by Rev. Doug Gray
This Lent we have been spending time with John Ortberg and his book, All the Places to Go: How Will I Know?, and thinking about how to know which open doors God wants us to walk through. But today I want to turn to the idea of how to cross the threshold when we choose. When God sends us, how do we go? That’s what we find happening with Jesus’ closest followers, The Twelve, in today’s passage.
Ortberg tells this story:
“A man named Sylvester grew up in the Deep South during the Great Depression. He grew up to be a master at recognizing and entering open doors, a man of immense dignity and strength and courage…He met [his wife] Barbara on a blind date. He had never seen her. She had never seen him. She had heard about him. He was an athletic young guy…The doorbell rang, and Barbara went to the door. She was all fixed up. She opened the door…”
So there they are, Sylvester on one side of the door and Barbara on the other…and we want to know what happened. We want to jump all the way to the end of the story, but our lives don’t work like that. Our lives can even seem to stand still for just that moment as we stand at the threshold of the open door. What will happen? How should we go through? When Jesus is sending out the disciples, you’ll notice that He’s not very specific about a lot of things you and I would want to know—where to go? who to stay with? who do I go with? But Jesus is very specific about other things that affect how they will go as they get ready to cross the threshold into mission. In verse 16, Jesus ties it all together by telling them they should be like three animals, and perhaps they will help us know how we will go.
First, Jesus says, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves…” Have you ever noticed that sports teams all have intimidating names? The Patriots, Bruins, Panthers, Eagles. Maybe having that name and that image helps you get the spirit going in the locker room. But some teams just don’t have that. For example, as some of you know, I graduated from Earlham College in Indiana, and our team name was “The Hustlin’ Quakers.” It’s not just that it’s hard to imagine peace-loving Quakers can play really tough football, basketball, volleyball or whatever, but how do you cheer: “Hustle Quakers!” But some schools have it worse. The University of California at Irvine has the Anteaters, and my all-time favorite...UC Santa Cruz has the Banana Slugs. It’s got to be hard to play on these teams, but can you imagine rooting for them? “Go Banana Slugs!” “Suck them dry, Ant Eaters!” And I’m trying to imagine Team Jesus gathered around before the big game and Jesus says, “Go sheep!” And then Jesus adds, “I’m sending you out among wolves.” How does a sheep go out among wolves? Make sure they’ve eaten already? Tread very carefully? For sure, the sheep doesn’t march up to the wolf and say, “You’re living all wrong! You should really try vegetarian.” We are to be like sheep—going humbly, very carefully…and did I say courageously? Ortberg writes, “To be sent as a sheep means I don’t lead with how smart or strong or impressive I am.” Sheep have to trust the shepherd wherever they go, and as we cross thresholds, we can also trust in Christ, the Good Shepherd. When we are crossing thresholds, we need to go like sheep.
Second, Jesus says, “…be wise as serpents.” Lots of people think that becoming a Christian means checking our brains at the door. They couldn’t be more wrong. Jesus calls us to be wise—to think clearly, to seek understanding, to learn about ourselves and our world. But most importantly of all, to put all our thinking, talent and expertise at God’s service. Ortberg writes, “Jesus wants to put his movement into the hands of people who are as realistic and serious about actually prevailing, actually being effective (with God’s help, which is the only way it happens)…[to] be as crafty, clever and smart and shrewd as you can.” Grace is good, but targeted and strategic grace could make an amazing difference! When we are crossing thresholds, we need to go like serpents.
Finally, Jesus says we are to “be as innocent as doves.” Not clueless, but innocent. Neither naïve, nor foolish, we are to be people of peace and integrity. Ortberg tells the story of “a friend who is a doctor. A couple of years ago he had a patient who came in for an exam, and he overlooked one of her symptoms. She found out a year later she had cancer. It could have been detected by him a year earlier, except he overlooked this particular symptom that, as it turns out, was caused by cancer. As you can imagine, when he found out, he was devastated. He didn’t check in with anyone. The first thing he did was to call her up, get into his car…drive to her house, sit with her and her husband on their porch, and say, ‘I am so sorry. I should have seen that. I didn’t. I will do anything I can to help you. Will you forgive me?’” Of course, the legal department blew a gasket, but somehow this was just the right thing to do, and together the cried and prayed. Ortberg adds, “What the world needs is not simply isolated outward deeds, but transformed character from within. That’s what Jesus wants to release in the world.” Better to cross the threshold as a dove.
When we have an open door before us and are at the threshold, how will we cross over? Ortberg continues the story of Barbara and Sylvester. As Barbara opened the door, she saw a man who “looked nothing like she expected. He was a woefully out-of-shape man who obviously didn’t take care of his body. He looked nothing like the athletic young man she’d heard described. She stood there for a moment, surprised and confused and then all of a sudden, another guy jumped out from behind him and said, ‘I’m Sylvester! You go with me!’ She wondered what this was about. It turns out Sylvester” was nervous about meeting her and asked this other guy to ring the doorbell. “When [Sylvester] saw her, he was so excited, he wanted there to be no mistake. ‘No! No! No! I’m Sylvester, not him!’ They were married for sixty years. It's good to choose your doors carefully. But when you go—go.” How different from the Israelites looking back longingly to the time when they had meat—never mind that they were slaves, never mind that God was leading them with a cloud by day and fire by night, never mind that God was feeding them every day. Moses is not much better here—“Why did you inflict these people on me?” he asks. This quality of going with a whole heart seems to be something God seems to look for and enjoy. David was a man after God’s own heart—and even though he tripped up, even though he committed adultery and schemed to murder a man, this quality of “going all in” for God seems to set him apart. Peter sees Jesus walking on the water, and calls out, “If it’s really you, then tell me to come.” And Peter walks on water, until he starts focusing on the wind and the waves instead of Jesus. Peter would deny Jesus three times, but Jesus would ask him, “Do you love me three times.” And Peter would be among the first shepherds, pastors, of the church. God is calling to each of us today, from the other side of all sorts of doors. And how will we go through? Looking back like the Israelites? Or looking forward, like sheep, like serpents, like doves—but all in for God! If we knew how the story would end, wouldn’t we be like Sylvester and jump up, “It’s me! You go with me!”