Monday, February 22, 2016

Set the Gospel Free - Holy Team-Work

Preached on Sunday, February 21, 2016 

Scripture readings: Ephesians 4:1-16; Matthew 9:35-38

The one year that I worked in the wheat harvest, there were only four of us harvesting well over a thousand acres. The two brothers who owned the farm drove the two combines and one other guy and I drove the wheat trucks.
Harvest 2009, near Washtucna, WA
This is not a harvest that I worked on.
A modern wheat combine essentially does all the important jobs in the ancient process we call harvest, and it eliminates the other jobs. With a modern combine you don’t need all those ancient jobs and their workers: cutting the standing wheat, gathering it into sheaves and tying the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves to the threshing floor, threshing or trampling the wheat with oxen or donkeys to break the grain loose from the stems and husks, winnowing the wheat by tossing it into the air so that the wind can blow the chaff (the stems and the husks) away, and gathering the wheat into the bins, or elevators, or granaries, for storage for food and for next year’s seed.
In my harvest work, I drove the wheat truck up to the combine when it was full, and the combine emptied itself into my truck. Then I took the wheat to the wheat bins, or to the elevator. The combines did all the rest.
It’s all very modern, and the equipment (especially the combine) is expensive and complicated, but it makes a big harvest simple. It takes long hours; but not many workers and not a lot of work unless things break down (which, of course they do).
When I worked in the almond harvest, modern machinery made it possible for a crew of four people to do what would have taken a crew of fifty to do in the old days. I heard this from the foreman who had worked in those crews of fifty in the old days.
In the old days everyone worked hard but they worked as a crew, they worked as a team. There were other workers, as well: the farmer’s wife and daughters, and the other women, who did the indispensable work of feeding that crew.
Everyone was important and, truth be told, everyone probably did everything as needed. There were lots more than four jobs and no one complained, “That’s not my job.” If you said that you would probably be out of a job.
No matter how modern the church might seem to need to be, in order to make its way in this world, we can never work in God’s harvest without staying true to the ancient values of the Lord of the harvest.
For one thing, our message is ancient. There is a God and everything and everyone belongs to this God. But that isn’t enough. The ancient truth that the world needs to know tells us that that it is all loved: everyone in it and every part of it. And that is not enough. The ancient truth is that loving sacrifice saves; perfect love saves perfectly; absolute love saves absolutely; and infinite love saves infinitely. This is the message of the cross and the resurrection. The modern world needs the ancient truth and wisdom.
There is another ancient truth the modern world has forgotten. The world is saved from destruction every year because farmers somewhere harvest food in order to feed the world.
The work of the harvest is done by a crew. In the developed world many kinds of farming don’t need big crews but, even in those most developed areas of farming, there are so few actual farmers that the farmers form a crew among themselves. They often help each other out, in a pinch.
One of the ancient principles for saving the world is a crew, a family, a community that works as one and brings the harvest home. Paul called the work of the harvest the Body of Christ.
Paul said that the parts of this body were designed to build those on the outside into the inside. That’s part of the growth. Then the parts of the body were designed to build each other up, in love, so that every part of the body could grow up into Christ who is the head. (Ephesians 4:15-16)
Paul gives us a list of harvest jobs. The list in Ephesians is a very short one. You might think, from this list, that there aren’t very many important jobs to do, but there are others lists: in Romans and in First Corinthians, to name just a couple, that are longer.
If you read each one of those lists, you will see that each list is thought out in a completely different way. In Corinthians, some of the jobs seem to be called gifts. In Romans, the jobs aren’t titles. They’re actions that serve others.
The lesson I take from these lists is that there is no single list. The lesson I learn is that there is no job where you can say, “That’s not my job.” Whatever comes up might have to be your job. But, then, notice that Paul is fully capable of calling a job a gift. When you think of it, it’s pretty wise to call any job a gift. It’s pretty wise to call the chance to do a job and the ability to do it a gift.
In the lines we read from Ephesians, Paul said that Jesus spanned heaven and earth and even the depths of that mystery called death, in order to make us into his captives and that he made us his captives in order to give us gifts. He didn’t make us captives to hold us down. He made us captives to give us our true value. (Ephesians 4:7-10)
We have been held captive by so many hard masters that hold us down: fear, anger, worry, failure, addiction, depression, jealousy, and even ambition. Jesus has made us captives in order to save us from being held captive. He has captured us for the purpose of giving us gifts. He makes us into his body. Jesus makes us a promise that the work of being a team in love and drawing others into the team of love will make us grow into him. We will have (each one of us) the gift of being perfectly ourselves and the gift of growing perfectly into Jesus. (Ephesians 4:15)
Paul gave us such a short list of jobs in Ephesians; or shall we call them gifts? There are five gifts in the list: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.
The truth is that none of these jobs keeps you from having other jobs. God knows what life is like. None of you have only one job in life: man, son, brother, friend, husband, father, and worker; woman, daughter, sister, friend, wife, mother, and worker. What about the jobs of repair, and cleaning, and organizing, and gardening, and making a home or building that home?
What about musician, singer, poet, artist, aviator, inventor, designer, listener, and spectator? You know that some people are just crying out for an audience. I think that, in some marriages, one spouse is the entertainer and the other is the audience. These are all very important jobs; or are they gifts?
Paul’s list of jobs, or gifts, sounds official and formal but it isn’t. The gifts are just what you are given to do.
Apostle means someone sent on a mission. God has sent me to you; God help you! The truth is that you are all sent. You are all apostles.
A prophet speaks for God. You have all had to speak for God, or you will. Sometimes there will be no one else on the scene to do it. You are the answer to the promise of the Bible. Long ago, Moses prayed, “I wish all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them.” (Numbers 11:29) Jesus died and rose from the dead to give us a life empowered by the Holy Spirit. You are the prophets Moses prayed for.
Evangelist means the bringer of God’s good news. Surely (sometime or other) each one of you have had the gift of bringing good news from God. Maybe you didn’t share the four spiritual laws, but you brought God’s goodness and help to someone who needed it.
Long ago, in the 1850’s, in the festering battlefields of the Crimean War between Britain and Russia, Florence Nightingale, the inventor of scientific nursing, was caring for a wounded soldier. He was so moved by her care that he said, “You are Christ to me.” She was Jesus, as we are all called to be. She was the gospel.
This is a mystery. You are the living evidence that Jesus can save lives, and souls, and hearts, and minds. You are the evidence that Jesus makes a new life possible; that change, and love, and hope are possible. You are the best evangelists.
Pastor means shepherd. A shepherd is a guide, a nurturer, a feeder, a protector. Spouses have to be pastors to each other. Parents have to be pastors to their children. Friends have to be pastors. Living in the middle of this world and the people around you requires you to be a pastor, a shepherd. It’s not easy. It’s not always appreciated.
Teacher means educator and I’m not sure what that means. Maybe it means to bring up or to train someone.
I was about seven when my dad taught me how to use a hammer. He had a two by four and a bunch of nails. He didn’t just tell me the facts. He hammered a nail to show me how. Then he watched me hammer a nail and gave me plenty of advice about what I should be doing. Then he left me with the board and nails. He left me on my own to do the rest of the nails. I often think he left too soon.
A friend of mine who was also an elder in a congregation that I served sized up what I did as a preacher who taught. He said, “You don’t teach us what to think; you teach us how to think.” I hope he was right.
When I started going back to church as an eighteen-year-old, the youth group teacher taught that way. He used questions to teach us how to think and how to do the work of understanding what the Bible really says, not what it’s supposed to say.
What many people don’t notice about Paul’s short list of gifts in Ephesians is that the five gifts share one common purpose. The purpose is “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” (Ephesians 4:12) The gifts of Christ to the list of five are the gifts of service. Sent people, people who speak for God, people who bring the good news of Jesus, people who guide, and people who teach are all people who serve.
God’s purpose is everyone to serve each other with the gifts of the five. The people of the five gifts serve so that everyone will learn how to serve: how to be sent, how to speak for God, and all the rest. Only when everyone serves will everyone grow.
When we can share that with other people, they will want it. Then they will understand the ancient wisdom in our modern times because we have understood it ourselves. We will never fully understand the cross and the resurrection of Jesus until we understand the body of Jesus (of which we are all a part). We will not fully understand the good news of the gospel until we understand what Jesus intends us to be as his body, or how he intends his body to work.
If Paul had been a modern farmer, he might have pulled out the image of the church as a giant combine filling heaven and earth with the great harvest.
I’m going to pull out another modern image with the harvest combine. Understand that I am reaching for it and jumping to conclusions, but not really. Jesus pointed at the people with compassion and he told his disciples that they couldn’t handle the harvest without prayer. I say this because he said, “Ask the Lord of the harvest.” (Matthew 9:38)
Ephesians contains wonderful prayers in which Paul asked God for his brothers and sisters to know God’s “incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead….” (Ephesians 1:19-20)
There has to be a harvest. And we can never be the body of Christ in the harvest unless we are powered by prayer and by the resurrection.
Paul’s prayer intended to connect his friends with the power of the resurrection. We must pray for that same power. The power is for us to be the harvest, and to be harvesters, and to pray for more harvesters.
As Jesus says, we have to pray for the work, and for the workers. We have to pray for the crew and not just for the members of the crew but for the work we have to do together.
Paul prayed for the work and the strength of his brothers and sisters. He prayed for their inspiration, and their guidance and direction. We have to pray not only for each other but for power, and guidance, and direction in the work we are called to do together.
Last of all, we need to understand the harvest. We are not harvesting wheat. Wheat is food. Wheat is money. Wheat is prosperity and self confidence for those who do the harvest. The harvest doesn't give the wheat prosperity and confidence. Wheat is for consumption.
People are the image of God and God is not a consumer. He does not consume those who come to him. God is love. The purpose of the harvest is to bring people into love. Jesus called us to the harvest because he had compassion on the world, and that compassion led Jesus to die for the world and to rescue it for love.
If we work the harvest because of what we will get out of it or what the church will get out of it, the people outside these walls will sense this. When they stray inside these walls they will know it for sure.
If they see that we are harvesting for our success they will refuse to be harvested. The truth is that we have to drop the idea of harvest at some point.
It will never do to think, or talk, or work on any kind of harvest. What Jesus thought about was love. We have to stop trying to harvest and we have to begin to love people enough.

We need to pray to love people enough, and we need to pray to know what form our love must take before other people trust and believe in our love. Then they will learn to trust and believe the God of love whom we all meet in Jesus.

1 comment:

  1. I need to pray to love people enough. "God loves you and I'm trying" is not just a funny saying.
    I just saw an old movie about Florence Nightingale and I thought she was a fascinating woman. The film was made so long ago that they were not afraid to talk of her deep faith in God.