Here we are in the third week of Obedience School, as we look to our canine friends for some guidance in how to be more obedient disciples. So far we’ve learned to come when Jesus calls us and how we can learn from him as we sit by his side. We’ve learned to stay, even when God feels far away. Last week we learned that the best way to follow Jesus is to heel—to walk with his footsteps just ahead of ours. In this session of Obedience School, we learn what it means for us, as the people of God, to “fetch.”
There’s no better role model for fetching than Woody. Woody was one of my brother Doug’s three golden retrievers. Sadly, Woody died a couple of years ago. But, Woody loved to fetch.
Any guest would soon have Woody dropping his favorite toy in their laps, as he begged with his eyes to be sent in pursuit of it. He was eager and excited and tireless when it came to fetching. In the picture to the right, Woody is holding a wiffle ball, but his favorite toy was a fabric ball. Over the course of an afternoon, that ball would become very soggy as he relentlessly retrieved it and brought it back. You could be sure that if you threw a ball for Woody, he would not come back empty-mouthed.
Playing fetch with a dog seems so natural, doesn’t it? But I learned in my obedience training homework that this skill is actually one that most dogs need to be taught. Owners begin teaching their dog to fetch with a favorite toy in familiar surroundings. The owner tosses the toy a short distance so that it’s still within the owner’s reach. When the dog picks up the toy, the owner immediately takes it and rewards the dog with a treat. Gradually, the distance is increased, until the dog will go after the object no matter how far it’s thrown and surrender the object with no expectation of any reward.
Although fetching comes naturally to some dogs, most have to learn this skill through practice. Some dogs are even reluctant retrievers. But dog experts say that, over time, most dogs can learn to retrieve and surrender an object, even in unfamiliar surroundings. They can learn to go when and where they are sent and return to their master, for the pure joy of gaining their master’s approval.
This is not so different from the process we go through as we learn to be more faithful disciples. We learn to go when and where Jesus sends us. We learn to return to him in spirit of surrender. And we come to do this with no expectation of a reward other than our Master’s joy in us.
There’s no question that we are a “sent” people. “Sending” was written right into the job title of Jesus’ inner circle of apostles. The Greek word for apostle means “sent” and, more specifically, sent on a mission. When we studied the book of Acts during the Easter season, we read story after story of disciples who were sent by the Spirit into unexpected places and to unexpected people.
Our passage for today is a story of Jesus sending his followers into the world. This is actually the third time in Luke where Jesus sends a group on a mission. The first was in Ch. 9, when Jesus outfitted the twelve with his authority over demons and sent them to cure, to heal, and to proclaim the kingdom of God. The second the story we heard last week—his sending of messengers ahead of him to prepare people for his arrival. Now he sends a third group: seventy “others”—ordinary people from among his followers who now are being sent out in pursuit of a mission.
Where the first group was instructed to heal and proclaim, and the second group was commissioned to prepare the way for Jesus, this third group is to carry out both functions. They are to go ahead of Jesus into the places he himself intends to go, and they are to cure the sick and proclaim the nearness of God’s kingdom.
We don’t know how long they were out in the world, because Luke cuts almost immediately to the return of the seventy. And what do they return with? Joy. I can picture their jubilant faces and excited voices as they report their experiences to Jesus. “Lord, even the demons submit to us!” they cry. And Jesus shares in their joy: “I watched Satan fall from heaven with a flash of lightning,” he rejoices. Then he asks them, in so many words, “Do you see now what I’ve enabled you to do?”
His words make me wonder how the seventy reacted when Jesus initially gave them the news that he was sending them out on a mission. I think it’s reasonable to assume that there may have been some reluctance, some uneasiness. There were probably some in the group who questioned their own abilities. Some probably wondered how they could manage the logistics of going out of town, maybe leaving jobs and family behind, even for a short time.
Some likely were thinking about how they might be made fun of or even criticized for talking about a kingdom that was so different from the world as it was. After all, they were to talk about a kingdom where there’s justice for the poor and for all those who have been shunted aside—a message that doesn’t sit very well with people who benefit from the status quo. They were to talk about a kingdom where all people are free to be what God created them to be, free of the restraints imposed by the dominant culture. This is talk that will be demonized by those who write the rules for what’s considered acceptable and what’s not.
They were to talk about a kingdom where every person is loved equally by God—where each person is a beloved family member, including those they had treated with suspicion or even with hatred. This isn’t a message that’s welcomed by anyone who can comfortably ignore the voices and the needs of people unlike themselves. I imagine that more than a few of that group of seventy were like dogs who don’t know how to fetch and are reluctant to learn.
We can be like that, too. Or maybe we’re more like dogs who are in the early stages of learning to fetch. We’re willing to let Jesus send us a short distance, where we’re still in familiar surroundings, working with familiar people—people who look like us and think like us. But, we may grow reluctant when Jesus wants us to go farther.
Maybe that distance can be measured in miles—the distance between Whitehouse and Monroe Street UMC in Toledo, for example. But, it can also be measured in less tangible ways. t can be measured by the degree of our willingness to hear and to understand those whose stories are different from ours. By our acceptance of the truth that the kingdom of this world doesn’t work as well for everyone as it does for us. By our commitment to seeing and healing the brokenness that does exist and that we may even be perpetuating. By our working to uphold kingdom values of justice and peace, compassion and dignity, shared burdens and shared abundance.
Fortunately, Jesus doesn’t send us out alone. Just as Jesus sent the seventy out in Noah’s Ark-fashion, two by two, Jesus gives us each other. The decision to follow him is an individual one, to be sure, but once that decision is made, we become part of his body with other believers, and he sends us out together. Now, there may be days when we question the wisdom of Jesus’ decision, and we would prefer to go our own way. But the fact is that we are sent out together. We learn together how to better follow our Master. We encourage each other, challenge each other, and sometimes correct each other. As Jesus sends us out, he never sends us out alone.
Like dogs who are learning to fetch, we need instruction. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would teach us everything we need to know and would remind us of all that Jesus said. Sometimes that instruction will come from Scripture. Sometimes it will come from the songs we sing. Sometimes the Spirit will speak to us in the voice of others—others whom we know, or others who speak with a prophetic voice to all of us as a society.
We also need practice, which enables us to get further out of our comfort zones as Jesus sends us into the world. Jesus will increase the distance we can go if we are willing to keep at this thing we Methodists call sanctification. The more willing we are to go beyond what has become easy and comfortable, the more readily Jesus will send us in new directions to proclaim God’s kingdom and the healing it offers.
We are indeed a sent people. But what about the other half of the “fetching” equation? What are we to bring back to Jesus? What does he want us to surrender to him?
The easy answer is that we are to bring him more disciples. Jesus’ last words in Matthew are about going and making disciples of all nations. In between the verses of our reading today, Jesus speaks of a harvest awaiting the laborers. The book of Acts is full of stories of conversions and the expansion of the Church—the Church which Jesus created to be the channel through which the world can be returned to a right relationship with God.
Sent out by Jesus, we begin talking about God’s kingdom with our families and our friends. As he sends us further, we begin to share with our neighbors, the parents in the stands at the soccer or softball game, our co-worker in the lunchroom. We reach out to children in the community and their families, at Freedom School and at Vacation Bible School in August and as we’ve done through our TAP dinners. As we become better able to tell the story of what God has done for us in Jesus, and what kind of world he came to establish, we hope that others will want that for themselves.
But to say that we’re bringing back disciples of Jesus may be giving ourselves more credit than we deserve. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we can bring others into the presence of Jesus, so that his Holy Spirit can work within them. Through our testimony and witness—through our own stories of the place Jesus has in our lives, told in the world where we are sent, we can be like Andrew, who brought his brother Simon Peter to Jesus, or like Philip who brought Nathanael.
After Jesus sends us out, we can bring back to him people who have yet to meet him or who need to know him better. That’s a wonderful thing which I’m sure gives Jesus great satisfaction. But, our story for today suggests that there’s something else we can bring back: a deeper relationship with Jesus.
All the articles I read about dogs learning to fetch described fetching as an activity that builds the relationship between dog and owner. The experts say that when dogs and their owners engage in fetching, it strengthens the bond between them. It’s an activity they enjoy doing together as companions. There’s a mutuality in fetching. There’s a give and take that’s different from the other commands a dog learns. Trust grows between dog and master.
Each time Jesus sends us out in his name and we experience his presence in our going, our bond with him is strengthened. The story of our life in Christ is more firmly cemented into our identity. We are better able to stand firm in the face of doubt and the latest spiritual fad. We can reject what the world tells us is normal—that some people are disposable, that everything is a zero-sum game that requires many to lose so that a few can win, and that the way it’s always been is the way it will always must be. We can look with hope to the world God has promised to bring about when Christ comes again. Jesus sends us out and we return to him with a greater trust in him, a greater commitment to making this world more like God’s kingdom, and a more sure and certain hope in the future God desires.
When a dog is given the command to fetch, it doesn’t know where its owner will send it. Likewise, we often don’t know where or how far or to whom our Master will send us. But we can trust him to teach us slowly and gently as we become more willing to go further in witness and mission. We learn to relinquish our need to stay where we are safe and comfortable and known, and instead can cover ever-greater distances—in geography, in our relationships, and in our vision of God’s kingdom. Each time we go and return, anticipating his excitement at what we’ve done or learned, our confidence in him and in the authority he invests in us grows, and we become more ready to go back out.
Jesus sends us out and, each time we return, we surrender a bit more of ourselves into his waiting hands. We surrender our pride and our prejudices. We surrender our reluctance and our cynicism, our doubts and our fears. We surrender to him our very lives, and we do it willingly and with the pure joy that comes from knowing that our names are written in heaven.
When we fetch with Jesus, we never know how far he’ll send us or even what we might bring back to him. But we can rely on the words that God spoke through Isaiah—the words we repeated this morning: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and don’t return there until they’ve watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, the word that goes out from my mouth shall not return to me empty. It shall accomplish my purpose and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” By the power of the Holy Spirit, when Jesus sends us out, we “shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace.” When we go into the world that so needs to hear God’s word of grace and salvation through Jesus Christ, we will not return empty-handed, any more than Woody ever came back without something to lay at his master’s feet. When we fetch for Jesus, there will always be cause for rejoicing. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young