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