September 19

The Lord of the Harvest

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 9: 35-38

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The authority of Jesus’ ministry is today transferred to disciples and apostles, ancient and modern.

We meet Jesus this morning on the hinges of the first Gospel, as the flow of the Gospel swings from Lord to apostles. In the announcement of this good news is included a measure of empowerment for each one of us. This is the kind of bright autumn morning on which, for once, for the first time, or for once in a long time, we—not just the ordinand but we ourselves–may be seized by a sense of divine nearness. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. The harvest is plentiful.  The kingdom of heaven has come near to you. When that sentence makes a home in a heart, or in the heart of a community, a different kind of life ensues.  It opens for you the question of vocation, of calling, of your truest self, of your ownmost self.

Faith may come like a blinding light on the Road to Damascus.  It may.  But most of the time it comes, rather, one stumble, one step, one stop at a time.  One step.  As a person of faith.  Take a step a day, a step a week.  Health, healing, salvation, salvus, wellness, wellbeing come in small doses, occasional, discreet, bit by bit. Some like Paul are blinded by a moment on the road to Damascus. Most of us are seized in faith, brought to healing, in a gradual way, over time, as my teacher of blessed memory Fr. Raymond Brown was used to say. Not in lightening but enlightening and enlightened day by day. Sermon by sermon we could say, Sunday by Sunday. One step at a time. The Gospels tell us so, whatever the Epistles may opine.  Daily Questions of Faith, like… Is there a dark side to Forgiveness?… Is Education about the old or the new?… Do I hold onto things too long?… Do I practice Misplaced Paternalism?… When the time comes: How do we approach death?…Have we faced the inadequacy of a life without faith?…

This year, 2021-22, sermon by sermon, Sunday by Sunday, we will look for a single small step, one question of faith at at time.

A preparatory step is to read the Bible, to open the Scripture.  We do so four times in the Sunday hour of worship, whatever the sermon may portend.  Or pretend.  Including this morning.  And so we hear the Gospel:   Vocation…leads to an experience of God. The kingdom of heaven is at hand…when your passion meets another’s need.  The harvest is plentiful like an orchard full of ripe apples.

Capture in the mind’s eye for a moment the sweep of the gospel in this part of Matthew. First. Jesus has been out and about, teaching and preaching and healing. His compassion abounds. The endless range of needs about him he unblinkingly faces. Second. Jesus calls and sends the disciples, and empowers them, and by extension he empowers us. The gospel will have been read thus, as it is thus read by us. He instructs and directs them in their work, where to go, what to do, how to be. Learning, virtue, and piety together. Start at home, heal the sick, travel light. Third. Jesus expects and forecasts for them a less than utter victory in their work. They are to know how to shake dust from their feet. Fourth. Jesus warns that there will be a price to pay. The discipline that is the hallmark of the disciple here is named. Shall we not remember the rigors of Jesus’ ministry? Shall we ignore the call and power offered here? Shall we forget the directions given? Shall we expect to turn a deaf ear to the caution about consequences? We pray not. The main sweep of the gospel today is clear as a bell. Jesus gives power to his disciples. Hold that thought for a moment.

The devil is in the details. The Gospel in Matthew 9 sends us into a sort of foreign territory, one, that is, in which and for which we shall need some translation. The biblical language is not always our language.  For instance.  We have other words, whether only modern or both modern and more accurate, to describe unclean spirits. We recognize that the list of disciples differs from other lists.  We do not regularly meet leprosy. We carry no gold in our belts, nor silver, nor even copper. We are not pilgrim peregrinators who arrive in town and camp on a doorstep. We sense that the hard distinctions we make between disciples and apostles were not made by Matthew. We do not readily conjure up the vision of Sodom and Gomorrah. We sense that the time of Matthew and perhaps persecutions feared or present under Domitian, 90ce, may have colored all or a part of this passage.

A confusion, a lack of translation here will allow us to avoid the clear call of Christ upon our consciences in the main flow of the gospel. For the main point is crystal clear. To follow Jesus means to take up where he and his earliest companions left off, and to span the globe, and to care for the globe and its environment, and to share the spiritual care of its inhabitants with the world’s many other religious traditions.

The verses and the chapter and the gospel carry a claim. Do you love Jesus? Then you must do something for him, said Albert Schweitzer.

Jesus has taught, preached and healed. This ministry he has bequeathed to you and me, his disciples, his apostles. We have been seized by the confession of the Church; we are Christians. Now his ministry, this ministry, is ours. Which part of this ministry, today, draws you, and in which way?

Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. I might argue that healing the sick has a medical degree of meaning, that raising the dead is about pastoral ministry in the Northeast where the church awaits resurrection, that cleansing lepers is about including those on the outside of the social fence, that casting out demons is reminding people not to fear, not to fear, not to fear, even, in the face of much trouble, including the twenty year shadow of 9/11. You could, rightly, challenge or augment the interpretation.

But personally, just where does your passion meet the world’s need? What are you ready to risk doing, to plan for the worst, hope for the best, then do your most, and leave all the rest?What are you going to give yourself to, to offer your ability, affability, and availability?

Who calls you, who called you, to your own real life, your vocation? Who gave you your sense of direction, vocation in life? Our colleague Robert Pinsky revitalized poetry by asking communities to gather and read their favorites. We at Marsh are trying to revitalize vocation in part by asking people to gather and remember their mentors. What about you? The world opens a bit when someone is called or reminded of a call to…preaching, teaching, healing.

Vocation…leads to an experience of God. The kingdom of heaven is at hand…when your passion meets another’s need.

Today one step.  Our step in questions of faith today, on reading the Holy Bible, is to discern our calling, vocation, that which makes not just a living but a life.   Others from history may help us, two in particular today, Martin Luther and John Wesley.

On May 24 of 1738, Mr. John Wesley, an Oxford Don and Anglican Priest, found himself in a Sunday evening service of worship on Aldersgate Street in London.  This was a rainy Sunday evening, and the weather of the moment it would seem matched Wesley’s despond.  Yet on the conclusion of the service, somehow, Mr. Wesley walked into the London fog singing in the rain.  His heart, he wrote later, had been ‘strangely warmed’.  In full he thought and felt and ‘feltthought’ that the passion, the gift of Christ, was for him, for him–John Wesley.  The moment became a touchstone in his life, and consequently, both for bane and blessing, in the movement that became the church that became the denomination that became whatever it is now to become which he and his dear brother Charles did beget.  Yet not often has Methodism looked back a little bit more carefully at the first part of his story of that fateful, eventful evening.  The service on Aldersgate Street started with Martin Luther, and with his commentary, summary, introduction to the Epistle to the Romans.  Here to hear is a part of that introduction, on the matter of faith:

Faith is a living, daring confidence in the grace of God, of such assurance that it would risk a thousand deaths. This confidence and knowledge of divine grace makes a person happy, bold, and full of gladness in his relation to God and all creatures. The Holy Ghost is doing this in the believer… Accordingly, it is impossible to separate works from faith, just as impossible as it is to separate the power to burn and shine from fire…Pray God that He may create faith in you…”

In a more personal vein, many of us have been shaped by the outworking of Luther’s thought and church, especially through the influence of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Our first year of seminary on the corner of Broadway and (now) Reinhold Niebuhr place was sustained by shared evening meals, one clumsy amateur cook at a time, to share expenses in the main, and to share insights and friendship, as well.  This was on the second floor of then Hastings Hall at Union Theological Seminary, NYC.  Somehow, Eberhard Bethge was invited and chose to come to join us for our evening meal, a most humble affair in every direction.  He was a most gregarious, joyful fellow, who knew Bonhoeffer better perhaps than almost anyone.  He matched, in part, the person of faith that Luther described in the Introduction to Romans—a daring confidence in the grace of God, happy bold and full of gladness.  Last week, a friend who is in retirement from work as a cardiologist, who serves on our Marsh Chapel board, and in a new mode of vocation, is studying Bonhoeffer, in depth in and in breadth, sent photos from the 1930’s at Union of Bonhoeffer.   In those years Bonhoeffer wrote: Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. (Cost of Discipleship)…. In Christ we are invited to participate in the reality of God and the reality of the world at the same time, the one not without the other. The reality of God is disclosed only as it places me completely into the reality of the world. (Ethics)

We have much for which to be thankful, given to our denomination and many others through Martin Luther, including the witness and martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Sometimes a direct encounter with a different religious tradition than our own, a different denominational tradition, a strangely and daringly distinct perspective, can bring our own vocational perspective into focus.

That is our ancient and future hope, in Scripture and in faith.  John Dewey spoke of a common faith.  Howard Thurman preached about a common ground.  Over fifteen years, in and from this Marsh Chapel pulpit, we have offered a common hope.

This is the hope of peace.  We long for the far side of trouble, for a global community of steady interaction, an international fellowship of accommodation, a world together dedicated to softening the inevitable collisions of life.  This is the hope of peace.

Without putting too fine a point upon it, this hope, the vision of the far side of trouble, is the hallmark of the space in which we stand, and the place before which we stand.  If nowhere else, here on this plaza, and here before this nave, we may lift our prayer of hope.  There is a story here, of peace.  You now, students and others, are become in presence and hearing, stewards, stewards of this story, this common hope.

For we at Marsh Chapel are like everyone else, only more so, as the saying goes—a wide and diverse community, committed to a handshake and a song, and that shared ‘creed’ of ‘that which has been believed, always, everywhere, and by everyone (so, John Wesley), a common hope of peace, a unity shall we say that protects and promotes diversity.

Mahatmas Ghandi, walking and singing ‘Lead Kindly Light’, embodied this common hope.  Ghandi wrote:  “I am part and parcel of the whole, and cannot find God apart from the rest of humanity”.  A common hope of peace.  Ghandi inspired and taught the earlier Dean of Marsh Chapel, Howard Thurman.

Howard Thurman, hands raised in silence, later wrote:  “The events of my days strike a full balance of what seems both good and bad.  Whatever may be the tensions and the stresses of a particular day, there is always lurking close at had the trailing beauty of forgotten joy or unremembered peace.”  A common hope of peace.

Thurman taught King, whose stentorian voice fills our memory and whose sculpture adorns our village green.  King wrote: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality”.  A common hope of peace. Martin Luther King inspired a whole generation of ministers, including the current Dean of this Chapel.

He (Robert Allan Hill) wrote:  “We are all more human and more alike than we regularly affirm, all of us on this great globe. We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All eight billion. We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All eight billion. We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All eight billion. We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All eight billion. We all age, and after fifity, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All eight billion. We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. All eight billion.”

Today, in memory and honor, with Luther, Wesley, Ghandi, Dewey, Thurman and King, we lift our hope for a day to live on the far side of trouble.  We remember our ancient and future hope, a hope of peace.  Here is a discreet question of faith.  One step, a small step. Does or will your calling evoke a hope of peace in others? or will your sense of vocation evoke a hope of peace in others?

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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