Sixth Sunday after Pentecost 2001 (Proper 9C)

Proper 9, Year C
July 8, 2001
Old St. Paul’s, Baltimore
The Rev. Timothy E. Schenck

In a political campaign, the work of an advance man is not particularly glamorous. These folks go from town to town to handle the logistics for a candidate’s big rally. The advance team scouts out the event’s location, sets up the microphone, and generally makes sure that enough people are at the rally for it to come across well on TV.

And then, just as the event kicks off, they leave to start similar preparations in the next city or town. They never stay long enough to soak in the carnival atmosphere and enjoy the fruits of their labor, they don’t become intimate confidants of the person they’re helping to get elected since they rarely even catch a glimpse of the candidate, and they’re always, always on the move. It can certainly be exciting and intense work with the ever-present time pressures and the constantly looming deadlines, but it’s not particularly glamorous. 

One of my favorite stories about advance work comes from a time in my life when I ran political campaigns for a living, (obviously something I did prior to entering seminary). A potential first lady, who shall remain nameless, was coming to town for a big pre-election rally at Lexington Market just a few blocks from here. The advance team was charged with setting up the route she would take as she toured the Market with local citizens, politicians and network television cameras in tow. At the very last minute they realized they had to change the route. It seems that they were planning to stop by one of the great Baltimore institutions at Lexington Market, Pollock Johnny’s. Now if you’re looking for good Polish sausage in this city this is a great bet. The problem was that people all across America who were unfamiliar with this Baltimore tradition, would invariably see only one thing: an ethnic slur. Not exactly the kind of exposure you’d want for the wife of someone running for President of the United States in the waning days of a close election. Some crack member of the advance team noted this and a potentially sticky situation, was averted.

I bring this up in the context of this morning’s Gospel reading because I see parallels  between the mission of the seventy disciples sent out by Jesus and the work of an advance team. Luke tells us that the seventy were sent out by Jesus “in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” So they were sent ahead of Jesus to prepare the townspeople for his arrival. They prepared the way for Christ by pointing to him and to his message that the kingdom of God was near. Like advance men, they left town before Jesus himself arrived and then headed off to proclaim Christ’s message to other people in other places. They were members of his team, they wanted to see him succeed. In a very real sense the seventy were advance men for Jesus.

Now I’m certainly not comparing Jesus to a political candidate. He said some memorable things to be sure, but the Sermon on the Mount wasn’t meant to be a sound bite and Jesus wasn’t trying to get elected as the Messiah. Regardless of the latest polling numbers, Jesus’ position as God’s son was already solidified and he now worked to get his message of hope, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal salvation out to the whole world. And to do this effectively he needed helpers, laborers to be sent out into the harvest to help spread the word; disciples to witness to the power of Christ’s love for humanity, followers to tell the story. And he still does. Which is exactly why you and I must follow the example of the seventy and serve as advance men and women for Jesus. By accepting this challenge, we can work to prepare those we encounter in our daily lives to meet the risen Christ. We can witness to his love, spread the word, and tell the story. But above all, we can point to something greater than us. We can proclaim Christ and not ourselves.

No advance man worth his salt draws attention to himself. He doesn’t step up to the microphone to speak, but rather he turns it on and checks the volume for the candidate. He makes sure the podium is in place and that the stage is secure. He makes sure the crowd has gathered and then he takes a step back. There must be humility in this work. A humility that recognizes the limitations of the role. A humility St. Paul attests to in his letter to the Galatians. He says, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Essential advice for the seventy and essential advice for us if we are to truly and humbly serve Christ as members of his advance team. 

Of course, in a campaign, once the preparations are made, it is the candidate who must take it from there. The ultimate responsibility lies with the candidate and not with the members of the advance team, as crucial as they may be to a successful effort. So it is for us who seek to do advance work for Jesus. We point to Christ, but we are not Christ ourselves. We do our best to prepare the way for his entrance into the lives of those we meet, but we’re not asked to do the really hard work of conversion itself. That’s up to God. Our role is to participate by sharing the good news of the kingdom of God. We share the message, but it’s not up to us how it is received or when it is received or if it is received. God in Christ takes it from there.

This morning we baptize a child. And it’s a child that I have known throughout his entire life. When Father Cobb pours water upon Zack’s head and baptizes him in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, he will be irrevocably changed forever. His relationship with God will become indissoluble. Just as all of us who have been baptized into Christ’s Church live in profound and eternal relationship with God, whether or not we fully embrace the bond of our baptism. And whatever shortcomings I may have as a human being or as a father, God will take it from there. Because, Zachary Peter, you are not just a PK, a priest’s kid, something that you didn’t choose, but you are fully a child of God. And God has chosen you and will mark you as Christ’s own forever. Out of the water of baptism Zack will emerge as a new member of the Christian faith. Through the water of baptism Zack, like all of us who have been baptized before him, will be commissioned and initiated as a new member of Jesus’ advance team. Our task as a Christian community, and the charge especially of his parents and godparents, will be to help raise him in the knowledge and love of Christ. We can work to prepare his heart to receive Christ’s love, but again God takes it from there.  We are all asked to participate in the mission of the seventy, to go out and prepare the way for Christ in the world. To what degree we engage in this mission is our own choice. But it is a choice that we can only affirm with God’s help.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2001

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