Hope comes on dusty feet. God, speaking through Isaiah in the first reading, makes a ringing promise of great liberation for Jerusalem (Isaiah 66:10-14c). However, in today’s gospel (Luke 10:1-12, 17-20), Jesus sends seventy-two of his disciples out in pair with nothing to recommend them but their message: “The kingdom of God is at hand for you.” The seal on their verbal scroll is only the name “Jesus of Nazareth.”
Now, these are not men who can lay claim to Isaiah’s “well-trained tongue” (Isaiah 50:4). As far as we know, they are fishermen, a tax collector, and who knows what else—men who work with their hands and, in Matthew’s case, their cunning, not with the golden mouths of polished preachers like the later John Chrysostom. There may be a scribe or two among them, of course, but none is ever mentioned in the gospels. They go out as beggars, too: “no money bag, no sack, no sandals.” Why should anyone lay aside plow or baking bowl or fishnet to listen to such as these?
People did, it seems. They return jubilant with their success, only to have Jesus correct their misguided ideas of what real success is. After all, the bearers of hope come armed not with the tricks of the world’s wisdom, as Paul would say in 1 Corinthians 1, but with the unappealing message of the cross. Those first disciples didn’t know it yet, but the kingdom they were proclaiming came with a price tag paid in full by their Teacher, but with smaller shares left over for all those who would follow him down the same road through tomb to glory (e.g. Mark, 8:34). Yet even that unlikely comfort has been embraced down the years by multitudes able to sort the gold from the tinsel of false promises of ease.
Hope still walks on unlikely feet. A handful of men gathered on this day in 1776 to put their names to a document that was no more than words on paper, while the armies of a great empire guaranteed their defeat, as Rome before Constantine had guaranteed the defeat of the gospel. The clarion call of 1776, written with conviction on the air of improbability set fire to farmers, seamstresses, lawyers, housewives, gentlemen of property, able wives of willing participants. Men and women rose up, armed with no more than a claim to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and forged a nation out of mud, blood, folly and loss.
But even that claim is small compared with the one that belongs by even greater right to those committed not to any particular political entity, however admirable, but to the greater reality of the kingdom of God preached by those dusty-footed followers of a Galilean carpenter so long ago. Their names are written not on a yellowed piece of paper, however treasured, but “in heaven.” Their promise, though they hardly knew it then, is the conquest of a tyrant far greater than King George: death itself. That battle too costs blood, sweat and tears, as Churchill would say of a lesser war, but it has already been won in Gethsemane and on Calvary. We have only to make the victory our own, armed with weapons as unlikely as the bearers of comfort God seems habitually to choose: truth, righteousness, faith, salvation, word, and the readiness for peace (see Ephesians 6:13-17).
Today is a celebration of hope already confirmed and promises yet to be fulfilled, both in the United States of a flawed but still willing America and in the far greater, more important, and more enduring kingdom of God. The fray is not over in either case, but both struggles remain as worthy a challenge now as they were for those ready warriors of the pen at Philadelphia and, long before and after them, those dusty-footed disciples on the roads of Palestine. They are not unrelated. After all, the sweat-stained labors for “peace and justice for all” within the geographical boundaries of one nation do serve as one small contribution toward the fulfillment of God’s promise of peace and justice for all peoples of all times and places. Let freedom ring!
Copyright 2010 Abbey of St. Walburga