Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 7 July 2013: Year C, Proper 9
Lambs among wolves
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Usually in the Gospels, we hear of Jesus doing the preaching and healing, but in today’s reading he sends out some of his friends independently of him to preach in other places, with these words ringing in their ears: ‘There is a large harvest, but few workers to gather it in. Pray to the owner of the harvest that he will send out workers to gather in his harvest’.
So when Luke tells stories of disciples of Jesus travelling around the countryside and bringing the good news about Jesus to the people, this is not just an historical account. He tells this story because it in some way reflects the experience of his Church. A few decades after Jesus’ day, Luke is living in a Church which is trying to bring the news about Jesus to people in the cities, towns and villages in their local area. This is Luke telling his Church how they are supposed to do their missionary work. I wonder if we read Luke carefully, might there be some pointers also for our Church, in our place and time, about how it is we bring the message of Jesus to people today?
‘There is a large harvest, but few workers to gather it in’, says Jesus. In a world before mechanised farming, when bringing in the harvest was a labour-intensive matter, Jesus implies, there is a lot to do and it needs many hands. Luke passes this comment on, because he is calling the Church of his day to get out there and tell the story. We needs as many as possible, for the need is urgent. But what about our Church today? Sometimes it’s suggested that because of financial constraints the Church of Scotland might have to put a cap on the numbers of ministers we employ in future. But that seems to me to be entirely wrong-headed. Surely there is a great harvest to be brought in in Scotland today? Are we going to prevent people from responding when they are sent by Christ?
We need to be encouraging more people into full-time ministry. How can we do that? I can only tell you about my experience. Within the space of about 18 months, three people, who knew me in different contexts, and who did not know each other, suggested that I would make a good minister. It was a thought which had never ocurred to me. The first time it was suggested I thought it was stupid idea. The second time it was thought-provoking. The third time it got under my skin, and I knew I would never be happy until I investigated it further.
And with colleagues and with the students and enquirers I’ve been privileged to work with, the story is always similar. God’s call was spoken to them by other people- someone said I should be doing this. So e need to encourage people to think seriously about whether God is calling them to be workers for the harvest. But not just as parish ministers. There are many different ways of responding to the command to ‘go!’
Think again about this gospel passage. ‘Don’t take a purse or a beggar’s bag or shoes; don’t stop to greet anyone on the road’. Jesus is sending these people out with nothing but themselves and his blessing. He is not asking for university degrees, or whether or not there is manse for them to live in and a Church for them to preach in. They are to go from place to place and accept whatever hospitality they can find. For too long our model of the Church has been very fixed and static. It is what we have inherited from what was once called Christendom- an age when Christianity was the official religion, and the Church was a power in the land. And so we said, each town and village has to have a church, and a minister in the manse, and the ministers will work hard to nurture the religion of the people in his (and was always men, back then) parish.
However, that is a very static way of looking at things. And the difference I always notice between the Gospels and our traditional way of being Church is that in the Gospels, Jesus is never static. Jesus was always on the road, going from town to town. He gathered crowds wherever he went, but he did not stay. He moved on until he came to Jerusalem. And even although he goes to the temple and engages in debate with the worldly clerics of the big city, we have a sense of journeying going on there was well. He often moves out of the city at nightfall. At Passover, his journey takes him to an upper room, to Gethsamene, to the High Priest’s court and Pilate’s palace, to the soldiers’ barracks, along the Via Dolorosa as he carries his cross to the place of execution. And then the bury him, but his journeying is not over. A few nights afterwards some of his admirers, on their way out of the city to Emmaus, meet a stranger on the road who answers their questions, and whom they finally recognise when they break bread together.
Jesus is almost always on the road. And he sends his disciples out on the road, in a hurry for the Kingdom of God. Go! he says, from town to town: ‘Don’t take a purse or a beggar’s bag or shoes; don’t stop to greet anyone on the road. Whenever you go into a house, first say, “Peace be with this house.” If someone who is peace-loving lives there, let your greeting of peace remain on that person; if not, take back your greeting of peace. Stay in that same house, eating and drinking whatever they offer you, for workers should be given their pay. Don’t move around from one house to another. Whenever you go into a town and are made welcome, eat what is set before you, heal the sick in that town, and say to the people there, “The Kingdom of God has come near you.”‘
This is not a settled ministry, but a travelling missionary lifestyle. This is how it would have been, also, for Luke’s Church. Luke was writing in Rome, perhaps, or Greece (Craddock in Harper’s Bible Commentary, p1011), during the period of Roman rule. Christians are still a tiny minority, their gatherings very small. But those little gatherings would have commissioned some of their number to go out into the city squares, or into the villages where most people lived, and to take the story of Jesus to folks there.
I was once on a packed London tube train, when I became aware of a striking young woman starting to talk about Jesus. I thought at first she was a teacher talking to school children, for there was a party of schoolchildren in the carriage. But then I realised she was simply preaching to anyone who would listen. I got off at the same stop as she did, where she was still in discussion with some students who had taken note of her. I have to say that as someone who’s in the preaching business myself I thought she was rather rough and ready- but I had to admire her courage. I usually preach within hallowed walls, to an audience who have chosen to come and who at least pretend to find me interesting! How would I get on if these walls weren’t here, if I weren’t wearing these robes, if I hadn’t prepared you for it with hymns and prayers, if I didn’t have this pulpit was instead hanging on to a strap to stop me falling over? Luke today tells me that Jesus said that we wouldn’t need a purse or even a beggar’s bag or shoes. Now there’s a challenge!
And yet walking around London I was struck by how the static, settled churches still, nevertheless, spoke powerfully of the Gospel. If, like me, you are classical music fan, you will have heard of St Martin-in-the-Field’s. There has been a building on the site of St Martin-in-the-Field’s for centuries, but the fields are long gone. Today an 18th century building, stands on Trafalgar Square, with the National Gallery, the theatre district and Covent Garden within walking distance. It’s also on the edge of London’s Chinatown. On their noticeboard and on their website they tell us what they are about:
We have active English and Chinese speaking congregations We are an inclusive church embracing a practical, hospitable Christianity
We are committed to care, particularly for homeless and vulnerable people, through The Connection at St Martin’s We have an award-winning cafe, popular shop and a successful concerts programme – proceeds support the work of the church
They have also just completed a programme to renew their buildings, to adapt their building to meet the demand of the 21st century. They are famous for their concerts, but also known as ‘the Church of the open door’, caring for around 7,500 people a year who are homeless or in need.
So here is another way of being Church in a city. Perhaps in some ways it seems more like the static way of being Church, given that it’s all based in a beautiful listed building. But in a way, what St Martin-in-the-Fields’s is doing something just as adventurous as the young woman preaching the Gospel in the tube. I don’t think Luke can give us a detailed plan for taking the Gospel out into our world here in Inverness. But the words of Jesus he preserves here remind us that we are called to go to others with the message of the Kingdom.
The founder of this congregation was St Columba. He was a great one for travelling. He had to leave his native Ireland in a wee boat and make his way to the unknown shores of Scotland. There he founded a monastery, at Iona, which then became a base for his travels into the Highlands. He faced a monster at Fort Augustus, blessed a dying king at Urquhart Castle, and finally made it to Inverness, where he converted King Brude and his people. Columba was not a man to stay long anywhere, but he must have left someone to found a simple Church on St Michael’s mount, on the riverside, a church that became the Old High Church. Centuries later, many other congregations grew out of that first Church in Inverness, including, of course, St Stephen’s. And today our congregation of Old High St Stephen’s is still called to meet people on their journeys, whether is the journey of life, or whether their journey takes them only briefly through out parish.
Jesus said, ‘Go!’- a command that many through history have heeded, including Columba. And as Columba responded to the command to ‘go!’, so we too, in our own day, are called to go and take the good news to others. Today the harvest is still large, and we still need workers to bring it in.
But Jesus knew that that involved risk. After all, he actually is recorded by Luke as saying, ‘Go! I am sending you like lambs among wolves’. What a vivid phrase that is- it’s unsettling, when you picture it in your mind. It speaks to me vividly of two things. First, that although the Gospel message is a very serious message, it is also a gentle message, and we who are to be its ambassadors are to be gentle. For did not Christ say that he himself was ‘gentle and humble in spirit’? (Matthew 11.28). So we are not to hector people or impose our beliefs on them, but let the Spirit of God to its work.
And when Christ says he is sending us as sheep among wolves he’s reminding us that we will not always be welcome. There will be places and times and people where we not welcome, where in the end we might find ourselves wiping the dust off our feet and trying elsewhere. We get a lot of that today- indifference to the Gospel. But it happened in Luke’s time, and it happened in Jesus day, so we should not be too surprised.
It is never easy to how we can live as Christians in our day, and what might be a good way to share the message with others. I rather liked something I found on the St Martin-in-the-Fields website, part of a charter of belief which informs their work. The final one of the points reads
We are committed to identifying and affirming what is good and identifying and opposing what is evil, and living as best we can in the mess in the middle.
If we respond to Christ’s call to ‘go’, we will often find that it is frightening and messy.
But Christ goes with us through the mess in the middle. In fact, I think, just as he must have often done on those dusty Palestinian roads, I think he often goes before us, in front of us. And so when we go, at his command, there will be places, unexpected places perhaps, when we will meet people of peace, where we will be able to say with certainty, ‘The Kingdom of God is near’, because it is as if Christ has been here before us. And yes, even in this day and in this place, there are people who are going to welcome the Gospel But first we have to go, and tell them about it. But we do so as gently as lambs, even at the risk of being eaten by the wolves!
Ascription of Praise
Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2010 Peter W Nimmo
Hymn after sermon: 255 Father, hear the prayer we offer (Tune Sussex, CH3 144)