Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Harvest Is Plentiful

sermon preached at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Medina, WA
by Josh Hosler, Postulant for Holy Orders, Diocese of Olympia

“All the earth bows down before you, sings to you, sings out your Name. Come now and see the works of God, how wonderful he is in his doing toward all people.” Amen.

The end of the Great Hall
at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Medina, WA
This past Monday, having just arrived in town, I was crossing the bridge and saw the St. Thomas exit. I thought, “Well, I am running late for lunch, but I’ll just drive by and see how the place looks.” I didn’t expect much difference yet. But when I arrived, I saw familiar-looking people standing in the parking lot, and a giant claw tearing down the Great Hall! Of course, I stopped to say hi and to watch for a few minutes, my jaw rather agape, and my whole being feeling full and thankful. 
I have just finished my second of three years at Virginia Theological Seminary. In addition to my academic work, I am doing field education at Church of the Ascension in Silver Spring, Maryland, a vibrant, multi-cultural, inter-generational parish with a heart for social justice and a knack for welcoming and incorporating everybody. In January I spent three weeks in the Dominican Republic with several other classmates. I picked up some Spanish, explored the culture, met our Dominican seminarians, and learned a lot about what the Episcopal Church looks like in a very different context. In May I attended a preaching conference in Richmond, Virginia, where our own Bishop Greg appeared on a panel of bishops, and where I was able to bond with seminarians from all over the Episcopal Church.

Meanwhile, my wife Christy has been working on the seminary campus as research assistant for a study funded by the Lilly Foundation, research that is teaching us how clergy from a variety of Christian denominations make the transition from seminary into ordained ministry. Our daughter Sarah has finished second grade and looks forward to third; she makes new friends joyfully and has discovered a love of swimming, basketball, math, and Harry Potter.

In all the busy-ness of our seminary adventure, I think of you often and look forward to news from home. I have watched names of newcomers, strangers to me, begin to appear in the Collect newsletter as they dig into leadership roles at St. Thomas. I was moved deeply by the photos from Holy Week on the website. The children I remember well are inexorably growing up. I’m excited to see your developing partnership with the Diocese of Haiti and your strategic planning for the future of youth ministry at St. Thomas. Most of all, I have watched as you have slowly but steadily moved the Ebsworth Life Center forward to this stage: groundbreaking, and the beginning of a chaotic but joyful desert time. I feel honored that I was able to be present here for so many years to work in partnership with you and with God.

Likewise, as I look around the Diocese of Olympia I see exciting developments. I am especially inspired by a new group called Outside Church Walls, which is blogging and engaging people in conversation, imagining creative new ways we can be church for the people of Western Washington. Recently Outside Church Walls wrote this on the diocesan website:
So often in the church we want to transform the ‘other,’ those who don't yet get what we have. At its best, this grows from our love for Jesus, and wanting to share that love with others. At other times it reflects a desire to validate ourselves by making people more like us … Are we willing to be transformed by those ‘others’ as well? If God is working through us for them, God is also working through them for us. In a genuine relationship, both parties are open to change.
It seems like such a simple thing, doesn’t it? And yet there’s something rather revolutionary about it. I remember standing here three years ago and remarking that if the Ebsworth Life Center is constructed but not well used, it will be only half-finished. St. Thomas is and can become more and more a powerful resource for all people on the Eastside, and for all Episcopalians in the diocese. I pray you will give of the new building, but even more importantly, give of yourselves. Be open to the presence of the Holy Spirit in the most surprising people. Let them change you.

This past Lent, Bishop Greg invited the diocese to read a book together: People of the Way by Dwight Zscheile. I commend it to you, whether you are newly baptized or experienced in the faith, as you discern where God is calling you next. To be one of the baptized means that we are always both inside and outside the church. It’s great to be a welcoming church. It’s crucial to practice the hospitality of God. But the walls must be permeable and must encompass the entire world, because the church exists for the sake of those who are not its members. And then we need to allow others bring their gifts and transform the church.

I think one sign of a healthy, vital church is that it gets more and more difficult to tell who is a member and who isn’t. Membership has its privileges, as they say, but it’s not like a credit card or a club of any kind. Gone are the days when being a member of a church improved one’s social standing, and I say, thank God for that! Respectability is meaningless in the Kingdom of God and is so easily a barrier to entrance. Membership has its privileges, but the #1 privilege is the freedom we have to give ourselves away, to be servants to one another. Membership is discipleship, a continual deepening of loving actions for God and neighbor, a journey of formation in becoming citizens of God’s Kingdom.
Indeed, the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers don’t need to be few. Jesus’ instructions to the disciples are for us as well. We go out like lambs into the midst of wolves. When people have been hurt by the church, we are to listen to their story and say, “I’m so sorry that the church has hurt you.” It’s not fair to expect those who have been deeply hurt by the church to enter its doors again. Let’s leave that to the Holy Spirit while we cultivate non-anxious, agenda-free relationships with God’s beloved people. This is what Jesus calls “curing the sick.” In fact, sometimes the sick cure us as well.

Jesus also instructs us to bring nothing for the journey: just ourselves. We are to rely on the kindness of strangers, and besides, Jesus sends the disciples to places where he himself intends to go! Our job is to show up faithfully, ask God for the next task, and pay attention. We can plant seeds wastefully, because we’re not in any danger of running out. Or, as Paul writes to the Galatians, “Whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” The family of faith is much bigger than we assume it to be, for it includes those of other faiths as well as those who claim a vague, unformed belief in some sort of creator. Even in the Pacific Northwest, that adds up to most people.

Jesus also says, “Eat what is set before you.” This seems like basic politeness … until you realize that these observant Jews may have been served food that wasn’t kosher. Maybe Jesus is saying, “Take the experience you are given, and don’t judge it—just taste it.” That’s hard to do when the experience is off-putting, and even harder when it is hurtful or tragic. Somewhere, though, there is a blessing in it, and Jesus did not send us out to avoid meaningful experiences.

“Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’” Christians are to hold every human being in unconditional regard. We don’t ever give up on anyone, because we would never want to be given up on. We must always come in peace, our only agenda to serve. What we and God are building together is not an institution but a way of life, and anybody, regardless of affiliation, might choose something like that way of life, even if they never enter the doors of our church.

“‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’” It sounds harsh or self-righteous at first, but I think this one is about healthy boundaries. Know where you stand, and know when it’s time to move on. Come in peace, listen, and bring good news, but don’t beat people over the head if they’re not listening back.

Let’s say St. Thomas does all these things, and people catch the spirit, and it’s such an attractive vision that people come pouring in to join us in Jesus’ joyful mission. You may well feel proud. “Lord, even the demons submit to us!” But the work didn’t begin with us, and it won’t end with us. We will reap what we sow, but it’s not reaping time yet. Jesus said, “Do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” And Paul said, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” If you’re going to brag, brag on God for loving us so much.
But what if the people don’t come? I was talking this week with a priest who claims his church is doing everything right: great music, great preaching, great hospitality, great formation programs, feeding Tent City once a week, etc., etc. It is a marvelous place. And not many people are coming to church. He said, “The old model of the church that attracts people by its mere welcoming presence is dead.” And I think he’s right. When the people don’t come, we continue to invite, but we also remain content with those who are present. And we continue to listen attentively for the promptings of the Holy Spirit, who might be calling us into something more challenging and more rewarding than merely “getting everything right.”

Our mission is not to fill a building, but to fill the hungry. We cannot clothe ourselves with righteousness unless we are clothing others. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers do not have to be few. I pray that you, whether you are a member of the church or not, will labor to share good news today: God is in this holy place called The World. God creates us and loves us. Jesus shows us God’s very face. The Holy Spirit inspires us and sends us out to love, honor, and feed others. And every time we fail to love, forgiveness and renewal are right before us, loving us back into life again. Amen.