Gospel: Matthew 9:35-10:23
1st Reading: Exodus 19:2-8a
2nd Reading: Romans 5:1-8
I remember standing there at my ordination and Bishop Swanson asking me all the questions: Would I faithfully preach and teach in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and the creeds and confessions, would I be diligent in my study of the Holy Scriptures and my use of the means of grace, would I pray for God’s people, nourish them with the word and Holy Sacraments, and lead them by my own example in faithful service and holy living, would I give faithful witness in the world, that God’s love may be made known in all I do? I knew what all they were going to ask me, of course, and I was aware of those big expectations and that I was unlikely to be able to fulfill them, but I was also aware of God’s grace which gave me enough hope to answer, “Yes, with the help of God.” In our baptisms, too, we state our intention to live among God’s faithful people, to read the scriptures and pray, to receive the Lord’s Supper, to proclaim Christ, to care for this world God has made, and to work for justice and peace in all the world. It is a lot to take on for anyone, but over and over we say, “yes, with the help of God.”
It reminded me of the Israelites this morning in the reading from Exodus, when they all say so naively, “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” How could they possibly know what they were agreeing to? They are just beginning a 40 year journey in the wilderness school of hardships and complaining and rebellion and fear and turning to false gods and new rules for living as a community and becoming the people of God and God becoming angry and Moses making a case for the people and God cooling off. What a journey it would be, difficult and trying! It is a lot to take on for anyone, but they all say, “Yes, with the help of God.”
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” In other words, there is plenty of work to be done, but few people are stepping up to do it. I always feel guilty when I read this. Is Jesus saying I’m slacking off? Let me put it this way, how many of you would like to be more faithful? Ok, so what is holding us back? Why don’t we want to go into the fields with Jesus?
Whenever I sing “I love to tell the story” I want to confess, I feel uneasy. It is a beautiful song, but it expresses an ideal that is often far away from the reality we are living in. When I was a kid, I would stand in church and listen to all the adults around me singing it and feel the disconnect between the words and the reality. Besides my Sunday School teachers, in the classroom, and my pastor in church, I didn’t hear anyone telling the story of Jesus and his love, and I certainly didn’t know anyone who “loved” to tell the story. When I pictured what this would look like, I pictured the kid who always brought his Bible to school and everyone made fun of him. I didn’t want to be that kid. I didn’t want to be foolish. It was an aspirational hymn we sang, and to my mind we didn’t mean it one bit. It was like we were asking God to make us love to tell the story, or that maybe we loved to tell the story to other people who loved it as much as we did, but that was it. When I think of the affirmation, the “Yes” in that song to follow where Jesus leads, I think of how far we are away from that ideal, and it makes me squirm.
It is true that many of us are doing God’s work every single day, in small and large ways. And it is true that Jesus’ story isn’t necessarily one we tell by going door to door or yelling it through a megaphone at a street corner, that we can tell the story sometimes a lot better by living it, by loving people who no one loves. And it is also true that we could be more responsive to God’s invitation to go work in the field side by side with our Savior. So what is it that hold us back?
I think a lot of it is that we don’t want to be unprepared and look foolish. The Disciples were instructed to go out without money or extra clothes or much training. They are going to have to ask for help. If we are Jesus’ disciples, we are going to have to ask for help. We are going to look like we don’t know what we are doing. We are going to make mistakes. We want to get this right. But God is trying to keep us humble, so we will fail. And God is trying to keep us creative, so we will fail and have think creatively. Sometimes we think it is our job to save others, and we forget that only God can do that. We often bring supplies and gifts, we bring the know-how and the labor, and we try to do for others. In that case, we put people in a situation where we are the haves and they are the have-nots and we are better than they are. However, if we go in with nothing, having nothing and knowing nothing, we leave room for them to be the experts about their own lives. We open ourselves to receiving from others, needing them as much as they need us, so we will be more likely to form community of equal partners with balanced power.
Several people have mentioned to me that they keep meaning to visit homebound members, but it never seems to happen. I understand. It is complicated. Should you call first and then go or just show up? How many days ahead should you call? What if you have to cancel the day of? How difficult will it be to find the location? Will you have enough to talk about? What if the person expresses dismay that you haven’t come until now? What if uncomfortable topics arise? What if the person just talks and talks and you have trouble getting out of there? Should you pray with the person? And then there are feelings of powerlessness to help a person who isn’t going to get any better. There are so many unknowns in a visit like this. None of us is an expert. We go in feeling guilty and afraid, even I do! Sometimes our fears keep us from going out to the harvest. But in that moment of connection, we find healing and forgiveness and acceptance and joy and that person finds the same and we are equals, partners in this chaotic wilderness journey. And in those visits, we find Jesus is with us.
God brought the Israelite people through the wilderness so they would practice being God’s people, and being community together with each other. It was a learning experience in which they often looked and felt foolish. It took all these years of walking together to learn how to rely on God and how to treat each other. We are in a wilderness school too. God is bringing us new experiences that disorient us and make us feel foolish, not to make fun of us, but to remind us who we rely on and belong to, who is with us always gathering the harvest with us, and that it isn’t about us but about the body of Christ, the whole community finding healing and wholeness and connection.
And it is about what brings us hope and keeps us going, what motivates us to respond to God’s call to join in the work. Do we hope in our own powers? If so we are disappointed. I got curious about the reading from Romans so I looked up the original language. I specifically wanted to know what it meant by “character.” But it got me looking at the whole passage. First of all, the reading from Romans says we are justified by faith, and the question is whether it is our faith that justifies us and makes us right with God, or whether it is Jesus’ faith. Secondly, the word “boast” is actually the word meaning to rejoice. So we rejoice in our sufferings, we rejoice in our hope of sharing the good news. And the comes the part, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us.” It is actually more like this, “suffering produces patience, and patience produces experience, and experience produces expectation.” In other words it is only through life experience that we learn who to trust and where to put our hope, because we keep practicing in the wilderness school of life, that stuff doesn’t fulfill us, that we need to take care of each other, and that God comes through for us, the only reliable one, the only one who fulfills the expectations—again, whose expectations? Ours or Gods? Expectation is more than hope, more than a dream, but a promised reality, assured, expected.
This world is full of suffering. We have the means to keep ourselves from suffering. We have the means to be comfortable, or at least keep up the illusion of comfort. But God invites us to join the harvest. We are invited to go where there is suffering, to experience suffering ourselves, in order to find abundant life. The harvest is plentiful. There is a lot of work to do. Mothers need comforting whose sons have been shot by the police. Drug babies need rocked at the hospital. Veterans who have lost limbs need a friend. Teens who have cut themselves need support networks. The homebound need visitors. Will we go where we are uncomfortable? If we do, we will be enrolling in wilderness school. We will find that we are powerless to fix them, but they will minister to us. We will have the chance to work side by side and learn from the best, our Savior Jesus. We will look foolish. We won’t know what we’re doing or be prepared. Jesus calls us to serve where we aren’t the experts. Jesus doesn’t want experts who already know everything, know-it-alls that aren’t trainable. Jesus wants people who are open to learning and receiving help. What we’re going to get out of this is going to be good for us and others. We’re going to get a healthy dose of humility. We’re going to become part of something greater than ourselves. Jesus is going to use us to bring in the Kingdom.It’s all hands on deck! Let’s get moving. Jesus is calling us to day one of the harvest. By the time the day is through we’re going to be pretty worn out and by the time 40 years is through we’re going to wonder if it will all be worthwhile, but we’ve got the best teacher there is, and we’ve got the expectation, the promise of what will be. None of us will be greater than another, but all will have what they need and all will be included, and all will know they are loved, all will stand in God’s presence and all will see God’s presence in each other, and all will feast and be filled, and all will find fulfillment. The promised land awaits if we will embark on this journey and be taught in the