
To get lots of mileage, you must have a great mission. If you really want to go great places, then you’ve got to have something great to go for. The greater the goal, the farther you’ll go . . . Furthermore, if you really want to be unconquerable in this quest, if you want to be a winner no matter what happens, then what you are going for must also be unconquerable. It must already be the winner[iii].
He then reassures us that all of this can be accomplished (yes, we’ll do great things! Move mountains even!) – not because of us, but because the work has already been accomplished in Jesus Christ. We are simply called to take that message into the world and share it in as many ways and in as many places as we can, trusting that God has been, is, and will be, responsible for what happens from there.
Two lesser-known theologians, Jake and Elwood Blues quipped “We’re on a mission from God!” Being disciples is not just about coming to worship and professing faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. It’s about recognizing that our Lord and Savior launches us into the world. We were not meant to be stagnant beings just biding the time until Jesus comes back. No, we are to go ahead and proclaim his coming. That’s what the seventy were sent to do in Luke, and two thousand years later what we are called to as well.
I think we often forget this part of discipleship – the going part. Especially as a community of faith. Sometimes we treat the church too much like a destination and endpoint for our faith, an offramp instead of an on-ramp on which we accelerate into the world. Carol Howard Merritt challenges us on this complacency, saying:
Too often Christians are shut up in sanctuaries, concerned about leaky roofs and outdated boilers, counting the attendance, and wringing their hands because people do not seem to be worshiping God as they did in the past. Congregations spend so much time caring for their own and feeling anxious about their demise that they sometimes forget that they, like the seventy, have been sent out with the gospel of God’s love and justice and mercy. How can we get out of the pews and join in the mission of God to the world? How, like the seventy, do congregations recognize and embrace their active participation in the reconciling work of God beyond the narrow confines of their own fears and needs?[iv].
The answer, I think, lies in our ability to simply keep going, and stay focused on the call we have been given as disciples. Ultimately, that’s what Jesus tells his followers to do. Don’t carry extra things that will distract or weigh you down, rejoice in the message you’ve been given without trying to bounce around from place to place, and if things happen that block or impede the message, just move on.
In addition to the words from Jesus and Dr. Seuss, this morning we might borrow the lyrics of another poet, Frank Lebby Stanton, who was a popular editorial columnist for the Atlanta Constitution who was named Georgia’s first Poet Laureate in 1925. Among his many writings is a turn of the century poem titled, “Keep a’Goin.” It reads:
If you strike a thorn or rose, Keep a-goin’!
If it hails or if it snows, keep a-goin’!
‘Tain’t no use to sit and whine when the fish ain’t on your line;
Bait your hook an’ keep a-tryin’- keep a-goin’!
When the weather kills your crop, keep a-goin’!
Though it’s work to reach the top, keep a-goin’!
S’pose you’re out o’ ev’ry dime, getting’ broke ain’t any crime;
Tell the world you’re feelin’ prime – keep a-goin’!
When it looks like all is up, keep a-goin’!
Drain the sweetness from the cup, keep a-goin’!
See the wild birds on the wing, hear the bells that sweetly ring,
When you feel like sigin’, sing – keep a-goin’![v]
No matter what, we are called to keep going on the mission Christ has given us – to go into the world, our topsy-turvy, chaotic, ups and downs world, and share what we know to be good news, the very gospel itself. So, let’s do it. We’ve got writers giving us inspiration, Christ himself cheering us on, and we aren’t alone; we get to do this together. Today is our day! With God’s help, we’re off to great places! So, let’s get on our way! Amen.
~Sermon preached by Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford, July 14, 2019
[i] Mitties McDonald DeChamplain, “Homiletical Perspective: Luke 10:1-11, 16-20.” Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).
[ii] Mitties McDonald DeChamplain, “Homiletical Perspective: Luke 10:1-11, 16-20.” Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).
[iii] Robert L. Short, The Parables of Dr. Seuss, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).
[iv] Carol Howard Merritt, “Pastoral Perspective: Luke 10:1-11, 16-20.” Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).