Sunday, July 07, 2019

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "Laborers for the Harvest," Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Sermon 7/7/19
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20


Laborers for the Harvest

We’re sort of between things on our worship calendar right now. We finished up our Holy Club sermon series last week, and in two weeks, we’re starting a series on Fear and being Unafraid that will take us through the rest of the summer. But with some schedule quirks, and adding a special Sunday later this summer when my childhood pastor will come and lead a special music and worship service for us, we were left with a Sunday in between things today. So, without a particular theme or series to guide us, I turned to see what was on the lectionary, the suggested schedule of scripture readings, for worship today. I’ve been serving here for three years now, and the lectionary is a three year cycle, and so the scripture in the lectionary today is the same as it was on my very first Sunday here! I’m sure you all remember my sermon from three years ago, right? Three years ago, I was remarking on how funny it is for new pastors to start their ministries in churches by reading about shaking the dust of their feet if a place isn’t welcoming to them and their message! 
But when I flipped to the gospel text this time, I got stuck right at the start of the text. Jesus sends out 70 followers to places he plans to go eventually too to preach and teach, and encourages these 70 to start sharing the good news that the reign of God has come near, building relationships with people, curing their sick. But before he sends them out, he says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” And I thought, “Yes. That’s it. Please God, we need more. The laborers are few. We need more.” 
I’ll be honest: I’ve been worried. Worship attendance has been down lately, and summer typically marks an even smaller crowd, as all of us, myself included, spend more time traveling for one reason or another in the summer. Giving to the General Fund, our “regular giving,” has been down. We’ve been struggling to meet out expenses earlier in the year this year than the year before. It’s a bit stressful. And between those two factors: lower giving, and lower attendance, I find that my mind is a swirl of questions: What’s changing? What’s changed? What do we need to fix? What are we missing? And although I also have lots of thoughts about how to answer those questions, still, when I read the opening verses of my text, my gut reaction was “Yes, God, please send us more. We need some more laborers. We need more resources and more people. Jesus said we should ask, and I’m asking: please send us some more!” 
In the midst of my anxious response to this text, I read a devotional reflection by David Lose about this passage on his blog, In the Meantime. You know he’s one of my favorite preachers, and he didn’t disappoint. He wrote, 
“Reading this passage nearly 2000 years after the Christian Church first got going, it’s easy to miss the rather shocking audacity of Jesus’ statement: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”
“Really, Jesus? Earlier he talked about how he has nowhere to rest his head, all kinds of folks have made excuses about why they’re not joining him, he’s been rejected by a whole town, and he’s on the way to Jerusalem where he has already said – twice! – that he fully expects to be rejected again, betrayed, and handed over to death.
“So in what way, shape, or form, his companions might wonder, is the harvest plentiful?!
“But here again we encounter Jesus’ “kingdom logic,” a way of looking at life and the world that stands in such contrast to the usual measures and calculations that it seems nearly ludicrous by comparison.
“So why does Jesus’ say the harvest is plentiful? Simply because he sees people in need. Note his instructions to his disciples. They are to share in the hospitality of the homes opened to them and while visiting focus on the needs of those around them, healing their sick, proclaiming hope, and announcing God’s blessing.
“If we look around today we might make one of two assessments. If we look to statistics about church growth, we’re likely to despair and assume that the harvest has withered on the vine and that our best days are behind us. But if we look to statistics – and stories – of people in need, then we realize immediately that there has never been a better time for the church to be the community of Jesus, reaching out in blessing and good news to heal the sick, feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, and befriend the lonely. There are more people – quite literally – who need to hear of God’s grace and be touched by God’s love than ever before. And we are the people called to be laborers in this harvest.” (http://www.davidlose.net/2013/10/luke-10-1-12/)
I want to read that last part again: “There has never been a better time for the church to be the community of Jesus, reaching out in blessing and good news to heal the sick, feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, and befriend the lonely ... We are the people called to be laborers in this harvest.” (emphasis mine) Lose helped me be reminded of words that I have shared with you all before, what I know to be true: communities of faith that turn in on themselves, that start focusing only on themselves and what they need to get along are the ones in trouble. But when communities of faith stay turned out outward, focusing on serving others, they thrive, and what’s more, they’re fulfilling the mission and purpose of Jesus in the world. 
When Jesus tells his 70 followers that they need to ask God to send laborers into the harvest, he essentially immediately answers his own request, by sending these 70 folks in pairs out into the towns to do the work of the harvest: he tells them to eat with people, cure the sick, and tell them: “God’s reign has come near to you!” But you can see how urgent Jesus thinks the task is. It is so urgent that he tells them, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.” In other words, they need to get to their task more than they need to pack, more than they need to take a leisurely time getting to their destination, greeting everyone along the way. The most important thing is getting to the towns, meeting people, and telling them that they don’t have to wait to experience the closeness of God for death, for afterlife, for heaven. They don’t have to wait until they can get close to God’s home - God’s home, God’s reign, God’s way of things has come to them, if they’ll only welcome it. 
Jesus both wants to pray for laborers for the harvest, and he thinks they have plenty enough laborers already to do some pretty amazing work in the name of God. I think that’s true for us, too. I’m praying and wondering and planning and praying some more about laborers for the harvest, about asking God to show us how we can be best equipped with people and resources for the ministry to which God calls us. But I’m also giving thanks because of what God has already supplied us with as we harvest. We have generous congregants, even when we face challenges, who have, just in the last year, with folks from First UMC and North Gouverneur: put on benefits for those struggling with illness, collected donations from the community to buy school supplies, gathered and distributed school supplies to so many families, fed hundreds of people in the community on a weekly basis, gathered donations for people in recovery who feel like no one cares about them, built and kept filled a blessing box to meet some emergency food needs in the community, sent cards, given rides, and visited people who are ill and homebound, brought the good news about Jesus and God’s grace to people in prison, donated and volunteered for Vacation Bible School, provided scholarship money for kids to attend camp, bought Christmas presents for several families in the community, given Christmas and Easter offerings to support fire victims, support our local hospital, support relief efforts and community building in Haiti and Puerto Rico, supported Special Sunday offerings that help us reach beyond our local community to the world beyond, sung Christmas Carols to people in need of some cheer, and more - I know I’m forgetting things. It’s not that we need to brag on ourselves. It’s that we need reminding - at least I do - that we have laborers already, even if we wish we had more. 
The specific thing Jesus tells the 70 to pray for is that those laborers would be sent out. He doesn’t ask for more exactly. He just tells them to ask that the laborers get sent out. And then he sends them out! So we’re praying sometimes for more: more people, more resources. But I think Jesus is telling us that we are the resources. And he’s asking us to pray that our resources get put to use. And then he’s telling us he’s ready, right now, for just that to happen: he’s ready to put us to use. Because, as Lose reminded us, “there has never been a better time for the church to be the community of Jesus.” The harvest - the people so needing to be gathered up by God? The people who so need to experience the forgiveness and love and patience and challenge and hope and joy of God - they’ve never been in more abundance than they are right now. We are God’s resources. We are the messengers. We are the ones sent. We are the laborers. Sometimes we feel like we are too few. But Jesus sees enough of us to send out to change the world. Hurry! We’ve got a plentiful harvest to start gathering in. Amen. 

Monday, July 01, 2019

Sermon, "The Holy Club: A Matter of Time," 2 Peter 3:8-15

Sermon 6/30/19
2 Peter 3:8-15

The Holy Club: A Matter of Time

Today, we’re finishing up our series on The Holy Club as we look at the last in a set of questions that John and Charles Wesley and other members of their accountability group used to focus themselves and each other in their continuing spiritual growth. We’ve looked at some questions about trusting God and our own trustworthiness, and we’ve thought about what it means to have faith, and what faithfulness looks like. Today, we’re thinking about how we use the resources that God gives us to grow as disciples, and in particular, we’re thinking about how we use the gift of time. The Holy Club questions this week are, like every week, challenging and timeless: “Am I a slave to dress, friends, work, or habits? Do I get to bed on time and get up on time? How do I spend my spare time? Do I pray about the money I spend? Did the Bible live in me today? Do I give it time to speak to me everyday? Am I enjoying prayer?”
I think questions about how we’re spending our time and what that has to do with our faith are some of the hardest for us to answer because we pretty quickly go on the defensive. Many of us - most of us - don’t feel like we have enough time, and we always feel like time is going by too quickly when it comes to the things we really enjoy and treasure. When we watch children growing around us, or when we’re saying goodbye to a person or a season in our life, time is rushing by. When we’re up against a deadline, there’s not enough time. And yet, despite how little time we feel we have, we also do a lot of things that on reflection seem like “wastes” of our time. When we’re asked to give an accounting of our time, we can be defensive, because we never seem to be perfectly at peace with how much time we have and how we’re using it. Remember when I told you about those journal prompts I use when I need a little help to start writing? That list of words like reading, needing, wanting, watching, where I can just fill in the blank and give a short response? One of the words on the list is thinking. What am I thinking about, what’s weighing on my mind on a given day. And almost every day that I use this prompt, the first thing that pops into my head is “my to do list.” My “to do list” is running through my mind constantly, and I bet yours is too. Sometimes I feel like I wake up immediately thinking about the tasks I must complete that day. Is that how it is supposed to be? How we’re meant to use our time? An endless running from one task to another in the futile hope that we will one magical day actually cross everything off the list?  
Last fall, when we were talking about time and stewardship, about how we use our time - a gift from God - as a gift we can offer back to God by how we use it, I shared with you some of the questions from John Wesley that are still asked to United Methodist clergy in preparation for their ordination. In his “Twelve Rules for Helpers,” Wesley writes, “Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary. Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time.” (1) Sounds a bit exhausting, doesn’t it? And indeed, part of how we ended up being called Methodists was because of Wesley’s very methodical approach to everything faith-related. He seemed to thrive on carefully organizing his time in order to devote himself to God. He had high standards for himself and for others and expectations about the best way to spend nearly every minute so that we could do the most for God we possibly could. Still, even Wesley in his rigidness seems to be able to see that there is a big picture at stake. His 12 Rules also says, “You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work.” Perhaps it seems like our time has to be spent accomplishing a million things. But for Wesley, all of those little things were just part of one big thing - helping others get close to God.  
Maybe, in our continuing struggles with time and how we spend it, we run into trouble when we don’t know what our “big thing” is. We don’t know what the focus is of our life’s work. Wesley knew what he wanted to do: get more people to experience God’s saving grace. And so he tried, diligently, to order his time around that task. What’s your “big thing?” If I had to spell mine out, I would say my big life task is to be a better follower of Jesus. I think that can include a lot of things, a lot of aspects of how I spend my time, including trying to grow as a pastor, and help others connect to God. But at the heart of it, that’s all part of following Jesus. If I make “being a better follower of Jesus” the guiding principle of how I spend my time, how might that impact how I spend my days? I’m not saying that we should never have a day off - God knows I couldn’t be a great follower of Jesus if I didn’t have time to rest mind and body and spirit. But when I look at that endless to do list - I want to find signs that the way I’m spending these precious seconds and minutes and hours of life actually have something to do with what I claim as my main thing.
Were any of you fans of the TV show Scrubs? There were a few standout episodes for me, and one that stands out is where JD, the main doctor on the show, was discussing what dying or heaven might be like with a patient. She, the patient, said that she envisioned a big Broadway production number, with her taking center stage. She dies in the episode, and JD envisions a complete show-stopping ballad, with this woman singing a Colin Hay song. These are some of the lyrics:
And you say, be still my love
Open up your heart
Let the light shine in
But don't you understand
I already have a plan
I'm waiting for my real life to begin
And you say, just be here now
Forget about the past, your mask is wearing thin
Let me throw one more dice
I know that I can win
I'm waiting for my real life to begin

The song and scene are beautiful. But the lyrics, though poetic, I find troubling. “Waiting for my real life to begin.” Sometimes, that is exactly what gets me into trouble, or at least, what keeps me from the real life I want: being convinced that I am just waiting for the right moment to start living as I really want to live, spending my life how I feel I’m meant to be spending it. Is there something you are putting off doing? A dream you have for your life? Something you’ve wanted to accomplish, but haven’t even started at? Some deeper purpose for your life that you want to reach for and explore, but for some reason, keeping telling yourself, not just yet? As you look over your days, is your “big thing” getting any attention, or do you keep telling yourself you’ll have more time for that later
      Our scripture reading today is from 2 Peter helps us think about time and waiting on God. The author - although the letter is attributed to Peter, it probably was not written by the disciple Simon Peter - the author, a leader of a faith community, knows that he is near death. And so he wants to leave behind a testimony, some words of guidance about how to be followers of The Way, one of the first names used for Jesus-followers. Particularly, in our reading for today, the author wants to address some issues of time. As you read some of the writings of the New Testament, like Paul’s writings, you start to realize that most followers of Jesus believed that Jesus would return within their lifetimes, that the world would end within their lifetimes. Jesus had talked to them about a time when he would come back to earth, about a final reckoning of all things on earth - and many - perhaps most - of them believed that they would live to see that happen. But as time marched on, some of the first followers of Jesus were dying, and still, Jesus hadn’t returned. Jesus-followers were starting to worry that maybe Jesus wasn’t going to come back at all.  
The author, then, writes to address this seeming conflict. He says, “With the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” God’s time isn’t the same as ours, he says. It’s not that God is slow in delivering on God’s promise, but rather, the author argues, God is patient. It is God’s great desire that all of us should experience repentance, turning our minds and hearts and lives away from whatever else we’ve been chasing, and instead follow God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength. And so God is not slow. God is patient, giving us ample time to experience the salvation God offers. Christ will come again - but not yet. 
In the meantime, as we wait, we don’t wait passively. We wait and prepare. The author asks rhetorically: “What sort of people ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God?” While we’re waiting on God, how should we wait? he answers in the closing verses of our reading: While we wait, we should endeavor that Jesus will find us to be at peace in our hearts, as free from error as we can be, waiting on God’s gift of salvation. Those earliest followers of Jesus were learning that things were not unfolding as they’d expected. Apparently they couldn’t just wait for Jesus to show up again. He was taking a bit longer than they’d expected. Some of the faithful were even dying before getting to see Jesus on earth again. They couldn’t just bide their time, it seemed, waiting for Jesus, waiting for real life to begin, because while they were waiting, life was passing by, and still Jesus wasn’t back. The author’s words work to give them focus, hope, and purpose while they wait. 
What are you waiting for? Are you waiting on God? Do you know what your “big thing” is, and are you doing something about it? Real life is now. What are you doing with it? As I was writing this week, the late Mary Oliver’s famous poem The Summer Day sprang to my mind. She writes, 
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
What will we do, friends, with this one life God gives us? God is not slow, as we might think of slowness. No, God is patient. God is so, so patient with us, with this world, with all of creation. God is willing to wait, because God really, really wants a relationship with us, and not just a relationship, God wants our whole hearts, our whole lives. And God wants all of us, not just some, not just the creme of the crop, not just the best of us. God thinks that a deep relationship with each one of us is worth a lot of effort. God is patient with us, and God is waiting for us. But God doesn’t wait passively. God is busy in waiting, reaching out to us, sending Jesus to us, offering us the Holy Spirit, heaping blessings on us, challenging us, staying right beside us in every challenge we encounter. 

God is patient with us, actively waiting on us. Can we do the same for God? With this one, precious life that we have, can we be patient with God, ourselves, and those around us, as we work out our salvation, as we struggle to be ready for life-changing repentance, as we try to find peace in our lives and in the world? Can we be patient? And can we, like God waits us on, be active in our waiting on God? Let us ask ourselves, along with the author of 2 Peter, what kind of living we’re meant to be doing while we’re waiting. Whether you’re waiting for God’s direction or answer, or waiting for some next stage, some next milestone in your life, whether you’re waiting for things to get better - for you, for your family, for the world, or waiting on the answer to a prayer, waiting on someone else to get what it’s all about, or waiting on Jesus to come in the flesh one more time: God has blessed you with these days, with this time, with this one, wild and precious life. What do you plan to do with it? Sometimes, I’m a little lazy, and I forget to be about the work of repentance while I’m waiting. And sometimes, I’m not so patient, and I’m trying to rush God ahead. But I’m seeking after the peace that comes with waiting with hope, waiting actively, waiting with God, instead of for God. God’s patience is our salvation. And that’s a gift worth spending all of my time on. Amen. 
(1) Wesley, John as quoted in “The Life of John wesley by John Telford, Chapter 14,” Wesley Center Online, http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-life-of-john-wesley-by-john-telford/the-life-of-john-wesley-by-john-telford-chapter-14.