Plentiful Harvest, Labour Shortage
| Matthew 9:35 - 10:23
||Sun, June 13, 1999
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Sheep without a shepherd. A harvest without harvesters. Jesus speaks the language of the farm. His is not the talk of city-dwellers. Last Sunday afternoon, flying into Winnipeg airport we heard the pilot saying: "Folks, if you look out the left side of the plane you will see a hercules aircraft and an F-18 fighter jet in a mid-air refueling procedure for the Winnipeg air show". Then as we were all straining to look out the windows we heard the steward’s voice come over the intercom: "And if you look out the right hand side of the aircraft you will see ... a lot of farmland". Here we sit, in the heart of a theological college and on the edge of a university campus, accustomed to the urbanized language of theology and philosophy yet invited to speak in the vernacular of the farm yard and the sand lot.
Remember the farm? My mother-in-law still talks about the year that her father didn’t get the harvest in. It was in Saskatchewan in the late ‘20s. Finally, after a series of crop failures, they had a bumper crop. The neighbours worked together to get one another’s crop in. Joy’s dad owned a harvester, which he took to his neighbour’s fields before they came back to help with the harvest on his farm. But they were delayed. They did not arrive when promised. Then the weather turned. And the whole crop was lost. Devastating. When the crop is ready to harvest every farmer knows that time is everything. Urgency is the order of the day. There is no time to waste. It is now or never.
This is what Jesus is urging upon his disciples. It is harvest-time, he says, and the labourers are few. Not one to worry about mixing his metaphors, Jesus portrays the field of this harvest as a flock of sheep who are without a shepherd. They are the people of Israel who crowd in around him looking for healing and new life, craving the new community which he brings in his wake. They are, says Jesus, "harassed and helpless".
Harassed and helpless people. A time of great urgency. Need that far outstrips the resources at hand. Jesus describes a world we know only too well. Jan comes home from the Dominican Republic with images from three orphanages. Haunting images of the lost sheep of Israel ... orphaned children, ‘harassed and helpless’. And these are but a microscopic fraction of the world’s ‘harassed and helpless’ children. The news brings images of Kosovar refugees, fear and fatigue written all over their faces sitting, ‘harassed and helpless’ in an encampment. They, too, but a tiny segment of the world’s ‘harassed and helpless’ refugees. These baskets of food and clothing brought forward by our children each week are a continual reminder of other lost sheep ... of sheep whose addictions or illnesses or troubled lives have left them ‘harassed and helpless’ on the streets of the Downtown Eastside ... and in prisons ... and on reserves. But, of course, the lost sheep are not only there ... at a distance. They are also here ... close at hand. Here hiding behind the trimmed hedges and manicured lawns and dead-bolted doors of our neighbourhood. Here in the residences and faculties of our campus. The ‘harassed and helpless’ sheep who wander aimlessly, in search of a good shepherd, are here, too. Even here now. For we have come here in search of that shepherd ..or, rather, that shepherd has found us wandering aimlessly and has led us to this green pasture and still water.
This is what has happened to the twelve. They are no longer the lost sheep of Israel. Once they were lost, but now they are found. They are among those who have been harvested into the new kingdom-community of God ... a community in which even Matthew the one time tax-collector (a Roman hireling) and Simon the Cananean (a Judean zealot and nationalist) share kinship. They hear Jesus’ invitation to become disciples and follow. They commit themselves to learning the disciplines of Jesus’ way of life. But now they become ‘apostles’. Apostle. It means "one who is sent". Jesus will no longer be the only one announcing the good news that God’s realm is on the increase. Now the twelve are sent to proclaim and to cure, to raise and to cleanse, and to cast out. No small order. Especially in light of the unimaginable need that awaits them.
No wonder Jesus stops to offer some words of advice. The biblical commentators call this section ‘A Manual for Missionaries’. Folks at our ‘Share and Care’ study group this week thought it sounded more like a mother’s advice to her children before they head in to town! "Don’t go into Gentile areas, avoid the Samaritan sections. Head for the lost of Israel. You didn’t pay to be rescued. Don’t charge for your services. Travel light. Don’t carry any cash or savings with you. And no backpacks or suitcases. Workers receive fair compensation for their work. When you show up in a community, find a worthy host and stay put until it is time to move on. If you find that there is no welcome in the entire place, don’t waste your time there ... let God be the judge ... and move on to another location. It is a jungle out there. There are wolves waiting to feast on your innocence and naivety. Be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Don’t panic when you get in hot water. When it comes time to testify God will give you speech. Families will be torn apart over this. People will hate you because of me. Don’t give up. Endurance is the key. Keep on the move. There is no time to waste. God’s time will come before you can ever finish your task."
It is interesting, isn’t it, that this is not one of those Bible passages that we have learned by memory? Not like the Lord’s Prayer or the Beatitudes. The church, as often as not, ignores these pearls Jesus’ wisdom as quickly as it receives them. Like teenagers ignoring Mom’s advice, after all! We have tended to stay in here ‘with Jesus’ rather than to understand ourselves as an ‘apostolic church’ - a church sent ‘out there’. Unlike St. Francis of Assisi or Mother Theresa and their ilk, the church has found Jesus’ command to divest itself of security and wealth to be unwise. Just look at the statistics in a recent edition of the United Church Year Book. Seven Vancouver churches spanning the west-side and downtown core hold over $43,000,000 in assets. Yet in one year they baptised a total of five adults and welcomed eleven more through confirmation. Not exactly a church travelling light ... not feeling particularly ‘sent’, it would seem. And, yes, we were one of those seven communities of disciples.
One could easily get depressed when confronted, on the one hand, by Jesus’ audacious directives to those he has called and, on the other, by the church’s lethargic response. But there is no need for despair. We are waking up to the urgency of our common calling ... a calling that is common to all who follow Jesus ... wherever they are in the world ... even us ...
... listening to the conversation about this text at the ‘Share and Care’ gathering, Jan thinks of her sense of being sent to mobilize support for orphans in the Dominican Republic. She hears Jesus say not to linger when there is no response to the invitation ... and she sees the wisdom in not lingering or arguing or cajoling. There is too much to do, too much need and too many willing to participate ... to fret over those who do not share the vision.
... invited to offer the Invocation at one of UBC’s spring convocation exercises, I wonder about the wisdom of such a use of my time. My words amount to just a couple of minutes in the lengthy proceedings. Is anybody listening? Isn’t it just a formality ... left over from the days when the church was invited to add its blessing to every cultural gathering? A day later my phone rings. A student who was in attendance has tracked me down. She wonders if she can come to see me ... and if she can have a copy of the prayer ... which, she says, spoke to her need. Others stop me at convocation with similar remarks. I think to myself, next year I will speak at more convocations, not less.
... a meeting to consider the mission of the churches on Vancouver’s west side is called for tomorrow night. We invite two people from each of twelve United Church congregations to gather and to consider our common future. But initial enthusiasm seems to have waned. Only four congregations appear to be sending anyone. I assume that we will cancel the meeting. Then John reads this week’s scripture ... and wonders if we shouldn’t go ahead. He notes that the apostles were called to accept hospitality where they found it ... and not to stop if they did not receive a welcome. He wonders if being ‘wise as serpents’ means having the wisdom and courage to lead, to plan strategically, not to be deterred by setbacks in the road. We decide not to cancel the gathering ... but to work with those who share our passion.
... flying home from Winnipeg, my friend and seat mate asks about University Hill. He, like many of my colleagues, is intrigued by our pilgrimage as a congregation. I tell him that it is not all a bed of roses ... that we need to grow by a couple of dozen households if we are to become self-sufficient over the next few years. He says, "Have you done any knocking on doors yet?" I think to myself "Are you kidding ... we’re a United Church. We don’t do those kinds of things?" Yet I find myself saying: "Perhaps it is time." Time not simply to recruit fellow labourers ... but time to carry the message of hope and the healing power of Christ to the ‘harassed and helpless’ who live right here.
It is no accident that Jesus sends twelve disciples ... twelve apostles ... on this mission. It is a specific mission. Later in Matthew’s Gospel ... at its final climactic moment ... Jesus will send all of his followers to make disciples of all nations. But now, in preparation for that time, he chooses a representative team of twelve because this mission is focussed not on the world but on the twelve tribes of Israel. Before the new Israel can be sent to the world Jesus sends his apostles to Israel itself. Which is precisely what is happening here ... and now. Only now Israel is the Church ... and the lost sheep are entire congregations ... even denominations. Next Sunday morning we will be joined in worship by participants at a weekend event that is called "Weaving Congregational Tapestries". The gathering is but one of many signs that more than a few congregations within the church are ‘harassed and helpless’ ... and seeking a way ahead. The lost sheep are not only beyond the church ... they are in the church. And those who are sent out by Christ are, in many ways, first sent to Christ’s church itself to harvest the deep desire for healing that is evident everywhere one turns in the church. Last weekend in Winnipeg the conversation kept working its way around to the emergence of new kinds of congregational life in the United Church ... and that kept leading the discussion back here to University Hill. To a congregation that shows evidence of growing, step by step, in commitment and discipleship ...to congregations that are placing their energy in mission rather than in maintenance. Whether we know it or not, we are being sent by Christ to the church itself.
Our emerging calling as a congregation is to proclaim the good news to congregations of our own denomination who are lost in despair. When I asked a good friend it was heretical to make such a suggestion he replied: "I wouldn’t say it is heretical ... arrogant, perhaps, but not heretical ... and it just may be true". Our call to proclaim the gospel to the church does not come because we have it ‘right’ and other congregations have it ‘wrong’. No. We are not sent knowing ‘how to be good Christians’ or ‘how to do theology’. After all, we’re not all that sure about how far our resources can stretch ... we waver in indecision when offered an opportunity to reach out to the lost sheep of Kosovo. Perhaps we are being as wise as serpents ... not committing resources that we can not deliver. Or perhaps, to be honest, we find Jesus’ instructions simply too difficult: "No gold, no silver, no purse". Just ... just what? Faith? Hope? Promise? God? Yes. Just that. We are sent to the church in the same way as the first apostles are sent to Israel. They have no obvious qualifications for the task. They are hardly model followers of Christ. Their resumés detail experience as fishermen and tax-collectors but not as pastors and prophets. Yet they do know what it means to be lost. And they know what it means to be found and healed by the Good Shepherd. Which is precisely what this congregation has been discovering for a decade and more. We have known despair ... and we have been surprised by joy. No longer are we ‘harassed and helpless’ ... waiting for the doors to close. Instead, we are discovering what it means to be an apostolic community ... a people sent out with good news to announce and to live. Thank God.