I remember when I first became a believing Christian about 15 years ago now. I heard this reading one Sunday and I thought, ‘yeah baby, I’m going to be sent out into the figurative fields of Southern Ontario and I’m going to convert the whole province. I mean, what could go wrong: I was going to go out there (at the time with my friend Matt) and we were going to go out two by two to convert people to Jesus. I was excited because I like physical and intellectual challenges. The harder something is, the more I get excited by it … solving a puzzle, having to use all of my various gifts to find a unique solution.
And here, Jesus’s own words to me: ‘the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’ And so Jesus said to me, Go, I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.’ To me, this was an adventure, a test, a challenge, and something that would require all of my capacities. I was going to go out there and proclaim the gospel to people who had – just as I once had – turned away from the gospel, from the God news of Jesus’s coming into the world and his gathering us and saving our lives by reconciling us to his Father. I was to proceed Jesus in this great work … how proud of me would he be when he saw my success?
The disciples – and now me, one of Jesus’s disciples – were going out, without all their belongings, with just what they had on and they were to stop and eat and drink and rest where they were invited and to turn pronounce to those who rejected them: even the dust of your town that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you. So not only did I have directions about what to do with those who welcomed me, but also those who rejected me. I thought my mission would be so incredibly clear. How very black and white: acceptance and condemnation, clear as glass right? I had my warning and knew to look out for the wolves. I wasn’t to take with me any extra stuff, just go. God would give me the power even to heal the sick. If I’m rejected, it is because they have rejected Jesus, and his Father who sent him into the world and his Spirit who gathers people to him.
Adventure to be sure. A mission to be sure. Following where God had already set his path, and telling of the Son, Jesus Christ, who is coming. Only, perhaps I didn’t hear the whole passage, but rather heard what I wanted to hear. You see I had been so excited by what I thought was the call to a minimalist approach: don’t take a purse or extra sandals … you don’t need any of that stuff for you’re doing God’s work, you can’t fail, so you need nothing. What I failed to grasp however, was why the workers are often so few. In fact, to be sure, throughout my subsequent years as a Christian, my work waned so that it probably at times, was more alike the rejecting masses than the workers of the harvest. You see when Jesus said, ‘leave all of those things behind – your sandals and your purse – I think that he intended something more than simply our physical possessions.
What I think Jesus was getting at here is a deeper spiritual truth: to become a laborer in the field God has prepared and planted, we must be willing to let go of the presumptions we carry, the figurative baggage of our own lives, the things we use to protect ourselves from being vulnerable, from having to really get to know other people, from having to love people we don’t like, don’t trust, don’t know, who aren’t one of us. And surely this passage, if read in isolation – what theologians call – eisegesis, might lead us to conclude that we are quite free to proclaim the gospel and cast off those who don’t receive it in judgment.
But in fact, the judgment one can proclaim here is predicated or presupposed by an essential reality: Jesus will come, Jesus has come, Jesus will come again. Jesus’s own life of judgement and forgiveness and the way that these things unfold throughout his ministry, changes the shape of what our ministry of labor must look like. To be sure, Jesus’s incarnation is predicated – as we heard in Advent, by a warning to people, a coming judgment: repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand; if you deny the one who is to come, the life you build will be built on quicksand, and it will sink all around you when Jesus returns. In other words, it will leave you with nothing to offer up to God from the gifts he has given you.
And yet his incarnation, his call for repentance, is not about God’s desire to seek vengeance on human beings, for what would our perfect God gain from vengeance, since vengeance is not justice but ego satisfaction? No God’s desire for repentance is his call to human beings to see his light, to see the world and their lives in the light of grace and so to catch glimpses of the true purposes for which each person was made. And so while us laborers of his planted and tilled field might say of those we encounter who reject Jesus, ‘we protest against you,’ we are quickly chastened in our own judgment by knowing that we stand among those judged. That we stand as those who sin, as John puts it, no one who says they have no sin know Jesus Christ. That we bear – in all the things that we carry with us from our life in the flesh (life ordered to the goods and values, the ethics and morals and ways of our secular world, or even our fallen church ways) – the bad seeds that so often fall on the thorny ground of fleeting faithfulness, of fleeting kindness, gentleness, generosity, and self-control.
We can find these things not only in ourselves, even as the faithful laborers we try to be, but when we turn to the Scriptures, we find ourselves in those laborers who carried with them baggage unfitting the kingdom of God … people like Annanias and Saphira who carry with them the greed of not sharing their physical resources with their fellow laborers, people like Peter who deny Jesus our of fear, people like David who murder, steal, fornicate, to fulfil carnal desire for power, prestige, and lust, people like Judas who perhaps doubt God’s power to the extent they will betray him to the point of leading him into his death. Indeed, seeing the example of so many laborers of the field who have not left behind their own baggage, we can find ourselves if not today, then at various points throughout our lives. There is not a moment, not a time, not a day, not a year, when we do not find ourselves tucked into the very lives of those whom we hear about in our Scriptures – as faithful laborers, fearful doubters, lazy farmers, persons filled with Legion, angry, bitter, ignorant, unwilling to learn, grow, study, follow, turn to … yes, all of us carry this figurative baggage on our journeys into the field of labor where we are to carry out the mission of proclaiming Christ.
For me, my faith turned a mighty bit bitter as I carried with me the NEED to win; the need to succeed, the need to see success, numbers, money, conversion. And when I looked out and saw that this was not happening, that churches were declining, that my theological convictions were not being adhered to, I turned from being a faithful laborer in the field, to one sitting in the chair of judgment. You see – you and I – we fit into both characters in this particular passage throughout our own life times. We so often intend to go out into the world as faithful laborers, but all too often we do not heed Jesus’s words and carry with us so much of our own figurative baggage, that we cannot proclaim the coming kingdom as something to be hoped for, of a fulfillment of being, of life, of love, and so of joy. The call to repent and turn into the gift of grace – of wholeness, completeness and reconciliation – is heard not as hope, but rather as an egotistical human desire for retribution. As Paul puts it, we will reap what we sow in our labor of faith. If we wish to proclaim the hope, peace, love and joy by which we have been saved, we must learn to leave behind the things to which we cling, and open ourselves with humility and vulnerability, to become instruments of grace by which God draws others to him. Let us commit ourselves to him, to knowing him more deeply, and to allowing ourselves to be filled by his Holy Spirit for all the days we remain laboring in his field. AMEN.