Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Invitation to Harvest

A woman is planning to visit her husband stationed in Germany with the military.  Checking in at the airport, the ticket agent asks the standard security questions.  “Did anyone give you a package you yourself did not pack?”  “Yes,” she answers, “My mother-in-law gave me a package to take to her son.”  The agent pauses, looks up, and gives her a thorough visual inspection.  “Just one more question,” he says.  “Does your mother-in-law like you?”

Without question the thing I dislike most about travelling is packing.  The bad news for those of us here today is no one invited us to a beach house for the holiday weekend.  The good news is we did not have to pack!  The fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg says, “I get ideas about what’s essential when packing my suitcase.”  Perhaps all of this is why I warm up to Jesus’ travel instructions: “Don’t carry a purse, a bag, or sandals.  Just drop everything and go!”

In last week’s gospel reading you will remember the text told us “Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem.”  Everything we will read from that passage forward – including today’s lesson – needs to be understood within this context.  Jesus is on a singular mission and now is the time to act.  He has touched the lives of thousands of people and now he needs his closest followers to fan out across the countryside to tell them the time has come to act.  The kingdom of God is coming near and word needs to get out for everyone to get to Jerusalem.

This effort will not be on-going.  It is a short-term project that requires a huge commitment.  Jesus compares it to a harvest where the community comes together to help a particular farmer bring in his crop.  The work has to be done now.  One or two people alone cannot get it done.  Others must join the effort if it is going to be successful.

You may find two Greek words in the text to be interesting.  The first sentence of the reading states, “The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead.”  The word used here for “appoint” can also mean to ordain.  It underscores the importance of the task at hand.  The seventy have been set apart to do something vitally important. 

The other word is found in a phrase in the second part of that sentence: Jesus “sent them on ahead.”  The Greek word here for “sent” most often is translated cast out and is used to describe how Jesus commands demons to leave a possessed person.  Again, this unusual usage highlights the urgency of the work at hand.  It needs to be done now.

People in today’s society are becoming more and more reluctant to make a commitment to an on-going activity, but are willing to make a specific commitment to a short-term, intensive project with obvious value.  In church life, this manifests itself in specific ways.  People are reluctant to join the choir because it entails weekly rehearsals and Sunday attendance.  But, as we have seen in the past, we are willing to get our children to a week-long evening music camp.  While a dozen of us can be here on Monday evenings to serve in the Food Pantry, our volunteers swell four-fold when we have our Christmas basket distribution.  Norma Spain has found great success with offering a mid-week bible study program that runs four to eight weeks and then takes a break for a month or two. 

Whatever the down side of all this is, the upside is we are people of the harvest.  We are willing and able to contribute and get involved when it matters most so long as it does not tie us down in perpetuity. 

I see this at play in our capital campaign to raise money for kitchen renovation.  The Vestry, and especially Tom Coxe, have put a lot of time and energy into this project.  They have got us to a point where the harvest is ready and you all are responding with fantastic generosity and enthusiasm.

I also see it at work in our efforts to gear up for next year’s 375th anniversary celebration.  About 15 of us got together last Wednesday to look at all the old photographs, newspaper clippings, and documents we have stored away.  After two hours of sorting, some organization began to emerge.  We have a lot more work to do, but the harvest of a significant anniversary in our parish’s life is energizing our work.  We have settled in on a slogan for this event and it draws on harvesting imagery: “Connecting with Our Past.  Cultivating our Future.”  This will not be just a trip down memory lane.  Rather, it will shape and mold us into the church we are becoming by reminding us how God has been with us and how the people of God in this place over the years responded to God’s call and presence.

And speaking of the past, here is this week’s nugget from long ago.  It is an announcement from a church bulletin dated April 11, 1948 when the Rev. John Winslow served as rector:

Report of Church Census to be made Sunday Afternoon: This Sunday afternoon at 5 P.M. in the Main Street Methodist Church there will be a service for the report from Mr. John Haloo who directed our recent Church Census in Suffolk.  This should be an interesting report and will probably be rather startling in some of the facts which have been revealed by the census.  It is hoped that we will have a good representation at the service in order to hear this report.

So apparently, area churches came together and our members fanned out across Suffolk knocking on doors to gather information about people’s religious affiliation and habits. 

The next Sunday’s bulletin summed up Rev. Winslow’s thoughts on the findings.  This from the April 18, 1948 bulletin mailed to the home of every member of the parish:

Church Census Shows Surprising Results:  The Church Census completed showed that less than one third of the folk of Suffolk do anything very real about their religion and that about one third of the membership of the Churches carries the burden of the work of the whole group.  Are you a worker or a parasite?  Do you do your share or do you let someone else carry on for you?

Does the word parasite strike you as a bit harsh?  It does me.  I would love to be able to sit down with Rev. Winslow and have a lengthy conversation about his thinking.  He seems to believe that the work of the church is a requirement for all who call themselves Christian.  His focus is on the church as an institution.  I believe the work of the church is an opportunity for a person to live out vows made at baptism.  My focus is on the church as a place of mission.  We center our spiritual life on invitation not demand and I think this is why so many of us at the 10:30 Eucharist are moved by the words, “This is the table of the Lord…  It is the Risen Christ who invites you.  It is the Risen Christ who seeks to meet you here.”

My sense is that when the Lord of the harvest calls for workers to go out into the field, each and every one of you responds.  But keep in mind, keeping the machinery of the church as an institution running – while being important and necessary – is not necessarily the same thing as harvesting.  God’s work is not contained within the four brick walls that frame our church property.  In fact, much of the harvesting we are called to do takes place after we leave this place.

I was reminded of this Friday evening when, in the midst of a drenching rain storm, I got a call from the church telling me water was leaking in from a particular window.  I looked out my front door at the deluge and noticed a mother with three small children taking shelter under the canopy in the Baptist Church parking lot.  As the rain eased up, I grabbed my umbrella and headed here to inspect the window.  But first I went over to check on the family, suspecting perhaps their car was nearby but it was raining too hard for them to get to it.

I learned this was not the case.  They had no car, have only been in town for a couple of days, and had been waiting for an hour for a friend who was going to give them a ride to McDonalds to get some food.  It was now after seven in the evening.  I got my car, brought them here, loaded them up with a variety of items from our Food Pantry, and drove them home.  They were very appreciative.  The mother told me that just before I arrived one of her children said a prayer asking God to stop the rain and help them.  That’s when I showed up.

Now you have to be in a pretty bad state of affairs for me to be the answer to your prayers!  But I can’t tell you how grateful I was to be able to do something so easy that meant so much.  Being a part of God’s harvesting work is like that.  Most often you get out of it much more than you put in.  That is certainly true of my experience on Friday evening.

St. Paul’s has been around for 374 years not because clergy shamed the “parasites” into participating, but because hundreds upon hundreds of faithful men and women responded to a call to the harvest.  One of the greatest blessings I can hope and pray for each one of us is that the Lord of the harvest might ask you to go out to work in the field.