I have two friends who once ran a 57,000 acre ranch in southern Colorado. Every year they allowed a company to come in and cut the alfalfa in some of their fields, and in return the company baled hay for their horses. One of the times I was up visiting, one of the fields had recently been cut and the bales were all still sitting out in the field, when a storm moved in. So we stopped what we were doing, hopped in a truck and rushed out to the field and started bucking the hay. Bucking hay is the act of stacking it in a truck or barn. During a normal day it would have only been Lesli and her partner Anna there to get the bales in, but not only was I visiting, but Anna’s mother was there as well, and so there were two extra sets of hands to help get the hay out of the field. I don’t know how many bales there actually where, but with one person driving and three of us throwing the bales into the truck, and two loads worth, with me spread eagle on top of the load to keep them from falling off on the way to the barn, we were able to get them all back to the barn before the heavy rain started. And not only did we get the bales out of the fields, but we also got to tangle with a badger who happened to be hiding between two of the bales. It was the only time I’ve met a badger, and I hope it is my last time, because badgers really are as mean and nasty as everyone says.
Today we continue in our theme of looking at what we can take learn life on the farm that we can apply to our life as Christians. The first thing we discussed was about being stuck in the mud and to recognize that we cannot save ourselves. Only when we turn our lives over to Christ can we be saved and pulled out of the mud of our lives, and so, we’ll see of those who have been who has been paying attention, the first step to discipleship is to accept, surrender and follow. The second step once we have begun in our faith journey is to keep weeds from choking out our faith life, but practicing the spiritual disciplines, which include daily prayer and daily scripture reading. The fourth step of discipleship is learning how to deal with the manure in our lives, which means we have to learn to compost which has two main components.
The first is time. It takes a while to deal with some of the events in our lives, and the second is that it has to be turned over to be exposed to sunlight and oxygen every seven days, and amazingly enough we gather every seven days for worship to do just that. Now some of you may have noticed I skipped over step three and went straight to four, and that is because step three was about community. But I wasn’t here to talk about step three because of some manure that was taking place, and so today we tackle step three and step five which really go together, and that is community and the building up of leaders.
There are some things that have to be done in community, and Christianity is one of those things. You cannot be a committed disciple of Christ and not be in relation with other Christians. It’s just like bucking hay; you have to do it with others. And, we will also realize that if we gather together as a group not only do we get the job done quicker and more efficiently, thus requiring less effort, but it’s also more enjoyable. As a culture we have become much more individualistic. But, when we stopped helping each other put up hay, both literally and metaphorically, we lost ways to meet our needs for family, relationship and community, and being in relationship with other people is part of who we are. We have also lost the understanding of the power that comes from working in community. And worse when we do get into community we think that we either have to do things alone, or do them by ourselves, and I certainly have this tendency, or worse we see that there’s lots of work to be done but only a few laborers, and we think that’s what Jesus is saying in today’s passage, and because we don’t see others doing the work we either think therefore we don’t have to do it, or more for spite we’re not going to do it unless others will do it as well.
An out-of-towner drove his car into a ditch in a desolated area. Luckily, a local farmer came to help with his big strong horse named Buddy, and this isn’t the mud puddle joke again. The farmer hitched Buddy up to the car and yelled, “Pull, Nellie, pull!” Buddy didn’t move. Then the farmer hollered, “Pull, Buster, pull!” Buddy didn’t respond. Once more the farmer commanded, “Pull, Coco, pull!” Nothing. Then the farmer nonchalantly said, “Pull, Buddy, pull!” And the horse easily dragged the car out of the ditch.
The motorist was most appreciative and very curious. He asked the farmer why he called his horse by the wrong name three times. The farmer said, “Oh, Buddy is blind and if he thought he was the only one pulling, he wouldn’t even try!”
I think one of the most important pieces of today’s passage that we might easily miss, is how Jesus sends out the seventy, and that is that they go in pairs. I think there are lots of reasons for this. The first is that there is some safety in numbers. As Jesus says “I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” But part of that safety is that in pairs we can be talked out of doing something stupid that we might be willing to do on our own, without someone tell us to rethink it. The flip side is that we can be talked into doing things we might otherwise try and avoid, and I’m not talking about the one friend who always seemed to try and talk you into doing something stupid, or maybe they did talk you into doing it. I’m talking about someone who can push us beyond our comfort zone, or between the two, or more, can push beyond comfort zones to do something bold like talking to someone else about our faith. But it’s also the truth that we can do more when there are more people, and not just in bringing in a potential harvest.
Did you know that a single horse can pull up to 700 lbs? But, if you put two horses together, they don’t pull 1400 lbs, instead they can pull 3000 lbs, and if they are trained to pull together, they can pull even more with the world record being right around 5000 lbs. But being in community is about much more than just the amount of work that can be done, it’s also about supporting and caring for one another.
There was a heat wave in Chicago in 1995 in which the heat index for the city was over 125. More than 700 people died of heat related illnesses over five days. But what they found was that the heat affected different communities differently. The poorest neighborhoods were hit the hardest, but one neighborhood wasn’t as affected. Auburn Gresham didn’t just have fewer deaths than the neighborhoods that surrounded them, but it had fewer deaths than some of the affluent neighborhoods. And so sociologist Eric Klinenberg set out to try and study what the difference was. In his words, “Living in a community like Auburn Gresham is the rough equivalent of having a working air-conditioner in each room.” What made the difference? In Auburn-Gresham they didn’t live isolated lives like people did in other communities. They had ties to one another and to local businesses. During the heat wave, they checked up on each other, shared information and resources, and spent time in air-conditioned buildings together instead of hiding away alone.
Being in community, helping each other, is written into our DNA as Christians. Jesus said wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there I am amongst them, wherever two or more or gathered. In the Book of Acts immediately after Pentecost, which represents the birth of the church, we are told that the earliest disciples and followers of Christ not only gathered together during the day, but that they lived together and held everything in common. It takes all of us. It takes fellowship, it takes us bearing one another’s burdens but also holding one another accountable. It’s asking each other the age old question which is at the heart of Methodism, “How is it with your soul?” Or asking “Where did you encounter God this week?”
This community that I am talking about is about more than just gathering in worship, although that is critically important. But that’s not enough. Gathering for Sunday school, although also critical, is also not enough. We need to be engaging each other at a much deeper level, we need to be gathering in small groups where we can support each other, carrying one another’s burdens, but also calling out each other when we have gone wrong, when we are allowing weeds to grow up in our garden. Tim McLendon who said the only difference between united and untied is where we place the I. The only difference between united and untied is where we place the I. Where do we place the I?
And united here does not mean that we all have to think and do the same things. To be honest that would be a little boring, and as the world gets more pluralistic, church should be a place that we learn how to get along with people with whom we disagree, who think different things, and yet we can still be in relationship with them, value them and know how much they contribute to the body of Christ because if all we have are a bunch of arms, or a bunch of legs, then the body of Christ is not complete or whole. We need everyone to help bring in the harvest that God has produced for us and the world, it can’t just be one or two, and notice what Jesus says. First he says, “The harvest is plentiful.” That means it’s a great harvest, not a little harvest; it’s plentiful. And who is the Lord of the harvest, or we might ask, who produced said harvest? It’s God that produces the harvest, we are just called to bring it in, and so Jesus says, “Ask the Lord of the harvest to send our laborers into God’s harvest.” The laborers are few not because people don’t want to work, but because they haven’t been asked. So here is my ask.
How are you going to be involved in bringing in God’s harvest, or even helping to produce it in the first place? How are you going to respond to the call to do God’s work? And a gentle hint, this is not a rhetorical question. God does not call for bench warmers, God calls for all of us to be playing in the game.
And that leads us to our final point, and that is leadership. When we normally think of Jesus’ followers in scripture, we think of the disciples, and yet we have this other group of seventy, although other manuscript traditions say it is 72, who are also participating, who are followers, who are being taught, who are doing the work of God in bringing in the harvest. Although Luke is the only one who mentions them, so we might say they were therefore unimportant. But that would be wrong for two reasons. The first is because they are clearly being sent to do God’s work in the fields, but also because of whom we might say they are being trained to be. Tradition holds that the 70 become future leaders in the church, including James the brother of Jesus who becomes the first bishop of the church. And when the disciples look to replace Judas’ position, who do they choose and where does he come from? They choose Matthias, who again tradition holds was a member of the 70. So we might say that the disciples are the first set of leaders, they are the starters on the team in our sports metaphor, but you need to have others prepared and ready to take their place, and those replacements come from the 70. Another group who are also being trained and educated to help keep sowing and reaping the harvest of God. The other laborers in the field are always more than just extra hands to do the work; they are the future leaders in bringing in the harvest.
The same is also true in churches. We must be building up and training and educating not only our current leaders so they can successfully do the work of the church in realizing that the harvest is plentiful and working to bring it in, but we must also be working on raising up a new set of leaders, who are also being trained and educated so that they can take the place of the leaders who are doing the work right now. If all the work is always and only left to those who are in leadership now, not only will not all the work get done, or get done effectively, thinking back to how we should harvest, but eventual our leaders will burn themselves out and without anyone to replace them, we will experience a leadership vacuum and be even less effective. And one more piece of what we can learn from the farm is that sometimes you need to leave your fields fallow for a season in order to give them a break as well. In fact, scripture calls for a Sabbath time not just for humans, but also for the fields and for the animals who work the fields.
So leadership in the church is not a lifetime appointment, something from which you can never escape, because everyone needs to have a season of being fallow in order to restore health in order to be able to produce bigger harvests later. And so that only emphasizes the need for raising up new leaders to take their place. To help us do all of these things, we are going to be much more intentional as we move forward in building up community among all of us, of giving opportunities for all of us to do the work in the fields to which we are called to do, to be training and raising up our leaders, not just from those we currently have, but also from those who can replace them and lead us into the future.
Living in community is hard, being a part of a community is hard, but we are called to be in relationship with God, and we are called to be in relationship with each other. Only through these relationships are we able to become the disciples that God has called us to be. Only through these relationships are we able to carry one another’s burdens. And only through these relationships are we able to deepen our relationship with each other and with God, and only through these relationships can we bring in the plentiful harvest that God has produced. We don’t do it alone and we can’t do it alone. Only when we are all working together can it be done, and only when we are training our current leaders and those who will take their place can we be assured of a successful harvest not only for today, but for years to come. But the most important point is also to never forget who it is that produces the harvest, and it’s not me and it’s not you, it’s God. It is God who produces the harvest, we are just called to participate and to know and to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near. I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.