This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/18/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Genesis 18:1-15 & Matthew 9:35-10:8. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
This morning, I want to tell you a story about Stephen Grellet. Stephen Grellet was a French-born Quaker minister, one of the best-known Quakers of the early 1800s. He traveled extensively and preached to thousands.
One day, as he was in prayer, he felt that God was calling him to take a long journey into the American backwoods, to preach to the woodcutters. Wood cutting was an isolated profession, like working on an offshore oil rig today. And Grellet heard God’s voice speaking to him, “Go back there and preach to those lonely men.” Filled with compassion and a sense of the Spirit’s guidance, Grellet left his family to visit the backwoods.
Grellet felt drawn to a specific spot in this backcountry. It was a place he had visited before, and he felt certain that God was calling him there again. He felt a flood of peace and assurance when he arrived at the woodcutter camp. But as he looked around, he soon realized that the camp was totally devoid of human presence. It had been abandoned days ago. The woodcutters had moved into the forest and might not be back for weeks.
Grellet considered that, perhaps he was mistaken. Maybe he was at the wrong location. But a voice within him said, “no, this is exactly where you are supposed to be.” He prayed silently, asking God for guidance. The response was: “Give your message. It is not yours, but mine.”
In this abandoned encampment, there was one large wooden hut that stood out. Grellet stepped inside and made his way to the back of the structure. He turned around facing the entrance and began to preach. He preached as if the place were packed with hundreds of people. He spoke about how the love of God is the greatest thing in the world. He spoke about how sin builds a wall between human beings and God, but that this wall is thrown down in Jesus Christ. He spoke about how the love of God triumphs over all.
After preaching his message, Grellet was exhausted. He drank some water from a nearby stream, ate a bit of bread he carried in his pocket, and then began the long journey back home. He never saw any woodcutters. Yet he felt peace in his spirit. He felt certain that he had been faithful in what God had given him to do.
Years later and a continent away, Stephen Grellet is crossing London Bridge, wearing his distinctive Quaker outfit and broad-brimmed hat. All of a sudden, someone grabs him by the arm and says, “There you are! I’ve found you at last!”
Grellet is surprised, and probably a little nervous to have this gruff stranger grabbing him and making accusations. “I think you must have the wrong person, friend.”
“Absolutely not!” said the stranger. “I’ve been looking for you across the globe, and I’m not mistaken. You’re the man from the woods!”
It turns out that Stephen Grellet wasn’t entirely alone that day when he visited the woodcutters’ encampment.
The man standing before him tells him about how he returned to the empty encampment, looking for a tool he had left behind. As he was retrieving it, he heard Grellet’s voice booming from the wooden hut at the center of the camp. As Grellet spoke, the lone woodcutter watched through the cracks in the walls. And he found that the gospel message shone through the cracks in his heart.
By the time Stephen Grellet left the camp, this man’s life had been changed forever. After hearing Grellet’s message, he felt miserable, convicted of the sin that was separating him from the love of God. But eventually he got a hold of a Bible and began discovering the way of Jesus.
At first, the other woodcutters made fun of him, but the man’s faith was infectious. “It’s share and share alike in the forest,” said the former woodcutter standing in front of Grellet on London Bridge. “I told the men all about the gospel, just like you. I gave them no peace till everyone was brought home to God. Three of them went out to preach to other districts. At least a thousand have been brought home to the good shepherd by that sermon of yours which you preached to nobody.”
In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus sends out his twelve disciples to teach, heal, and preach the good news of the kingdom of God throughout the villages of Israel. As he prepares them for their journey, he says “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Who are the laborers, and what is the harvest?
Jesus and his little community of disciples were very small. They lived on the margins of society. Yet the crowds flocked to them, eager to hear the good news of the kingdom. Like a mustard seed growing into the greatest of shrubs, or a little bit of yeast causing the whole loaf to rise, God used these handful of disciples to have an astonishing impact on the world.
God’s story is one of continuing surprise. It’s a story that goes back to Abraham and Sarah, who were in their eighties and still childless. God had promised Abraham that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars, but here they were, still without children at an age where child bearing wasn’t just a long shot – it was physically impossible!
But God had promised it. Multiple times. God insisted that not only would Abraham’s descendants be as numerous as the stars, but that he would make a covenant with Abraham’s son through Sarah. Sarah, who realistically hasn’t been able to bear children for several decades at this point.
One day, Abraham is sitting by the oaks of Mamre, around Hebron. He’s sitting there at the entrance to his tent during the hottest part of the day. He’s probably about ready to take a nap. But then, he looks up and sees three men standing before him.
Now, for those of us reading today, it’s a little ambiguous who these men are, exactly. But as the text goes on, it seems that two of these men are angels, and the third is the Lord himself. Whatever the specifics, Abraham seems to know who has come to visit him. He immediately bows down to the ground and asks the men to accept his hospitality. They agree, and Abraham rushes back into the tent to tell Sarah to make pancakes and cook up a goat for their guests.
A little while later, the visitors are sitting under a tree, eating their food. They ask Abraham, “Where’s your wife, Sarah?” When Abraham says that she’s in the tent, one of the men says: “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah will have a son.”
Now it isn’t proper in ancient near-eastern culture for Sarah to hang outside with the men, but she was very interested in this conversation. So she is hiding just behind the entrance to the tent, listening to everything that was happening. And when Sarah hears the visitor say that she will soon have a son, she laughs to herself.
And the LORD says to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? Count on it. It’s going to happen just like I said. When I return, Sarah will have a son.”
Now I guess at this point, the jig is up and Sarah comes out of the tent. She says, “I didn’t laugh!” But the visitor says, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
This is one of my favorite lines of Scripture. What a weird story! And it feels so true to me, about how God is. God knows us, God understands us, even when we’d prefer he didn’t. And God accepts us, even when we can’t quite believe him. Sarah sees the whole situation as ridiculous, and she’s right. It doesn’t make any sense. But God responds by insisting, “I will make something amazing out of this ridiculous situation. And you will know that I did it, precisely because it is impossible.”
The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. I think back to Stephen Grellet, with his apparently pointless sermon to an empty wooden hut out in the backwoods. I remember the twelve disciples – a band of misfits, living on the margins – the last people you’d expect to change the world. I think of Abraham and Sarah, people who should have been great-grandparents but who instead are expecting an infant child.
The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. When I’ve read these words of Jesus before, I always thought that Jesus was complaining about the lack of laborers. But what if the shortage of laborers isn’t a bug in God’s program? What if it’s an intentional feature?
Throughout God’s story, he has always used the most unlikely people in the most ridiculous ways. He chose a barren couple to be the parents of many nations. He picked a wimpy kid to be the king of Israel. He selected a family from the backwoods of Galilee to give birth to the Messiah. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. And maybe that’s the way God likes it!
I think of Gideon’s army, which God whittled down to just 300 men. In the eyes of common sense, they had no chance at all. But through God’s power, they were able to defeat the enemy.
I think of Stephen Grellet, who listened to God, even when it was ridiculous. By preaching to an empty room, he turned a thousand lives to God.
The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. What does it mean for us, as a tiny congregation amidst the great city, to be faithful? How can we endure in the unlikely – even ridiculous – work that God is calling us to? What does it mean to claim the hope of Abraham and Sarah, Jesus and the disciples, Stephen Grellet and the man whose life he changed forever? What does it mean to be the few laborers, steadfast even when we can’t perceive the harvest?
As God said to the prophet Samuel, “the Lord does not see as mortals see; human beings look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Holy Spirit, speak to our hearts. Show us how to be faithful to your guidance, your mission, your love – even when we can’t help but laugh.