Tuesday, July 9, 2013

At Play in the Fields of the Lord

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 10:1-11, 16-20:

In 1906 Vilfredo Pareto, who was an Italian economist, noticed that 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the people.  He then later observed that 80% of the peas in a garden were contained in only 20% of the pea pods.  This led him to postulate a theory now known as the Pareto Distribution.  This theory was later applied to the business world by business consultant Joseph Juran who stipulated the rule as we know it, which is commonly referred to as the 80-20 rule. While the 80% has no mathematical significance, it has been found that in systems of distribution that the imbalance point will be right around 80%.  80% of your profits will come from 20% of your customers, 80% of your complaints will come from 20% of your customers, although not the same 20% who are spending the most money,  80% of sales come from 20% of the products.  Computer programmers have found that 20% of the bugs cause 80% of the software crashes, and safety personnel have found that 20% of hazards cause 80% of the accidents.  The question for us is whether it’s really true, although it certainly feels that way, but even more importantly is that the way it has to be?

The passage we just heard from Luke is a pretty famous one with the claim that there is much work in the harvest, but few workers.  This is usually taken as sort of a truism, yet another confirmation of the 80/20 rule, that even in the church there is too much work to be done, and too few workers to do it all, or too few who do all the work.  And if the Bible says it then it must be true right? But is that what this passage actually says?  Is Jesus simply telling us that it is the lot of the church for 80% of the work to be done by 20% of the people, and 80% of the money to be given by 20% of the people, about 80% of the complaints to be done by 20% of the people?  In my experience on the complaint front it’s actually smaller, it’s probably 5% who do 95%, although please don’t try and prove me wrong by having more people begin doing more complaining.

Luke is the only gospel in which we find this story.  Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell of Jesus sending out the 12 disciples on a missionary journey, and similarly telling them not to take anything with them, a task at which I fail, and if you saw our moving truck you would know by how much, but only Luke tells of the sending of the 70, although there is equal manuscript witness to Jesus sending out 72 here.  This passage also contains a lot more detail about what they are to do, how they are to interact, then does the sending of the 12 disciples.  There is a lot of speculation about who these 70 or 72 are that Jesus sends out.  Most scholars seem to be in general agreement that the number here is a reference to a list of the descendents of Noah and names the ancestors of all of the nations that we find in chapter 10 of Genesis.  In the manuscripts of this passage in Hebrew, the list of the nations has seventy nations.  But in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, which is known as the Septuagint did not have 70 nations, instead it listed 72 nations.  So we then have 70 or 72 sent out depending on whether you were using the Hebrew or Greek versions of the Old Testament.

But if it is indeed a connection to the naming of the nations, which I think is likely, then this story is also directly connected to the story of Pentecost, which is also recounted by Luke in the book of Acts, when the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples and they begin speaking in foreign tongues spreading the gospel message.  But there is something striking about the Pentecost story that we tend to miss, and that can be highlighted in comparison to today’s passage.  As the book of Acts begins, Jesus is giving final instructions to the disciples and the other followers before he ascends into heaven.  Jesus tells them that after he is gone, that the Holy Spirit will be sent to them and the Holy Spirit will give them power.  What will the Holy Spirit give them?  Power.  Remember that because it’s going to keep coming up in our time together.  The Holy Spirit will give them?  Power.  And they are then to proclaim the gospel message to Jerusalem, where they are, to Judea, to the rest of the Jews, to Samaria, who are the enemies of Judaism, and then to the ends of the earth.  “Be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth,” Jesus says, but then what do we find the disciples doing?

They are not being Jesus’ witnesses.  Instead they are holed up in the upper room in Jerusalem, and Peter is teaching and preaching to those who already believe, and so the day of Pentecost comes upon them and they are filled with the Holy Spirit, I don’t believe it’s because of their faithfulness and because they are doing such a good job, but instead it’s God saying to them “get out of the upper room!”  Go do what Jesus has told you, go proclaim, be Jesus’ witnesses to all the ends of the earth, and if you won’t do it yourself, God says, then I’m going to make you do it by giving you different languages so that you have to get out and engage, you have to stop talking amongst yourselves and begin talking to other people, to non-believers.  But of course that’s when the really scary stuff begins to happen, because that’s when we have to begin to trust God, when we have to begin to deal with people who aren’t like us, scary, and we have to truly begin to believe that the Holy Spirit will give us what?  Power, the power to do what God has called us to do.

Unfortunately when we hear Jesus say that we are supposed to go out and do these things, we, like the disciples, come up with all sorts of excellent excuses.  But here’s where it’s very important to pay attention to what Jesus actually says in this passage. The first is that Jesus is calling people in to help bring in the harvest.  “The harvest is plentiful,” Jesus says, “but the laborers are few.”  We are not being sent out to plow and plant and tend, that’s the really hard stuff, but it appears that God has already taken care of all of that, because the harvest is ready to be brought in.  Not that bringing in the harvest doesn’t involve labor, because it certainly does, but the hardest work has already been done by the Holy Spirit, which is already at work in people’s lives.  As United Methodists, we call this prevenient grace, the grace that comes before, the grace which God has extended to us long before we even know that it’s there, before we even know that we need God’s grace in our lives, it’s already there.

So first is that we called to bring in the harvest, not plant the seeds.  The second thing is that we are to begin with prayer.  Really we end with prayer too, but we should always begin with prayer.  “Ask of the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.”  It’s not that Jesus is saying there just aren’t enough people; instead it’s that there are plenty of people but we must begin by praying for God to lead them to help with the harvest, and we must also be open to the nudging of God in what we are being called to do.  Everything begins and ends with prayer, but most especially in seeking to do God’s work in the world.  Third, and this is crucial, is that Jesus sends that out in pairs.

There are lots and lots of reasons for this, and we might spend an entire sermon just talking about this, but Christianity is not a solitary religion.  You cannot be a Christian by yourself.  Christianity is done with others in community.  There is a reason why Jesus said wherever two or more are gathered, there I am amongst them.  And thinking to the passage from Galatians this morning, going out in pairs, doing this is community, allows us to bear one another’s burdens.  So we are called to collect the harvest, not plant the seeds, we are called to be in prayer, we are called to be in community, and the last two are sort of linked, and that is that we are called to be like sheep amongst the wolves and we are called to give exactly the same message to those who receive us and those who reject us.

It is this area that I think we get most confused on, because way too often people go out like wolves amongst the sheep, and our evangelism becomes tools of violence and fear, rather than peace and reconciliation.  Jesus does not tell those he sends out to ask people if they have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and savior, and I can’t help myself but every time I say that I just have to do it with a southern accent.  Nor does he say to tell people how wrong they are, how many sins they are committing, that if they don’t repent and accept Christ today that they will be going to hell.  He doesn’t do that because that’s sending people out like wolves rather than like sheep.

God has already done the hardest part, we are just to go out and gather the harvest by proclaiming to friend and foe alike the same message, that the kingdom of God has come near.  But to do this requires a significant risk, and with risk comes the possibility of failure, and that’s why so many people and churches want to try and avoid this.  We cannot accept the possibility of failure, everything we do has to be successful, but that’s not what God says to us.  Luke in particular emphasizes the grind of being a disciple of Christ because he is the one who records Jesus as saying pick up your cross, how often? Daily, and follow me.  But what’s even more striking is that risk is something that we as Christians should be doing all the time, because we don’t talk about taking a leap of safety, instead we take leaps of what?  That’s right, leaps of faith.  Being a disciple requires us to put safety behind, to take risks, to step out boldly into the world, to risk failure and success to make the proclamation that the kingdom has come near.

But to be a missionary, we must have a mission.  We must have something to proclaim, and something we are excited to proclaim.  You don’t tell your friends about some mediocre restaurant you went to, or a lame movie you saw.  Instead you tell them about the things that really excited you.  So to be able to tell people about the kingdom of god, to tell people about Jesus Christ, we must have experienced the kingdom of God, we must know what God is doing in our lives, how we have been transformed, how God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness and justice are working in our lives.  We have to set ourselves on fire with the Holy Spirit and receive the power of the Holy Spirit in order to do the work of the Holy Spirit.

God does not say here go out and do all this work while I sit back and watch.  God says, I have already done all the hard work for you, and so I am calling you out to bring in my harvest, and it is God’s harvest not ours, regardless of what some evangelists want to say, we are called to be in prayer, we are called to be in community, we are called to go out in peace into the hostile world, and we are called to make the same proclamation that the kingdom of God has come near.  While some people come to Christ and to be in relationship with a church community because of some mega-preacher, or a revival, the vast vast majority come to Christ, and come to attend a church, simply because someone they know goes there, and they took the leap of faith, they took the risk, to not only tell them why Christ and the church are important to them, but also took the leap of faith to invite them to come to church with them.  But for that to truly happen and be effective, we must have a mission to be a missionary, we must be sold out for Christ, we have to be on fire with the power of the Holy Spirit and we must be willing to risk it all for the coming of the kingdom of God.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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