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SERMON

PROMISE, LABOUR AND HARVEST

Genesis 18: 1-15

Reading: Romans 5: 1-8

Reading: Matthew 9: 35 – 10: 23

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9: 36-38)

This has been a week where the analogy of sheep without a shepherd has perhaps never seemed more apt. In the tragedy of that terrible fire at Grenfell Tower in London; in the confusion of people fleeing, then displaced, desperately trying to find their loved ones, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, we see all of our human vulnerability. Here, on our own soil, we see what people all over the world experience on a very regular basis, and it hurts. It makes us all seem more vulnerable to know that this kind of tragedy is possible and that the vagaries of the human condition that have made it possible are as likely to appear here as anywhere.

This week, too, we have seen that even the most apparently powerful can become vulnerable, as political leaders try to recover themselves after electoral realignments.

We have seen the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, step down citing the impossibility of leading a political party and sustaining a Christian faith. That’s something to debate for sure – I’m not sure that I agree with him on that one. Discuss!

This is a time of sudden and rather unexpected ferment in our civic life; and such a time as this is as good as any to take a look at what our Christian vocation looks like.

MATTHEW

And today we have Matthew’s Gospel to help us with that. And what a bracing look it is. This is an account of Jesus’ sending of The Twelve, which offers no comfort to the idea that the mission of Jesus is a brand of safe armchair Christianity. This is a mission that involves going out into the world and taking risks – and the risk is being alongside people, and being prepared to move on from them if the conditions are not right to make progress.


If people won’t cooperate and are hostile, says Jesus, don’t waste time on them, but move on. And while you’re at it, don’t bother with the Samaritans or the Gentiles, look to your own first. You’re the Twelve, the new tribes of Israel, taking the place of the old, your mission is to the lost sheep of the tribes of Israel. It’s curious, because this seems like the opposite of the parable of the lost sheep – where we are encouraged to go after the one that’s causing trouble rather than forget it to focus on the receptive sheep.

Of course, we know that later in his Gospel, Matthew expands the vision to include everyone – not just the Jews, which is a good demonstration of why looking at wee chunks of Scripture can sometimes give us the wrong impression – or at least a skewed one. We need to remember that this Gospel reflects the struggle of the emerging Jesus movement in Judaism, but it also reflects a world in which the Jewish Revolt against Roman rule in the year 70CE was a cataclysm that literally brought down the Jerusalem Temple and created a lot of collateral damage. There was a massive fragmentation of everything that had underpinned Judea: religion, politics, culture, economy. The Romans had cracked down on a dissent that simply couldn’t be tolerated. Matthew’s often apocalyptic and uncompromising outlook is part of that changed situation, where the old certainties, familiarities and networks had gone. So maybe we can forgive the astringency of what we often hear from Matthew. How would we be looking at things if we were in his shoes?

Mission and leadership in the church

I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ call to missionary action, and wondering who it’s for today.

When I was in Ghana on placement in the summer of 2013, I attended a number of ordinations of catechists (like Readers) and pastors/ministers. At each one the cheery wee Principal Clerk of the General Assembly, Godwin Osiakwa, stood up and suddenly became very serious:

“The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.”

In their mind, the labourers were the clergy – the catechists and the pastors. They were the ones to go out on the ground, to start new churches and to be the ones who made things happen. Interesting how dominant the clergy were in that tradition. In fact it was almost a priestly role that was operating there. There were elders, but they were very much in the shadow of the pastor, who was treated with massive respect – reverence even, no matter what their ministry was like. A pastor was a pastor – it even got you through armed road blocks without paying the usual wee monetary bribe!

Having just been on a probationer minister’s training conference, I can confirm that the Church of Scotland is not encouraging its ministers to be like that, although leadership is on the agenda for clergy, as changing times need good collaborative leaders to help find the next direction for the Kirk.

And that collaboration is with all of you. All of you, as members of the church, of the body of Christ, are the ones being sent out into the world to be ambassadors for Christ, and to do the hard graft of being his followers.

If you’re the ambassadors, then maybe the labourers aren’t so few – and maybe there’s a much better chance of the harvest being brought in?

Does that scare you? Certainly, if the experience will be like that of Matthew’s Gospel, then I’m not surprised that it would, and we need to be sure that we’re not leaving people exposed in that mission.

So, while Jesus is definitely sending us out, there is more to it than simply being on the barricades the whole time. Yes, we do need to be challengers of what is going on in society. We do need to be sitting down next to people and saying – I identify with you in the troubles that you have, and am going to do something about it – I might even take the flak for you in a situation that leads me to come off worst as I defend you. But there’s more to it than that.

The story of Abraham and Sarah that we heard at the beginning of the service is a great story of patience, endurance and reward. Despite God’s early covenant to Abraham, leading him to endure many a hard journey and family relocation, all of which you can read about in a very succinct form in the earlier chapters of Genesis, Abraham and Sarah have had to face up to a long game of not knowing what God’s purposes were for them. Yes, God had said that their descendents would be more numerous than the stars in the sky or the sand on the seashore, but there had been little evidence of it. They had even taken matters into their own hands eventually, when Sarah agreed to allow Abraham to father a child with their servant girl. Now there’s a surrogate relationship designed to cause trouble, and it did, when Hagar decided to indulge in fertility pride, goading Sarah with jibes about her inability to bear children. In that culture, not having children was a big issue – and taken as a sign of actual disfavour from God, rather than simply being the circumstances you found yourself in.

In that story, the actions of Abraham and Sarah were with hindsight premature, although completely understandable. In the fullness of time, God’s positive regard for them became the impetus for a very unlikely scenario of childbearing in Sarah’s 90th year. Golly, just imagine!

Whatever the historical accuracy of this situation, the importance for us is the symbolism. God is saying to us in this story, “no matter what hardships you endure, I am for you, and don’t doubt me. I will see you right in the end, so keep faith in me and what I will do.”

It’s a great tension – do we despair because we aren’t getting what we want, or the progress that we want, and so fire off into action – sometimes just any action, and end up hyperactive as Christians, or do we say, ok, perhaps there are times when we do need to say, let’s just chill and not worry ourselves sick about the situation we find ourselves in. Maybe if we take more of the Mary route rather than the Martha, and spend time sitting at the feet of Jesus, we’ll find that we can connect more to God than if we organise another missionary campaign with a flashy new direction that seeks to be the new big thing. Maybe the heart of the mission of God is a lot more simple. Maybe it’s sometimes sitting under an oak tree in the shade and waiting and wondering. 

Abraham and Sarah waited a long time to see God’s promise fulfilled for them and ultimately for the Judeo-Christian tradition. And Paul picks this up in the Letter to the Romans, where he talks of what God has done for us in Jesus. The inheritance of faith over works – Jesus came to us in the flesh as a real person, and died for us, as the result of God’s covenant with humanity, going back as far as Creation itself, which said – I am for you, no matter what you’ve ended up doing in the end.

In the covenant with Abraham and the covenant with Christ, we see two examples of longed for intervention of God. Abraham and the prophets were desperate for there to be a new development, another manifestation of God that would make a decisive change in their world.

And who knows, when that might happen again. Our tradition is full of expectation of a second coming of Christ – another breaking into the world in a decisive and game-changing way.


But meantime, we go on and puzzle about just how we are supposed to take God’s mission forward.

Conclusion

My suggestion to you today is that the mission of God for us requires two things. Sitting down and standing up. There are three aspects of the sitting down. First, we need to keep doing the sitting down with God – we need to keep working on the quiet listening to God that you can do in prayer, in reading the stories of Jesus and studying the insights of other great spiritual thinkers. There are certainly times when sitting in the tent in the shade is the right thing to do.

Secondly, we need to match that sitting down ourselves with sitting down amongst others – first here in our community of faith, where we can share insights about God and also our wondering about what we’re called to do in the world.

Then thirdly, we are all called to get out there and actually sit down next to others, doing what Jesus did, and hitting the margins, where folk are not comfortable or establishment, or who are both of those things and are nonetheless in despair, or dissatisfied.

Then we do the standing up - together, with strength of numbers as a church here, across Scotland and across the world. That standing up is incredibly powerful when it is done in the form of a movement. But one person standing up in a crowd of people sitting is a powerful, if perhaps a vulnerable sign.

Jesus knew that his mission was dangerous. Remember what he said: “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.” He didn’t say that we should go and be constantly abused and taken advantage of. He was aware that sometimes you have to draw back, and urged us to be “as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves.” That’s a great phrase, and maybe it should make a return as a mission statement mantra.

I wonder if like Sarah, this message makes you laugh. Well, maybe it does. Sometimes when I think about the Jesus story I wonder, am I really mad, are we really mad? There is a slightly mad edge to it all, but that’s maybe just in relation to the alleged sanity of the world.

When I look at events in the last couple of weeks I wonder who the mad people are. And it doesn’t look like Christians to me. Jesus looks like the sanest person in the room when we consider the internicene battles of politics and the race to the bottom of privatised public services. Maybe, like Sarah we should have our moment of laughter, but then very quickly return to the vision of God in Christ that offers commitment and sacrifice in the pursuit of life in all its fullness, a very serious mantra, and one of which that God constantly invites us to be a part.

And now, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we bring all of these thoughts to a conclusion by praising you, God of all, the God who wills us to be both comforted and compelled by your message and your presence. AMEN