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The Harvest Is Plentiful – Why Are the Workers So Few?

The Harvest Is Plentiful - Why Are the Workers So Few?
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.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

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.

Related Posts:

Where Was the Holy Spirit Before Jesus?

How Can God Love Both Me And My Enemies?

How Can I Stay Awake in an Age of Distractions?

How Can I Stay Awake in an Age of Distractions?
This past weekend the Friends of Jesus Fellowship gathered in Barnesville, Ohio. Our theme was “Stay Awake” – drawn from the teachings of Jesus to his sleepy disciples.

Even 2,000 years before cell phones, streaming music, cable news, and video games, it was hard to stay awake. The original Jesus community struggled to stay conscious, aware, and focused on the things that matter. Even when Jesus was with them in the flesh, teaching and leading them, it was a challenge to stay grounded. Peter, James, and John couldn’t even stay awake with Jesus for one hour while he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane!

When Jesus was arrested and hauled off to be executed, every single disciple fled for his life. Just hours before, they had all insisted they would die rather than abandon Jesus. Now where were they?

The first disciples struggled to stay awake and responsive to Jesus’ voice, but it seems like we have an even greater challenge. While the twelve apostles knew Jesus as a man, we today only know him through the Spirit. It’s easy to lose track of who Jesus is in our lives. It’s easy to forget that he’s even real. In the midst of so many worries, comforts, and distractions, most of us operate in a state of practical atheism.
Friends of Jesus Fellowship Spring Gathering 2017
This is certainly true for us in the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. We’re all tired. We get get our priorities mixed up. We lose track of who Jesus is and where he’s calling us. Like Martha, we are worried and distracted by many things. But we need only one thing.

Our time together in Barnesville was a reminder of that one Life that gathers us together. We reconnected with the still, small voice of Jesus who speaks to us when we’re ready to listen. We are part of a Spirit-led community that draws us out of distraction and into a more true and beautiful world.

It was a joy to have several families at the gathering, and to care for one another’s children. We watched them play together as friends in the family of God. Our young ones reminded us that we are all part of a larger community of friends. We’re knitted together in the love of Jesus. I’m very grateful for the grounding and sense of place that I find as part of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship.

Coming back home to Washington, DC, I need to remember that sense of connection and purpose. The distractions have not gone away. I spent four days unplugged from electronics, but my screens were waiting for me as soon as I left the gathering.

It’s easy to wish for a simpler, more innocent age. People have always longed for that, regardless of their circumstances. But I’m not called to that kind of nostalgia. I’m wondering how I can embrace an abundant, Spirit-filled life in the midst of urban America.

My challenge now is not to remove distractions, but rather to repurpose them for good. How can I use technology to foster greater faithfulness, connection, and resilient community? Rather than distract myself, how will I connect and focus? I need more signal and less noise. How do I get there? More importantly, how do we get there together?

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How My Faith Blew Up and I Learned to be Human Again


The industrial revolution colonized my faith, and I never even knew it.

For so much of my ministry, I focused on doing things for God. I’ve been like a child who takes a toy their parent has given them, and returns it to the parent as a “gift.” One of the first revelations I received from God was that I own nothing. I can’t produce anything under my own power. Yet my response to God’s action in my life has always been about creating return on investment. It’s so hard to receive a gift without providing anything in return.

As a pilgrim in the north of England in 2005, I experienced something life-changing. It was an anointing by the Holy Spirit. God touched me in a way I’ll never be able to describe. I felt resolute clarity that God had called me into a life of service to him. I thought I was ready to give up everything.

My first response to this amazing encounter was to dream of evangelizing Europe. I find this embarrassing to recall. Not because Europe (or America) aren’t in need of the gospel. That’s a mission I’m still excited about. But the idea that I, as someone who had just received the Holy Spirit and who hadn’t even read the New Testament yet… It makes me blush. In truth, I needed people to continue evangelizing me. I was a baby in Christ, and I needed spiritual parents – not to start a family of my own!

It’s fortunate that I listened when God guided me to enroll in a small Quaker seminary in Indiana. I spent several years studying the Bible, Quaker/Christian tradition, and the practice of ministry. This was crucial. My time in seminary broke me open in a lot of ways. I learned to listen more. I submitted my sense of personal inspiration to the discernment of a wider community. I grew in maturity and patience.

But my production-oriented, industrial mindset remained largely untouched. My ministry was still centered on what I could do for God, rather than simply receiving the gift. My focus was on how to engineer tangible results that the world would recognize. I ended up transferring my desire to do something for God into a desire to do something for the Quaker movement.

I was on fire for Jesus and his kingdom. And I knew that the kingdom of God is one of unmerited love and grace. But I wanted to merit it. I wanted to build the kingdom of God with my own two hands. I wanted to be a successful minister, like my heroes from the Bible and Quaker history. More than anything, I wanted to be a minister after the mold of Paul and George Fox. An apostolic movement-builder and church-planter. A charismatic leader who could break open whole new frontiers for the gospel. A man whose faithful preaching and example lays a foundation for community.

It would have been one thing if I had merely burned to be faithful. It would have been beautiful if my dream had to been to use the gifts God gave me to bless others. To show God’s love through my actions, to be a servant like Jesus. But I wanted more than that. I wanted more than Jesus. I wanted results. I wanted to be measurably successful. I wanted to hit those successful ministry benchmarks as defined by the early church and the early Quaker movement. I wanted to win.

The spirit of this age, of the market, of industrial capitalism, was so strong in me, I never even recognized it. I gravitated towards materials from the Evangelical world. They promised to teach me how to be more successful, more productive. I, too, could have an earth-shaking ministry just like George Fox. I could turn stones into bread and throw myself from the top of the temple. Nothing would be beyond me.

It was all a lie. No matter how much I studied the work of other ministers and applied their techniques, I never saw the kind of results I was seeking. The communities I served stayed small. I couldn’t support my family with the income that my various projects brought in. My wife and I grew burned out. Our shared ministry was beginning to feel like a revolving door of failure. The image of ministry success that I dreamed of had turned into a nightmare.

And so, at a certain point in the fall of 2014, I gave up. I was finally exhausted enough to face the truth. My dreams disconnected from reality. My aspirations seemed to be running against the grain of what God was asking of me. I had no idea what God wanted, but it wasn’t this.

I’ve spent the last couple of years in the wilderness. I’ve backed away from full-time ministry. I’ve taken on full-time, secular work. I put my time and attention into family, career, and the nuts and bolts of making a life for ourselves in this city. I’ve found friends and activities that have nothing to do with any sort of ministry objective. This is new.

These have been hard years. It was painful to step away from the work that had defined my life so completely in my twenties. It was disorienting to release leadership and allow my communities to fall apart, lie fallow, or morph into new configurations I hardly recognized. These last few years have felt like dying.

But I’m thankful. These wilderness years have been a dark blessing. Through the pain and confusion, God has been scouring out my insides. He’s challenged my industrial, results-oriented mindset. The Holy Spirit has hollowed me out and broken me.

I won’t say I’m healed. I won’t say it’s over, or that I’ve figured my life out. There’s nothing that definitive. I’m living in a not-knowing that is powerful in its ambiguity. I’m living in the desert of the Real, and all I have to guide me is the hope that God will lead me, even if I don’t know it.

For the time being, I don’t want to do anything for God. I also don’t want to do anything for principle, causes, or movements, either. Any positive impact I make, any real joy I experience, is going to come from doing things for people. Not an abstract idea of people, but the flesh-and-blood human beings who live in my neighborhood, joke with me at work, and share my commute. My ministry field is the brothers and sisters that God has placed in my life. My measure of success is the joy, generosity, and love that I bring into theirs.

Maybe someday I’ll be part of something big. But that’s up to God. Until then, I’m excited to see what small can do.

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What if my Religion is just Self Help?

What if my Religion is just Self Help?
I came to religion for selfish reasons. I was often depressed. I felt empty. I couldn’t find meaning in life. I explored faith because I wanted to receive, not to give. I was looking for a spiritual solution to my lack of direction and purpose. I wanted a faith that would make me feel good.

I did a lot of religious exploration before I became a Christian. I engaged with philosophical movements like existentialism. I went deep with political ideologies like democratic socialism and anarchism. I even explored Buddhism, Islam, and other non-western faiths.

My motivations were very human and self-centered. I wanted a faith that would fix me, that would make me happy and fulfilled. I wanted a system that could give me the right answers and make my life easier.

If I’m honest with myself, most of my faith journey has been a path of self help. My religion was like those books that promise rapid weight loss, financial prosperity, or success in love. Everything was about what I needed, wanted, and craved.
What if my Religion is just Self Help?
Even my experience of God was a product to be sought after. Buddhist books written for westerners promised me inner peace and clarity. Quakerism offered me ecstatic, mystical experiences that took place in meetings for worship. That sense of presence and power made me feel special, purposeful, and loved. I wanted more of that.

I felt like these religious experiences were making me better. Throughout my twenties I would say, “every day is better than the last.” And it was true. The more I got into spiritual practices and religious devotion – meditation, Bible reading, worship, prayer – the more mature and grounded I felt. Other people seemed to think so, too. I had objective evidence that religion was making me a better person!

My faith was fun and gratifying. It was fantastic to feel successful. My life was filled with meaning and purpose in a way that I had never experienced before. I still had periods of darkness and struggle, but I came out of each one feeling more triumphant than before.

Until I didn’t.

My thirties have been a hard decade. I had my whole sense of mission and purpose called into question. The ministry that I’d been focusing my whole life on fell apart. It was hard to know what to do. I felt so clear about what God had called me to do. And then there was nothing left. Where was God in all this?

At the same time, my life turned upside down. After years of ministry, I started working full-time in non-church-related jobs. We also had our first child, which changed my life and outlook in ways that I never imagined. Life got busy. Full with comings and goings, work and responsibilities. I didn’t feel able to be present to God in the way I used to. I felt that emptiness again.

This new dry season is very different from the one I experienced in my teens and early twenties. This time, I’ve already committed to a religious path. I know that I want to follow Jesus. I’ve met him. I’ve seen that he is the Messiah. For me, he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

And yet I’m so burned out on religion. I’m so exhausted by church, theology, and all the human stuff that goes with being in faith community. Religion doesn’t feed me in the way it used to.

As hard as this is, I’m wondering whether this might be a good sign.

What if I’ve been mis-using religion this whole time? What if my relationship with God isn’t about making me a better person? What if it’s not about giving me purpose, identity, or comfort? What if my faith in Jesus isn’t about me at all?

Maybe these questions seem obvious to you. “Of course, Micah. What, you thought it was all about you?” In truth, I’d have to answer in the affirmative. That’s the whole narrative I’ve received about faith. It’s about self-improvement. Growing in maturity. Becoming a better man, able to help and teach others because I’ve got it together. That’s what I thought “sanctification” was all about.

But now I’m thinking there might be a different story. To put it in Paul’s language, what if I’ve been a baby drinking milk this whole time? What if God gave me what I needed in my very immature state, but it’s not the main course? What if the meat and potatoes of discipleship is less about improving myself and more about forgetting myself? Could it be that, by seeking life improvement – even by desiring to be “a better person” – I’m avoiding the real journey that Jesus wants to take me on?

What is that journey?

Honestly, I don’t know. I think it has to do with looking at Jesus rather than myself. I suspect it’s about learning to focus on the needs of those around me rather than my own dreams and desires. Even good dreams and desires. It might be that the kingdom of God isn’t about what I experience. It’s not focused on how I grow, or what I do. Instead, it’s unlocked when I lose track of myself. When I become yielded to the light of Christ. Even when that light feels like darkness.

This is a scary path. It’s frightening because I have no idea where it leads. To walk down it is to surrender my ability to steer. This is what it means to get past “self-help religion.” When I get into the strong meat of faith, the overwhelming sensation is that of being out of control.

Yet there is also the hope here. Hope that, in the midst of it all, I am loved and guided. There is a presence and power beyond my narrow understanding and selfish desires. She will direct me.

I want to trust this Spirit. I want to trust that this path will lead me through green pastures and beside still waters. Even if I’m thirsty most of the time.

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Millions Marched. What Comes Next?

Millions Marched. What Comes Next?
This Saturday I was out in the streets in solidarity with my sisters across the country. We marched together for the freedom, safety, and health of all women. We marched in the context of a nation where a vile misogynist has recently ascended to power, whose regime threatens the freedom and well-being of women (and pretty much everyone else, too!).

It was an amazing thing to see this demonstration blossom into probably the largest single day of protest in American history. It’s estimated that there were roughly 500,000 people in the streets of Washington, 750,000 in Los Angeles, and well over 100,000 in several other large cities. What is perhaps just as impressive is that there were sizeable protests in small towns, rural areas, and mid-sized cities in deeply “red” states. The women of the United States have shown that opposition to the proto-fascist Republican agenda is strong, broad-based, and in a state of mobilization. 

In the wake of this incredibly successful march, there has been some legitimate criticism. Some have pointed out that the Black Lives Matter movement protests have been just as peaceful as the Women’s March. Yet BLM participants have been subject to police harassment, intimidation, and demonization by the corporate media. When people of color march, they’re often labeled “thugs.” Sometimes it seems like only white people are permitted to have their political disagreements heard without an immediate – and often violent – rebuke from power. 

These critiques are valid, and they need to be taken seriously. White Americans like me and my family need to do better at hearing the voices of our black and brown brothers and sisters, even when those voices disturb our comfort. White folk like me have a long way to go as we seek a movement that truly embraces the leadership of our black and brown sisters and brothers. May God inspire white Americans with a spirit of repentance and reconciliation. May the Holy Spirit break down barriers that keep us from embracing the vision and leadership of people of color.

It is critical that we lament and acknowledge these racial divisions, and our shortcomings as white people in the movement for justice. At the same time, I believe it is good and appropriate to be joyful. This weekend we witnessed a powerful upswelling of hope and resistance in the face of oppression. The Women’s March was one very important step in the mobilization of a new movement for human rights, democracy, and the restoration of the Republic.

For me, and for many of us, the biggest question now is: How do we move forward? How do we build on the gains of the past week and focus our energy towards grassroots movement-building? Because we are in this for the long haul.

During the Occupy movement, many of us came to understand that our role was to plant a seed. We couldn’t predict the long-term changes that would come as a result of our public witness. We couldn’t control how others reacted. We simply made the decision to declare the truth boldly, trusting that a power greater than ourselves was at work in the world.

The fruit of Occupy is sprouting, and new seeds are being planted. Millions of people took their first steps into the movement this weekend. Organizations large and small are finding new life and strength in this important moment. Across our nation, the friends of Jesus are being drawn deeper into a path of radical discipleship that challenges the false claims of Empire and the 1%.

Here in Washington, DC, we are gathering in homes. We’re sharing food and praying together. We’re listening together for how Jesus is directing us into concrete action for justice. This weekend, in preparation for the Women’s March, some of us took part in active bystander nonviolence training. We will continue to meet together for fellowship in homes and shared spaces. We will continue to gather for prayer, teaching, and the breaking of bread. As crisis accelerates, we are being drawn closer together in discipleship to Jesus.

We have the momentum now. In the midst of challenge, we are discovering faith anew. We welcome you to join us. Whether here in DC, or in another little community of Jesus followers, join us. Experience the fellowship that Jesus is gathering. Embrace the joy that he gives us as we seek his justice, his mercy, his kingdom.

Whatever you do, don’t stop organizing. Don’t stop gathering. Don’t stop dreaming, speaking, writing. It has taken decades – and, in some ways, centuries – for our nation to reach this moment of crisis. There is no quick and easy way out. But together we can find it. Together, we can be the light.

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Shake Off the Deadness and Embrace the Challenge

Shake Off the Deadness and Embrace the Challenge
Do you remember? Back then the Spirit was present with us. We felt sure that God was guiding us somewhere new, faithful, full of life. We held gatherings at churches, colleges, seminaries. We met in homes and on the street. We felt sure that revival was imminent. Christ was doing a new thing in our time and place.

And then, somehow, we forgot. The weeds of everyday life choked out our awareness of the seed of truth that once seemed so alive.

It didn’t happen all at once. There wasn’t some big decision or line in the sand. But over the course of months and years, through a million micro-decisions, our focus shifted. Our habits changed. Our hope grew dimmer as we set our sights on the things of this fallen world. The promise of Christ’s kingdom – the beloved community – began to seem like a fantasy, a dream. Beautiful, but not realistic.

It’s futile to try and recapture a season that has passed. There’s no rewind button for life. Our struggle, our pain, our redemption all takes place right here, in the very ordinary conditions of the present moment.

Yet the Spirit who animated our lives in the past is still alive and at work. The life and power that inspired all those gatherings, meetups, and actions is still available to us. We can’t turn back time, but we can turn our lives around and once again open ourselves to the reign of God that wants to break forth in our present-day experience.

I wrote in a recent blog post that we have no business talking about revival if we are unwilling to engage in the act of repentance – changing our lives to reflect the truth we know in our hearts. That’s true. But if we are willing to repent, if we are ready to change the way we’re living and embrace Jesus’ way of humble submission in love, then talk of revival is appropriate. The Spirit hovers in our midst, ready to transform our minds, our sight, our lives.

I need this repentance more than anyone. I need a change of mind and lifestyle so that I can become the life-filled follower of Jesus that my heart longs for me to be. It’s time to shake off the deadness, stare down the fear, and embrace the challenge and joy of life as a disciple.

Are you feeling this sense of calling, too? I hope you’ll consider joining me this weekend for the Friends of Jesus Fall Gathering in Silver Spring, Maryland. It’s not too late to register.

Related Posts:

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There is a Spirit which I Feel: The Cloud of Witnesses

There is a Spirit which I Feel: The Cloud of Witnesses
This is a sermon that I preached this Sunday (8/14/16), at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Hebrews 11:29-12:2 and Luke 12:49-56

You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon deviates a fair amount from the written text.)

Sermon Audio


Listen to the sermon on SoundCloud

Sermon Text:

This passage from Hebrews that we just heard: It’s got to be one of the most frequently referenced parts of the Bible. I’ve heard it preached from the pulpit many times. It’s been the theme Scripture for church conferences and events. And it’s been the subtext for so much of church life.

This idea that we are surrounded by this “cloud of witnesses,” that we are a part of a long line of spiritual family. That the struggles we engage in today are part of a bigger picture. It’s a powerful, comforting image.

Back in 2010, Faith and I helped to organize a gathering of young adult Quakers in Wichita, Kansas. It was a gathering that would bring together Quakers from across North America, and across many of the theological and cultural barriers that divide modern-day Friends (and, as I understand it, modern-day Brethren, too).

Most of the gathering took place in a large church sanctuary. The space was ornate and cathedral-like, at least by plain Quaker standards, and it was far bigger than either we in the gathering or the local congregation had need of. In addition to the ample seating in ground level pews, there was also a large, wrap-around balcony – a gallery filled with empty seats.

I remember standing in the sanctuary with one of the members of the pastoral care team for the gathering, and older woman from New England. It was a quiet moment in the church building, before most of the participants had arrived. We were taking a deep breath before the heavy spiritual lifting that would come in the next few days. She looked up into the balcony level and said very seriously. “I can feel them. I can feel the cloud of witnesses.”

It was a comforting idea, but also a challenging one. That cloud of witnesses wasn’t just there to affirm whatever we decided to do. They had an agenda. If those Quaker saints who had gone before us were indeed present, they would be watching to see whether we could bridge the divisions that had developed over the last two centuries. They would be present to encourage us – but also to spur us towards hard conversations and spiritual risk-taking.

I think that this passage from Hebrews is easy to take out of context. We often stretch and bend the idea of the “cloud of witnesses” until it becomes something that is primarily about our own comfort. I don’t know if any of you remember that movie from the mid-90s – Angels in the Outfield? Honestly, don’t really either. I think I saw it once back in 1994, and I don’t remember a lot of detail. But here’s the basic idea of the film:

In the movie, the Los Angeles Angels are the worst team in Major League Baseball. But there’s a little boy who loves the team, and he wants them to win so badly that he prays and asks God to help them win the championship. To his surprise and amazement, God sends angels to miraculously catapult the team into first place. Only the little boy can see the angels, but the effects of their work is clear to the whole world as the Los Angeles Angels go from being the worst in the league, to the best.

It’d be nice to have a cloud of witnesses like that, wouldn’t it? A group of angelic figures that could carry us to glory, even if we’re not at all ready for it. If the “cloud of witnesses” were like the angels in the outfield, we’d always have these invisible cheerleaders – spiritual support for us when times are tough and victory seems impossible. The cloud of witnesses would become an angel army. They’d exist to reinforce our own dreams, our own wishes, our lives as they are. They’d give us strength to make our dreams come true.

And sometimes this might be the right idea. If we’re experiencing hard times, if we’re suffering for our faith and paying the consequences for following Jesus, we need the presence of this encouraging cloud of witnesses more than anything. We need to know that we stand in a line of courage, endurance, and victory in the cross of Jesus. Knowing that, by the grace of God, many others have run this race and been faithful, we’re encouraged to persevere, even when it feels impossible.

But most of the time, at least for me, I experience the cloud of witnesses as a challenging presence in my life. These are people who, as the scripture says:

“…were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”

This cloud of witnesses are no “angels in the outfield.” They’re not here to give me victory without suffering or pain. They are witnesses to the full cost of discipleship. They demonstrate the kind of hope that is only possible through bearing the cross of Jesus in this world. These are people who inspire us, people who challenge us, whose lives confront our own compromises and give us courage to do what is right.

I think we all have our favorite members of the cloud of witnesses, our own personal gallery of saints that have come before, who spur us to greater faithfulness. One of these witnesses for me is a man named James Nayler. James was one of the most visible leaders of the early Quaker movement in the 1650s. He was a gifted evangelist, spreading the gospel across England. His campaign of preaching in London had a powerful impact, growing and solidifying the Quaker community there.

The 1650s were a time of tumult and upheaval in England, and Quakers were often arrested, beaten, and imprisoned for their faith. James Nayler had a rougher time than many. He was charged with blasphemy by Parliament, and he narrowly escaped the death penalty. But honestly, he might have been better off if they had hung him. His punishment was grotesque: He was given a public flogging of hundreds of lashes. After that, they branded his forehead with “B” for “blasphemer” and bored his tongue through with a hot iron, so that he could never preach again with his renowned eloquence. After that, he was imprisoned until he was physically ruined.

When he finally did get out of prison, he tried to make his way back to Yorkshire, to see his family for the first time in years. On his way, he was robbed and beaten severely. He was found by passersby and died the next day in the home of a Quaker physician.

I mention James Nayler this morning, because I believe he is a prime example of what the author of Hebrews referred to when he spoke of the cloud of witnesses – this heritage of saints who have run the race and endured the cross as an example and encouragement to us.

And I think that Hebrews 11 and 12 were on James Nayler’s mind, as he lay dying in the north of England. Those who attended him recorded his final words, which included this description of what it meant for James to be a living member of that cloud of witnesses – to find himself in communion with them through his own suffering and martyrdom:

“There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thought to any other. If it be betrayed, it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God.

Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned; it takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it, or can own its life. It is conceived in sorrow, and brought forth without any to pity it; nor doth it murmur at grief and oppression. It never rejoiceth but through sufferings; for with the world’s joy it is murdered. I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens and desolate places of the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life.”

The cloud of witnesses that James experienced were no “angels in the outfield.” They did not save him from suffering, nor give him victory in the eyes of the world. Rather, he encountered a spirit that walked with him through that dark valley of shame and defeat. This spirit gave him the power to love, even those who flayed the skin off his back, branded his face, and mutilated his tongue. Through his suffering and baptism into “love unfeigned,” James Nayler found fellowship with the lost and forgotten saints of God – who through death, obtained resurrection and eternal holy life.

Our gospel reading today reminds us that the kingdom of God comes through challenge. It causes division wherever it emerges, because it challenges our basic ideas about what is right and fair. The truth is, none of us want to experience the cross. Not even Jesus did! The most natural thing in the world that we could do is seek to avoid death, suffering, and shame.

But what Jesus reveals and the cloud of witnesses repeats, is that beyond the cross lies resurrection. On the other side of suffering, and torture, and shame lies the eternal holy life and love unfeigned that James Nayler and so many saints before him discovered. The cloud of witnesses bears testimony to each one us through the Holy Spirit, spurring us on to greater courage in the face of heartbreak, death, and loss of identity.

Unlike the angels in the outfield, this cloud of witnesses is not about helping us win the “game” of this world. Instead, they walk beside us, encouraging us as we learn how to lose in such a way that we experience the resurrection life in the midst of struggle, so that we ourselves become part of that cloud of witnesses, reflecting Christ’s self-giving love to others who need it.

Before I close, I want to take us back to that church sanctuary in Wichita, Kansas. I want you to stand with me on that lower level, amidst the pews. Look up with me into the gallery. Who are the witnesses that you see there? Who are the saints who have gone before you that encourage you even in the midst of confusion and pain? Can you see the faces of the people who have carried their cross with courage and joy? Can you see them smiling on you with love?

Where are they calling you? What parts of your life need to change so that you can embrace the kind of courageous living that they did? Even in the face of resistance and division, where are we being called to change so that we can bear the cross of Jesus, and become a cloud of witnesses to the world around us?

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