Joseph P. Mathews
For the Mission of the Church I
1 March 2011
In the name of the God who sends laborers to the harvest. Amen.
Some of you already know this: I spent three and a half weeks of January in Mexico. I had planned to be volunteering at an after school program in Veracruz. A few weeks before Stefanie Wilson and I planned to leave, the Bishop of Southeast Mexico e-mailed us and asked if we could go to somewhere else. The priest we’d planned to work with would be visiting her family but there was another mission that worked with orphans in the diocese, and he’d already cleared it with that priest if we were willing to be there.
Stefanie and I were just excited for news about a final green light, so we jumped at the opportunity and said of course we would. Our first day there we asked what we could do to help and Pedro said to watch and rest. Our second day we asked what we could do to help. Pedro said to enjoy the morning and read. The children’s home we were volunteering and living at is on a ranch complete with, sheep, pigs, chickens, and seven acres of cornfield. All the while we were reading and resting and taking walks and trying to herd the sheep with the younger boys, the older boys were in the fields working.
At first they pulled the ears of corn, dried on the stalk, off the stalks and piled them together. Then they would bag them up and bring them to a storage area. Bags and bags of corn, it seemed like there was always more. After a few days of watching and resting and feeling like we weren’t doing mission, the director of the home said that there was work that we could do in the harvesting of the corn. You see, this wasn’t corn that anyone would be eating, and there was much more to harvesting than getting it in from the field.
First it had to be shucked. We shucked corn for six hours the first day we did that. And there was always more corn to be shucked. Early in our time, there was a machine that the shucked corn was run through. This was corn that would be used to feed the chickens and pigs, so the kernels had to be pulled from the ears. The machine was borrowed, though, and when it was returned we pulled the kernels off by hand with a twisting motion or using a corncob to help. The harvest wasn’t just one step of pulling ears of corn off the stalks in the fields.
In our gospel text today, Jesus sends out seventy to the fields to harvest. The harvest is plentiful, he says, but the workers are few. They are to go out working together, to preach peace to those they encountered and to rely on other people to care for them. Rather than moving around, they are to stay with those who are offering hospitality. But what is this harvesting that the seventy are supposed to be doing? Most of the gospel text is Jesus telling them how to live off of other people and that if people reject their peace it will come back to them.
In the chapter prior to this Jesus gives the twelve the assignment to proclaim the Kingdom of God and heal. And that’s what he tells the seventy to do, as well saying, “Cure the sick who are there and say to them, ‘The Kingdom of God has come near to you.’ ” That’s the work in the field that Jesus sends the seventy out to do: cure the sick and say that the Kingdom of God has come near.
To me, one of those things sounds a lot easier than the other. “The Kingdom of God has come near, y’all!” There, I said it. That’s half of the work, right? Curing the sick? Well. I don’t know that my spiritual gift is that of laying on of hands and performing miraculous healings. It’d be awesome if that’s how Jesus decided to use me to bring the Kingdom of God from at hand to in hand. But thus far in my life, that’s not in the gift set that I’ve been given. But Jesus doesn’t qualify this charge with “If you’ve been given this gift.” When the seventy return they rejoice because they have been given this gift, and he gave it to the twelve, as well. So what to do?
Well, for starters, I don’t think merely saying “The Kingdom of God is at hand!” is really all that helpful. What does that even mean? What does smiling and saying that to the man on the train shaking a cup do for him? Or how good is that news, really, to the woman who can’t find a job and has children and whose unemployment benefits are about to expire? Or to the workers who are trapped in a system that prohibits them from working together to have a better quality of living? I don’t think simply telling them that the Kingdom of God is at hand does much.
I do, however think that all of us are sick and in need of a healer. Our sicknesses come in various forms of plague that makes us cough and unable to carry groceries or enjoy our sabbaticals and they come in feeling lonely even though you live in a tight-knit community in a city of over eight million. Sickness comes in however we feel separated from God and other people, whether we’ve wronged someone, been wronged, feel shunned, or are isolating ourselves to keep from spreading germs or recover our strength. Christ has come to heal us and to restore us.
And we understand that that is the mission of the church, as well: restoring all people to unity with God and one another in Christ. Reconciliation is healing, preaching peace brings reconciliation, and in reconciliation the Kingdom of God is at hand. The passage from Isaiah today offers more about what that looks like, where all nations stream to the mountain of the Lord’s house and God who alone is Good is the fair judge and arbiter with no special interests, only best interests and justice in mind. The instruction that comes from the Lord’s house leads the people to beat their swords into plowshares and study war no more.
Our catechism teaches that the church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace and love. But justice, peace, and love only come to us for promotion because Jesus has come to us, reconciled us, and sent us out into the fields to be laborers of the harvest, and it is through all of us that the church carries out its mission. While we are all sick and in need of Good News, some of us hear tidbits of it more regularly than others. As we go out into the fields, we are called to labor with those in church and those out of Church. We have been given authority to heal the sick and proclaim that the Kingdom of God is at hand.
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” Harvesting is a process and is not something done quickly or at once. In the same way that harvesting the corn was more than pulling it from the stalks for me and Stefanie, proclaiming the Kingdom of God is usually more than simply talking to someone once. Proclaiming the Gospel has to be done continually, and relationships must be built, and people cared for. In our prayers and worship we are given a model of what this looks like practically that we may live it in our day-to-day lives.
When we pass the peace and come to the Table in love and charity with our neighbor we show that we take being reconciled seriously. At the Table in Christ’s Body and Blood we are strengthened to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. During this time together we step out of what we face day by day and are reminded of what the Kingdom of God at hand is like as we experience a foretaste of that heavenly banquet where all are welcome, there is always enough, and there are no worries because God has made all things well.
But from this place we go in peace to love and serve the Lord as laborers. Renewed afresh to do God’s work and to meet new people and take the Good News to the nations preaching peace to those who are far off and to those who are near. All the while as we work on God’s behalf we realize that it is God who is at work and God who helps us as we don’t stop at telling someone that they are cared for but instead help them from whatever places of privilege we may occupy. That may mean finding food and also serving as support in navigating bureaucracy for to get long-term aid and finally celebrating a change when things get better.
Curing the sick and preaching peace through Christ’s strength are what we’re called to do. As we help others and receive help from others and Jesus, I hope that as Derek Webb says, the bread on our tongues leaves a trail of crumbs to lead the hungry back to the place where we are from. Working as a harvester for Christ isn’t about reaping numbers or rewards inasmuch as showing those in need – which is all of us – what God has to offer us and how Christ has made things better for us. From the stalk to kernels was a multi-step process. Bringing Christ’s healing to the world is too, but we’ve been given authority to do it, and do it we must. Amen.