One of the challenges of our faith is connecting our modern world to the world of Holy Scripture. Most of us have experienced the Living Word still speaking to us today, but some texts are a little more relatable than others. Today’s gospel lesson is one of those un-relatable texts. The more we think about those seventy who were sent out the more we conclude that their experience is totally foreign to us. Jesus brings us up short right away when he starts talking about going out into the mission field to “harvest” people. We get nervous just talking about the word evangelism, let alone trying to figure out what harvesting people means. Our minds wander to thoughts about judgment and saving souls and a shudder moves down our spine. Then we get into the gritty details of the text. Jesus tells the disciples that they are to preach about the kingdom coming near. Most of us hear the word “preach” and we immediately tune out. “Oh, that’s what the priest does. I guess this is not a passage about what I am called to do.” And that thought does not even cover our aversion to the idea of preaching, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” All we can envision is that guy in Times Square with the sandwich board yelling about how we are all going to hell for us to decide conclusively that this passage does not relate to us. Add to these reservations the instruction from Jesus to cure the sick and we are pretty much done. Most of us are not doctors and many of us are still uncertain about what role our faith plays in our health.
The truth is I am not sure the seventy others who Jesus sent out felt too confident either. First Jesus tells them that the “harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” So basically, there is so much work to be done that the seventy are going to be overworked and overstressed. Next Jesus tells them, “I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” Quite frankly, I would think most of the seventy would have been terrified by this statement. I am sure they were panicked with questions about who these wolves were and whether their own lives were at stake. Then Jesus tells them, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.” He goes on to explain that they are to be dependent upon the hospitality of others. If they were not worried about working conditions already, this last bit of information might have set them on edge. Basically Jesus sends them out with nothing – no safety net, no creature comforts, and no guarantees. So the seventy are terrified and starkly vulnerable; and we, thousands of years later, are either equally wary or totally dismissive.
Back in April, the Vestry had a retreat about evangelism. One of the stories the consultant told us was about her own harried experience with evangelism. She was studying with a professor whose specialty was church growth, and her assignment for her thesis was to go to a local coffee shop and start talking to people about their faith. The first week she went to the coffee shop, but was too terrified to talk to anyone. When her professor asked her how it went, she totally lied. She made up some story about talking to some people and how the conversations were good. This charade continued for weeks. Each week she would go to the shop, but be unable to take that first step. And each week, she would lie to her professor about trying. Finally, guilt won over, and she took a small step forward. She made a little sign out of a folded piece of paper that read, “Talk to me about church, and I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.” She sat nervously, petrified of what would happen. Eventually a woman came up to her and said, “I’d like to talk to you about church, but I’ll buy the cup of coffee for you.” The following conversation was transformative for both of them, and the professor, who knew all along she was lying, was proud to see the consultant finally make progress.
Like there was good news for this consultant, so there is good news for the seventy. Although Jesus does send the seventy out in a very vulnerable way, he does not send them alone. Jesus sends them in pairs. Having a partner offers all sorts of security in the midst of their vulnerability. “When one of them falters, the other can help. When one is lost, the other can seek the way. When one is discouraged, the other can hold faith for both for a while. That is what the company of believers does – we hold on to each other, console each other, encourage and embolden each other, and even believe for each other.”[i]
Second, Jesus promises the seventy that the harvest is plentiful. Jesus does not tell the seventy that they are responsible for preparing the harvest – that is God’s work. Their work is simply to gather the harvest.[ii] This distinction is pretty tremendous because Jesus is saying that people are ready for his message. Jesus does not tell the seventy that they will need to go out and convince people of the message. Instead, he tells them that there are people who will already be receptive and are simply waiting for the seventy to gather them.
Finally, we hear that after this scary commission – as lambs among wolves, of walking over snakes and scorpions, and of being utterly reliant on the hospitality of strangers – the seventy return with joy. This thing Jesus asks them to do does not leave them bereft or exhausted or even discouraged. The seventy return delighted in what has happened to them; not because they did something, but because of the work that God did through them.[iii]
This gospel lesson has good news for us today as well. Despite all of our hang-ups about the language – about harvesting people, the kingdom of God coming near, and about curing people – at the end of the day, this story is about our own call to share our experience of God’s grace with others. When we think about this text in those terms, the language starts to shift. When Jesus says we are to go out for the harvest, and that the harvest is plentiful, mostly Jesus is telling us that in our world today, people are eager for a word of Good News. Even if they say they are not religious, or they do not normally talk about God, Jesus assures us today that there are many people who want to hear your story of gratitude about all that God has done in your life. And when Jesus says the kingdom of God is coming near, he is not asking us to put on a sandwich board and grab a megaphone. Mostly he is telling us to stop delaying and get out there. The kingdom being near is his way of saying the time for sharing is now. Finally, when Jesus tells us to cure people, we might consider the ways that our faith has been a salve for us. Surely in your faith journey, at some point your relationship with God has gotten you through something tough and has returned you to wholeness. Hearing some Good News might just be the same salve that others need.
And just in case you are not sure about all of this, I want to give you a little encouragement. In our Vestry evangelism work, our first bit of homework was to go to a local gas station or shop and ask for directions to St. Margaret’s. One of our Vestry members was shocked to find that the grocery clerk was able to give her perfect directions to our church. The Vestry member found out that she lives in the neighborhood across the street, though she had never actually been inside our doors. Just over a week ago, another Vestry member was chatting with a different grocery clerk about the amount of blueberries she was purchasing. The Vestry member explained that they were for Church. The clerk proceeded to ask her which Church and even said she might come by one Sunday. And then yesterday, as I was stretching at the Y, a gentleman approached me who I had seen several times over the last year. He said that he had seen me in a St. Margaret’s t-shirt the last time I was at the Y and he wondered what my affiliation was with St. Margaret’s. In the conversation that followed, I learned that he had once attended St. Margaret’s and that he might consider coming back for a visit.
Though the language of this gospel might make us evangelism-wary Episcopalians nervous, the truth is that Jesus is simply inviting us to share the Good News of God’s grace in our lives. He promises that we do not have to do the work alone – we always have good partners here at St. Margaret’s. He promises that people are ready to hear our words – we all have a story of goodness about our faith journey here. And he promises that there will be joy – we will all find surprising delights in this journey of sharing. Our invitation is to be a laborer in the plentiful harvest. Amen.
[ii] David J. Lose, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 217.
[iii] Richard J. Shaffer, Jr., “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 218.