Monday, July 8, 2019

God's Advance Team

Shortly after graduating from college Josh King was on a tour of the White House when he asked the guide to tell him a little bit more about his job.  “Well,” the guide said, “I travel everywhere the first lady travels and make sure everything is perfect.”  It turns out the person giving the tour was the Director of Advance for the President’s wife and in that moment King knew what he wanted to do with his life.  Since then he has worked on the advance team of numerous politicians, doing something like roadies do at concerts and set directors do for movies.  He makes sure everything at a politician’s appearance is just right to entertain, impress, and inform while coming off without a hitch.   

Well, that at least is the goal.  While it wasn’t his call, King was on the advance team for Michael Dukakis when the presidential candidate took a ride in an Abrams tank wearing a helmet way too large for his head.  Designed to make Dukakis look capable of leading the military, it came off looking goofy and did more to sink Dukakis’ campaign than any other single event or factor. 

Most often the work of an advance team does not go as badly.  On July 4, 1993 I found myself on a connecting flight making a brief landing to pick up passengers in Moline, IL prior to heading on to Chicago.  It was late afternoon and I was puzzled because the fences around the runway were jammed with cars and people.  The airport – no bigger than a bus terminal – teemed with activity.  All the hubbub was more than puzzling until the pilot announced Air Force One was scheduled to land at the field in twenty minutes.  Then-President Clinton, on his way to an Asian summit, did a fly-over to inspect Mississippi River flooding and was scheduled to land and meet briefly with people affected.

It was a classic piece of advance work undertaken on short notice.  The team contacted local media outlets, rounded up flood victims and farmers for the president to meet, converted an airport hanger into a cozy Middle America setting complete with hay bales and tractors as a backdrop, and made sure everything related to the optics, the lighting, and the sound came off without a hitch, which it did.  By the grace of God, my flight picked up our three passengers and received permission to get out of Moline just after the massive 747 press plane landed and only minutes before Air Force One touched down and I was able to watch the story on 11:00 o’clock news from my home.

I noted last Sunday our Gospel readings from Luke have entered a portion of the text known as the “Travel Narrative”, covering the time from when Jesus determines to head toward Jerusalem for the Passover to the day he enters the Holy City riding on a donkey.  Although this unfolds over just a matter of several weeks, Luke devotes fully one third of his writing to the events that happen during this time.

The reason this period becomes so fertile and significant can be traced in part to a decision Jesus makes at the outset.  He commissions seventy of his followers to go out in teams of two to visit all the villages and hamlets he will pass through on his way to Jerusalem.  His advance teams (if you will) have important work to do.  Much of it is related to reconnaissance.  They are to figure out who in a village will welcome Jesus and who will not.  Jesus instructs them to move on if no one in a particular place is receptive.  Time is too short for him to waste even a precious second on those who are not interested. 

The advance teams work to create excitement for Jesus’ visit in places they are welcomed.  This surely accounts for the numerous times so many people turn out as Jesus is passing through a particular village.  The advance notification afforded locals plenty of time to prepare.  Those in need of healing have time to ponder if they will present themselves to Jesus.  Those who have sinned must contemplate whether or not they will approach Jesus – thereby risking condemnation and humiliation either from Jesus or (more likely) from the local population.  Religious authorities must mull over their particular response based on if they perceive Jesus to be a holy person or a threat to their power.  Because of the work of the advance teams a lot has been simmering by the time Jesus enters a particular village.  One way or another, his visit will be memorable. 

There is one more thing to note about these advance teams.  While they are not Jesus, they carry with them something of his authority.  They pray with people and bring about healing.  They confront the works of evil and bind things causing torment in people’s lives.  They don’t just prepare for the work of Jesus, they participate in it. 

Considering the mission of these seventy followers helps us to understand certain aspects of our role as Jesus’ disciples.  Perhaps nothing is more important than remembering the distinction between our calling and God’s work.  Just as the sower in Jesus’ parable is responsible for the lone act of scattering seeds while God is the one who is responsible for the soil, the rain, the sunshine, and all the conditions required for growth, we too are called to set the stage for God’s work in a person’s life, but we are not called to do the work only God can do. 

Perhaps you know someone who is lonely or hurting or afraid or discouraged.  Most of us think “if only there was something I could do,” but ultimately it is only God who can make things right and whole in a person’s life.  Still, you can invite a person to attend church with you.  You can bring someone to a parish event.  You can encourage a grandchild to sign up for a session at camp.  In short, you can do a lot of advance work. 

You can welcome people who come here on a Sunday morning.  You can commit to do something necessary for us to have a good and Godly worship service by singing in the choir, serving as an usher, reading a lesson, preparing the altar, teaching a class, or any of a host of other things.  One of our best “advance team” ministries involves collecting children during the final hymn so they can gather in the tower entrance to ring the bell after the service.  It allows our children to do their own advance work by announcing to downtown Suffolk St. Paul’s is alive and well and gathering in God’s Name, while letting the Baptist, Methodist, and Christian churches nearby know our service is over well before theirs!  

As God’s advance team, we are charged with making St. Paul’s a comfortable place to gather in God’s presence.  It is our responsibility to present quality worship on a consistent basis so that every person who comes here knows the One they have heard about and desire to meet is present in this place at this moment.

As we do the advance work of preparing the way for God to act we find (just as the initial disciples did) we participate in the work God is doing.  That we are helpful and effective is often mysterious to us, and yet time and again those who prepare the way for God to work are thanked for making a difference in a person’s life.  Has anyone ever said to you, “I don’t know how I could have ________ without you”?  If so, then be assured you are a part of God’s advance team.

We who are called by God to this work and ministry view it as our dream job.  To be of service to God by brining and welcoming others into God’s presence… well, could anything in life be better than this?