For July 3, 2016
For Commentary on the texts, please click HERE
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
When I was in college, I worked on a tobacco farm in eastern North Carolina. It was in the early days of mechanized tobacco harvesting and we worked on a contraption pulled by a tractor through the field.
The harvesters, “the croppers” we were called, sat on low seats a few inches from the ground. We picked the leaves of the plants and put them in a conveyer belt system that carried them to a platform about 10 feet in the air where the “stringers” tied the leaves onto the tobacco sticks to be hung in the barn for curing.
Our harvester was malfunctioning. The conveyer system wasn’t working properly and leaves were dropping out behind us. We kept stopping and starting while trying to fix the machine.
A 6-year-old boy from a nearby farm was watching us work. He observed our troubles for a while and then walked up to the farmer and said, “Well, you can’t elevate’em all, can you Mr. Virgil.”
“You can’t elevate’em all,” has been my ministry motto for almost 40 years; well actually for 35 – the first five years I still thought I could, in fact, elevate them all. But after a while I realized I could not.
It was much later that I also realized that this failure to “elevate’em all” was neither unique to me, nor was it an actual failure. It has always been like this – not only for the seventy whom Jesus sent out on a preaching/teaching/healing tour, but also for the twelve apostles, for the first missionaries like Paul and Silas, and Mark and Barnabas – it was also a problem for Jesus himself.
Not too long ago we celebrated the Ascension of our Lord. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ leave-taking contains one of my favorite lines from the Gospels. 28:17 says, “When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.” (Common English Bible) Some doubted!? These are people who had spent two or three years following Jesus, listening to him preach, seeing him cast out demons and heal people and bring people back from the dead. They had even experienced the death and resurrection of Jesus himself. They had seen and felt and talked to the resurrected Jesus. And yet, and yet – “some doubted?” You “can’t elevate’em all,” indeed.
In our gospel lesson for today Jesus sends the seventy out to proclaim the coming kingdom of God.
He sends them out into the harvest, warning them of the dangers they will face; “like lambs into the midst of wolves.” He encourages them to travel light, “no purse, no bag, no sandals,” and no lollygagging – “greet no one on the road.” He tells them to neither expect nor ask for special treatment – “eat what is put before you, stay with the first people who invite you in.” And, by the way, do not expect that everyone will hear you gladly. “But whenever,” not if, but whenever, “whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you . . .” (10:10) You can’t elevate’em all, can you Rev. Pastor?
At a recent family reunion in southwest Virginia, the cousins were sharing the no nonsense approach of our grandmother and her various children, our parents. For example: I recalled complaining to Grandma that a couple of older cousins were building a tree house in the woods and wouldn’t let me climb up and get in. She said, “That’s a good thing. You won’t get hurt when it falls out of that tree.” In a similar vein, when I was a young minister I whined to my mother about how some of my parishioners were not showing me the respect I felt I deserved. Mama said, “When Jesus told you to take up a cross, you didn’t think he was referring to that shiny silver thing you wear around your neck, did you? There’s a reason they put those things on the roof and on the altar and it’s not about looking pretty.”
In this text – Jesus is not fussing at or dismissing those who fail to receive the Gospel – rather, he is giving encouragement to those of us who go out in the world to announce the coming of the kingdom of God. Because, then as now, human beings are prone to the desire to be successful, to be winners, or at least to avoid being losers. We want to figure out how to do it right so that all our hopes and dreams for our church will come true. And, if we’re not careful – we will start changing the message, ever so slightly, ever so tentatively, ever so hesitantly – trying to find the right thing to say, or the right way to say it, so that we will not be rejected, so that everyone will hear and receive us gladly. We become so desperate to “elevate’em all” that we forget that not only did Jesus warn us that we would not be able to, but he demonstrated by his own suffering and death upon a cross that it is not possible.
The good news is – it’s not our job to elevate’em all. Over and over again the Bible makes it plain that we are not in charge, God is. Just in our lessons for today we heard it said in many ways.
From Isaiah: “I will extend prosperity to her like a river,” (66:12) and “. the hand of the LORD is with his servants . . .” 66:14) These things are God’s doing, not ours.
In the Psalm: “Come and see what God has done” (66:5) and “Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept us among the living. . .” (66:8,9)
Paul, in Galatians, reminds himself, and us, to “. . . never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . “(6:14)
And in the Gospel lesson Jesus reminds us to “. . . ask the LORD of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” That is – it’s in God’s hands.
In light of this, what are we to do? Do we sit quietly, waiting for God to save the world? Do we come to this building and enjoy each other’s company and sing hymns and songs we like and then go about our business with no thought or mention of our faith until we gather here again on another Sunday? How do we go about announcing the good news that God’s unconditional grace and life-changing love are here, now – without either manipulating the message in order to win a hearing or worrying over much about how we will be received?
Anne Lamott, author of Traveling Mercies, and many other books about faith and spirituality, was recently quoted in The Week as saying “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” This does not mean we do not go outside these walls.
The walls are not the church, this building is not the church. We, the people, the congregation; we are the church. We go outside the walls, – to work, to play, to neighborhoods and communities. And we are invited by Christ be Christian in all that we say and do. We are encouraged to shine wherever we are, with whomever we encounter. And we are invited to trust God with the harvest. We may not be able to elevate’em all. But God can.
Amen and amen.