Proper 6A; Matthew 9:35 - 10:8
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Today's gospel, specifically the first four verses, is one of the options to be read at the ordination of priests, and it was the appointed gospel for the most recent batch of ordinations a few weeks ago. It certainly makes sense when you think about all the different ways the Church can be involved in gathering up the people of the world into God's loving embrace. That is surely a plentiful harvest. And it certainly makes sense when you think about, out of all the people in the Church, how few of them are called into ordained ministry. In that context the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few.
As an illustration of this, Bp. Sutton, at that ordination service I mentioned and that Dcn. Sue and I attended, pointed out that 98 percent of Episcopalians are laity, and 2 percent are clergy. That bears out here where we have about 100 people on a Sunday between both services, and two of us are clergy. Today's gospel reference to a plentiful harvest but few laborers seems to fit those numbers the bishop recited.
But if we stop there we are missing the point. If we only think that those few laborers refer to our few ordained clergy, we will develop a very limited sense of ministry.
Up to this point, Jesus has been the lone teacher, preacher, and healer in Matthew's gospel. Previous to this story, we hear that Jesus went throughout all of Galilee teaching, preaching, and healing. As we read through the gospel, it seems that his ministry is becoming too big for one man to handle. So he sends out the twelve apostles to do the same thing. He sends out the twelve to the the lost sheep of Israel, but by the end of this gospel they will be sent out to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth – an area much too big for those eleven, and then twelve, men to cover. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. If we stop there we will develop a limited sense of ministry.
Eastern Washington is a big agricultural center. When I was in my mid-teens I worked the cherry harvest every year for one particular farmer. That operation needed people who knew how to care for trees. It needed people to light the field furnaces that kept the fruit from freezing on cold nights. It needed pickers. It needed people to drive tractors and gather up what was picked. It needed truckers to haul the fruit to the warehouse. It needed more than just the owner of the field to make it work.
In the same way the Church needs more than just that small number of ordained clergy to make it work. Therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. This prayer to send out laborers is more than a prayer for ordained clergy, it's a prayer for the calling and equipping of ministers of all kinds.
Who are these who are called? Who are the ministers of the Church? According to the Catechism, the ministers of the Church are lay people, bishops, priests, and deacons. When asking who the ministers of the Church are, you all are listed first. This prayer to send out laborers is a prayer to involve more and more people in the ministry of the Church so that we may indeed reap a bountiful harvest.
Some ministries where we need people to serve include: a treasurer to keep our books in order so we know how we can best financially operate; teachers and leaders for Children's Chapel and other faith formation; altar guild so Sunday worship goes smoothly; Eucharistic ministers to read the prayers and help administer Holy Communion; lectors to read scripture and ushers to help guide people; singers and musicians to offer up music that enhances our liturgy; and the list goes on. Each of our Commissions have a list of ministries and needs for people to offer up their gifts and talents to the Church and for the glory of God.
All of this takes commitment. It takes a willingness to move out of a comfortable pew into an uncomfortable place of servanthood. It takes a willingness to stretch beyond what you know and to venture out into the unknown. And it takes a willingness to stick with it – so, not unlike those first disciples who were called out of their comfort zone into ministries they may not have been comfortable doing.
Discipleship is difficult. There is no shortage of places in Scripture where people choose not to follow Christ because it's too hard. And there is no shortage of places in Scripture involving personality conflicts between people, and yet they still found a way to continue working for the kingdom. After all, discipleship is rooted in discipline, which takes the same sort of commitment we are talking about.
I believe we are on the cusp of something big. We have come through the COVID pandemic in good shape. We scaled back our worship and church involvement when it was prudent to do so. We cautiously and systematically relaxed restrictions in a way that continued to protect us as best we could. We continue to advocate for vaccines and we recommend wearing masks when in unfamiliar gatherings, if you are immuno-compromised, or if you think you might be contagious with an illness. We also recommend staying home if the latter. I think because of how we have come through the pandemic and how we continue to deal with the virus, that has a big influence on the number of people returning to onsite worship. It's this return to worship and the faith community at large that is our next big move.
As we make this return, we can look around and see a plentiful harvest. As we make this return, we know that the laborers are few. As we make this return, we can pray for the Lord to send more and more laborers to meet this challenge and be actively involved in the work of the Church.
In today's gospel Jesus called Peter and Andrew, James and John, Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew, James and Thaddeus, Simon and Judas. Today he is calling each of us to a particular ministry. We need to remember that the ministers of the church aren't the two people here with collars on, they are all one hundred of us. We are all ministers of the Church – you, me, and Dcn. Sue.
As we continue to recover from the pandemic, and as the Church universal and Saint John's in particular comes out of its own dark night of the soul to return to a life of light and engagement with the world around us, where might you be called to serve? What talents and skills will you offer as we bear witness to Christ and work to restore all people to unity with God?
The harvest is plentiful. Therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.