Date: Sunday July 17, 2016
Scripture: Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Sermon: The Harvest
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
I grew up in Minnesota and though I lived in an urban setting I had friends, through church camp, that lived on the farm. In the summer I would go to visit them. It was eye-opening. Basically what I took from the experience was that the farm controlled the family. Livestock HAD to be cared for daily – there was no, I’m too busy, I have to see my boyfriend, I have an assignment due for school, I have play practice, I’ll be at volleyball. And when there was other work that needed to be done, everyone was expected to pitch in. Period. This was especially true at harvest time. And when would that be? Well, it depended on the weather, the growing conditions, and many other factors. But when the crop was ready, it was harvested. There was no postponing or delaying. To harvest too early could mean the crop was not fully ready and then would sell for less. Waiting could mean risking rot, or past peak produce, or ruining rains, or bird or insect infestation. The timing was very tricky with everything hanging in the balance. To lose a crop could mean extremely lean times for a family or worse yet, bankruptcy. This harvesting business was life or death. For my teen friends, things like going to the Twin Cities for the holidays, a new prom dress, a car, and much more that was important to them, were at risk – all depending on the harvest.
In the story we heard this morning from the gospel of Luke, we are told that Jesus senses that the time is right for the harvest. It is time to reap. So he sends his followers out in twos, to villages and towns, to spread the gospel. There were 12 disciples to account for the gospel being shared with the 12 tribes of Israel. Now Jesus sends out 70. Seventy represents the multitude of nations beyond Israel. Jesus sends these followers out to share the good news of God’s love and peace with the whole world. No one is to be left out. With no provisions, demonstrating their dependence on God, without distraction, these pairs head out into the world bringing God’s peace to those who were ready to receive it. Jesus senses that the time is ripe – people are ready, hungry, for the realm of God.
It was hard work, this harvest, as is any harvest. My high school friends had to work long days at harvest time; from before sun up to well after sundown, day after day. And the daylight hours are long that far north. Harvest takes everything you have and more. Jesus sends these pairs out on what he knows is a difficult mission. They are to take little with them. They are not to move around among households, looking for better quarters. They are to accept what they are given to eat, whatever it may be, kosher or not in this case. They are to stay focussed. And they are to expect rejection along the way. If you are not welcome, shake the dust off of your feet and leave. “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves.” That is pretty telling. But the harvest is of absolute importance. It is consuming. Everything depends on the harvest. Jesus knows this. So he must send his friends. The life of the world depends on it.
We look at the world around us, and we see many signs. I’m almost afraid to go out in the morning and pick up the newspaper off of the driveway fearing another calamity has occurred since I went to bed the night before. Falcon Heights. Baton Rouge. Dallas. Nice. Baghdad. The attacks, the murders, the social upheaval and strife are fearsome. There are racial tensions. Ethnic tensions. Religious tensions. We hear less about it, but there is also the simmering of economic inequity and labor abuse in this country and around the world. And there are environmental issues that are boiling slowly creating tension and conflict. The world seems to be seething with conflicts and animosities and stresses. We live in a culture of fear. I don’t know about you, but I have no desire to hear the president deliver another eulogy.
Some want to dial back the clock – to when things were “better.” But when were they really better? Maybe better for some. But certainly not better for many. Today the targets may be Muslims and Mexicans. It wasn’t long ago that the targets were Irish and Italian. Some of us, speaking as a woman of Italian descent, are not so much for going back.
But what we see around us is a world that is ripe, ready, prime for harvest. The world is desperately longing for peace, for reconciliation, for a way forward that is based on compassion not conflict. And in the gospel of Jesus Christ, we have what the world is longing for. The time is ripe for us to be spreading the gospel just as we heard about the 70 who went out to share the good news. The world is desperate to receive peace, to witness universal love and to feel the realm of God come close. The world needs what the church has to offer.
Now, I know that in the UCC we don’t talk much about evangelism because that has connotations that we aren’t keen on. Historically the church is known for evangelism that includes convincing people they are sinners and that Jesus died for their sins, and by accepting him, they will be forgiven and given eternal life in heaven after they die. The church is known for “selling” a belief system about a first century Palestinian Jewish rabbi being the son of God sent to die for our sins.
But let’s think about the story we heard this morning. Jesus sends the 70 out with a message. That message is not Jesus is the son of God come to die for your sins so that you can go to heaven. No. These followers are sent out into the world offering peace. Embodying peace. Demonstrating peace by their behavior – material simplicity, acceptance, sharing, working together. By embodying peace, justice, respect, compassion, and generosity they are showing people what the realm of God is like. They are offering people a new world view. A way to be in right relationship with others, even those considered enemy. Even under Roman occupation. Even in times of desperation and fear. They are demonstrating reverence for God, for nature, and for all of humankind. They are staying on with the people and helping them to create communities bonded by this vision of life as God intends it. They are bringing peace to the world at a time when it is desperately needed.
This is what the world needs from the church today. We need to be bringing peace to the world. We need to be flagrantly exhibiting our commitment to the realm of God where all people are sisters and brothers, sharing the light of one sun and one moon. One human family. With one home – planet Earth. People need to hear and see that there are ways for us to come back from the brink; that we can be guided by a different vision. We can move forward not with might but with mutual respect and understanding. We can show that success lies in service not in self-interest. Some people will see this as deranged. But just as evil is getting louder in this world good must come out from behind the rock and stand up and be counted. The time is ripe. We must not wait. The stakes are too high.
This week I heard about a local meeting of ministers in which one of the clergy present used a derogatory epithet for gay people. This person is a prominent, prestigious minister in the community. Apparently this was considered normal and accepted. Except that there was a new guy there. And he called this patriarch out. Let him know that that language and that attitude had no place among a group of Christian clergy, thank you very much. That new pastor is busy with the harvest.
We heard the story of the missionaries going out into the world for the harvest, but let’s attend to their return. Do they come back discouraged, defeated, and depressed? No! We are told that they return to Jesus filled with JOY. They are amazed at the harvest! And it’s interesting that we aren’t told that the people they visited all became so good, so loving, so generous, and so compassionate. We are told, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” Then Jesus comments, “ . . . See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy. . .” So the joy, the victory, the accomplishment, is in confronting evil. Think about it. If we see a scorpion or a snake we try to get away from it. We avoid it. We go around it or back off from it. But what we hear in this story is not avoid evil, but confront it. Address it head on. Don’t back off. This is important for us to hear. We can seem silly talking about peace, love, dove in today’s scary world. But this story reminds us that our commitment to God’s way of love involves calling out evil, wrong, and injustice in a spirit of love.
We don’t want to be put off by the language about demons. Of course, we don’t believe in little creatures taking people over and making them evil. But we see the evidence of evil around us – we see the demonic effects of greed, revenge, racism, self interest, privilege, violence, ecocide, fear, and arrogance. We see the power of these forces that destroy human community and subvert God’s purposes for creation. It’s not enough to just tell people to be good and do the right thing. To share God’s vision, to convey the reality of the realm of God, we also need to call out the behaviors and systems and assumptions and actions and attitudes that are undermining the realm of God. We need to convey the realm of God as a decided alternative to the current reality.
I heard a discussion about student debt on “On Point” with Tom Ashcroft this week. There was information about the enormity of student debt but Ashcroft also asked why we have this system that requires so many people to go so deeply into debt to get an education. And part of the answer is that public higher education is really becoming privatized, and there are people making millions of dollars on that education and on those student loans. Education debt is making some people rich. So, the bottom line is really greed. People don’t want to fully fund education through taxes, and some in higher education and the finance industry are making a killing on the loans. So, there it is. Greed. A demon to be confronted. Called out. And disempowered.
Taking the realm of God to the world, working on the desperately needed harvest, is more than raking in the good, spreading positive values, and being kind. It is also being bold in our analysis of the powers that are undermining the realm of God and confronting those forces. We say that love conquers all. We are being called to put love to work; to use love to defeat evil. Those teams in Luke were most impressed with how they were able to confront and disarm evil. We need to take that to heart even though some of us don’t like to be negative or condemnatory or critical.
Traditionally, the church has thought of the harvest as bringing people in, into the church, to maintain the church, to prosper the institution. In this story we see the faithful taking the gospel out. When others are attracted by who we are and how we live and what we do and what we say, we can tell them about our Christian commitment and invite them to experience a taste of heaven in the church. To experience the realm of God in the faith community.
I spoke with someone recently who said that in my job, I was lucky, I got to see miracles, positive transformation, and the good in people, on a regular basis, because I was part of the church. I told her, it’s not just clergy that have that experience. It’s everyone in our church. And she could come to church, too, if she wanted more of that in her life. The realm of God come close. It is here for all of us.
When you are part of a faith community, taking the gospel out into the world and coming back, you experience the joy. Not from your own power and accomplishments but because you feel you are partnering with God, with the Divine intention for the world, in lessening the destructive forces at work in the world and fostering the good. We are part of something far greater than ourselves and we are not alone.
The world desperately needs peace. In every city and town. In every land and country. In every culture and climate. Peace. As followers of Jesus, we are being sent out to meet this need. We are being called to the harvest. There is the sense of urgency. The critical moment that requires us to focus turning away from distractions and making this our priority. No postponing or delaying. The world is waiting; ripe for this ministry. The world is hungry for the way of life, not death, violence, and destruction. We are being called to bring peace to the world just like the 70 in the story. Today. As we are. No elaborate preparations necessary. Go and bring peace. Call out evil. Let people know that there is another way. The realm of God has come near. Is at hand. We will not return empty for the power of God is at work in us. God’s work may be strenuous and demanding but it is ultimately meaningful and satisfying.
Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore reminds us of the reward:
I slept and dreamt life was joy.
I awoke and saw life was service.
I acted and behold service was joy.
The harvest is ready. May our joy be full. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.