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God’s Strength is in Weakness. Could My Success Be in Failure?

God's Strength is in Weakness. Could My Success Be in Failure?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/20/18, at the Berkeley Friends Church in Berkeley, California. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Ezekiel 37:1-14 & Acts 2:1-21. 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

Pentecost Sunday. It’s a big day. The birthday of the church. The day when we remember how the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, came and moved across the face of the waters once again, transforming confusion and mourning into rejoicing, power, and boldness. This is a day that reminds us that the resurrection is real. The kingdom of God has come near, and Christ is come to teach his people himself.

We need this life that comes from God. We need the Spirit to breathe in us, transforming our dry bones and making us a people of praise, of love, of justice. The Christian life is impossible without the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter who lives in us and reminds us of everything that Jesus has taught us. This is the Spirit that, as Jesus promised, leads us into all truth.

The triumph and salvation of Pentecost is foreshadowed the Lord’s promise to Ezekiel, that God would soon redeem his people Israel out of the land of Babylon and return them to Jerusalem. God promised to rebuild the fallen city and make Israel a holy nation once again. By the power of the Spirit, Israel would become a nation that displayed the character of God – love, mercy, and justice.

The fact of the resurrection and the arrival of the Holy Spirit is greater than the restoration of Israel to Jerusalem. It’s greater than the rebuilding of the Temple and the law of Moses observed. At Pentecost, we get a glimpse into some of the “even greater things” that Jesus promised we would do in his name and by his Spirit.

2,000 year ago, in the streets of Roman-occupied Jerusalem, we witness the loving action of God to redeem the whole world – starting with the children of Israel and extending to all the peoples of the earth. God would leave no one behind this time. Those who had been lost in spiritual darkness, outside the household of faith, are welcomed in. People of every tongue, race, and tribe. Jew and Greek. Male and female. Clean and unclean.

Many who are last will be first, and many who are first will be last. The arrival of the Holy Spirit comes as a surprise to those who thought that the kingdom of God was only for them, those who thought they could control the word of God, and draw human boundaries around God’s grace. All our religious bigotry and fearful self-protection is challenged by God’s universal love and inconvenient grace.

Pentecost is a day of royal power. It is about the establishment of a kingdom. Our king is the broken and crucified one, Jesus. Through his death and resurrection, he has conquered the powers of darkness and death. He has overcome hatred and fear. He has established a whole new social reality.

This isn’t some other-worldly, pie-in-the-sky promise. The kingdom of God isn’t merely about going heaven after we die. On the day of Pentecost, we discover heaven for ourselves. It’s a physical reality. It’s about life in community and our shared journey with Jesus. The kingdom of God shapes us and transforms our whole existence. The kingdom of God makes us inconvenient to the powers and principalities that govern our world.

God’s empire stands in stark contrast to the rule of Caesar and Herod. The mainstream culture of the ancient world was one of domination and submission, patron and client, honor and shame. But through the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit, God revealed another way. A new community. A culture based on love, where the last shall be first and the first shall be last. A world where the mighty are brought low and the humble are raised up. On the day of Pentecost, the spirit of love is revealed to be lord of all, and the crucified one reigns as king.

A new world, new community, new culture – the reign of God. I get excited just thinking about it. Yet, like so many parts of the Bible, the day of Pentecost is often taken out of context, proof-texted, and turned into a mandate for triumphalist ideologies that see the gospel as just another way of exercising control over the people and cultures of the world. Along with a few other passages – like the Great Commission, for example – Pentecost is often used to fuel a vision that is primarily about church growth, organizational replication, and success in the eyes of the world.

I’ve been down this path. I have been deceived by the idol of success.

My wife, Faith, and I met planning the Young Adult Friends gathering held at Earlham School of Religion in the spring of 2008. She was living out in Washington, DC, at the time – working at the William Penn House. I was a student at ESR, in my second year as a Master of Divinity student. The planning committee asked the two of us to serve as co-clerks. They told us that by appointing us clerks, they hoped that I would speak less and Faith would speak more.

I think we did a pretty good job as co-clerks. But, you know, good clerking requires a lot of planning, prayer, and deliberation. And well, those clerking calls just started getting longer and longer, and more focused on personal matters rather than strictly business. We hit it off. By that summer, we were formally “seeing” each other, and over Christmas we got engaged.

After Faith and I got married in September of 2009, I moved out East to live with her in DC. I had recently started working for Earlham School of Religion doing outreach to young adults, but location was flexible.

When I got to DC, I was on fire for the gospel. I had only become a Christian a few years before, coming out of a profound experience of God’s presence at the World Gathering of Young Friends in England. Wherever I went, I was seeking ways for God to use me in sharing the good news, building up the church. During seminary, I had traveled widely among Friends, and so when I arrived in DC I continued that pattern, visiting a number of meetings in the Mid-Atlantic region.

As I got to know Friends in the DC area better, I became very aware of the fact that there was no local Friends meeting that was corporately Christian. That is to say, there were individual Christian Quakers in the area, but there was no organized group that could say that their shared mission was to follow Jesus.

This was a problem for Faith and me. As much as she and I loved Quakers, it was important for us to be part of a clearly Christian community, and there really wasn’t one available to us in the existing DC Quaker scene. So, in my mind, we had a choice: We could either attend a non-Quaker church, or we could try to start a new Quaker meeting, one rooted in a desire to follow the risen Jesus.

Faith and I talked it over, and we decided to start holding meeting for worship in the William Penn House, where we were living. As we were looking around in the Quaker world for models of how to start a new meeting, the common wisdom seemed to be that the way to do such a thing was just to start holding worship, invite people, and see who showed up. So that’s what we did. We had a Field of Dreams mentality: “If you build it, they will come.”

And, you know, things went really well for a while. We started small, but soon we had a solid group showing up – reading the scriptures together, singing, and practicing waiting worship. Our gatherings were small, but God’s power was there. It’s amazing to think back on how consistently God showed up. The Holy Spirit was present, teaching us and strengthening us to become more fully disciples of Jesus.

But planting a new Quaker church is harder than Faith and I ever imagined. Holding worship was relatively easy, but establishing a new community that could sustain itself over the long term was another story. Over the course of the five years that Capitol Hill Friends was meeting, our attendance varied quite a bit – between two and twenty, but probably averaging more like half a dozen. Yet the core of committed people, the folks who took a personal responsibility for the meeting, never expanded beyond Faith, me, and one other person.

Now, I was only working part-time for Quaker institutions during this time, so I was able to dedicate a lot of my energy to writing, outreach, and pastoral care of people who attended the group. I did everything I knew how to encourage our attenders, build community, and invite all of us to go deeper. Yet, despite the powerful worship, despite the transformation that we could see happening in people’s lives as a result of our fellowship, people rarely stuck with the group for longer than six months. They came, they had a powerful experience of God, and then they left.

We went through several of these cycles – gathering a core group of attenders, nurturing them, inviting them into the mission of growing a new meeting, and then watching attendance drop off. It was really demoralizing, and it was hard not to take it personally. Eventually, Faith and I decided that we needed to take a break. We stopped holding regular worship at our house, and eventually started attending a local Church of the Brethren congregation where we’ve found opportunities for ministry.

How does all of this relate to Pentecost? Well, you see, as an ambitious, fired-up young follower of Jesus, I looked to Pentecost as one of the key texts that told me what a “successful,” faithful church should look like. I read about the Holy Spirit coming with obvious displays of power, an effect so intense that the neighbors all assumed that people at the prayer meeting were drunk! Peter is preaching to masses of people in the streets of Jerusalem, exhorting them to repent and turn to Jesus. Thousands of people are brought into the way of Jesus on a single day.

Vitality. Conviction. Spiritual power. Numerical growth. These are some of the marks of the New Testament church that I learned from Acts 2. And in the context of my own failure to gather even a small community that could cohere without my constant encouragement, I couldn’t help but wonder – what am I doing wrong? Where am I being unfaithful? Why isn’t God blessing my work, the work that I truly believed that God had called me and prepared me to do?

I still feel sad about how things went – or didn’t go – with Capitol Hill Friends. I wish there were a Quaker church in Washington, DC, and I don’t know why there isn’t. But even in this failure, there have been blessings. Our ministry during those years had a big impact – some of which we are aware of, and much of which we will probably never know. And it had a big impact on me. I’ve gotten to know God in ways I never expected – and, frankly, never wanted to learn. But I needed to learn. I needed to learn what it looks like to follow Jesus in the midst of failure, to trust Jesus like he trusted his Father.

That’s the perspective I was often missing in my church-planting ministry with Capitol Hill Friends. I was so focused on the success of this new Quaker community that I didn’t want to see the whole picture of the early church. The glory of Pentecost was only possible in the context of failure. The joy of the resurrection is impossible without the suffering and loss of the cross. And, as we see very soon as we continue reading the Book of Acts, the health and growth of the church is only possible through the “failure” of the apostles’ vision of what the Christian community ought to be.

One of my mistakes was reading Pentecost as a story about how the church ought to be, rather than a story about who God is. The transforming power of Pentecost is not an outcome to be achieved. It’s not a reward for good behavior or hard work. The coming of the Spirit happens amid failure, pain, and loss. Like the disciples experienced on the Road to Emmaus, Jesus often appears to us in our confusion and mourning. He is present with us because we need him, not because we are doing well.

Ezekiel’s valley of the dry bones speaks directly into this experience. Ezekiel encounters God in the context of national failure, the humiliation of exile, and the longing for restoration. Ezekiel has no power to restore the fortunes of his people, but in the midst of his sorrow, the Spirit of God comes to him.

What’s interesting here is the interplay between God and Ezekiel. It’s the same as that between God and Peter. God is the life and power. God gives the Spirit. But God also asks for our cooperation. Just like Peter, who preached before huge crowds and kindled the faith of thousands, God commands Ezekiel to prophesy in the presence of the Spirit. It is through the act of prophesy that the dry bones come to life, filled with the breath of God.

This was the heart of the early Quaker movement, too. The first Quakers knew the importance of prophesy. The word of God is alive and active. It wants to be spoken and enacted in our lives. To speak the words of the Spirit is to cooperate with the healing and transforming power of God. To speak truth into the world, especially out of a position of weakness and risk, is to walk in the way of Jesus, who spoke the truth in love, right up until they nailed him to a cross.

Our failures along the way are painful, but they don’t have to dismay us. If we aren’t as big or successful as we think a Pentecost church ought to be. We shouldn’t be shocked if our ideas, rooted in the gospel of Jesus, don’t carry much weight in the debates of this age. We shouldn’t lose heart if our trust in God looks like foolishness and failure in the eyes of the world. We don’t need to be discouraged, because we know that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. We have seen how the light of Jesus breaks into this world through the cracks of failure.

The challenge of failure never ends. As we read in scripture, and experience in our own lives, God is continually breaking through our false strength in order to reveal the true life and power of the Spirit. Pentecost isn’t the end of the story. Through the power of the Spirit, Peter and the early church are continuously challenged in their beliefs about who belongs in the church. The Jewish disciples are shocked to realize that that God is welcoming all nations into the body of Christ. For people like Peter, who had scrupulously observed the law of Moses from his youth, this must have felt like a great failure, the loss of a certainty he had held precious.

For us here today, we face a similar challenge. God has changed the playbook once again. The Holy Spirit is doing a new thing in our rapidly shifting culture. Those of us who are faithful to the letter of the law – like Peter was – may have a tough time keeping up. The growth of God’s kingdom may feel like failure to us.

Fortunately, we are not left without a witness. The scriptures are full of stories about what it looks like to follow God even in the midst of radical, uncomfortable change. The Spirit is present with us, guiding us into all truth, even in times of challenge and confusion. The story of the church did not end with the writing of the scriptures. It didn’t end with the early Quakers. Jesus is alive. He’s here to teach us and lead us. Are we listening?

Like the people of ancient Israel, we look at our weakness and are tempted to despair: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” But God responds with the spirit of Pentecost. He says, “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people… I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.”

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How Can I Ever Measure Up?

How Can I Ever Measure Up?
Early Quaker leader George Fox taught that each person has been given by God a certain measure, or portion, of life from God. Not everyone has the same abilities. Some of us are stronger or weaker, smarter or less intelligent, possessing greater or lesser faith.

Because human beings are not equal in our abilities, Fox taught that God expects different things from each of us. A small child is not expected to get a job and provide for the family, but an adult parent is!

This teaching is perhaps best summed up in the words of Jesus found in Luke 12:48: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

This a very challenging concept, especially for those of us who have received a great deal of privilege in our lives – safety, family, education, wealth, job opportunities, and so many other factors that benefit us. From those of us who have received much, a great deal will be required.

But I am also finding these words of Jesus to be liberating. Because there is another side to this coin. While I am responsible to use the gifts I have received, there are so many things I am not responsible for. There are so many ways in which I am weak, lacking in talent, and deficient in understanding. In these areas, less may be required of me.

Jesus shows me that I don’t have to grip so tightly to my own sense of self importance. I don’t have to volunteer for every good project. I’m not responsible for the outcome of the human race. Because that stuff is way bigger than me – way beyond my measure. Like the servants in Jesus’ Parable of the Talents, I will be held accountable for the gifts that God has given me. Not for the fate of the whole world.

For an overachieving control freak like me, that’s really good news. It’s good news that challenges me to examine myself. What are those few talents that God has given me to steward, and what are the many other important matters that I can lay aside? After all, God has other servants to take care of those.

I’m used to taking on more than is truly my responsibility. But when I release those things that are beyond my measure, I discover the easy yoke that Jesus promised. It’s a life of challenge, but not burnout.

What are the talents that God has entrusted you with? How do you distinguish between the many good things, and the few necessary things in your life? What does it look like to live your life in measure?

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Can We Discover Monastic Prayer in the Midst of the City?

Can We Discover Monastic Prayer in the Midst of the City?
Last week, I shared about my experiments with the Episcopal liturgy. The liturgy comes as a liberation from the type of prayer that I was exposed to in Quaker circles. Quaker theology seemed to require that I either feel immediately inspired by the Holy Spirit, or not pray at all. Through the daily repetition of a spoken liturgy, I’m invited to pray more consistently. Regardless of how I might happen to feel at any given moment, I just show up.

As I continue to explore this framework for regular prayer, I can stop worrying so much about my own emotional state. Instead, I return to God. I remember why I’m here. I rededicate myself to the love God calls me to. I am reminded of what a miracle it is to be alive.

The liturgy empowers me to pray alone. A challenge of the Quaker tradition, in my experience, is that there is a great emphasis on corporate worship and prayer. Oftentimes, I felt a lot of pressure to gather other people for worship simply to get my own spiritual needs met. I’ve found that Quaker worship often doesn’t work very well for me if the group gets too small (less than half a dozen). Doing Quaker waiting worship on my own can often feel more like merely sitting in silence and less like standing in the presence and power of the Lord.

What’s fantastic about praying the hours is how much freedom it gives me to go solo. While the liturgy is well-suited for corporate worship, it is equally effective for personal prayer. If others want to join me in praying the hours, all the better; but if not, I can pray alone. This takes a lot of pressure off. I can invite others to join me in this spiritual discipline, but whether or not they find it worthwhile doesn’t impact my ability to practice it on my own.

I do believe that corporate prayer and worship is essential. I’m not called to the life of a hermit, and I’d like to pray with others if given the opportunity. For the last few weeks, I’ve been praying the hours on my own. Now I’m pondering what might be the best ways to invite others to explore this practice with me.

During the rise of state-run Christianity, the desert fathers retreated to the Egyptian wilderness to practice a monastic faith deeply rooted in personal prayer, scripture reading, and the psalms. These early monastics withdrew from the co-opted Christianity of Empire and devoted themselves to personal transformation in the way of Jesus. They often lived alone, retreating into the desert to fast and pray. Yet even among the hermits, there was community. They joined together for corporate worship. They counseled and watched out for one another.

What might this kind of monasticism look like in the midst of the great imperial city, Washington, DC? Is it possible to bring the wilderness into the streets of the new Rome? Can a desert spirituality emerge in the midst of daily life, work, and family? What can I do to cultivate this kind of presence, awareness, awokeness?

Despite the great individual freedom allowed by the liturgy, the need for corporate faithfulness does not go away. The church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic – yet we cannot be any of these things if we refuse to reach out to one another in love.

How do I live into this one, holy, catholic, and apostolic community of love? For now, my best guess is to continue praying the hours, attending the Church of the Brethren on Capitol Hill, and encouraging the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. I’m “play-testing” and refining my personal prayer book. I hope to make it available soon, in case others might find it useful. If you’re interested in receiving a copy, let me know. Perhaps, like the 4th-century desert fathers, we can find a community of prayer in the midst of our spiritual wilderness.

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Can I Pray the Episcopal Liturgy as a Quaker?

Can I Pray the Episcopal Liturgy as a Quaker?
Ten years ago, I lived as part of a “new monastic” community in Richmond, Indiana. It was a community steeped in prayer. We prayed together three or four times a day, using a liturgy based out of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

As a Quaker, the Episcopal liturgy was a very different experience from the style of worship and prayer that I had been exposed to. Quakerism taught me that prayer should be spontaneous, “Spirit-led.” Anything I did should be rooted in a palpable sense of God’s guidance in that moment.

But as part of the Renaissance House community, I discovered that there is real power in a set liturgy. I prayed the same words, every day, in community, for months. I got to the point where I could speak through the prayers without really thinking about it. I memorized the words, and they became a part of me.

This was very different from the extemporaneous prayer and silent worship I was taught to seek in the Quaker tradition. Still, it was very effective and compelling in its own way. In the brief time that I practiced it, I found the liturgy molding me. I felt invited into a space of prayer and devotion to God in a way I had never experienced before.

I’ve recently begun praying the liturgy again. Using the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer as a template and guide, I’ve put together my own prayer book. I’m experimenting, tweaking the liturgy, finding what works best for me. I’m using the liturgy four times a day – at waking, midday, evening, and before bed. The prayers includes psalms, prayers, music, creeds, and responsive readings.

The Quaker tradition has taught me to be skeptical of rote prayers. Empty words, spoken without conviction or understanding are dangerous. Rather than fostering devotion, such compulsive religious habits get in the way of relationship with God.

But at this time in my life, I’m finding the liturgy to be a welcome aid in my desire to seek after God, to live in his presence. Especially now, as I inhabit the life of a husband, father, and full-time tradesman. I am re-discovering the power of liturgy to shape my life and open a space for prayer. The liturgy serves as a default, a routine that I can rest in while I seek deeper inspiration. If I don’t feel particularly inspired today, this week, or this month – I can keep praying anyway.

I’m amazed by how often God shows up in the liturgy. Sometimes when I’m simply reading through the prayers, joy bubbles up within me. The liturgy allows for silence, or freestyle intercessory prayer and thanksgiving. I find myself opening up to God in ways that I simply wouldn’t have without the default script of the liturgy.

At this stage in my life, I’m far busier than I would like to be. In this context, the liturgy is amazing. It holds open space in my life where prayer is automatic, regardless of how tired I am or how uninspired I’m feeling. It provides opportunities each day to stand before God. If I’m not feeling enthusiastic, I can examine myself and ask why not. Or I can just accept it. I can thank God for the grace he gives me to keep praying, in season and out of season. The liturgy helps me show up for relationship with God, regardless of my subjective feelings.

To my Quaker friends, this may all sound crazy. Maybe even heretical. But for me, at this point in my journey, it’s the power of God. Thanks be to God.

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Are Quakers Guilty of the Sin of Pride?

Are Quakers Guilty of the Sin of Pride?
This past weekend, I was up in New York City visiting an old friend and mentor, David McReynolds. Back in 2000, I did my teenage best to support him in his campaign for president. I’ve always seen David as an example of courageous thought and action, coupled with a gentleness that is often lost among activists.

On Saturday, I met David at his apartment in lower Manhattan. We drank seltzer water and he introduced me to his cat, Shaman. Then, we went out for a late lunch at a neighborhood restaurant. A nice afternoon.

Shortly before I left to catch my train, our conversation touched briefly on Quakers. David said something that I’ve been chewing on for the last few days. If he were going to convert, David said, he would more likely become a Roman Catholic than a Quaker. His reason for this? Your average Catholic tends to have a deep sense of human sinfulness and each person’s need for Jesus and the Church. There’s a built-in humility there. We Quakers tend to be pretty satisfied with ourselves.

There might have been a time in my life when this observation would have rubbed me the wrong way. But coming from David, who identifies as an Atheist, it resonated.

David is quick to add that not all Catholics are burdened by guilt, and he’s known Quakers who lived saintly lives. Still, I think he’s onto something here. I’ve recently been re-engaging with the liturgical and monastic Christian traditions. I’ve been impressed with the degree to which a sense of personal unworthiness and repentance is at the heart of monastic practice.

At the same time, I’ve felt convicted about how much confidence I have had in my own ability to know and follow God. In retrospect, I have often been confused, frightened, self-centered, and adrift. These days, I’m more skeptical about my own ability to know the will of God with a great deal of certainty. This puts me at odds with much of the Quaker community. Modern-day Quakers tend to view following God as a fairly straightforward process, and human nature as basically good.

To be clear, I am not saying that the root of Quaker tradition views human beings this way. Early Quakers were skeptical of humanity’s ability to do the right thing. Rather than viewing people as naturally good, they relied on the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit to correct and guide us. The bulk of Quakers throughout history viewed humanity as basically lost – if not depraved.

But there’s a gap between what the tradition has been and what the community now believes, in practice, today. In my experience, most of us Quakers – myself included – have a tendency to be pretty proud of ourselves. We’re proud that we have affirmed women in ministry for three and a half centuries. We’re proud that we renounced slavery a century earlier than the United States did. We’re proud of the work that our ancestors did in the civil rights and the peace movements. We think we’re pretty special. The world could learn a thing or two from us.

The issue is clouded because, as a matter of fact, Quakers have had an outsized impact on American history and culture. The Quaker community has been unique and important. But in the 20th and 21st centuries, this history of spiritual leadership has congealed into something far less attractive. We’ve developed a certain spiritual pride – a sense that we know better than those around us. We’ve come to believe that we’re good people.

The problem with this is, we’re not. I’m certainly not. The Quaker tradition is beautiful in many ways, silly in others. But in no way has it produced a community of perfect people. Quakers today are no better – or worse – than our Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, or Atheist neighbors. We may still be a peculiar people, but we are not a special people. Our human nature is as fallen and in need of God’s grace as anyone else’s.

To repeat for clarity: A sense of our own sinful unworthiness is native to the Quaker tradition. But we seem to have lost it. We’ve traded it in for a self-congratulatory sense of Quaker-led historical progress.

I’m grateful for the faithfulness of past generations of Quakers. But I’m also convinced that it’s spiritually damaging for me to continue claiming their work as my own. I’m not a special person. I’ve not risen above my need for a savior. I am a poor sinner, at least as much in need of God’s grace as anyone else.

There are dangers here. It’s possible to embrace sin, seeing it as reality rather than a barrier that God can overcome. Many Christian groups have fallen into this trap. But the delusion that I and many other Quakers have fallen into is also problematic. The idea that sin is already defeated, or doesn’t even exist. The myth of “nice people like us.” At this point in my life, it seems safer to err on the side of over-questioning my own experience and motivations. Assuming the goodness of my thoughts and actions is dangerous.

My conversation with David was a reminder. The skeptical world is unimpressed with people who think they’re wonderful. People can see right through the false piety of Quaker self-satisfaction. But the humility of the God-yielded sinner is magnetic, even for those who are not yet ready to believe.

This dying world doesn’t need perfect people. It needs broken people who are able to confess their own thirst for living water. And invite others to join them in seeking it.

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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.

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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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