Gospel: Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
1st Reading: Isaiah 66:10-14
2nd Reading: Galatians 6:1-16
About 20 years ago Bette Midler had a hit song “From a Distance.” The refrain stated that “God is watching us from a distance.” There were some nice things about that song. It isn’t often that such an outwardly religious song shows up on the radio and the hit charts. The song was about what distance does, and that is to blur our differences, to help us see the big picture. One of the best lines of the song says, “From a distance, you look like my friend, even though we are at war.”
God, who created the universe, who has always existed and always will, who gave order to our world, must be distant, right? God is so much bigger, so much more powerful, so much more glorious than we can imagine. God must be far away from us puny little people.
At a youth event when I was a teenager, the group “Captive Free” performed that Bette Midler song. Although the song did have something to say, I felt that that it was missing some important theology that I hold dear. Yes, God sees the big picture. Yes, God holds us together in one family. God is bigger than all the universe and our comprehension. But God is also very near, which is the theme for today’s Gospel reading. The main job of Jesus’ disciples was to declare how close God’s Kingdom really is. We are disciples, too, and that is our job—to announce how near God’s Kingdom is.
Both my dad and my husband’s dad were in the military when we were little—far from home. I recently learned that our mothers both audio-taped us as toddlers chattering away to send to our grandmothers, so that they could have a taste of what it was like to be near. Many of you have experienced family scattered all over the US and in other countries, too. It used to be that all that you could do in a situation like that was write letters. Sometimes there were weeks between letters as you waited for them to arrive and then for the reply to come.
A year and a half ago my brother moved to Indiana to take a job. The rest of the family lives in Oregon, although spread from Medford, to the coast, to past La Grande. That’s a big reason we wanted to move back to Oregon—to be near family. It has been hard to have my brother so far away. Since he moved away, Sterling was born and my brother’s family added a little daughter who is now 4 months old. We really feel the distance between us.
So if distance isn’t good for family, how could it be for God? When we feel a distance between us and someone else, that is never good. When we push someone away, that never has a positive connotation. So why would it be good for God to watch us from a distance?
My brother and his family are visiting Oregon this month and I saw them last weekend. My nephews, although they live far away and haven’t seen me in almost two years, knew me instantly. It was because of Skype—video chat over the computer. Do some of you Skype with loved ones who live far away? Sometimes there is a delay with Skype, a little jerkiness, eye contact is impossible, sometimes we struggle with the sound or picture, but it brings us so much closer than a letter could. You hear the sound of their voice, see their body language, show each other books or toys. My mom reads to her grandchildren over Skype. My husband’s parents play peek-a-boo with Sterling. One time when the baby lost interest in Skyping, I laid him on the bed and blew bubbles over him and Nick’s parents just watched in wonder while he giggled and went wild with delight.
Yes, God is big and amazing and far away. But God is in everything and closer to us than we are to ourselves. God knows us intimately, has a count of the hairs on our head, and knows our joys and sorrows deeply and dearly. The Bible is about God approaching closer and closer, or maybe it is only our awareness that is changing. Abraham and Sarah have God over for dinner. Jacob wrestles with God—that is very close. Moses gets so close to God he has to take off his shoes and hide his eyes. The prophets were always reminding the people that God is in the poor and the stranger. God is always trying to show how close God is to us.
Finally, God was born into this world, to a teen mom, in a world that didn’t want him. Jesus grew up in this world, just like we did. He walked in our shoes. He had disappointments and heartbreak. He enjoyed life, too.
But there are a lot of people who are invested in there being distance between us and God. When God is close to people and people know that, we become empowered and stand up for the oppressed. Plenty of people thrive on the oppression of others and are threatened by that kind of cooperation and unity. If people knew God was close by and our divisions fell away, we wouldn’t have a need for a criminal justice system. People would be out of work.
When we know that God is close by, that brings us close to each other. When we are united in love, everyone will be fed and there are plenty of people who thrive in this world because others go hungry. I’m sure you can think of world leaders who manipulate people by their distribution of food. When people are united the world is changed and that is very scary for those invested in the world as it is. As long as people are divided, there will be things we can’t accomplish. When people are united in love, other people will be threatened.
In some way we are all invested in the world as it is. If there is healing on a massive scale, who would I go visit in the hospital? If you knew how close God was and that you had all the access you needed without any special words or years of study, I would be back working in an optometry shop. If neighbors cared for each other and shared all they had, we wouldn’t need the pantry anymore, and all these people who come together and work so hard, wouldn’t have anything to do. It is a problem I’d be happy for us to have.
Jesus came near and comes near all the time. God’s reign comes near and touches us all the time. It is a matter of us noticing God coming near in each bite we eat, in each interaction we have, in each cloud, raindrop, blade of grass, and weed, everyday in our mistakes and successes, in opportunities to serve and be served, in every word we speak and hear, in every hope, and especially in every person we meet. We are the ones who push God away. God is always drawing us closer and showing us just how near we are to God. And if near to God, then near to each other.
We in small congregations occasionally get to feeling sorry for ourselves that more people don’t come to our church. Remember Jesus appoints and sends out the seventy into every town. Jesus sends us out from here. Our job is not to get people into our pews or into our church, but to go out to them announcing peace and the nearness of God through healing, welcoming, taking risks, and loving.