Monday, July 8, 2013

A Plentiful Harvest

This is the first sermon I preached as the new pastor of Presbury United Methodist Church in Edgewood, Maryland. 
Scripture: Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 (NRSV)

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’

“Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”

The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Sermon: A Plentiful Harvest

I am so blessed to be here this morning as your pastor. This is a beautiful church, filled with beautiful people who have been so incredibly welcoming to me and Aaron, despite the fact that we are duck farmers, you know graduates of North Harford. Don’t hold it against us, ok? But in all seriousness, we are so excited to begin ministry with you. Too often, you hear about churches that are social clubs, insular, focused in on themselves, but you are a strong congregation of disciples striving to be a missional community, and we feel so blessed to be a part of that.

So when I turned to scripture to prepare for this morning, I was immediately drawn into our gospel lesson from Luke, when Jesus commissions not just his twelve disciples but seventy of his followers to proclaim the kingdom of God. I thought Jesus’ instructions to his followers were important for us to hear this morning as we face this time of pastoral transition.

So let us pray:

Patient Teacher,
we come to you this morning, perhaps uncertain, but reaching out to you.
May we feel you reaching back to us, lifting us up,
as we look to your instructions this morning to learn how we are to live. Amen.

A plentiful harvest. The harvest metaphor is a popular one in scripture, particularly in scripture that announces the coming or the nearness of the kingdom of God. It is a metaphor that speaks of sending people out of their homes, out of their comfort zones, to get their hands dirty and foreheads sweaty. And it is a metaphor that reminds us that though we are the hands and feet of this operation, we aren't the creator of the seed, beacause it is God who prepares the harvest, not us--- God, who whispers in the hearts of people. And, perhaps most importantly, it is God who whispers in our hearts too.1

So in our scripture today, Jesus is using the harvest metaphor to send seventy of his followers ahead of him to spread the news of the kingdom of God. But in the Gospel of Luke, unlike in the more familiar Gospel of Matthew when Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” Jesus' commissioning of his followers to do the work of evangelism has some pretty specific instructions.2 First, the followers of Jesus were to bring nothing with them, then they were to offer peace to those they encountered, then they were to eat and drink whatever was set before them, then they were to cure the sick, and proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near. So that's: Come empty handed, offer peace, eat, cure the sick, and proclaim the kingdom of God. Well, as good Methodists, we've got the eating part down pat, it's just the other stuff that we aren't so sure about.

I don't know about you, but when I think of evangelism today, when I think of “harvesting,” I don't think of the vulnerability and reciprocity that Jesus so clearly intended by these instructions. I don't think of dialogue and friendships, a two-way street. But even today, when perhaps the model of going out two-by-two into strangers' homes doesn't work in the same way it did in Jesus' time, the underlying instructions of vulnerability and reciprocity--- key ingredients needed for transformational relationships--- remain.

I think I like the Great Commission from the Gospel of Matthew better. Being less specific, it seems a little less difficult to me! And Jesus' instructions in the Gospel of Luke don't just seem difficult to us--- even the disciples struggled with them! Just before the passage we read this morning, in the ninth chapter of Luke's gospel, Jesus and his followers go to a village of Samaritans who did not receive them, and this apparently upsets the disciples James and John so much that they ask Jesus if they could get God to rain fire on the village. After such a question, Jesus must have thought specifics, no matter how difficult to follow, were necessary. His own disciples seemed to miss the point about the whole kingdom of God thing, so he needed to come up with some rules that would help them understand a little better.

And so these specifics make me wonder if such a commission to proclaim the kingdom of God is less about changing “them” than it is about changing us.

You will hear me tell a lot of stories about working as a chaplain at a hospital in New Jersey my final year of seminary. It was a formative experience for me as a Christian, and so when I was thinking this week about reciprocity and vulnerability I kept thinking back to my first day as a chaplain. One of the floors where I served was the psyche ward, or behavioral health unit. I had specifically asked to be on this floor, thinking that there the harvest would be plentiful, a whole floor of people aching to hear God's word of life and love. I wanted to be the one saying, “Peace to you,” as Jesus instructed his followers.

My first day in the behavioral health unit, though, I was the one who needed peace. Being a chaplain is a very vulnerable experience. You are walking into hospital rooms you were not invited into, facing rejection at every turn; and those places where you aren't rejected, you often have to confront some of your greatest fears about mortality. So, I had stopped in the behavioral health unit already that day shaking and uncertain and had one of the nurses ask if anyone wanted to speak with a chaplain. Everyone responded with resounding no's. Rejection. So, instead of sitting with folks and being for a few moments, I escaped easily, promising half-heartedly to return later.

Jesus told his followers not to move about from house to house, perhaps knowing that moving on can be an excuse to cover up our own fears and anxieties. But I did return later, and that time I did not announce myself; I just said hi to folks watching the TV, wandered down the hallway, and just when I was about to awkwardly leave again, I decided to walk through the game room area. A young man was in there, and we greeted each other. He was collecting board game pieces, monopoly money, Life cards, and so I assumed he was manic, unable to sit still, and probably not capable of holding a conversation. I wrote him off, and was ready to shake the dust off of my feet and move onto the next place.

But as started to walk away, he asked me rather conversationally where I was from, so I turned back and sat down next to him. He proceeded to tell me about himself, where he was from, what he studied, a little of what brought him to the behavioral health unit. He was, in fact, bipolar, and a recovering alcoholic, and he spoke plainly to me about the hospital program and how much of its merit to him was that he saw examples of what he did not want to become. I felt guilty for walking by him without even giving him a chance, but apparently not enough to change my assumptions about our relationship. When I was leaving, I asked him if he would mind if I kept him in my prayers. He said of course he wouldn't mind, and as I got up to leave and started to turn around he said that he would be keeping me in prayer as well.

This is the kind of vulnerability and reciprocity that Jesus had in mind when he sent the seventy out. He wasn't sending them to drop knowledge on those poor unfortunates who hadn't heard the good news yet--- he sent them, and sends us today, to form relationships, to change others while being changed ourselves. That is part of the reason why the harvest is so plentiful because we are helping not only new people to see God's love, but we ourselves are learning to see God's love anew through our relationships with these new people. You see, I had missed the point completely, thinking I had some special authority by which I could proclaim the kingdom of God as the chaplain of the behavioral health unit. Instead this young man was a witness to Christ's healing, forgiveness, renewal, all wrapped into one stark sentence: “I'll be praying for you too.”

Last week, Dave Moyer preached about being ready for a change. And I think Pastor Bonnie's ministry with you was also getting you ready for change. You have said you want to be the church in the community for the community, that you want to help Edgewood become a safe, vibrant, healthy, loving place. But to do that work is not just a one-way street, us helping Edgewood. It is about us listening to the community, being in relationship with people in the community, and allowing that relationship to transform us for the better too.

Just because we're all Christians and get up to come to church on Sunday morning doesn't mean we've gotten it. Remember James and John wanting to reign down fire on some poor unfriendly village? They were disciples, sitting at the feet of Jesus day in and day out and they still missed out on some pretty important pieces of the gospel message! And look at me, a chaplain in the hospital forgetting the way Christ was working not in me but in hospital patients as well. Jesus instructs us to be vulnerable and enter into relationship seeking to feel God's love ourselves as well as to show God's love to others.

At the end of the passage from Luke, we read, “The seventy returned with joy.” Entering into the unknown, going out and making connections with people, letting people open us up to God's love even as we are trying to show them God's love: all this is scary, unsettling. But it brings joy too, a plentiful joy! So I pray that as we begin our ministry journey together and continue our ministry of being a church in the community for the community, we may all be open to the way God is shaping us. For though the laborers are few, God is with us, and so the harvest will be plentiful. Thanks be to God.

1David J. Lose writes, “God is responsible for the growth of our communities. We are called to be open to this growth; to plan, organize and work in a way that anticipates, rather than impedes such growth; and to pray for and invite others to join us in gathering the harvest God has prepared.” Homiletical Perspective on Luke 10:1-11, 16-20, Proper 9, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) 217.

2Matthew 28:19 (NRSV). See Elaine A. Heath, Theological Perspective on Luke 10:1-11, 16-20, Proper 9, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) 214.

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