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Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – July 3, 2022

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Whether it is the golden wheat fields of the Palouse, or the apple orchards of the Wenatchee Valley, or the strawberries at Bell’s Farm right here on Whidbey Island, when those crops are ripe and ready, there is an urgency to bringing them in. You need to move. Time is of the essence. And when you have a labor shortage, it creates even more urgency! It’s all-hands-on-deck time!

As Jesus looked out at the mass of humanity in the towns and places into which he sent his disciples, he compared it to a field ripe and ready for the harvest. He saw masses of people who were in need of the gospel, people who were ready to be gathered into his harvest, his kingdom. In using this analogy, Jesus was conveying a sense of urgency. It was time to move! And because the laborers were few, everyone needed to pitch in. It was all-hands-on-deck time.

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”

I can’t think of a better analogy to describe the church’s situation in our own time. As we look out at the mass of humanity outside our doors, we can see masses of people in need of the gospel. We see people who are beaten down by life, people who are discouraged and confused, people who feel alienated and alone. We live in a time when diseases of despair are lowering the average life span of people in our country as they succumb to deaths related to alcohol or drug abuse or suicide.  This is not a sign of societal or cultural health! I find it tragically interesting that as rates of church participation go down, down, down, those rates of diseases of despair go up, up, up. I know correlation isn’t causation, and I don’t want to be overly simplistic about it, but it seems to suggest that our growing secularism is leading to more and more despair. This is tragic, of course, but it is also an opportunity. The harvest is plentiful! There are people out there who are ripe and ready for a word of hope! There are people out there who desperately need to hear the gospel!

But the laborers are few. Boy is that true! I mentioned at our semi-annual meeting a few weeks ago that the pandemic exacerbated trends that had already been in place for a long time, with fewer and fewer people actively participating in the life of the church. It isn’t just that people are leaving the faith – though that is happening – it is also the case that those who maintain membership in Christian congregations are less active than they once were. They don’t come to worship as regularly. They don’t come to Bible study as often. They don’t volunteer as much. I have been watching these trends happen over my twenty-two years of ordained ministry, and yes, the pandemic only made things worse. This story is unfolding across the church in all its different expressions throughout the United States. We are having to do more with less, because the laborers are few.

Our gospel reading, then, speaks powerfully to the moment we face as the church today, to this moment when the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. So let’s dig into it and see what it has to say to us here this morning.

First of all, notice that Jesus sent seventy people out in mission. He didn’t just send out the executive committee of Peter, James, and John. Jesus didn’t even just send out the twelve disciples, those whom he had called as leaders. Jesus gives the responsibility of going out and sharing the gospel to many people – seventy of them!

This is important for us today. This work of sharing the gospel, the work of spreading the Good News of Jesus, the work of inviting and being hospitable, the work of shining a light in the darkness of our world doesn’t just belong to a few – it belongs to the many. It doesn’t just belong to the pastor, or the council, or some evangelism committee, it belongs to us all! “Well,” you might say to yourself, “Jesus APPOINTED seventy people. I don’t recall ever being appointed by anybody.” But you WERE appointed! You were appointed in Holy Baptism! There you were appointed, you were commissioned, you were called to “Let your light so shine before others that they would see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” So, you WERE appointed! Nice try, though!

We are all, by the ordination of our baptism, sent out to proclaim peace, to proclaim the shalom of God. “Say, ‘Peace to this house,’” Jesus instructs us. This isn’t hippie talk or a casual greeting. This is a blessing. This is a word that does something. We are bringing the peace of Christ. It is the blessing of peace with God, the peace beyond all understanding, the peace the world cannot provide, the peace only Christ Jesus can give.

Jesus sends the seventy out to bring the blessing of Christ’s peace to those who need it most: the sick, the broken, the isolated. He sends them out to tell them that the kingdom of God has come near, so that they will know that they are not alone, so they will know God’s presence and God’s peace. Jesus sends them out with a sense of urgency to share this blessing of peace with God, telling them to travel light and not be distracted by chit-chat. “Get to the mission,” Jesus is telling them – and us!

The next important thing to notice is that this will not be easy. Jesus tells the seventy that he is sending them out as lambs into the midst of wolves. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, if there are those who snarl or even bite at us, those who are hostile to Christianity. He tells them that not everyone will receive them or their message. But Jesus tells them – and us – that when this happens, we are to shake it off and move on. We aren’t to be discouraged. We certainly aren’t to give up. And we aren’t to take it personally either. As Jesus says, “When they reject you, they are really rejecting me.” A hostile culture is no excuse for the Christian church to retreat in its witness. It was not an excuse then, and it is not an excuse now.

As we carry out this mission, Jesus gives us an authority. That is to say, we are authorized to speak on his behalf. And this speaking has power. As Jesus says, “I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.”

Contrary to what a few misguided snake-handlers might think, this is symbolic language. Snakes and scorpions are symbols of sin and death. All the way back in Genesis God tells Adam and Eve that one would come to reverse the curse of sin by crushing the head of the serpent under his heel. Jesus’ followers, including you and me, crush the head of the serpent, we chase away the scorpions sting of death, when we share the Good News that Jesus has conquered sin and death. We have that power! Through Christ’s word of forgiveness, the serpent’s head is crushed. Through the Good News of his victory over death, the scorpion is defeated. Think of what a difference this power can make in the lives of those held captive by sin and death. Think of how many lives can be changed as they learn of Christ’s mercy and grace, his invitation to a new life that begins today and continues forever.

As we carry out this mission, we are also given a promise: “Nevertheless,” Jesus says, “do not rejoice in this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Here Jesus draws attention away from what WE do, and invites us to find true joy in what God has done for us. To be sure, we have a calling. We have a mission. We have a responsibility. But even better, we have an identity: We are God’s people. Our names have been written in heaven. And so we don’t only share the peace of Christ, we also rest in it.

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”

This describes our situation today very well. One the one hand, the laborers are few. We often find ourselves needing to do more with less as God’s people today. On the other hand, the harvest is plentiful. There are opportunities all around us – in our homes, our community, our world – for making Christ known. There are hearts all around us which are ripe for a word of forgiveness, a word of hope.

This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for the church, and for our congregation. We are a sent people, sent out to share the Good News with people who are hurting or alone or sick or in despair. We are sent to share a word of peace, a word of blessing, a word of forgiveness, a word that makes people whole again. We are sent to tell people that the kingdom of God has come near to us in Jesus Christ, that they are not alone, that God is with them, that God loves them.

I know this is hard. I know it can be awkward, that it is hard to know when or how to share this Good News. I know there have been plenty of obnoxious forms of evangelism which make it that much harder for us.

But as we look outside our doors, we see the same thing Jesus saw. We see a harvest that is plentiful. We see a golden opportunity. We see crops that are ripe and ready to be gathered into Christ’s kingdom.

That the laborers are few only makes it more urgent for each and every one of us to be involved in gathering them in.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church