Saturday, September 26, 2015

Playing By Ear

I’m off to Tennessee again this weekend.  I mean, after church on Sunday.  Well, after church and after the Church Council meeting.  Then I’m off to Tennessee this weekend.  Just for a couple of days.  Things have changed down there again.  Now dad is in care, rehab at the moment, but we have to go and figure out what is next.  Prayers would be appreciated.  There are decisions about dad and decisions about mom and then decisions about all the concomitant issues that rise from those.  And, frankly, I’m not up to it.  None of us are.  We’d rather not have to.  We just want things to be like they were.  Or like we’d hoped they’d be.  It’s not always easy to look forward to what is coming.  

Concomitant?  Associated.  Knock on.  You know, you decide one thing and then have to do six other things in order the make that decision become action.  Something has to be done with the house, for example.  And all the stuff.  All.  The.  Stuff.  And the light a match solution was tried by others in the past and it didn’t turn out well.  So, that door is closed.  Some of the stuff we’ll keep, some of it we’ll give away, some of it will stay for now just in case, some of it we’ll try to sell maybe, some of it we’ll leave on the side of road and see what happens.  For example, there is this great honking shiny black piano sitting in the master bedroom, because that was the only space for it.  Actually it belongs to my younger brother, Jason.  The one who lives and works in New York City.  In an apartment that Maddie and I crashed in one Spring Break a couple of years ago and we had to take turns stretching, just sayin’.  What’s he gonna do with a big old piano?  Well, he says it is going to the workshop, and will become a prop for Elmo perhaps.  (I did mention he is head of the workshop out of which Sesame Street comes, didn’t I?)  But it isn’t going to roll there, and it would stick out of my trunk.  Maybe Hank, my older brother, could take it there on his Harley.  That would be a sight.

He needs a piano, though.  His piano.  The one mom and dad bought for him years ago when they had money.  Because he could play.  Oh, my, could he play.  I was given the gift of appreciation of musical ability.  Yeah, that means I can’t play anything.  But I can listen.  And he could play, my little brother.  I know he would say he hasn’t kept up with it and isn’t as good as he was, and I wouldn’t argue with him.  I know it takes practice to be good.  But I never saw him practice before.  I just saw him play.  I mean, it never seemed like it was hard, like he was straining or struggling or working at it - though I know he was.  But it never looked like it, and rarely sounded like it.  He just played.  He practiced playing and I practiced listening.  

Listening doesn’t get you many admirers, not like playing does, and yet it is essential for the life or the Spirit.  This third week of the series we get to hear the story of a professional listener.  A man who dedicated his life to listening.  And then when the time came he played.  He sang the song he’d been listening for.  He sat down to play the tune he learned by ear.

Luke 2:21-40 NRS After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.  22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."
  33 And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed-- and a sword will pierce your own soul too."
36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Long story, sorry.  But we needed to listen for a while.  We needed to catch the tune, we needed to follow the rhythms.  Simeon learned how to listen.  His name means “heard”, believe it or not.  It was what he was born to do.  So he did.  He listened, day and night he listened.  He was listening for the future.  He was listening for hope, the consolation of Israel, Luke tells us.  He was listening for that which would bring peace, that which would bring light.  He listened.  Day after day he went to the temple, to listen.  He heard the cries of the people.  He heard the songs of the prayers, the loud happy celebratory ones that seemed so loud and brash but good hearted anyway.  He heard the ritual ones, spoken sometimes as though they had lost their meaning, and sometimes as though the meaning was so deep it resonated through the souls of those who prayed.  He heard the wordless prayers that were wept from swollen and reddened eyes, wrung out of twisted scraps of cloth between hands gnarled with pain and fear.  He heard the proud and grateful prayers of people who knew how blessed they were.  He heard them and wept and laughed with them.  He heard them all.

But he heard more, because he listened deeper.  He heard the responses.  He heard the sighs of the Spirit as it flowed like wisps of comfort into the hearts of the hopeless and broken. He heard the soothing song of blessing as it played on hearts less in tune than his, but aware nonetheless somehow.  He heard the invitation of the God he loved, to follow, to obey, to keep close and stay awake, to watch and listen, he heard the commandment not as a hammer on a cymbal, but as a finger plucking a string.  He heard, somehow he heard.  Then, that day. he heard the music shift into a higher key, a note of anticipation fulfilled, a baton pointed, a new singer taking the stage.  And he followed the Director’s gaze.  And welcomed the One who comes.

Then Simeon, who lived a life of listening, became a teacher of the song he knew.  He sang into the hearts of those who came carrying more than they knew.  His song was a gift to the church.  Called the “Nunc Dimittis” from the first words of the song in Latin, “Now let” your servant depart in peace.  We’ve always thought that he was saying it was time to die.  Because Luke told us that he was promised that he wouldn’t die until he heard what he was listening for.  But maybe he is simply saying, I’m done listening.  I’ve heard all I need to hear.  I’ve heard the voice of the one who sings a song of salvation, who chants the chorus of redemption.  My ears are full.  

He may be done listening, but he isn’t done singing.  He has to teach the song to those who will sing it.  And his colleague Anna teaches it to any and all who are around them, running from one to another to make sure they sing.  You can’t stand silent in this worship service, you can’t have closed lips for this hymn.  Doesn’t matter whether you think you can sing or not.  We need to learn the tune.  The falling and the rising, the major and the minor key, that which makes us smile and that which evokes a tear.  We need to sing. Might as well, our inner thoughts are revealed anyway, Simeon says so.  And he ought to know.  He’s been listening to those inner thoughts his whole life.  And now he sings the song he learned by ear.

It takes time to learn to listen, but it is worth the effort.  The Spirit rested on Simeon, Luke says, rested.  Not stirred up, not agitated or poked or prodded, but rested.  Maybe if we listen more, to the Spirit, the voice of God, then we might know rest like Jesus promised.  But we can also learn to sing, to play by ear.


Saturday, September 19, 2015

Catching Your Second Wind

It’s Saturday again.  Which means it is almost Sunday again.  Seems to happen regularly.  Like, you know, every week.  Just rolls around again.  It’s like didn’t we just have one of these?  I was still looking back on the last one, what was good, what was not as good, what could have been better, when here it is again.  Looming on the horizon like a storm about the blow through.  It’s Saturday again.  Which means it is almost Sunday again.  Again.

You need to understand, for a preacher there is both an “oh boy!” about that and an equally powerful “oh no!”  There is a wonderful anticipation of the gathering of the community to do what it is we are in existence to do - worship God, oh boy!  At the same time there is the weight of responsibility and performance, a justifying of one’s existence as the leader, the proclaimer on a weekly basis, prove your worth kind of feel to it.  Oh no!

I remember speaking with some of my musician friends at choir school some years ago, they were talking about the energy and effort it took to compose an original piece to sing or to play.  And I said, I have to do that every week.  They said they never thought about it that way. Maybe it isn’t a work of art, certainly some weeks it isn’t.  But the weight is there, opportunity is there, pressure is there to produce something of value, something that makes folks not think they wasted a morning by showing up when there were so many other things they could have been doing.  

Not that the sermon is what it is all about.  A tiny piece, to be honest, that’s my job.  A moment in a full morning of gathering and praising and confessing and sharing and submitting and listening and growing.  A brief, often forgettable moment, where I invite them to reflect, to experience something of the grace of God, something of the challenge of God, something of the discipline of God.  A weekly rehearsal of faith, that’s what it’s all about.  Basing the value of the morning on a sermon, or an anthem, or a hymn selection, would be like judging the value of a marathon on whether you tied your shoes right.  Whether your participant’s number was upside down or not.  Surely it’s about the running, isn’t it?

Daniel 6:1-5 NRS It pleased Darius to set over the kingdom one hundred twenty satraps, stationed throughout the whole kingdom, 2 and over them three presidents, including Daniel; to these the satraps gave account, so that the king might suffer no loss.  3 Soon Daniel distinguished himself above all the other presidents and satraps because an excellent spirit was in him, and the king planned to appoint him over the whole kingdom. 4 So the presidents and the satraps tried to find grounds for complaint against Daniel in connection with the kingdom. But they could find no grounds for complaint or any corruption, because he was faithful, and no negligence or corruption could be found in him. 5 The men said, "We shall not find any ground for complaint against this Daniel unless we find it in connection with the law of his God." 

We know Daniel as the guy who survived a night with hungry lions without a scratch.  We know Daniel as the friend of the three who got tossed into a fiery furnace and somehow walked out without a scorch.  But we don’t know Daniel, do we?, as the disciplined exile who kept the faith in difficult circumstances, even at the risk of his life.   

Our passage today says that Daniel distinguished himself above all the other leaders, because an “excellent spirit” was in him.  An excellent spirit?  Ruach.  That’s the word.  He distinguished himself because he could breathe better?  Or because he had help?  Or maybe something of both.  

In chapter one of Daniel, we find the first challenge facing him and his friends.  He is chosen for leadership, but he needs to pass a test, he needs to be cultivated.  He was head hunted, but he had to submit to a training exercise.  He was put in a boot camp of sorts, and executive boot camp to see if he had the right stuff.  To see if he could fit in, be made fit for royalty.  And one of the components of the camp was that they ate well.  Or well according to their standards.  Royal food it says, like he was being fattened up for his cushy job or something.  The problem was the royal food did not fit the menu that God had given God’s people way back in the wilderness.  The Babylonian diet was not kosher.  Daniel would have had to betray his God to eat from it.  Now, we might think he would have staged a protest, refused to cooperate, stood his ground and called himself a martyr for the cause, a victim of religious discrimination and called the press and the other candidates to come and stand in solidarity with him.  But he didn’t.  He didn’t make a big show of it, actually.  He simply struck a deal.  He said let me and my friends try our diet for thirty days and the rest of the executives in training try their diet and lets see who comes out better for it.  In other words he spoke their language.  He didn’t say this is all about me and my God and my faith and my rights.  He used terms they could understand.  He fit into their mind set, their system.  And he beat their system with his own obedience to his God.

So, now, years later, under a new king, here he is again.  Being tested.  But now he is known.  There is a spirit, an excellent spirit in him.  There is just something about Daniel, they grumble.  There is something powerful, something noticeable, something that makes him stand out from everyone else.  Doesn’t mean everyone likes him.  Our last few verses and then the rest of the story is one of executive jealousy and devious plots and duped leaders and it all ends up in a den of starving lions, ready to tear into their next meal.  But the opponents have to resort to underhanded means because of something about Daniel.  Did you catch it?  They don’t complain about the spirit in him, excellent or not.  Because that is the result, not the cause.  This presence, whether self-generated or divinely implanted in Daniel (and really, how would these guys know either way?) was not the problem.  The problem was more basic than that.  Take a look: “they could find no grounds for complaint or any corruption, because he was faithful, and no negligence or corruption could be found in him.”  

He was faithful.  That was their complaint against him.  That was the sign that they couldn’t win against him in a fair fight.  He was faithful.  By which they didn’t mean that he believed the right things.  Or even the wrong things they didn’t believe in.  They weren’t concerned about his beliefs.  They were concerned about his behaviors.  They were concerned about his maddening consistency.  They were concerned about his frustrating attention to detail.  Most of all they were concerned about they way he treated everyone as equals, as somehow precious in the eyes of his god, even those who were clearly his superiors, even those, like themselves, to whom he should be bowing.  But somehow, even this most offensive of traits, was carried off with humility and friendliness so that even the kings, Darius who succeeded Belshazzar and his father Nebuchadnezzar before him, seemed to see in Daniel something to trust, something to follow, something, though it felt wrong to say so, something to love.  

That what made them so angry.  That’s what made them want to destroy him, to remove him from office.  Not any arrogance, not the imposition of his beliefs on them, but the fact that his faithfulness, his discipline and his consistency made him a favorite, made him loved by leaders and servants alike.  That was the excellent spirit that they saw in him.  

Daniel tells us that the Spirit comes as the result of attention to detail.  The Spirit fills us when we consistently open ourselves through practiced behavior, through ritual acts, through obedience to the call of God.  Wesley spoke of Christian disciplines as finding our way to God.  Acts of piety - like worship and bible study and prayer and meditation - coupled with acts of charity - like visiting the sick and giving to the poor and feeding the hungry - shape our spirits to reflect God’s Spirit in our very being.  Actually, Wesley didn’t talk so much about disciplines, he called them “means of grace” - the way of encountering the grace of God, through the presence of the Spirit.  

When runners talk about running, they talk about a moment when they feel like the weariness they were feeling is wiped away by a new burst of energy, the breathing they were laboring to maintain suddenly becomes easier and they feel like they could run forever.  It’s called catching your second wind.  There is science behind it, oxygen levels counteract the build up of lactic acid in the muscles and there is a lessening of pain and strain on those muscles, and endorphins are released to counter the weariness.  That’s why breathing right is so important for runners.  But there is also theology behind it.  We expend the effort of a disciplined faith, straining to love the unlovable - which is often ourselves - pretty sure it is beyond our abilities, only to find our faith growing as we surrender our selves.  Able to do far more than we think or imagine, says Paul, because we catch a second wind of the Spirit.  It’s Saturday again.  Sunday again.  Thanks be to God.


Saturday, September 12, 2015

Every Breath You Take

I am so excited I can hardly stand myself.  I’ve just got to stop, to tell myself to stop, every now and then.  Just stop.  Slow down there, sparky.  Take it easy.  Just breathe.  Just ... breathe.  Funny how that’s the way we calm down, or help people calm down.  Just breathe.  In and out, breathe deep, take it in, hold it, and out, Ahhh.

Wow, thanks, that helped.  Funny, no, ironic that breathing is what we do to calm down.  Ironic because the source of my excitement this morning is that we begin our worship series on the Holy Spirit this weekend.  I’ve been waiting for this one.  Getting more excited as it drew near.  It was postponed from earlier in the year for a variety of reasons.  And it turns out one of those reasons was that I picked the wrong book.  Last fall I took my annual planning retreat and decided that we needed a series on the Holy Spirit, and found a book titled The Forgotten God all about the third person of the Trinity.  It was a good book and I want to recommend it.  But I wasn’t blown away by it (heh, see what I did there?

So, earlier as we discovered changes I didn’t foresee underway, and I had to rearrange the plan I had worked out, another book came to my attention.  Published by Paraclete Press (!), written by Jack Levison, it is titled Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life.  And I was caught up in it right away.  Spirited away you might say.  Blown away, maybe.  So, I began to invite the whole congregation to read this book, we ordered a couple of cases of the book and got them into people’s hands.  If you are not a part of Aldersgate (or even if you are but haven’t purchased your book) let me recommend it.  Read along with us over these next few weeks, you won’t be sorry.  Trust me.

Each chapter takes a dimension of the activity of Holy Spirit from a biblical point of view.  The author’s goal is to help us understand and claim that activity in our own lives.  To help us live an inspired life, hence the subtitle of the book.

In the introduction, Levison points out that both the Greek and the Hebrew words for spirit are multilayered and sometimes with meanings hard to nail down.  The Hebrew word is ruach and the Greek word is pneuma.  Both words translate as spirit, but also as wind and as breath. And you can’t tell, even from context whether, the ruach or the pneuma refers to God or the human spirit, the natural wind or the winds of the spirit, the breath we breathe or the breath of life.  And Levison argues that this confusion is by design.  All are woven together, all are part of the whole.  That the spirit of God is a part of our spirit, a part of our breath.  That the wind we feel when we walk in the world, is not just the movement of air but the very presence of God pressing against our skin.  We are surrounded by the spirit, a part of the spirit, made alive by the spirit, with every breath.

Confused yet?  I know I am.  Just breathe.  For a moment.  Just breathe.  We’ll make this journey together.  Understanding will be a process.  After we follow the leading of the spirit we might be able to look back with an “aha” kind of experience.  Or maybe not.  But understanding isn’t that important. Living into it is more important.  Breathing it is more important.  Being alive to it is more important.  Being alive is more important.  Breathe.  Just breathe.  Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10).  Breathe.  Live.

Understanding may come later.  Breath comes first.  So, let’s walk this path together over the next couple of months.  We begin with Job.  Wait, what?  We begin with Job?  No one begins with Job.  Especially when we want to talk about the life of the Spirit.  The spirit is about ... enthusiasm.  Right?  About passion, about energy.  That’s what we’re trying to do here aren’t we?  Trying to get folks enthused about their faith again?  Isn’t this just an eight week revival that you’re running here?  Can’t fool us.  We know this spirit stuff.  We’re sitting here with arms crossed, daring you to get us to jump around, to speak in tongues or whatever other wild and crazy stuff you think we are supposed to be doing.  I mean, really, what’s wrong with the faith we have?  We keep it in check, use it when we need it, let it be background to our daily lives, it’s there. I mean, come on, we don’t want to go crazy here, we don’t want to be these fanatics, Jesus people, who are really into God.  We like God at arm’s length, we like a little distance.  We like to pick and choose, keep faith on a back burner, in a closet somewhere and only let it out when things get desperate.  Which doesn’t happen all that often.  Thankfully.  But that’s how we like it.  You’re trying to get us all hyped up.  Trying to turn us into something we aren’t.  And we don’t like it!  We won’t stand for it!!  

Breathe.  Just take a breath.  In and then out.  Deep breaths, calming breaths.  It will be OK.  Really.  The spirit filled life never takes away our will, our ability to choose.  So, relax.  Breathe.  Better?  So, Job.  Not really the place we go to find the joy of living a life of faith.  Not really the mountain top experience that we usually associate with life in the spirit.  And maybe that’s exactly why Levison decided to start there.  

Because we don’t live on mountain tops.  Oh, they’re fun to climb once in a while and we can live in the memory of one for really long time.  But our everyday isn’t like that.  In fact, if we were honest, our everyday seems as far from that as could be.  A struggle.  A depth.  A breath taken in pain and doubt and fear more often than not.  When we feel like victims, subject to the winds of fate., blown here and there like a leaf in the fall breeze.  So, Job, whose life was the opposite of a mountain top.  To say the least.  But what could he tell us about the life of the spirit?  What indeed?  Take a quick look.

Job 27:1-6 NRS  Job again took up his discourse and said:  2 "As God lives, who has taken away my right, and the Almighty, who has made my soul bitter, 3 as long as my breath is in me and the spirit of God is in my nostrils, 4 my lips will not speak falsehood, and my tongue will not utter deceit. 5 Far be it from me to say that you are right; until I die I will not put away my integrity from me. 6 I hold fast my righteousness, and will not let it go; my heart does not reproach me for any of my days. 

He took up his discourse.  Job had to refute his “comforters” who wanted him to see a simple cause and effect in his suffering.  To admit the fault that brought him down.  To confess that he had been far from God.  Job didn’t understand why what had happened to him happened.  But he knew something.  He knew that he was not far from God.  Even in the midst of the personal pain, he was not far from God.  Even in the midst of economic collapse, he was not far from God.  Even in the midst of the most profound grief any could imagine, he was not far from God.  Even, and this is the tricky one, in his uncertainty and doubt, in his feeling wronged, he was not far from God.

And what was even more stunning, is that he knew, he knew you understand, that God was not far from him.  He knew even though his experience screamed the opposite.  He knew even though everyone told him the opposite.  He knew that God was as close as God has ever been in his whole life.  From the moment he saw light, from the moment he drew breath.  Even though at this moment in his life he had reason to regret that inhalation.  Even though, he knew.  Not just hoped.  He knew.  “As long as my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils.”  Ruach.  Both words.  Both.  The translator could have had Job say, as long as my spirit is in me and the breath of God is in my nostrils.  

How did he know?  In the face of all that he endured, how did he know?  He was still breathing.  Every breath was a ragged one, searing pain as he moved his body to let air in and then, aching, his muscles moved again to let it out.  He was still breathing.  That’s how he knew God was still close.  Job knew, somehow, held on somehow, to the notion that God was breath, and breath was Spirit, and spirit was wind that blew across his fevered brow.  He knew.

How did he know?  How do we know?  We breathe.  All the time, without thinking, we breathe.  It’s just air, right, just a function of this body.  We breathe.  Again, and then again.  We breathe, take in .. air, spirit, breath.  Every breath you take is a prayer.  It is communion with God.  Every breath is saying yes to life, and an opportunity to say yes to a life in the spirit.  Just breathe.  Every breath you take.  Keep breathing.  God is close.  That close. Breathe.


Saturday, September 5, 2015

Laborers for the Harvest

The lawn needs mowing.  Desperately.  I’m planning to get to it, soon.  Got other things on my mind right now.  But I’ll get to it.  Promise.  That is if I can remember how.  My dad always said “that’s why I have sons!” when he was asked if he mowed his own grass.  I sent my mowing crew off to college.  But the grass didn’t get the memo.  Or the weeds didn’t.  They’re growing with abandon.  Like ... weeds, I guess you could say.  And it’s time, past time the neighbors are thinking, I’m sure.  We got a complaint about the trash cans being outside the garage while we were still moving in, so I imagine the grass really bugs them too.  But ... the laborers are few.

There is nothing we like to complain about more than our work, it seems to me.  And yet there is nothing more defining than what we do.  It’s how we introduce ourselves.  How we understand ourselves.  We measure ourselves by the jobs we have.  I remember when I was shepherding dad around to more doctors than I could count, I sat and listened as he answered the questions they asked over and over.  There was one time when it came to that question - what do you do? = that he seemed to have gotten tired of talking about what he used to do, or that he was retired, and he said, “I’m a woodworker!”  True, he has a garage full of tools and stacks and stacks of wood (more than he could use up even if he churned out folk art birdhouses from now until Jesus came back), true he sometimes puttered around out there, true he had plans, half finished projects all over.  So, I guess he worked in wood.  It was how he wanted to define himself.  It was how he saw himself now.  Fifty years of pastoring didn’t matter to him anymore.  “I’m a woodworker” he declared in that doctor’s office.

What is the work that you do that defines you?  Labor Day weekend seems an appropriate time to contemplate our work.  And in particular the work our faith demands from us.  I know it gets tricky there.  Faith, we think, is supposed to help us in our lives, help us be better at whatever we do, whoever we are.  It isn’t supposed to define us, isn’t supposed to add responsibilities to our already overfull plates.  To add burdens to our already laden backs.  “Come and I’ll give you rest.”  That’s the labor day message we want to hear.  We look forward to heaven as a place we’ll finally be able to get the sleep we need.  Rest in peace.  

Besides, a few hundred years of Christian theology tried to separate the ideas of works and faith.  The fear was that an emphasis on work, on our effort, would cause us to think we were responsible to earning our salvation.  That our actions, our choices, our work either brought us closer to the Kingdom or took us farther from it.  So, to avoid confusion we taught that what you do doesn’t matter.  You can’t earn your place in God’s house.  Which is a truth that gives birth to a misunderstanding that brought about a people of faith who don’t know how to be a community, or how to be laborers in the harvest of the Lord.

Matt. 9:35-38 NRS 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.  37 Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;  38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." 

So, I decided to not work on Labor Day Sunday, but to play instead.  Don’t worry, I’m going to play at church, in worship.  But, perhaps warped by the question series we just finished, I’m not going to do a sermon, but a bible study in worship.  And the above verses are only the beginning.  I intend to walk us through as much of Chapter 10 of the Gospel of Matthew as I can get through.  Because those are, I believe, our marching orders as followers.  Our work, the labor we are called to do, not in order to be saved, but because we are saved.  

Back up a few verses in chapter 9, you’ll find Jesus working.  He heals two blind men.  Then he tells them not to tell anyone about it.  But they go and tell everyone about it.  And word spreads and Jesus’ fame grows, as does the opposition.  Verse 34 has the Pharisees complaining that he is consorting with demons.  The rest of chapter 9 is his response to that accusation.  He doesn’t argue the logic of their complaint like he does a couple of chapters later when they really start getting on his nerves.  No, for now he just works.  He labors in the harvest of the Lord.  

And then Matthew tells us why.  We are given the clue not only to the labors of Jesus but to the motivation for our working as followers of Jesus.  Jesus worked, Matthew tells us, because Jesus saw.  Jesus sees us.  Sees what is really going on in our lives.  Sees what burdens we bear, what fears we harbor.  Jesus sees us.  Really sees us.  And, even though that scares us, it shouldn’t.  Because he sees and he cares.  He has compassion, Matthew says.  His heart goes out.  He sees us, in our lostness, in our emptiness, under attack by enemies within and without, and he loves us.  Harassed and helpless, he loves us.  He doesn’t say, well they should have known better.  He doesn’t say you’d think that by now they would have figured it out.  He doesn’t say what a bunch of losers.  He has compassion on them.

The labor of the kingdom becomes possible when the motivation is right.  Church growth programs for the sake of church growth - or institutional survival these days - don’t work.  Mission work done to enhance the reputation or the status of the worker, doesn’t help or heal.

When Jesus saw the crowd he had compassion.  So, he turned to his disciples.  Or, he saw the crowd and then he turned to the community.  What’s the difference between a crowd and a community?  This is a crucial issue for the church today.  We’ve been a crowd, we think like a crowd and we act like a crowd.  We’ve done some good work as a crowd, that’s for sure.  We can be proud of our crowdness.  We’re not, for the most part, an unruly crowd.  There’s no danger of becoming a mob, which is crowd nature gone wild.  But we are mostly in the crowd mindset.  When what Jesus wants is for us to be a community.  The laborers that Jesus asks us to pray for come from a community, they won’t come from a crowd.

What’s the difference?  A crowd is a collection of individuals, who have come together with common hungers, with felt needs.  They occupy the same space, but each is there to meet individual needs, to satisfy their own hungers.  They might share, or they might not, that doesn’t matter that much.  They come in and they go out and the value they place on their gathering was on whether their needs were met or at least acknowledged.  The crowd is acutely aware of the struggle of their lives, they are harassed on a constant basis, burdened by living, and they don’t know what to do about it.  They are looking for a leader who will bring them some comfort, some solace and are likely to follow any shepherd that comes along, like hungry sheep who hope this one knows where the food is and can bring some light into their personal darkness.

A community exists for each others and is open to those who haven’t yet found they way in.  It isn’t about meeting needs or satisfying hungers, the community is about building relationships.  It is about belonging and about serving.  The secret that each member of the community knows is that individual hungers are more than satisfied in service to others, in hospitality that puts others before self, in setting aside personal preferences in favor of the attempt to see the other and to see the world through the other’s eyes.  The members of the community don’t starve themselves, don’t deny their own neediness, but discover themselves surprisingly satisfied by the labor in the lord’s harvest.  This is in part because the needs and the hungers change when we are taken out of ourselves long enough to love someone else.  And in part because the deeper needs to connect and to love and to know and be known are sometimes redefined as something more surface, like happiness or recognition.  

Jesus knows that the crowd needs workers to be among them. He also knows that those workers won’t come from the crowd, but from the community.  So, he turns to us and asks us both to pray and to be the answer to our prayers.