Year C, Proper 9 July 3, 2016 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few…”
Good morning everyone! It is good to be back after a couple of Sunday’s away. Many thanks to everyone who kept the prayer wheel turning in my absence. Ed and Sandra, Karen and Kevin. Doug and Deacon Iain and Mo. Abigail. And to our preachers Doris and Stephanie. It is a great reminder that it doesn’t take someone dressed funny to gather us corporately in worship; to help us orient ourselves to what we ought to be orienting ourselves to. Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer are not Mass, but they really do count. I know I can get kind of snooty about that, but really, even if it isn’t Mass it is still church and in very important ways because it is coming up from within this gathering of the Body of Christ. This is very important for us to remember, particularly we who have such a high theology of ordination and liturgy, which can make us so often too clergy-centric.
Last week I was up in the Diocese of Olympia (the diocese that covers Western Washington). I was there for the second week of the College for Congregational Development. Congregational development is a church specific sub-field of organizational development and it uses social science theory and modeling to develop congregations into “more faithful, healthy and effective communities of faith…” We do that through focusing on the local manifestation of the body of Christ, the local parish, and its raison d’etre, its reason for being, its unique and special purpose when it is and where it is. It is great stuff. It offers tools to understand better where we are as an organization, how church, how this church functions as a place of transformation for our lives and the life of our community. You’ll be hearing more on this as time goes on.
One of the themes of the college is growth. Everyone is talking about growth in the protestant world. (Though not shrinking is sort of the new growth nationwide). And we surely talked about growth at the college; how to welcome people in the doors and then welcome them into religious community. (If anyone is interested in working on our website, let me know). But while we talked about growth, the primary form of growth we discussed was growth as a community, as a gathered people of faith. Growing in our faith, growing in our commitment to God, in our commitment to each other, and growing in the Good News that we have each gotten a taste of here. Growth is not just about how many people are here in these pews, it is also about how close we, in our solitude and our common lives together, how close we grow into Jesus Christ.
Something important bubbled up for me in this week’s morsel from St. Luke’s gospel: you all. “The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.”
One of the things that was stressed over and over again at the college is what the church is (and is not). The church is not a building. It is not a tradition (Anglicanism). It is not a structure (The Episcopal Church). It is certainly not Bishops, Priests and Deacons (though we play an important supporting role). The Church is the body of Christ and we are all members of that body, each of us playing our own particular role in this particular time and place. No one here has any more rights to anything here than anyone else. This is God’s table, all are welcome here. We each have our place at this table. And each of us have a very different place, our own place here.
For some of us, we are in a season of receptivity. We need to take things in. Maybe we’re new to this church, or maybe new to the church. You need to be fed, nourished, taught and welcomed. Maybe you’ve been here a long time. You are in a season of giving. Teaching, helping, caring for our children or this building or the community outside those big red doors on behalf of everyone inside those big red doors. Maybe you are in a season of silent prayer in your life with God. Or song. Or words. Or paint or clay or bronze. Maybe you are here right now to care for others, to hold broken bodies and minds and spirits. Maybe your special purpose in the body of Christ is to help us get our finances together, or our community life, or the micro-village we are building out front. Maybe your special purpose is just to be here with all of us and rest into the ever-loving arms of Jesus Christ. All God’s creatures got a place in the choir! What you are doing here and now is much less important than that you are here, now.
The church is a people gathered in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Ground, Word, Life… however That Which Is alights on your lips. And it is you, it is up to you to do the work that God has given us to do. It is not my job as your priest, nor is it Michael’s job as our Bishop to do God’s work in the world. Our job, the task of all clergy is really to help you do the work that you have been given to do. This is your church. As I often say, the more responsibility you take on, the more authority you are given. That’s the political economy of church. But even that, that is only when we are here.
Think about it, we are here together in church what, an hour and half per week? (Maybe more if you are in the choir, or the finance team, or help with Home Starter Kits or Hospitality Village or if you are Ken, Chet, Linda or Helen). But most of us spend the vast majority of our time away from church. The vast majority of your time in the world as a Christian is spent away from the church, in your home, at your work, in the world. Being the body of Christ has very little to do with being in Church. We come here to worship together, to regroup, find solace and strength, renewal and pardon and then get back out there into the world to do what God wants us to do in the world. What might that be? Well, now there is a question for the ages. Thanks be to God you have the answer. (Maybe Sundays here together will help you figure out what it is).
But it is you that are the heart and the hands and the feet of Jesus Christ in this world. You and you alone have the power to shine forth the light of the kingdom wherever you go, to pray ceaselessly, as St. Francis is alleged to have said, using words if you must. You are the church. That is very exciting.
Now back to St. Luke… Jesus sent those 70 out before him, preparing the way. The number 70 itself is interesting. It may relate back to Genesis where the 70 implies the nations of the world; here meaning that the Good News was for all, not just Israel. In this story they are told to accept all hospitality, any lodging and food “whatever they provide…” This means that hospitality should be accepted even from Gentiles, and that food that was not ritually correct was to be eaten? Radical inclusivity! The God Christ proclaims is for everyone! And so they did. They proclaimed the Good News that had arrived (or was about to), they cured the sick, cast out demons, accepted hospitality as it was offered and offered a bit of constructive feedback when it is not (“Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off in protest against you.”) Do you know what all of that is about? (Not the curse part, but the being sent out part.)
Ok, this is not for the children… It is about evangelism!
Evangelism is not recruitment. It is not about increasing the bum to pew ratio. Evangelism is about sharing the Good News. What is the Good News?
That life is good. That life has meaning. That your life has meaning and purpose. That you are loved. That that love is the animating force in the world, it is the force the gives us meaning and strength and purpose and that love we call God. And Jesus Christ brought that love to us in a very particular way and that way, the Jesus Way, that is my way, that is our way. And oh, this way can make your life better, too. Like it has made my life better. It has made me kinder, and braver and more loving and more conscious of justice and even sometimes nicer. And we have really good cookies on Sunday morning.
That is all very, very good news, isn’t it? Evangelism isn’t about inviting someone to church, though that often happens as a result. Evangelism is about sharing the good news that you know about the world. It is about how your life is better for hearing that news, for participating in the body of Christ.
If you found the best dentist that ever was, wouldn’t you tell your friends and family about her? Or if you found a book with some life giving message, or a profound point that changed your perspective or just filled you with joy, wouldn’t you post that on Facebook? So here, church, you are involved in an endeavor that you commit a lot of time, a lot of energy, a lot of relationships, a lot of effort and money, and thought and prayer and we hide it under a whole bunch of bushels.
“He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few…’” There is Good News to spread – and it ain’t easy. I walk around dressed more or less like this and it is often hard for me to talk about faith. People aren’t too receptive with being preached to. Lambs amongst wolves, right? Jesus knew that proclaiming what you know to be Good News is not easy, is not always even safe (and I am not talking missionary in hostile lands unsafe, unchurched Uncle Bill or friend Samantha might be dangerous enough in your context).
But evangelism is not preaching (well, not usually). It is about proclaiming the Good News and what that really is is being yourself, changed as each of us has been changed by our relationship with God and giving the credit where credit is due. This church. The Church. God in Jesus Christ with the Holy Spirit. And proclaiming that Good News is not my job (well not only my job, folks too often assume mercenary motivations when clergy evangelize too directly). No, you are the 70. You are the church. You are the body of Christ, gathered, transformed and sent into the world. So watch out snakes and scorpions! And rejoice, your names are written in the heavens. AMEN.