“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Earlier this week, five St. Philip’s parishioners and I attended a diocesan workshop entitled “Overcoming Obstacles to Church Growth.” Of course, the word “growth” does not necessarily mean growth in numbers. It can easily mean spiritual growth. Bishop Mariann asked the group a question to consider: “What one thing (an obstacle to growth) would you get rid of it you could?” The answers were interesting. “It’s the way we’ve always done it.” Lack of money. Lack of transparency. Wrong perceptions about the Church. Resistance to change.
Everyone there on Tuesday evening had today’s gospel in front of them. . .“therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” HIS harvest. In other words, the harvest of the good news of God’s kingdom is not about you or me or the Church. It is about God. It is GOD’s harvest.
Bishop Mariann shared with the group a quote from Patrick Keifert’s book We Are Here Now. It is as follows: “Indeed the most frightening discovery we made in our early research in local church renewal was how seldom members of local churches describe their lives in sentences that include God as the subject of action verbs. They almost always describe worship, for example, as something “we do” or “I do.” I worship God. I participate in fellowship. We sing hymns and pray. God, in the vast majority of these descriptions by churches’ own members and in their own words, is at best the object of human action. Rarely did we hear of God doing something in worship, much less in the community or neighborhood around them. We discovered that many of the imaginations and descriptions of local church leaders reflect a practical atheism and secularity. It isn’t that they don’t believe in God, but they don’t speak of God as being a part of their lives; they don’t think in categories that include God.”
It is, of course, challenging to think of our lives in a way that has God as the subject of an action verb. Perhaps this is because our culture is so individualistic and self-driven in terms of the goals we set. The culture in which Jesus lived was much different. Community trumped individual needs or wants. Yet the kind of community which Jesus embodied was different than the prevailing tradition. Jesus had come to show people that the kind of kingdom of God they had understood was deeper, broader and richer than something one achieved by keeping the law and commandments. Jesus was messiah. Son of God. Savior of the world. Everything he did—preach, teach, heal, cast out demons, break bread with all kinds of people—all pointed to a larger conception of life.
Life in God was more than keeping a set of legal requirements. Life in God was more than some technical means to a happy ending. Life in God was about God and what God might be doing in the world God had created. This new concept of the realm or kingdom of God included more than just Jewish men. Luke’s gospel showed this. He included women, Samaritans, people who lived on the edges of society, Gentiles—literally meaning “non-Israelite people”—into Jesus’ expanded mission. The good news of God’s kingdom needed to go beyond the people of Israel. It needed to go into all the world, for and to all people.
Luke wanted the early Christians to understand that if they were focused on God, what God was doing, and what they must do as Jesus’ disciples, their vision would match God’s vision of what the world could be like. They could not do things the way they had always done things. They had to let go of their myopic view of God’s kingdom. They could not be resistant to learning new things or changing the way they lived their lives. As Jesus’ disciples lived out their lives of faith, they had to be courageous, prepared for those who would oppose them, open to all kinds of hospitality, willing to accept all kinds of circumstances.
In addition, the twelve disciples had to accept growth in their ranks. Now there were not only twelve men and a group of women who followed Jesus, there were many others. [Keep in mind that the gospel writer used the number seventy—or seventy-two in some translations—as a symbolic number. “The number seventy implies all of humanity, as Genesis 10 provides a list of all the nations of the world, numbering seventy.”]
That did not mean that Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign was always popular. In fact, it was most often not popular, because God’s kind of world did not fit into oppressive political and religious systems. Yet just as Jesus’ ministry “[subverted] the systems of power and privilege in the world,” so was to be the ministry of those who followed Jesus. This implied the excitement of abundant living and new possibilities in life. It also implied the need to be vulnerable, to be open to change and a willingness to be flexible—to change plans at any moment.
This must have been a challenging place to live for the disciples. Yet they knew Jesus personally. Jesus’ words and deeds had completely transformed their lives. They knew what it felt like to live in relationship with him, in an expanded sense of God’s kingdom, in the shalom of God—safe and complete peace—no matter what the situation.
By contrast, you and I have not had the opportunity to know the historical Jesus. What we know about Jesus has come through our church traditions, filtered to some degree, sometimes even obscured by people or documents. In the past hundred years, scholars have argued about exactly what, in the gospels, Jesus actually said and what others say he said. We in the Church have often gotten caught up in the rituals and politics of the institution. We have gotten to the point of asking “What would Jesus do?” However, this is not enough. Perhaps we need to stop asking rhetorical questions, start reading the Bible, then to go and DO what Jesus did. I wonder where God’s people might go and do if we focused on God rather than ourselves. Rather than asking what we can do and then find God there, what would happen if we asked ourselves different questions. For example: “What is God doing and how can we join God in that adventure?” “What is God saying to this community of faith in this moment of time?” “How would I live today or tomorrow or Friday this week if God were the subject of every action verb in my life?” “What if the reign of God came near to me this week. Would I miss it, or would I recognize it?”
Maybe the kingdom or reign of God has already come near to you. So if we are not to miss seeing it, or living into its fullness, perhaps we should put our lives in perspective. We must put God as the subject rather than ourselves: God speaks and sings in Sunday morning liturgy. God hugs those who grieve. God sits next to me in the pew. God will share a cup of coffee with me this morning. God schedules my day. God writes my checks. God decides what the vision is for this community. God provides the way forward so that vision will come to reality.
If the kingdom of God comes near us today, will we know it when we see it?
© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton
 Patrick Keifert, We Are Here Now, (Idaho: Allelon Publishing, 2006), 62-62.
 David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 214.
 Ibid., 216.