Every Fall and Spring I teach a class here at Holy Communion called “Pilgrimage.” It’s a course for newcomers, for seekers, for those exploring the Christian faith. The class is open to those who have never been Christian, to those who have been away from church for a long time, and for those who are encountering a different sort of Christianity here at Holy Communion, a church in what our Presiding Bishop calls, “The Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement,” our seemingly odd little corner of American Christianity.
We start the Pilgrimage class with a look at the Bible, and ask “have you read the Bible the same way across your life?” The answer for “capital E” Evangelicals is often: “no. I came to the Episcopal Church because my earlier understanding of the Bible was not working for me.” Many folks arrive here in the Episcopal Church because we marry same-gender couples, or because we ordain women to lead worship. We don’t understand certain Biblical passages the same way as our Baptist or Missouri-Synod Lutheran brethren. We don’t come to the same conclusions. We hold Scripture and Reason together, and we believe the Spirit is still speaking.
For the former Catholics who come to the class, the question “have you read the Bible the same way across your life” often leads to a series of questions: “The Bible? We’re supposed to read that? Outside of church?” (Honestly a lot of Episcopalians would answer the same). Catholics also come to Scripture with a set of assumptions, a set of ready-made interpretations. We share some of those across our denominations. On some we differ. Catholic, Evangelical, Presbyterian, Episcopalian we all hear Scripture with a certain set of inherited interpretations. Today’s Gospel is a powerful illustration.
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” I wonder if some of you, like me, remembered the old translation even as our new translation was read. At my Roman Catholic college, I saw this phrase printed on posters outside the chapel: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” The Roman Diocese of San Diego, the Jesuits, the Dominicans, they were all looking to recruit nice young Catholic men into the priesthood. I didn’t qualify. Neither did most of my college, the student body was 60% women. We’ll talk more about the laborers in a moment.
First I want to ask, what exactly is this “harvest” that Jesus imagines? Especially as Americans, in perhaps the most evangelical of countries, we are inheritors of the tradition of the tent meetings of the two great awakenings. Is this the harvest Jesus imagined? Is it what Jesus had in mind when he sent the seventy two? People joining the church? People “becoming Christians.” For a good part of our history, the church has assumed this was the meaning of Jesus’ word “harvest.”
The Scripture scholar Ellen Davis cautions twenty first century Christians living in the developed world to be especially careful when we encounter agrarian metaphors in the Bible. We often move quickly through descriptions of seeds, growth cycles, weeds and water. But Jesus lived in an economy centered on agriculture. The disciples lived closer to the land. Yes, many of them were fisherfolk, but the shores of Galilee were surrounded by fields. People lived and died on the cycles of the harvest.
We often immediately substitute an image of gathering in new converts when we hear this passage. Jesus did tell his followers he would make them fishers for people. As such, this passage tends to make Episcopalians nervous. There is a word Episcopalians really dislike hearing from the pulpit, and I am about it say it: “evangelism.” I am becoming more and more convinced that our particular American understanding of evangelism, an evangelism that is all about the growth of a congregation, the “winning over converts” to our particular brand of faith, filling the pews and the church coffers, it isn’t what Jesus had in mind for his good news.
Listen to what Jesus says, “The harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers.” Part of living in an agrarian society, part of living closer to the soil, is knowing that sometimes you are going to be hungry. In an economy like Jesus’ the image of an over-abundant harvest would have made mouths water. The image Jesus presents is terrifying. There is a huge harvest, but there aren’t enough workers. The produce may rot on the vine. The food won’t make its way to the hungry people. What an awful waste.
When Jesus gave these instructions to the seventy two, he spoke in a society that knew more about fluctuating harvests, more about hunger. We who pick through almost the same shrink wrapped produce in every season, always in over-abundant piles, we who expect guarantees of freshness, we are a long way from our sources of food. It is easy to hear this passage and say, “oh, Jesus is talking about winning converts.” I’m not sure the interpretation should be that cut and dry, that pre-packaged.
If you follow the arc of Scripture, Jesus is all about radical abundance. What if the Good News of Jesus had more to do with actual, literal food? What if Jesus didn’t care how many folks slapped a fish on their bumper? What if we proclaimed a message that had at least as much to do with food security for all God’s people as it did with growing churches. What if we read a little further down, and saw the work of the church as involved in expanding access to health care? What if our work of Evangelism, which literally means “telling the good news,” what if our work of evangelism meant announcing and working for God’s vision to feed the hungry, to care for the sick? Could you imagine an evangelism campaign that was centered on human rights?
Jesus is about breaking down walls: the fences that keep people from the harvest, the psychological barriers that keep people from one another, the racisms and phobias that empower a few, and keep many in God’s family from realizing their full potential. Jesus comes to break us out of our small-minded ways. Jesus comes to proclaim: there is a harvest, an abundant harvest. There is more than enough: more than enough food, more than enough medicine, more than enough work, more than enough so that folks can have a living wage. What if Jesus asked you to preach these words, not only with your lips, but with your lives? What does that sort of evangelism look like?
Jesus is concerned about evangelism, but the Gospel he preached, the good news of peace he sent his followers to preach, I am less and less sure it sounds like what the church has passed off. Jesus wanted everyone to hear the good news, that they matter infinitely, that they are worth everything. Jesus wanted people to know that their hunger deserved to be fed, their wounds deserved to be healed. Jesus wanted people to know, all people to know, they have a place in God’s world, a place that matters. Will you preach that Gospel? Are you willing to be an evangelical for that message?
Too often the voices in the world, the voices in the church have preached something else, something that looks like bad news. Jesus constantly taught against a vision of religion that tore people down, cast people aside, ruled people out. In response Jesus said, “You matter to God. You belong to God. You are loved and valued and worthy.” This message is counter-cultural. This message will meet resistance, external and internal. When people ask, “how do you know? How do you know I matter? How can you say the hungry deserve to be fed? The left-out belong at the center? The immigrant must be welcomed? How can you say such a thing?
That question is the invitation to respond: The King of Love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth NEVER. When they ask you, out of fear or self-doubt, how you can believe the good news of the loving, life-giving, liberating one, that is the invitation to talk about the Savior, the leader, the teller of stories you follow. When someone asks, “how do you know I matter, I am worthy of love?” tell them because you believe in a God who made us for one another, made us to matter, made us to be fed, to be healed, to welcome, to love. If they still can’t hear you, don’t respond violently. Simply shake the dust off your feet and say, “still, the reign of God has drawn near.” Does that sound like a vision of good-news telling, of evangelism, that makes you less nervous?
Well, don’t get too comfortable yet, because we’re about to talk about whose job this evangelism is. What about the laborers? On a day when we are welcoming a new priest in our midst, this seems an appropriate text. This lesson, and the other Gospels’ versions of it are often read at ordinations. If we imagine that Jesus’ movement is simply about gathering folks into the church, it is easy to read today’s passage as a pitch for more priests. Laurie, I am so grateful you are here. There is indeed more work to do at Holy Communion than I can do, than Marc can do, than Chester can do. There’s more work than the vestry can do. We are glad you are here. We know you are ready to work. We wouldn’t have hired you if you weren’t.
But, if you will let me give you one word of advice on your first Sunday, let it be this: “Don’t try and do all God’s work yourself.” You will never succeed. I know. I’ve tried. Honestly, I don’t think this passage is about recruiting more priests, for the Roman Catholics or for the Episcopalians. Jesus’ vision was never as small as the church’s. Notice how many folks Jesus sends out, not just twelve, not just a handful. 72. The work is bigger than some inner circle. Jesus announcement belongs to all God’s people, belongs to the whole church. Having Laurie in our midst lets no one off the hook. In fact, from what I’ve heard of Laurie, she’s going to help us get more busy.
Laurie, let me also offer you one word of encouragement. You have picked a great congregation. The community that gathers here at Holy Communion, at our best, knows that the harvest Jesus talks about isn’t simply about growing our church. We have heard the good news. Quietly, let me tell you, this is a congregation with a lot of evangelists. Maybe don’t tell them I told you so. At our best at Holy Communion, we question the assumptions we have inherited alongside our tradition. We open scripture together and we challenge the simplistic readings. We make room for folks to know they are loved by God. We work together for justice. We feed the hungry. We help clothe those who need their clothes washed. This is a congregation with a vision for welcome, an embrace of diversity, a desire to build and serve community. You have picked a great congregation to serve alongside.
Every Spring and Fall, as I gather with the folks in the Pilgrimage class, I am reminded and I am challenged. So many of us have left behind a stifling understanding of faith, a limited interpretation of the Bible. This is a congregation of seekers. Sometimes we have more questions than we have answers. Honestly, I am more comfortable in a church that has more questions than answers. The churches with too many answers make me nervous.
Today Jesus leaves his followers not with an answer so much as with a charged question: there is abundant harvest, and yet the people are hungry, what are you going to do about it? The work of Jesus isn’t done until the hungry are filled. The Gospel isn’t good news if stomachs are groaning. The work of Jesus isn’t done until the sick have access to healing. The work of Jesus isn’t done when immigrants aren’t welcome, the imprisoned aren’t visited. When someone is lonely, and hurting, and in danger, the Gospel has not yet been truly proclaimed. The work of Jesus won’t be done by you alone, by me alone, by the Episcopal Church alone. God has too much good news to announce to leave it in the hands of the carefully selected few. But friends, we have some good news to proclaim. Will you go?