When you see a sign that says, “No trespassing,” you can be pretty sure of two things. One, someone doesn’t want you walking on her property, and two, someone else has been trespassing. Right? Because the first someone wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of posting the sign if she hadn’t been bothered by the second someone’s coming onto her property uninvited. A “No smoking” sign means both that you aren’t supposed to light up right there and that somebody already had been. A “No exit” sign means you can’t get out that way and that someone has probably already gotten stuck trying. Or, I suppose, that you are actually in the right place to see an existentialist play by Sartre. “Please do not clean fish in rooms” – a real sign, I promise you – means that some poor motel maid has already found a bathroom sink full of fish guts, and “Do not punch the llamas” – well, I don’t even know what to say about that one.
The same is true in the Bible. When God commands the Israelites not to abuse widows and orphans, it’s not just because God has a preference for the poorest and most vulnerable, it’s because God knows that someone, somewhere, was abusing a widow or an orphan. And when Paul reminds the church in Corinth not to eat food sacrificed to idols, you can be sure it’s because some Corinthian who was feeling a little peckish had decided to swipe some bread from the nearest pagan altar. Otherwise, Paul probably wouldn’t have bothered to write it.
The same logic holds true for Jesus’ instructions to the 70 men and women he sends out in today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke. Carry no purse, no bag, he tells them, because he knew them well enough to know which ones of them were planning on showing up with a four-wheeled carry-on and two hat boxes. Greet no one on the road, he tells them, because he knew which ones liked to talk so much that they would never actually get from one place to another. And then there is this interesting admonition: Remain in the same house. Do not move about from house to house. Because Jesus knew them well enough to know that should things get tough, they might find it tough to stay. He knew how much easier it can be to just leave, to walk away, imagining all the ways in which the next stop would be better – better food and better beds, easier illnesses and less powerful demons, people more receptive to the Gospel and less interested in asking challenging questions. Jesus knew how hard it would be for these 35 pairs of people to stick around should things prove more difficult than they had expected; he knew how hard it can be to stay, how hard it can be to simply remain.
Now don’t worry, this isn’t going to turn into a political sermon about the Brexit. And, yes, I do see the irony of preaching a sermon about remaining when we’re in the middle of a holiday weekend that celebrates our country’s momentous decision not to remain. But the fact remains that Jesus knows that remaining is an important part of discipleship. And he knows just how hard it is at times to stay. Remaining is hard. Staying when things are less than perfect is tough. We’re programmed as people to look for a way out, an escape we imagine will certainly be better – a better home, a better city, a better job, a better relationship, a better church, a better conversation. If better is out there, why would we ever settle for just okay, or kind of annoying, or utterly stultifying, or requiring too much effort? Moving about from house to house is just so much easier.
All of which is true, but only if you have a very specific definition of “better.” If better means easier, more posh, and less constraining, then sure, you can see why it would make sense to move on. But if better means holier, more connected to the God who loves us and our neighbors, and more likely to grow us into the people God created us to be, then moving on makes less sense. Because there is no place where God is more present than right here. There is no situation, no spot, that has more God than where we find ourselves right now. And so there is no place better than right here.
This is a deep and profound truth, and it is also deeply and profoundly difficult. This is why Jesus has to keep reminding us about it. This is why the spiritual practice of stability is just that – a practice. Resisting the temptation to pull up stakes and move the tent every time some thing or some one or some situation proves difficult requires effort, it requires discipline – it requires some practice. But the gifts it offers can be tremendous. Why else has stability been the bedrock of religious communities for thousands of years? Because those holy people knew that when you choose to stay, you begin to see that the Gospel speaks right where you are, that God is blessing you in this moment, with this person, in this place.
Now not all of us are called the kind of stability of place as that of those in the religious life. Most monks and nuns have a particular vocation to live out their lives attached to a very specific geography – this cell in this monastery for the length of this life. But even if we are not called to this kind of spatial stability, we are still called to find stability in our lives. This kind of stability looks like choosing to send deep roots down into relationships or situations so that we can experience the fruits of the Spirit right there. It looks like staying with a friend whose life has suddenly become complicated and difficult, even if that complication feels tiresome. It looks like continuing to claim as neighbor a fellow church member whose political views this election season make you grit your teeth. It looks like remaining in a marriage or partnership even if the romance and lovely “in love” feelings seem to have disappeared for the moment. It looks like waiting, just for a moment, before leaving a job or a relationship or a community, just to ask yourself if there is still Gospel to be preached there, Grace to be found there.
Hear my disclaimer: stability is a good, for sure, but it is not the ultimate good. Sometimes we need to move on, let a relationship break apart, change jobs or towns or churches, declare our independence. Sometimes people or situations can be so harmful or destructive, so dangerous or so soul-killing that the best thing for us to do is to wipe off our feet in protest and walk away. Even Jesus knew that. But I fear that we do this far too easily these days. I know have in my own life, for sure. And walking away too soon means that we miss out on the chance to experience what one priest calls the “necessary upheaval of the spirit,” which leads to new growth, new learning, the experience of God’s new creation deep within our being.
For when we choose to practice stability, to remain in the brokenness, in the boredom, in the anxiety, even sometimes (refer to my previous disclaimer) in the pain, we have the opportunity to really plumb the depths of our love of self and neighbor and God. To remain in a place where life isn’t as easy or as rich as it once was means that we have the opportunity to enjoy the spectacular particularity of the incarnation, to see Christ’s hand touching every place, even this one that has started to feel a little bit less-than.
For Christ is in every place. In all of the places we go, whether we choose to remain or leave, Christ travels with us, will not do anything but walk right beside us, will always remain. In his life, death, and resurrection, Christ shows us the utter stability of God, who has written our names for ever in the heavens and pressed them for ever into the divine heart. Wherever we are, and whatever we are doing, the kingdom of God has come near. Wherever we are, and whatever we are doing, God’s love for us always remains.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
3 July 2016
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia