As I read through the surveys many of you filled out last month, I discovered a number of you feel the primary reason Knowlesville and Millville came together to form the UMC of the Abundant Harvest was so you could work together for growth.
It is not as clear as to how each of you is defining growth.
I suspect numbers of people attending church, increased financial resources through shared cost reductions and more people giving, as well as increased programs to meet the needs of the community, are some of the images you had as you voted to come together and as you gather around the table this morning.
In actuality, I suspect most are defining a growing “Church” as one reflecting positive increases in the statistical reports we are working to complete over the next couple of months.
The seventy sent out in Luke 10 are on a mission to declare the presence of the kingdom of God. A mission to grow the church.
Included in their instructions are indications there will be some positive numbers to report from their work and some negative numbers. No indication however that there will be an evaluation on the disciples’ success based on those numbers.
Just a few verses after this passage the disciples return with joyful reports of all they were able to accomplish including healing the sick and casting out demons and Jesus says, “I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
Success defined by faith in the one who sent them, not faith in their accomplishments.
I found it interesting that Jesus sent the 70 on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.
They were preparing those with whom they shared the news of a new way of seeing things, of connecting to God and with one another, to welcome in Jesus the Christ.
The transformation, the change in priorities and perceptions of those with whom they shared their experiences, ultimately came through Christ.
They were responsible for proclaiming God’s story of salvation, for offering healing and peace. They were not responsible for the willingness of those they met to receive the gift they offered. In fact if they offered the gift of peace and it wasn’t received, they were instructed to take it back.
You can bring the most beautiful, moist, flavorful chocolate cake to the church picnic, but not everyone will receive it with the same enthusiasm. There may be a variety of reasons the cake is not accepted: allergies, health induced restrictions, individual taste, etc.
The same is true of when we share the news that we have been touched by the Savior and now nothing is the same.
Not everyone accepts the gift of which we speak, and for many reasons:
they don’t feel a need for God in their lives,
they are doing just fine
they have come to distrust the message because so many of the messengers with whom
they have come in contact say one thing and live another;
they have experienced physical and mental pain as a result of a person, or persons in a church setting.
they believe faith forces them to give up things they enjoy.
But our responsibility is only to offer and to live it, how it is received is between God and the person to whom we offer it.
Despite the reality that not everyone is prepared to respond to what is shared, countless others are feeling unworthy, unloved, and on the outside.
They have lost hope. They are hurting alone and are ready to hear and respond to the stories of faith we share. “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few,” or as The Message shares: “What a huge harvest! And how few the harvest hands. So on your knees; ask the God of the Harvest to send harvest hands.”
Your congregation’s name proclaims it: there is an Abundant Harvest.
You are among the harvest hands and those you pray for, but haven’t met yet, will join in the work.
The disciples were sent out by twos. A kind of buddy system. It is possible that more ground would have been covered if they went out one by one, but in joining together their ability to fulfill the mission was strengthened.
Together they brought different stories of how this Jesus was changing their lives. We often identify more easily and understand more readily if the one with whom we are speaking understands some of the aspects of our lives. Together they brought different ways of sharing the message. We know from studies that we all learn in different ways: some from hearing others from seeing, some in a linear way and others abstractly.
Together they could challenge each other. Push each other to remember what they learned from Jesus, to trust the instructions, to stay focused. To remember the urgency and importance of what they were called to do.
Together they could encourage one another. There had to be times when they found a series of homes that wouldn’t receive them, that the road was rugged and the food not what they hoped for, when it seemed few understood what it meant that the kingdom of God has come near.
Jesus was clear that they were on a dangerous journey, dependent on God and others. Sharing their faith experiences, tapping into each other’s strengths, praying together, was critical to their successful mission.
Recently a group of college-age girls ran from San Francisco to Balitmore Maryland to raise awareness and money for Cancer research. Each girl ran a total of 400 miles. They went out in pairs, a different combination each time they ran. When they began they knew very little about each other. Here is what one runner said the night before they finished the run.
“We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve danced, sang and fell a lot, we’ve ran and motivated, we’ve had good days and we’ve had bad days. But more than anything, we’ve become a family. We made 26 life long friends and gained a support group like no other. And even more important than that, we have touched the lives of those around us, whether it be loved ones or strangers.
“We have successfully raised an incredible amount of money and awareness for the cancer community. I could go on and on, but I’ll end it on a happy note: this has been the most life changing experience I’ve ever had; I am beyond blessed for this opportunity; I’ve learned countless life lessons; and I’m extremely proud of my 26 teammates for being the incredible people that they all are. Endless thank yous to everyone who believed in me along my journey!”
When we begin to report on our mission of growth – if it is to introduce a life-changing, life-giving, savior, to those who are hungry to hear it – it should sound a lot like this runner’s joyful summary.
Listening to the instructions to the 70 can help us get where we need to be:
We need to be in this together – members of this faith community combining our strengths to take the message to those hungry to hear it, fully relying on God to provide the resources and the growth, understanding it may not look anything like what we think it should. We cannot expect to pray and have them show up at the front door of our worship centers. Jesus sent the 70 out into where the people were.
We need to remember all our resources are God’s and we are stewards. The 12, and now the 70, were directed to go out without any financial resources. Those receiving the gift of their message were expected to provide for their needs. The disciples were providing something the communities into which they went needed, and the community sustained them.
An exchange not unlike all of us experience. We provide talents, strengths, knowledge, time, to meet the needs of our communities by helping produce products, growing and selling food, teaching, designing, organizing, cooking, baking, serving, protecting… and the community sustains us by providing financial resources, and in turn we sustain others in the community by providing financial resources for their contributions to the community needs. God provided the necessary resources through members of the community.
We need to leave our baggage at home. That includes leaving our egos: our “we’ve always done it this way,” “Here is my line in the sand,” “my corner of the world evaluations,” “this is our money attitudes,” behind. Jesus calls us to be open to new things, new ways of connecting with others, to new food.
Many who are hungry for the Bread of Life don’t recognize that we offer it in our faith communities. They hear the news of Jesus Christ, are drawn to it, but don’t witness it in the lives of those proclaiming it. It is one of the number one reasons people give for not attending any church even when they say they feel they are spiritual.
As we begin our work together to define the mission you have named as growth and to go out as the 70 did, we need to self-check to see if what others see in us is a reflection of Jesus; if we receive others in love, if we leave our baggage behind, if we remember we are saved by God’s grace and not by what we are able to accomplish in His name, and if we walk with God humbly, joyful to be on the journey.
Early in this series we noted that God’s invitation to the table has resonated throughout God’s story. We are all created in the image and likeness of God, and God sees us all as very good. Everyone is invited, everyone is loved, worthy in God’s eyes.
We are the 70, sent out in pairs, to welcome people into the kingdom, to tell people they matter to God and they matter to us, loved in unconditional ways. It is challenging, dangerous work. There are many who can’t or won’t hear, and those who actively work against our sharing the message.
We can’t do the work alone. We need God and each other. We need to be open to the Spirit moving among us in new ways.
One of you wrote of a hope that the UMC of the Abundant Harvest can be for this community the hands and feet for Christ, acting as advocates for those people/ families/ communities that are struggling and by showing our love and the love of Jesus can reach everyone… showing, rather than just saying, that we are an open, caring, group of people, that love in spite of our differences, breaking down barriers, to bring people to Jesus.
That makes at least two of us.
I believe that in the story of the 70 we have assurance that this vision is possible. I hope you do as well.