Sermons from Rev Julie Wagstaff
Sunday 3rd July
‘The harvest is great and the labourers are few’. Don’t these words strike a chord for us today when, as Christians, we seem to be becoming more and more isolated, living among people for whom God either doesn’t exist or in practice has little impact on their lives.
For the early Christians who lived in relatively tiny communities in a sea of paganism and religions steeped in superstition and fatalism those words must also have been very real. At the time, the Church was truly like the tiny mustard seed......but those early labourers clearly did not work in vain – today there are reportedly over 2 billion Christians in the world. The mustard seed grew into a very large tree.
Yet, put another way, over 5 billion people in the world have not yet accepted the Way of Jesus. Many are, of course, committed to other faiths and many of them are deeply religious. But there is still a large proportion which is agnostic or are practical atheists – they live their lives as if God did not exist. And according to the 2011 census this includes a third of people living in Wales.
The harvest is still great. Who are today’s labourers?
Luke’s Gospel is the only one that tells us about Jesus appointing and sending out seventy others. It’s also the only version that describes their joyous return and victory over all the darkness they’d discovered when they were away.
Today’s passage reminds us that with our own Christian faith comes the responsibility to join the bigger project of sharing the good news of God’s grace with those who’ve not yet heard it. Some will go great distances, others will be able to share with friends and neighbours, but we are all called to do something.
Jesus didn’t leave the ministry to just the apostles - neither does he leave the ministry today just to those who are ordained. When Jesus spoke those words the church didn’t exist and in the mind of the early evangelists, everyone who was known as a follower of Christ was expected to be a labourer in the harvest field.
Paul, for instance, made his living as a tentmaker but that didn’t prevent him being a great preacher and evangeliser , who harvested many souls for God’s Kingdom.
As a matter of interest, of the 13 ordained at the cathedral over last weekend, only two will be stipendary and indeed three are still making their living in full time employment - so a large part of their ministry will happen in their workplace among their colleagues. One is a physics teacher …. simply by wearing his collar when he teaches he is breaking down the barrier that insists that science and Christianity are mutually exclusive.
Each one of us is called to take the Gospel message out into our society, God can and does call us in different ways and to different works but the bottom line for all of us is that if we want others to share our faith and the life that follows from it, then it is the way we are seen to live our Christian lives that is of paramount importance.
In the NT Reading, Paul, speaking to the Galatians, says that it does not matter if a person is circumcised or not. Perhaps today we could say that going through the ritual of being baptised may not be the most important thing either? What does matter, says Paul, is “to become an altogether new creature”. Unless I am on the way to becoming a genuinely transformed person in the image of Jesus, then my baptism, my ordination and all my other religious experiences have very little value.
Becoming a Christian is not an end in itself. It is simply the beginning of becoming that altogether new kind of human person that Jesus and Paul speak about. To coin a phrase, it’s about walking the walk as well as talking the talk. Our lives have to reflect our claim that we are followers of Christ. Jesus commanded ‘love one another as I have loved you’ and 1 Corinthians 13 tells us that anything we do without love is nothing. Our lives have to allow that unconditional love that we receive from God to flow through us and out to bless those we meet. This new person, through the Holy Spirit, lives a life of integrity and truth, a life of deep compassion and concern. This new person lives in freedom and peace, reflecting the one they follow.
For most of us it is an incremental process – a step at a time. Often one step forward, two steps back but no matter how often our faltering steps land us back on our bottoms or flat on our faces, He is there ready to put us on our feet again. We often make things far more difficult by behaving like small children determined to be independent and not to accept His helping hand, but to do it ourselves.
A difficult lesson to learn is that our security doesn’t lie in our own independence. In today’s Gospel, Jesus recommends his disciples not to weigh themselves down with all kinds of bags and baggage – they are to rely upon their relationship with him. Through that relationship, as it grows, security comes from deep within, a security that eventually, no one or no circumstance can take away from us.
It is not in what we have – money, property, investments, credit cards… It is not in our status and standing in the eyes of others. It is not in the power and influence that we can wield, but in our relationship with our Lord that we find peace – the peace that passes all understanding.
We are called today to become labourers with Jesus in the harvest that is the society in which we live. We are called today to labour so that our society may be gradually transformed into a place where the values of God’s kingdom will prevail.
But what does it mean to be a labourer. In the Message translation of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells the 70 ‘on your knees and ask the Lord of the Harvest to send out labourers’. It has to begin with prayer and continue with prayer. As well as seeking God’s compassion and protection we need to seek his will for our lives.
And please, don’t make the mistake I made by assuming that the Holy Spirit was bound to ask me to do something I would hate because if not it wouldn’t be a sacrifice would it? – like walking about in a sandwich board proclaiming the message ….. or having to leave my baby behind and go and work on the mission field somewhere really scary. People are called to such things but what God wants is what is best for each one of us ….. I can’t say that what he has called me to hasn’t taken me way outside my comfort zone but being Assistant Curate at St Barnabas Waunarlwydd is a privilege and a blessing. Some things may not feel like ‘a calling’ as such but if loving the Lord and one another is the reason we do it, then it will fill God’s heart with joy and we will be his labourers in the harvest.
But where to start? We can only begin where we are.
Remember, a person baptised in Jesus’ name is part of his Body. Where the body is, there, too, is the person. Where we go then, Jesus is also present.
But if we do not go, if we do not reach out, then to some extent Jesus does not go, Jesus does not reach out. We are part of his Body, the visible indication of his presence. Our voice is his voice. “Who hears you, hears me,” he told his disciples. If we do not speak his message, who will get to hear it?
It’s worth noting that Jesus warns the 70 that he is sending them out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Being uncompromising about what is right, being open and honest and showing compassion will not always be understood and may even be met with hostility. But Jesus said simply to bring peace and if it’s not accepted then move on. He told them ‘whoever listens to you listens to me’ ….. It may appear that nobody has listened, but we don’t know that …… a little mustard seed may have been sown.
But if we are seen to cheat or lie or be uncaring and judgmental, gossipy and spiteful then we will be an obstacle that prevents people recognizing Jesus, prevents them knowing that they are loved unconditionally by their creator who is longing to renew their relationship with Him. What a terrifying thought!
We may feel that the task is overwhelming and that we can make no real difference Well, you may have heard this story before but it’s worth repeating.
An old man, walking on the beach at dawn, noticed a young man ahead of him picking up starfish and flinging them into the sea. Catching up with the youth, he asked what he was doing. The answer was that the stranded starfish would die if left in the morning sun. ‘But the beach goes on for miles and miles, and there are millions of starfish,’ countered the man. ‘How can your effort make any difference?’ The young man looked at the starfish in his hand and then threw it to safety in the waves. ‘It makes a difference to this one,’ he said.”
To be a labourer in the harvest is simply to attempt to reflect the love of God in our every thought word and deed and for the happiness of others to be as important as our own.