Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Who Will Go?


Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Have you ever stood before a task so great that you were not sure you could even begin? Perhaps a relative died and left a house so full of junk that it would be easier (although illegal) to set the place on fire and collect the insurance payment. Or maybe you opened a box to find a gargantuan ball of tangled Christmas tree lights so intertwined that you decided to pitch it in the bin and go to the store and pay for a new set. Today, in Matthew 9:35-38, Jesus looks out at the masses of people who need his healing touch and has compassion on them because their need is so great and the task is so big that it's even hard for Jesus to know where to start.

After seeing the crowd was helpless and harassed, like sheep without a shepherd, Jesus says to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few; therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest that he would send out laborers into his harvest." In other words, twelve isn't going to cut it. Whether measured by the need or the opportunity, the number of people who wait for salvation--direction, healing, comfort, security--is so great that Jesus asks his disciples to join him in prayer for backup.

A few years back, the wheat harvest in our area was delayed. It had been a great season for growing wheat--just enough rain when it was needed--and the fields were full, but then it started to rain. The fields were wet and muddy, and the harvesting equipment couldn't go out and bring in the wheat. So the farmers waited. And waited. And waited. And still the rains came. If you leave wheat in the field too long, it begins to sprout and spoil, and the quality of the harvest goes down. Farmers were worried that, if the rain didn't stop, the bountiful crop would be wasted. Finally, the rain subsided, and the fields dried out, and farmers sent harvesters into the fields to bring in the wheat. But there weren't enough combines to do all of the work.

A combine harvester is the piece of modern equipment that is used to harvest a variety of grains. It combines the three primary functions of harvesting--reaping, threshing, and winnowing--into a single operation. As you might expect, they are expensive. A quick Google search suggests that a new combine might cost $400,000 to $600,000. I can afford a $200 lawnmower that sits idle in my work shed 6 out of 7 days, but most small or mid-sized farmers cannot afford a half-million-dollar piece of equipment that is only used for a week or two out of the year. So they share. Combines move across the country as the harvest season progresses. Most of the time, when the weather cooperates, there's enough time to get everyone's harvest. But, when all of the farmers want their wheat harvested on the same day, there aren't nearly enough. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. That's how God sees the world. Is that how we see it, too?

Today, we celebrate the consecration of Samuel Seabury, the first bishop in the Episcopal Church. At the Revolution, the Church of England had given way to the Episcopal Church, but there were still no colonial bishops. For more than a century, would-be clergymen would get on a ship and sail back to England, where they were ordained by an English bishop before setting sail back to the colonies. Anglicans on this side of the pond had begged for a bishop, but they never got one. Sometimes ordinands who returned to the comforts of Mother England never came back. The process was long. Some refused to wait, which is where the Methodist Church came from--a splinter group from the Anglican church that began practicing presbyteral instead of episcopal ordination. Eventually, when the Revolution was complete, leaders in the Episcopal Church decided that it was time for a domestic bishop, so they sent Samuel Seabury (their second choice) over to England to be consecrated.

Seabury spent more than a year seeking ordination as a bishop. He couldn't convince English bishops (it takes three) to consecrate him because he refused to take the oath required at his ordination and swear allegiance to George III. So he went north to Scotland and convinced the Non-juring bishops of the Episcopal Church of Scotland, who also refused to swear allegiance to George III, to make him a bishop. In exchange for their consecration, he agreed to do his best to pattern the Eucharistic prayer after the Scottish Prayer Book, including its epiclesis (invocation of the Holy Spirit over the gifts). Seabury's story is a fascinating one, but perhaps more important is the fact that we do not celebrate him as a saint but commemorate his consecration as a bishop. In other words, Seabury isn't the emblem of holiness that we celebrate. What we celebrate is the raising up of a shepherd, a laborer, to help identify and raise up more laborers for the plentiful harvest.

God sees the world as a bountiful harvest of souls waiting to know the saving love of God. Is that what we see when we look out at our neighborhoods, our communities, our nation, and the world? The word "compassion" means "to suffer with." Jesus suffers along with the crowds because the need is so great and the laborers are so few. Do we suffer with those who need to know the freeing love of Jesus? If we let them into our hearts and allowed our hearts to break, would we spend less time fighting over property and liturgy, building fancy churches, celebrating Sunday-morning worship, and carrying out the business of the church and more time making disciples for Jesus? As we commemorate the consecration of Samuel Seabury, let us pray that God would send out more laborers into the harvest. Let us pray that God would use us to identify, equip, empower, and encourage more people to bring the good news of the gospel to the ends of the earth.

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