It so happens that fairly often, when this scripture from lectionary cycle – a three-year schedule of scripture readings for worship – comes up, it falls on the first Sunday in July, which is also typically the day that United Methodist clergy around the connection are beginning their appointment, starting out in new congregations. It seems a kind of comical coincidence that for many pastors in new pulpits, their very first gospel text, as they make their first impressions and take their first impressions of their new congregation is about journeying to a new place to share the good news, and being prepared to either receive a warm welcome, or to shake the dust from their feet as they get out of town fast if things go poorly! Thankfully, I can tell you that even though it is my first Sunday here, I can already tell you that as I bring you greetings of peace, I’ve already found those eager to share in that peace, from former-Pastor-Beth’s warm words about how much she’s enjoyed her ministry with you, to the hard work of the Staff-Parish Relations Committee to care for the details of transition, to being hosted by the Schuesslers while I wait to move into the parsonage, to folks connecting with me on facebook, to meeting people at Vacation Bible School on Friday. I’ve been blessed by your warm welcome, and I’m ready to share the good news with your help – the kingdom of God has come near!
One of the challenges of reading small snippets of scripture in worship is that we can sometimes lose track of where we are in the larger story. The gospel writers try to help us keep track, if we pay attention to some of the helpful words and phrases they use. Our passage for today opens with the phrase, “After this.” Our first question, then, should be, “after what?” If we flip back to chapter 9, we’ll see that the last thing that happens before today’s passage is that Jesus talks to several people who say that want to follow him – after they do just one more thing. They say, “I want to follow you Jesus, but first” I need to do these other things. Jesus isn’t impressed with their offers though. He says to them, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” In other words, if you want to follow Jesus, Jesus wants you to be ready to actually follow him, without reservations. Challenging words!
So that’s the “after this” where our lesson for today begins. There are apparently at least seventy – seventy beyond the twelve disciples – who are willing to do just what Jesus asked: they’re being sent out. Jesus pairs them up and sends them out to all the places where Jesus plans to go. He says 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.” Jesus says he sends them out like “lambs into the midst of wolves.” He tells them, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; greet no one on the road.”
He tells them that when they arrive and find a place to stay, they should enter the home with words of peace. “Peace to this house!” If they find people who share in that peace, good: stay in that house, eat and drink whatever is offered. Don’t go about looking for nicer digs, but stay where you are. Where they are welcomed, do the work of God: heal those who are sick, and announce the good news – the kingdom of God has come near. This good news meant that people could experience God’s way of things, God’s hope and vision for the world right here and right now. But, Jesus said, if there’s no welcome extended, then shake even the dust of that town from your feet as you leave. Nonetheless, they are still to share the news: The kingdom of God has come near.”
So what can we learn from the instructions Jesus gave to these seventy, as he sent them out into the world? Maybe we’re not sent on the exact same kind of mission as this group was. But I do think we are all sent out to share the same message as they were – the message of hope and joy that God’s reign is here, that we can live and work in the world God dreams of right now, that God’s love and grace is offered to us freely right now. And if the message we have to share is the same, maybe we can use the same traveling advice Jesus gives the seventy: Be vulnerable, and travel light.
When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to travel to Austria with a group of orchestra students, to play some concerts as part of Austria’s millennial celebration. It was a fantastic trip – one of my favorite trips even still. It was my first big trip like that – a little more than two weeks – the first time I’d been away from home for so long. And I tried to think of everything that I might need for such a trip. I was at the age and of the mindset then that one could not possibly repeat an outfit in such a short amount of time – which meant that I needed to have more than 14 changes of clothes with me. Plus, of course, I might need fancier clothes or warmer or cooler clothes or so on. By the time I was done packing, I think I had two large suitcases and a carry on backpack. Nothing had wheels. It was totally unmanageable. And although I had a wonderful trip, I spent the two-plus weeks struggling every time we changed locations to haul around my ridiculous luggage. I couldn’t do it without help. I vowed, then, never again to pack for a trip in such a way that I couldn’t easily manage my own bags.
Jesus sends out the seventy by telling them to make themselves intentionally vulnerable. All that stuff he doesn’t want them to bring – they might think of it as exactly what would be sensible to be prepared. Who goes traveling without extra money and proper footwear and an extra bag of supplies? Who wouldn’t move to new accommodations if the first place wasn’t satisfactory? Who wouldn’t want to be a little selective about what they ate while they were traveling? But Jesus tells them to be like lambs among wolves – the most vulnerable creatures possible! All of those things that might help them be prepared and protected can also be layers of defense, layers that would keep the disciples from relying on others and relying on God. As much as the idea of being self-reliant might appeal to us, it actually isn’t what Jesus has in mind! These pairs of disciples have each other, and they have what Jesus has taught them, and they have the message Jesus has sent them with: God’s kingdom has come near. Everything else will just weigh them down.
To really follow Jesus, we have to be ready to be on the move. So we have to look over our lives and ask ourselves what things we’re trying to drag around with us while serving God that are really just keeping us from giving our whole hearts and lives to God. What is it that’s weighing down your suitcase? What fears are you packing in your bags? What priorities that you find yourself putting before your life with God are you trying to tuck into your suitcase? What worries do you insist on taking with you everywhere? What prejudices that keep you from seeing Christ in others are you lugging along with you? What restrictions are you putting on giving your heart to God? Jesus says we don’t need all that stuff with us to go where he’s sending us. It will just slow us down. And our message is too good to keep people waiting on us while we try to manage all of our suitcases.
Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” In Tully, New York, not too far from my last congregation, there’s a non-profit farm called the Matthew 25 farm. Based on the text from Matthew’s gospel about feeding Christ when we feed the “least of these”, the Farm grows crops on ten acres of land, and gives all of it to area food pantries. Or, if you need it, you can come and pick food and take it home for yourself, your family, your neighbors. I’ve enjoyed volunteering there from time to time, and I’m on their email list. Occasionally, I’ll get emails saying that they have tons and tons of food ready to be harvested, but they’re having trouble getting people to come and gather in all that good food. If they don’t get enough help with the harvest, all those delicious fresh vegetables will simply rot, unused. What a waste!
Jesus says that the harvest is plentiful! I’m not sure we always see that – the plentiful harvest. Jesus says that there is a world that is ripe, waiting for some good news. It’s not that the harvest is small – God’s harvest is ever abundant. It’s that the laborers are few. The laborers are few because we’re looking for a safe way of following Jesus, and Jesus is telling us he’s looking for lambs to send out among the wolves! The laborers are few because we’re too busy trying to cram one more thing into our bags before we’re ready to get to work, when Jesus has been trying to tell us we won’t need all that where he’s sending us. We can’t get out into the fields to gather in God’s harvest if we’ve packed everything we own into our suitcases and are trying to drag them through the fields with us!
The harvest is waiting. Will we be God’s laborers? Over the next weeks, I’m going to be doing a lot of unpacking. And I hope to spend that time reflecting on what else in my life I need to unpack, what I’m carrying with me that’s weighing me down as I try to follow Jesus. I hope you’ll join me in that soul-searching, and then join me in heading out to the harvest. Amen.