The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: July 3, 2016
Preacher: Anne Marie Witchger, Postulant for Holy Orders, sponsored by St. Michael’s Church
The Gospel reading for today is sometimes referred to as the Great Harvest. In this passage, Jesus extends his invitation to ministry beyond the 12 apostles. He appoints, or commissions, 70 others and sends them out in pairs to bring peace, healing, and news of the coming Kingdom of God to all who are willing to hear it. Jesus refers to this mission as “the harvest” and those commissioned are laborers of the harvest—laborers of God’s harvest.
Now, I am a native New Yorker, born and raised in Manhattan, so I don’t always know what to do with the gardening and agriculture metaphors in the Bible, but I am pretty sure I know what a harvest is.
As a kid, my elementary school would pack all of us into school buses each fall and bring us upstate for a full day of apple picking. We would get these sturdy paper bags with paper handles and we could go around to all the trees with all different kinds of apples and pick as much as we could fit, or carry—apples can get pretty heavy for a five or six year old. I loved those apple picking trips and I remember asking my teacher one year—why can’t we go more than once? Why can’t we go again in the spring? After all, there were apples in the grocery store all year around—why wouldn’t we be able to pick them at another time?
My teacher explained that apples don’t grow in this area in the spring. We have to wait until the fall harvest when apples and lots of other delicious fruits and vegetables are ripe and ready to be picked. Later on, I realized that waiting for that harvest time each year, was part of what made the labor—the “chore” of picking the apples—so exciting. The time was now. The apples were ripe and ready to be picked and if they weren’t picked, then they would go to waste.
For children, the pressure of time can be exhilarating. Waiting is hard, but when the time is ripe, children will often leap up to the task before them.
Jesus speaks to these 70 spiritual laborers with a sense of time urgency, too. “Take no purse, no bag, no sandals, don’t even greet anyone on the road,” he tells them. Just get to the city and do the work I am asking you to do. It is as if Jesus is saying that the people these seventy missionaries are trying to reach will rot, or waste away, if they do not get there as quickly as possible. The harvest does not last all year; and if you waste time, you will miss it.
So these seventy followers go out and diligently do what Jesus has asked of them. And when they return from their journey the scripture says they return with joy, eagerly sharing their successes and experiences. I imagine that their work was not easy. Jesus was not asking them to go apple picking. Their harvest labor was to bring messages of peace; to eat and drink with those who welcome them; to cure the sick; and to tell of the coming of the Kingdom. They are not there to reap the benefits of a season’s hard work—that is God’s work alone. Instead, they are called to be laborers of the harvest—preparing the way, sharing the Good News, offering peace and healing to those in need. Jesus has told them to go on ahead of him. So they are called to do work in hope and with assurance that God’s work will follow.
I have to say, that is much less glamorous than my six-year-old memories of the fall harvest. I bet it was not easy to arrive in new cities with no belongings and rely entirely on the hospitality of strangers; I imagine it was not easy to devote every day to spreading Jesus’ message of peace and salvation, or to healing the sick. I imagine these 70 missionaries felt exhausted and drained at times, and yet they held on to that sense of urgency and even at the end of the journey, they were full of joy for everything they had done and witnessed.
It takes a lot of hope to have joy in the midst of harrowing circumstances. It takes a lot of hope to have purpose even when the task ahead seems overwhelming.
When was the last time you woke up feeling eager and full of purpose? Or, better yet, when was the last time you worked toward a goal—personal, communal, or global—with a deep sense of urgency spurred by hope?
Perhaps you have felt crushed, or drained, by what has been happening in the world, or in our country, lately. I know I have. I woke up on the morning of my first wedding anniversary a couple weeks ago to a news alert on my iPhone: 20 killed by shooter at a nightclub in Orlando. Before I had even stepped out of bed, my heart was sinking, drowning. Of course, later reports realized that 50 people had died and as the news of that brutal night unfolded, I felt not just my heart, but my whole body fill with grief, anger, despair, disgust. I felt a deep sense of urgency—we have to stop this, we have to stop hate, we have to stop violence—not one day, but now! Today!
This week we heard of another mass act of violence in Istanbul in which nearly fifty people died. If you had the energy, I bet you felt a similar sense of urgent sorrow, anxiety, fear. Perhaps you have a sense of urgency about our upcoming presidential election or other international affairs: we have to stop this candidate from reaching office, or the world is falling apart all around us—we have to do something about it–now.
These expressions of urgency are important, but if we’re not careful they can lead us down a dark path. After all, they are often rooted in feelings of fear, anger, and disgust—not hope. Don’t get me wrong, we should feel angry. We are allowed to feel despair, disgust; we can and should be enraged at times.
But let our driving force be hope.
When was the last time you woke up full of hope that you would see a better world? When was the last time you started your day full of energy to live out your life’s purpose, to fulfill God’s calling for you?
There have been signs of hope and messages of love amid so many troubling and devastating world events—but it is up to us to hold on to them, to seek them out, to share them with others, otherwise we will be dragged down by the despair of it all.
What if we were like these seventy followers—commissioned by Jesus to bring peace and healing to those around us—would we follow that calling and put all of our energy into that purpose, believing that the harvest could be any day now, that God’s Kingdom is on its way? Would we run into those metaphorical apple orchards like children on a school trip, full of excitement and awe at God’s creation? Or would we tell ourselves it’s not worth it, nothing can be done, nothing will ever change, someone else will take care of it?
I want to leave you with a story I heard recently about a science experiment. I apologize to any animal rights activists here today—as a vegetarian this experiment was hard for me to hear, but it speaks to a larger point.
So a scientist named Curt Richter in the 1950s put a group of rats into jars of water with no floats or supportive devices to see how long they could tread and stay alive. Some of the rats died very quickly, others lasted a little longer, but eventually died too in a relatively short amount of time. Then the scientist put a new group of rats into jars of water and did the same thing, but this time he rescued the rats just before many of the rats in the last group had started to drop off. He held the rats, maybe he gave them some food, but then he put them right back into the water. And these rats, the ones who had been rescued and held, treaded water for nearly three days before they finally gave up.
Isn’t it amazing what hope can do for us? After being rescued once these rats had hope they that would be rescued again and so they hung on for over 60 hours.
The Good News for us is that our hope in God has the potential to carry us forward, not just a little bit longer, or a lot longer like in the case of these rats, but all the way.
In the face of urgent world matters, in the face of devastating violence and hatred, we do not need to act just out of anger or disgust, we can go forth and do God’s healing work full of hope that God is with us, that God is coming along after us—that God’s harvest will be a time of fulfillment and rejoicing for all people.