Saturday, June 14, 2008

Calling all Harvesters

Matthew 9:35-10:8

I don’t have a lot of personal experience with farming. Although I may have grown up in an agricultural area, I’m still a city boy! Besides going out in the back yard to pick some apricots, the closest I’ve ever gotten to farming was an essay I wrote for a history textbook on the Agricultural Revolution of the 18th Century. So when it comes to talking about harvesting, any expertise I have comes from book learning. Fortunately you’ve not come today hoping to learn gardening techniques. If you have, then you have to look elsewhere!

I don’t know if Jesus was an expert on farming either, but he seemed to understand the basic principles of farming. The first principle is simple -- if something looks ripe, then you better pick it! The second principle simply insists that it takes workers to harvest a crop. Jesus may be correct about the principles of farming, but I don’t think he was interested in farming per se! So, maybe in this passage, when he talks farming, he’s talking metaphorically!

1. Casting an Eschatological Vision
Harvest language in the Bible is usually eschatological in nature. That is, it’s focused on the future – on what God is about to do in the world. These visions begin by suggesting that God is at work in the world – and not only that, but God is going to bring this work to a full and proper conclusion. God doesn’t do things half-way!

In this passage Jesus casts an eschatological vision that declares God’s concern for people who wander through life as if they’re lost and alone. These are, Jesus says, sheep without a shepherd. In his mind, this is a people in need of God’s compassionate care and feeding.
The second part of the story is the one Matthew addresses to us. As Jesus looks at this job of bringing God’s good news to the world and with it God’s healing presence, he realizes that he can’t do it by himself – he needs help.

This is an important point – God needs us. God may be at work planting and caring for the fields but when it comes to bringing in the harvest God needs us. That means that we’re important players in God’s work of redemption. God is calling us to share in building the kingdom.

2. Jesus’ Ministry is our Ministry

If God needs us to complete this eschatological vision, then the question is how we should go about it. And here we get some direction. If you compare Matthew’s description of Jesus’ ministry, with that of the twelve disciples you’ll notice that they’re almost exactly the same. In other words – Jesus’ ministry is their ministry, and their ministry is our ministry. Don’t let the use of the word Apostle make you think that this passage doesn’t apply to us. Apostle simply means “sent out one.” We usually think of apostles as the earliest church leaders, but the New Testament never uses the word that way. An apostle is simply a missionary – and we’re all called to be missionaries.

So, in sending out these twelve Apostles, Jesus commissions them to preach the good news and heal the broken and the hurting. If we look to Luke’s gospel we can get an even broader sense of what it means to share in Jesus’ ministry. In Luke 4, Jesus claims the mantle of Isaiah and insists that God has called him to “bring the good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18).
If we take these two commissions together we get a good sense of what we’re supposed to be doing as church. It’s hard work – but it’s transformational as well! And if we engage in this ministry then we join Jesus in bringing in the harvest.

3. The call for Harvesters of the missional church

Because I only have one more Sunday left, I had to decide whether to load it on you or keep it short and simple! Taking the better road, I’ve decided to keep this thing short! As I looked at this passage this week, the word I heard was simply this: We are a missional people. We’ve been called by God to make a difference in this community and beyond. We’re not a social club or even a service club – we’re the church of God. In other words, we’re a missional church. And as we think about being a missional church there are a few things we can learn from this call to apostolic ministry.

  • First, do what Jesus did -- Our calling to missional ministry is to do what Jesus did. Preach the good news, care for the sick, and offer spiritual comfort to those in need of it.
  • Second, don’t get caught up with the money. This is a congregation that has been blessed with resources that can fuel and sustain its ministry. Use the money wisely, but use it for the kingdom. Don’t hoard it when it can be used to expand the work of the kingdom.
  • Third, travel light – I’m not the best person to talk about traveling light. In getting ready to move, I realize that I have a lot of books to move. I hate to give them up – so traveling light isn’t an easy thing for me. But, if you continue reading into chapter 10 of Matthew you’ll find Jesus telling the twelve what to take with them. He tells them, to leave behind gold, silver, and copper coins, and in fact, don’t even take a bag of clothes. Just take the clothes on your back and depend on the goodness of your hosts. That’s traveling light! But the point is, to be a missional church requires us to act in faith and trust in God for our sustenance.

The harvest is ready, and the call has been issued. May we hear it and respond accordingly!

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
5th Sunday after Pentecost
June 15, 2008

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Journey of Faith

Genesis 12:1-9

The story of a family heading off to a strange land seems rather appropriate at this time in my life. Cheryl, Brett, and I are about to take such a journey. But, it’s not the first time I’ve done this. I remember setting off, years ago, from Klamath Falls, in my less-than-reliable Ford Maverick. With $500 in my pocket, I loaded up the car with my belongings, and headed south toward Pasadena, where I hoped to attend seminary. I didn’t have a place to live, a job, or even a letter of acceptance from Fuller Seminary. But, things seemed to work out. I found a room at the Pasadena YMCA, and a few weeks later, I got a job at a Christian bookstore. By then my little stash of cash had run low. But, I managed to make ends meet, even if I had to eat just one meal a day – and that was Poor Boy sandwiches and cheap kool-aid. The good thing, was that I lost a lot of weight!

1. Abram’s Journey and ours
Abram and Sarai heard a call from God and headed out on an adventure that changed history. We are blessed people because they decided to take this journey, because God chose them to be God’s agents for healing the world.

That part of the story is important, but I want to focus on how their journey is a metaphor for our journey of faith. I like the phrase "journey of faith," because it’s so descriptive of what it means to walk with God. Like their journey, our journey with God is full of unknowns. In the course of our journeys we face many important decisions, often without having all the answers ahead of time. In their story, they hear God say that their descendants would be a blessing to the nations, the means by which God would heal the nations. The only problem, according to the story, is that they were on the older side and they didn’t have any children of their own.
As we read their story, we discover that they, like us, made their share of mistakes and wrong turns. Indeed, on one occasion, Abram passed Sarai off as his sister, because Pharaoh had taken a liking to her. Despite those mistakes, the book of Hebrews points to Abraham and calls him an exemplar of faithfulness. As Terence Fretheim puts it:

The pilgrimage of Abram and Sarai becomes a metaphor for the Christian life, a journey that reaches out toward a promised future, but comes up short of final fulfillment within one's own lifetime.1

This is an important point to make – we may not see the full benefits of our adventure with God, but in taking the journey we leave an important legacy for others.

Although taking a journey like the one Abraham and Sarah took involved great risk, they discovered that if you don’t take the risk, you won’t enjoy the benefits of the journey. When I look back at my journey to Pasadena of more than a quarter century ago, I see the hazards, but I’ve received more than my share of benefits. Indeed, the person I am today is rooted in that decision to get in the car and head south. If I hadn’t made that journey I would never have met Cheryl, had Brett as a son, or perhaps even become a Disciples pastor. Of course, this journey is still ongoing; the conclusion has yet to be written. But I can say this, that decision changed my life – and the lives of others as well. Just ask Cheryl; she never planned on marrying a pastor!

2. Setting out on Our Journey of Faith
What then, can we learn from the journey of Abraham and Sarah?
  • Abraham was ready for an adventure

He must have been the adventuresome type, but then again, he came from a family of nomads. Still, this journey meant leaving his family behind. In a sense, he and Sarah threw caution to the wind – and we must do the same. It is, as William Barclay puts it:

"Most of us live a cautious life on the principle of safety first; but to live the Christian life there is necessary a certain reckless willingness to adventure. If faith can see every step of the way, it is not really faith."2

  • Abraham lived with patience

Patience is an important virtue if we’re going to take the journey of faith, and both Abraham and Sarah had to learn patience. Sometimes, their impatience caused problems, like when Sarah, recognizing that she wasn’t getting any younger suggested that Abram take Hagar as a second wife. But problems set in when Hagar seemed to become more than a surrogate mother. Then, when Abraham got to Canaan, he couldn’t find a place to settle down, and so he still had to live as a nomad. But over time, things changed. First, Sarah bore a son named Isaac, and from Isaac came Jacob, and then Joseph, Moses, and finally Jesus. Through them, the world would be blessed. But it took time and patience. As Christians we believe that Jesus is the promised blessing. It is through him that God fulfills the promise to bless the nations. But in the mean time – as we take the journey, we must watch and wait patiently. Quite often we begin the journey with great anticipation, but get discouraged, when things don’t go as quickly or as smoothly as he had hoped.

  • Abraham took a long-term view.

A faith journey requires a long-term view. Abraham kept going because he had a vision of what God would do for and through him. Without that vision he would have given up when he encountered trials, barriers, and other difficulties. As the King James Version of Proverbs 29:18, puts it: "Where there is no vision, the people perish, . . . " That vision is the key to taking the long-term view.

I may be leaving soon, but I believe that God has a vision for this congregation. There is an adventure waiting for you – even as there is an adventure waiting for me. There will be difficult times ahead and difficult decisions to make. Like the settlers that joined the wagon trains that set out on the Oregon Trail, you may have to leave behind some treasured possessions. And of course, you’ll need some patience. Before you know it, you’ll have a new pastor, and she or he, will help you cast a new vision and discover the resources needed to continue the journey. As that person comes to you, you will discern how to best minister in this community. I expect that might involve new worship services, new outreach ministries, and simply new ways of doing things. You’re going to need patience, because success won’t happen over night. But, if you remain faithful to God’s vision, and stay on the journey, in time you will experience the blessings. Some of you might not make it to the end, but you get the blessings of taking the journey together.

As you consider the journey ahead, consider this biblical commendation of the people of faith:
They desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed he has prepared a city for them. (Heb. 11:16).

1. Terence Fretheim, "Genesis", in The New Interpreter's Bible, (Nashville, Abingdon, 1995), 1:426.

2. William Barclay, The Letter of the Hebrews, Daily Study Bible, rev. ed., (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), 144.

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church
Lompoc, CA
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
June 8, 2008