He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Luke 10:2
A week or so ago the Grace Church vestry met in retreat to discuss the future of our parish. I suspect that many of the comments and concerns that were voiced would have been familiar to the vestries of many Episcopal Churches…indeed probably of many congregations in mainline denominations. We live in an increasingly secularized society and members are worried that the time will come when the number of faithful is too small to sustain the worship and work of the parish. At every gathering, the anxious refrain is heard…”Where are the new members? How can we get people into our pews?
I understand the worry and I believe (or at least hope) that it comes from a place of heartfelt love for our Lord and our worshipping community and a sincere desire to see it prosper well into the future. Unfortunately, we live in a consumer-driven culture and the underlying devotion to capitalism affects everything…not just material goods. People shop for churches like they shop for shoes or perhaps more accurately recreational items. Which type of worship makes me feel good? Which church is favored by people just like me? Which denomination offers the most fun for my children? Somewhere along the path to here, we lost the desire to be challenged…to have our spirits fed on the meat of the gospel rather than feeding our senses on the dessert of emotionality.
In our Gospel lesson for today, we read about Jesus sending out his disciples into the surrounding area to prepare the way for him to come. He sends them to heal and teach his way of love. They are not sent out in comfort but rather in austerity…with no extra luggage….no bag…no shoes…no money. This is not a pleasure trip so he tells them not to tarry along the way… ”do not greet anyone on the road”. If they are welcomed in peace they are to stay but if they are not welcomed they are to shake off the dust of their feet, as a curse, and move on to the next place. Their success rests on their faith in the providence of God and the kindness of the strangers who give them shelter and sustenance. Jesus asks a lot of them but when they return they are filled with excitement and the joy of success. They were kept safe by the power of God and found their own faith renewed even as they spread Jesus message among those they met.
How often do we avoid or delay doing ministry because we do not think we have enough resources…enough money…enough volunteers…enough energy….enough commitment?
The truth is things will never be perfect…Communities of faith that focus their minds, hearts, and energy on doing the hard work of the Gospel rarely have a surplus. If they did they would probably find a way to give it away. We are called first and foremost to be a loving community joined in prayer and worship. We are to gather together to share our testimonies of God’s grace in our lives…to raise our voices in praise and song and to share in the sacred meal of Holy Communion.
Each of these sacred acts is entered into with intention, devotion and a love for God and one another. From this prayer and worship, we gain healing, inspiration, encouragement, and strength to share the love of Christ with the world. How we choose to share that love depends on the talents and interests of the people whom God has gathered and the perceived needs of the community.
Yes, we want to grow and thrive, increasing in numbers and in our impact on the neighborhood and the world. But in the search for more people, we must not lose sight of why God has called us here. We have been given a difficult but blessed task…to love…unconditionally, inclusively, courageously, when all around us society is succumbing to hate and fear. The call of the Gospel does not change just because fewer people are hearing it.
We know what God expects of us and we offered ourselves to this ministry when we made our baptismal covenant. When we were buried with Christ in his death each of us arose as a new creature and the Holy Spirit is still making us new, as we seek to grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Every day we are to become more and more like the Christ we serve. In his likeness, we become more and more loving….more and more forgiving…more and more accepting….more and more understanding. The old sinful life we knew has less and less power over us and we find a desire for the things of God rather than the things of this world.
If our congregation is to grow in a way that is sustainable over a long future we must not become so enthralled with the ways of the secular world that we forget our true message. God has not called us to entertain people but rather to preach the Gospel in our words and our actions. We are to challenge the powers that be and speak up for those who have had their voices silenced.. We are to make no peace with oppression and everywhere we are is to be a sanctuary for the broken, the lost, the refugee and the outcast. Following in the way of Jesus was never intended to be easy for it is always the way of the weak and the vulnerable. It is the way of sacrifice. It is the way of the Cross.
I am not advocating doing what we have always done because we have always done it but I am saying that we need to first be true to the call of the Gospel….the call to love. New ways of worship or spiritual education are not a bad thing but we must always take care to hold on to those rituals and practices that feed the spirit and leave behind those that do not. The Anglican three-legged stool of scripture, tradition, and reason has served us well throughout the history of our particular faith and I think it will continue to offer a balanced way to make decisions for our community.
Sadly, we live in a culture that demands quick and easy answers to old and complicated questions and this is not something that we are able to offer. We do however offer an opportunity to think deeply about theology and the matters of our faith…to ask questions of God and of one another…and to turn our minds and our hearts to find the best and most compassionate way forward for everyone.
We have a wonderful tradition of prayer, rooted in contemplation. And we have a beautiful liturgy that calls us back to the ancient practices of our faith. Our worship engages the senses, the heart, and the mind and incorporates the sacred words of the Bible in our readings, our prayers, and our hymns. When we gather together to worship we created sacred space both around us and within….a space where the Holy Spirit can speak and be heard by any who desire to listen.
Our manner of prayer and worship also brings us the joy and encouragement of knowing that everywhere in the world Anglicans are joining with us in similar fashion, at all times of the day. We are a part of a larger communion of believers and in eternity part of the Communion of Saints. Even when we are solitary we never worship or pray alone. All God’s people of faith, who have ever been and who are yet to be, join us in the sacred words and in Holy Communion. Heaven and earth come near and we are made one with Christ and with the saints in heaven. This eternal relationship has the power to comfort and to strengthen us because together we can be and do so much more than we can on our own.
People come to church seeking a community. Sometimes they seek a family of faith…sometimes they seek only to relieve loneliness of spirit. The reason someone comes does not matter….even if it is only out of curiosity…he or she has opened up space for an encounter with the holy. For those of us who are already here, already part of the community…our responsibility is to be the welcoming committee…to open ourselves and our community to those who do not know us, so that they too may become family…knowing themselves to be children of the same God…siblings of the same Jesus…recipients of the same Spirit.
If our worship feeds you…if our community makes you feel loved…if our ministry of service inspires you…tell someone in your secular life. You are the workers God is sending into the field. The harvest depends on you. As our brother Paul wrote to the Galatians: So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:9)
We all have a witness…a testimony of God’s saving grace in our lives…a story to tell. No one can tell it for us…and no one else can tell it like we do. Do not be afraid to let your faith be visible to the world. Let Christ’s Gospel of love shine forth in all you say and all you do. We have love to share…a song to sing…praise to give…and space enough for everyone God sends. We will indeed reap what we sow…The Lord is sending us out into the world with seeds of hope …Let the planting begin.