The Laborers Are Few (6/18/17)
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Sara laughing, detail from "Angel Appears to Sarah"
On Sunday, we wrestled with Christ's call to reach out to the lost sheep. Even though we're tired, we are still called to do the work.
The Laborers Are Few (6/18/17)
Good morning. I thought about wearing my Penguins jersey into the pulpit this morning, but there are two big problems with doing that. First, there’s the question of which gospel I’m proclaiming if I wear something like that into the pulpit. The other reason is it’s warm in here and there’s no way I’m wearing a heavy, long-sleeved, polyester jersey in June in this sanctuary. Not gonna happen. Also, I checked in the hymnal. “We Are the Champions” isn’t in there. Oh, well.
In last Sunday’s sermon, I spoke about a concern that was raised by one of our ruling elders at the last session meeting. In case you weren’t here last week, the concern was this: there seems to be a deficit of energy in this congregation. It seems that fewer people are participating in committee work and congregational leadership. And there are lots of reasons for that, and it’s not that people are lazy or unwilling to make an effort. It’s complicated. I believe this morning’s Scriptures offer some clues to how we move forward in these complicated times.
Our reading from the Gospel of Matthew starts off with stuff that we all like to hear from Jesus:
35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
We like this Jesus because he’s busy doing the things that we expect Jesus to do: he’s teaching and preaching, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, and he’s healing people and casting out demons. We love this Jesus! This Jesus is busy doing all of the work. But then Jesus tells the disciples that they have to do the work, too.
Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to give them the authority to cast out unclean spirits and cure diseases. He tells them that he is sending them out, like sheep into the midst of wolves. This work is going to be difficult and dangerous. The disciples will be persecuted and rejected, even by members of their own families. Betrayal and death await the disciples at every turn, as they search out the lost sheep of Israel. This is their mission; it’s not easy.
As I have said many, many times, the disciples are where we enter the story. Their mission then is our mission now, as the Church. We, too, are called to reach out to the lost sheep. This is what it means to be the Church, but I think that many of us are reluctant to follow this call in the way that Jesus calls us to follow. We like our comfortable routines. We like all the cool stuff we own. Maybe we’re even a little bit afraid of persecution—not literally being thrown to the lions, as some early Christians were, but perhaps we’re afraid of looking silly if we put ourselves out there in ways that are outside of our comfort zones.
In our society, I think most of the lost sheep can be divided into two groups, the “nones” and the “dones.” How many of you have heard of the nones? This is a group that was first identified by some pollsters who work for the Pew Research Center. Every year, the good folks at Pew survey Americans on their religious beliefs and identification. According to their most recent survey, a little over 70% of Americans identify themselves as Christian; however, almost 23% of Americans say they have no religious affiliations whatsoever. These are the “nones.” Some of them identify as atheists or agnostics, but the greatest number claim that they believe in “nothing in particular.”
The “dones” are quite different. On surveys, they identify themselves as Christians, but they no longer participate in worship or congregational life. They’re just done with church. They are, in our context, the lost sheep of Israel.
A lot of congregations that are in transition think that the solution to declining attendance and shrinking budgets is to call a young-ish pastor, who’s in his or her early 30s. This pastor has 2.3 children and ten years’ experience in ministry and will work for presbytery minimum. Congregations believe that this person will attract young families to church. Beloved, this person is a unicorn; this pastor doesn’t exist!
There are young pastors who have young kids. You might even call that young pastor with 2.3 kids to serve here at Rehoboth. But that new pastor will not attract new people to worship, or not many. Most of the nones are under the age of 40. They’re not looking for a church. Period. It doesn’t matter who the pastor is. It doesn’t matter if the pastor is their age or has kids. The nones aren’t looking for a church home.
The dones are a different story. Most of them are older. There are a lot of aging baby boomers in this group. Many of them feel that they’ve been burned by the church. Some of them have been victims of abuse by members of the clergy, or they’re family members of victims. Some of the nones complain about the hypocrisy of church members, while others feel that the churches only want their money. These folks aren’t busy looking for a church home, either.
So how do we reach the nones and the dones? It would be nice to write them off and pretend that we’re not called to reach out to them. But if we are to live as disciples, we don’t really have a choice. What we have to offer to both groups is relationship. Remember, God entered the created world in the person of Jesus so that God would be in a more direct and intimate relationship with all of humanity.
We are called to continue that work. We are called to enter into relationship with the people who aren’t in our pews. Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples to go out and bring people into worship. Jesus tells the disciples to enter into people’s homes. Jesus tells them to heal the sick and cast out unclean spirits; this restores the people to relationship. That’s our call, too. I do believe that if we build relationships, we will eventually see more people in worship, but we have to do it because we’re called to be in relationship with the people outside of our walls.
In the short term, I believe we need to focus on the dones. They still believe in God and they still desire a relationship with Jesus, but they’re not looking for it in the institutional church. I think a lot of those folks can still be reached and I think that many of you are in a position to reach them. Many of you are already in relationships with people who are done with church.
I had this same conversation about a year ago with a member of a different church. He’s in his mid-sixties. When I told him that he’d have a better chance of reaching people in the community than I would, he laughed at me. He said, “they’re not coming back!” He didn’t think anybody could reach the dones and he thought I’d said the dumbest thing in the world. Maybe some of you think that, too.
I thought of that conversation as I was reading this morning’s lesson from the Book of Genesis. In that story, God visits Abraham and tells him that he and his wife will have a son. Abraham and Sarah are ninety years old! They’re long past having children. When Sarah hears this, she laughs. It’s the most ridiculous thing in the world. It’s like going out and entering back into relationship with the folks who have left the church. It’s ridiculous, like the idea of reaching out to people who have never been to church. It’s ridiculous. It’s funny. It’s laughable. And God is in on the joke!
Abraham and Sarah do have a child; he is named Isaac. We hear the word Isaac as a name, but really, the Hebrew word is Yitzhak, and it means, “he laughs.” God is in on the joke. Isaac’s name is a constant reminder that Sarah laughed at God’s promise that she and Abraham would have a son. God always remains faithful to God’s promises.
Our lesson from the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t tell us how the disciples responded when Jesus told them to tend to the lost sheep of Israel, to heal the sick and cast out unclean spirits. We don’t know if any of them laughed, as Sarah did, when they were commanded to do the very things that Jesus had done. What we do know is that the disciples have been equipped with the power of the Holy Spirit, and that is more than enough to sustain them.
We also know where that story goes. Jesus is arrested, crucified, and dies. Then he rises from the dead and ascends to heaven. And the disciples became the apostles and they continued to perform Christ’s work in the world. They preached and they taught. They healed the sick and cast out unclean spirits. They entered into relationship with everyone they could. They built the Church. It started with a mere handful of believers; today there are over 2 billion Christians in the world.
We are called to share this story and to enter into relationship with new people. It sounds really hard, but it’s not like we have to go to North Korea. We only need to go as far as North Belle Vernon. Or Webster. Or Fayette City. Or any of those places that we normally go. The Scriptures tell us that what seems impossible, even laughable, is in fact possible in and through God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Let us remember this, always, and let us live into the impossible, laughable call to be Christ’s disciples. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be a part of the ongoing work of God’s creation. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Pew Research Center, Religion and Public Life, “Religious Landscape Study,” retrieved from: http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/