Sarah and I returned from a marriage Sabbath retreat last weekend that was spectacular. We had an opportunity to meet other clergy couples and commiserate on our similar challenges as couples in ministry. This Wednesday is our anniversary of 9 years. I’ve counseled a few couples this spring who are set to get married or who did early in the summer. So I’ve had marriage on my mind a bit recently. I’ve also had the country on my mind, too with the war and the celebration of Independence Day.
Marriage and social life is different to say the least in our day than in the recent and previous history of our country.
A Pew Research poll was taken recently as to what people’s definitions are of a good marriage. Under the heading of “What Makes a Good Marriage?” those polled said the following elements were considered important:
Faithfulness: 93%; happy sexual relationship: 70%; sharing household chores: 62%; adequate income: 53%; good housing: 51%; shared religious belief: 49%; shared interest: 46%; children: 41%; (the same survey in 1990 had children at 65%); agreement on politics: 12%.
‘The survey also found that, by a margin of 3 to 1, Americans say the main purpose of marriage is a “mutual happiness and fulfillment” of adults rather than the “bearing and raising of children.”
Just a few decades ago, Americans would have talked more about ‘building a household’ rather than ‘personal fulfillment’ or ‘sharing household chores.’ Now there are many reasons for all of this much of which is an economic shift and the propensity of dual household income. But it also reflects a change of values. Family (and increasingly even marriage) is seen as an ‘alternative lifestyle’ rather than the materialistic driven lifestyles we are all supposed to have.
Speaking of cultural change, you heard that the ACLU is suing a courthouse and the city of Slidell for an icon of Jesus that is displayed in the courthouse. I could go on and on about these kinds of values changes and the redefinition of morality in our country, in Canada and in Europe, but I won’t. I could go on about our media driven culture–just look at the iPhone thing last week.
As author Frederica Matthews-Green has said we are ‘a generation discipled by advertising’ where we are told we are wonderful and can choose whatever we want on the basis of our selfish needs.
This is not a sermon on marriage or on the state of morality in America. But these kinds of changes ought to make us realize that things are radically different now than they were just a few decades ago. Therefore, Jesus’ words today are very important. Since we increasingly moving towards more and more secularism we can fret and wring our hands or we can say, ‘the harvest is plentiful…’
Turning to our gospel, what is going on in Luke 10? When Jesus summoned the 72, it was clear that he was paralleling the ministry of Moses did the Old Testament. When God gave the law on Sinai, the tablets were presented to Moses, Nahab, Abihu, and the seventy elders. The elders represented what Moses’ true desire was, ‘that everyone had the Spirit of the Lord and was a prophet.’ The number 7 or 70 represents completion–the elders represented the receiving of the law, not only for the Israelites, but for everyone.
The seventy elders in our gospel represent not only those in the first century but the whole church, not only in Judea and Samaria, but to the uttermost parts of the world. The command to heal and to proclaim the Kingdom was and is the mission and message of the church. The missionary sending out of the seventy two represents the task of all who call themselves Christian. It was a mini-test run of what the church catholic would do.
There is a sense of urgency in the 72 and a sense of mission. They are armed with nothing but the message of Jesus.
Let’s go with a few key points from our gospel. Jesus’ words are very important for us today. ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.’ I have heard many preachers use this to get more volunteers in the church. I won’t go there now but I will say that if we are going to be a healthier parish, we increasingly need more folks committed to the mission and ministry of Epiphany. But that is a slightly different sermon.
The harvest that Jesus refers to is the lost people who are in need of Jesus love and forgiveness. The ‘unchurched’ if you will.
Some of you might think that the gospel is impenetrable to the white collar world you live in. My guess is they are desperate for meaning and purpose–for real relationship. The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.
One thing that is a reality in our culture that we rarely think about is that the multi-culturalism of the world is no longer overseas but at our doorsteps. My world is pretty small but it is likely that I will hear four to six languages every day just being out and about. War and economic hardship has brought people to our doorstep, refugees and immigrants who need help and the saving power of Jesus Christ. Rather than being completely unbiblical and saying, ‘get them out of here,’ we should see it as an opportunity for our church.
We saw a movie last week that I wholeheartedly recommend called ‘Ushpizin.’ It is an Israeli film about a hasidic couple in Jerusalem trying to make ends meet and be faithful to God. In the movie they are celebrating the feast of Succouth, or the Feast of Booths. Succouth is the feast in which the children of Israel were commanded by the Law to make a booth or dwelling outside of their homes to remind them of two things, the wandering in the wilderness and that their true home is in the kingdom of heaven. So in the film, the couple literally build a min-house outside of their apartment. Tradition said, that during Succouth, when you have visitors you treat them like God himself. None of this is unlike Jesus words, ‘what you have done for the least of these, you have done for me.’
I won’t spoil the movie for you but what is most moving about the film is the way this couple treats two visitors. These visitors take advantage of them–feasting on their food and breaking things. They deserve to be kicked out but they are treated with amazing hospitality.
We have those opportunities to show the love of Christ to the world that is suddenly upon us, be they from the Latin American cultures or from Africa. We have an opportunity.
The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.
What I find fascinating about this passage is the technique that Jesus gives the 72. Nothing about marketing or being cool. Nothing even about trying to sell the message. Two simple things and one that often gets overlooked. One: heal the sick. Two: proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven. Three: make relationships.
It is clear that the task Jesus gives is not an easy one. They are taking on Satan’s territory and they are like ‘lambs among wolves.’ He also creates a sense of urgency by telling them not to bring anything–to rely on good people in the towns to give them food and drink. Let’s look at those three commands.
Heal the sick. We know based on the end of this passage that this healing was more than just physical healing. The 72 also encountered the Kingdom of darkness and those possessed by demons. Those in bondage to evil.
Do we encounter people possessed by demons? Not usually. Do we encounter people in bondage to evil? You bet. Every day. We live in a world that is so addicted and alone, some to chemicals and others to ‘fulfillment.’ Some to parties others to building starter castles. The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. The command to heal doesn’t stop with the apostolic age. Heal the sick. The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.
They were told to heal the sick and to proclaim , ‘the Kingdom of God is near you.’ That phrase literally means, the ‘kingdom is suddenly upon you.’ It is not as if the kingdom is on its way, it is here, suddenly, even among you and within you as Jesus says elsewhere. The harvest and the defeat of evil are signs of the Kingdom.
Fr. Don said last week that we all have choices to make. We have a choice to live in the Kingdom of God or the kingdom of man. This is not a choice that we make on our deathbeds it is a choice we make every day. Every time we choose to live by our own choices rather than God’s we are making a choice. Every time we succumb to anger or hatred, or to vileness or to lust we are making a choice. Every time we crack the Bible we are making a choice. Every time we show love to our kids we are making a choice of which Kingdom we want to be a part of.
I have a great list of ideas that you gave me for summer sermons and I hope to address some of them in part by preaching on the book of Colossians, beginning next week which really shows the contrast between living for God’s Kingdom or the kingdoms of this world.
Rather than seeing ourselves to much at home in this world we ought to see ourselves like the Jews during succoth–nomads, wanderers looking for the Promised Land. More on that next week.
Lastly, the 72 were told to proclaim, but interestingly also to build relationships. I don’t think it is by chance that Jesus commands them to stay in houses as they minister. ‘When you enter a house, first say, “Peace to this house”…Stay in that house, eating a drinking whatever they give you…Do not move around from house to house.’
When they entered the house, they gave the Jewish prayer peace and wholeness and blessing, then they were to share meals–the most intimate experience of the ancient world. It was a ministry not only of going out but of staying in and sharing what God had done for them. An intense preaching experience but also an intimate encounter. They were to go to places that the Lord had already prepared for them where hearts were open. They were to encounter rejection from hearts that were closed for sure, but God had already moved hearts to receive as well.
Evangelism is not only about proclamation but the sharing of hearts and relationships. It is not about being slick but being open about our relationship with Jesus. As one writer says, ‘Missions is not a matter of marketing but of the Lord’s directing his people to share faithfully the grace they have experienced.’
Right now, at Epiphany, we can do things that bigger churches cannot. We can have better space for relationships to form.
We did our family night at our house last month and it was great. Here’s an opportunity to invite folks who may be intimidated by the church building. The 20th of July is our next chance. Friday the 20th at 6PM bring a dish to share and someone who might be scared of the church and let’s share a meal and have fun at our house. The harvest is plentiful and the workers are few.
Lastly, we have a choice to make about how we see the world around us. We can see it, as one pastor has said, as a time of ‘friction or a time of traction.’ In other words, we can fret about the secularization and plurality of America, or we can see it as a gospel opportunity.
We watched the ‘Bridge to Terabithia’ with the kids the other night. It is about two kids in their early teens, Jess Aarons and Leslie Burke who are both kind of melancholy and both misfits who get picked on. Leslie creates for Jess a whole world in the woods where their imaginations create a kind of Narnia, called Terabithia where there are giants and monsters and where they rule.
In one scene, Leslie goes to church with Jess. I’m sure the dialog in the book is much different from the movie, but when Leslie looks around the church, she sees it much like their land of Terabithia. Later they talk and she asks them about the cross and the suffering of Jesus. They talk about it for awhile and she says something very interesting. She says, ‘Do you believe all of that? I’m sure it does not mean much to you because you have to believe it. I don’t have to believe it, but you know what? I think it is beautiful. And just something that God would do.’
We have heard the message so much that maybe it is too commonplace. But we ought to never tire of telling the story of God becoming man, of his teachings and his miracles. Of his suffering on the cross and his resurrection.
The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few…